Monday, October 31, 2011

My Halloween Column

My Halloween column A Candy Bar for Death appeared today on the UU World web site. If you've been reading this blog, you recognize some of the ideas from The Story of Our Deaths.

I'm reading the comments both here and on the UU World site. I suspect the bigger discussion will be there, the smaller one here. So, whichever appeals to you.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Let Us Pray?

a service given at the Unitarian Church of Quincy, Illinois
September 18, 2011


from The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe

in the Middle of all my Labours it happen'd, that rumaging my Things, I found a little Bag, which, ... had been fill'd with Corn for the feeding of Poultry, ... what little Remainder of Corn had been in the Bag, was all devour'd with the Rats, and I saw nothing in the Bag but Husks and Dust; and being willing to have the Bag for some other Use, ... I shook the Husks of Corn out of it on one Side of my Fortification under the Rock.

It was a little before the great Rains ... that I threw this Stuff away, taking no Notice of any Thing, and not so much as remembring that I had thrown any Thing there; when about a Month after, or thereabout, I saw some few Stalks of something green shooting out of the Ground, which I fancy'd might be some Plant I had not seen, but I was surpriz'd and perfectly astonish'd, when after a little longer Time, I saw about ten or twelve Ears come out, which were perfect green Barley of the same Kind as our European, nay, as our English Barley.

It is impossible to express the Astonishment and Confusion of my Thoughts on this Occasion; I had hitherto acted upon no religious Foundation at all; indeed I had very few Notions of Religion in my Head, or had entertain'd any Sense of any Thing that had befallen me, otherwise than as a Chance, or, as we lightly say, what pleases God; without so much as enquiring into the End of Providence in these Things, or his Order in governing Events in the World; But after I saw Barley grow there, in a Climate which I knew was not proper for Corn, and especially that I knew not how it came there, it startled me strangely, and I began to suggest, that God had miraculously caus'd this Grain to grow without any help of Seed sown, and that it was so directed purely for my Sustenance on that wild miserable Place.

This touch'd my Heart a little, and brought Tears out of my Eyes, and I began to bless my self, that such a Prodigy of Nature should happen upon my Account; and this was the more strange to me, because I saw near it still all along by the side of the Rock, some other straggling Stalks, which prov'd to be Stalks of Rice ...

I not only thought these the pure Productions of Providence for my Support, but not doubting, but that there was more in the Place, I went all over that part of the Island, where I had been before peering in every Corner, and under every Rock, to see for more of it, but I could not find any; at last it occur'd to my Thoughts, that I had shook a Bag of Chickens Meat out in that Place, and then the Wonder began to cease; and I must confess, my religious Thankfulness to God's Providence began to abate too upon the Discovering that all this was nothing but what was common; tho' I ought to have been as thankful for so strange and unforeseen a Providence, as if it had been miraculous; for it was really the Work of Providence as to me, that should order or appoint, that 10 or 12 Grains of Corn should remain unspoil'd (when the Rats had destroyed all the rest,) as if it had been dropt from Heaven.

from Spirit and Flesh by James Ault

Registering needs and recognizing how the Lord met them was the bread and butter of conversation at Shawmut River. But special time was taken at the beginning of Sunday-evening worship for testimonies and prayer requests. They represented two sides of the same reality. Testimony pointed to the perceptible evidence of God's work in the world -- a job found, a marriage saved, an illness healed -- and prayer requests brought these same needs to public attention in the first place and made them a matter of community prayer.

... As prayer requests were given, members jotted them down on prayer lists, which they slipped into Bibles or pockets, eventually to stick them up, perhaps, on their refrigerator doors alongside shopping lists and other items of household business. And many looked to those lists in the course of conducting their "prayer lives." It occurred to me at the time that these practices were probably an effective means to seeing needs met merely by social means. As faithful members meditated regularly on their prayer lists, I reckoned, they would be routinely reminded of specific needs and have them in mind when someone mentioned news, say, of an apartment becoming available, a job opening up or another member's unexpected windfall. In this way, needs and resources would be providentially brought together.

from "An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish" by Bertrand Russell

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.

from "Pat Robertson & Hurricane Gloria" on the web site

In 1985, with Hurricane Gloria headed toward the east coast, televangelist Pat Robertson promptly went on the air to pray. "In the name of Jesus," he declared, "we command you to stop where you are and move northeast, away from land, and away from harm."Incredibly, the hurricane did in fact begin to head northeast. Robertson's claims to have changed the course of the hurricane were met with considerable scorn, however, particularly in Long Island - which lies to the northeast of Robertson's native Virginia and was devastated by Gloria after she changed course.

from a proclamation from the Governor of Texas

WHEREAS, the state of Texas is in the midst of an exceptional drought ... NOW, THEREFORE, I, RICK PERRY, Governor of Texas, under the authority vested in me by the Constitution and Statutes of the State of Texas, do hereby proclaim the three-day period from Friday, April 22, 2011, to Sunday, April 24, 2011, as Days of Prayer for Rain in the State of Texas.

[Imprecatory prayer means praying for God to do harm to someone. Baptist minister Wiley Drake advocates imprecatory prayer. He has admitted to praying for the death of President Obama, and Drake called the assassination of the abortionist Dr. George Tiller "an answer to a prayer".]

from "Pastor Wiley Drake Calls for Imprecatory Prayer against So-Called Religious Liberty Watchdog Group" Christian NewsWire, August 14, 2011

In light of the recent attack from the enemies of God I ask the children of God to go into action with Imprecatory Prayer. Especially against Americans United for Separation of Church and State. I made an attempt to go to them via Matt 18:15 but they refused to talk to me. Specifically target Joe Conn or Jeremy Learing.

from "The Language of Faith" by former UUA President William Sinkford

my son Billy, then 15 years old, had overdosed on drugs, and it was unclear whether he would live. As I sat with him in the hospital, I found myself praying. First the selfish prayers for forgiveness…for the time not made, for the too many trips, for the many things unsaid, and, sadly, for a few things said that should never have passed my lips. But as the night darkened, I finally found the pure prayer. The prayer that asked only that my son would live. And late in the evening, I felt the hands of a loving universe reaching out to hold. The hands of God, the Spirit of Life. The name was unimportant. I knew that those hands would be there to hold me whatever the morning brought. And I knew, though I cannot tell you how, that those hands were holding my son as well. I knew that I did not have to walk that path alone, that there is a love that has never broken faith with us and never will.

My son survived. But the experience stayed with me.


Let Us Pray?

I grew up in a religion where God was very literal and personal. God was someone you could talk to, and if you did, He could give you real, tangible help.

When you believe in a God like that -- I mean really believe, and not just go through the motions -- prayer is a very serious act. You have asked the Ruler of the Universe to listen to you, so you don't chatter about trivia. You don't posture or pretend, because God is not fooled. You don't ask for things you don't really want, because you might get them.

To pray well, then, meant more than just saying the right words. It meant being centered and authentic. A good prayer got to the heart of things. It boiled down what was really going on in my life, what my true hopes were, and what kind of help I really needed.

As I got older, though, I stopped believing in the kind of God who mucks about in the physical world, changing the directions of hurricanes and zapping away tumors. I also began to see the dark side of prayer. I had come to believe that bringing justice to the world is a human responsibility, and it bothered me to watch people push that job off on God. "I'll pray for you," the rich man says to the beggar, and then he walks away. When people on the other side of the world suffered from famine or war or natural disaster, we prayed, and that disquieting sense that we ought to do something was satisfied.

Some of the readings displayed other kinds of dysfunctionality. Believing in prayer can make the Universe seem like a big patronage system. It all depends on who you know upstairs, whether God likes me better than he likes you. So the winners thank God, but what the losers say is not recorded.

Prayer can be a way to avoid reality. So Governor Perry can ignore what science says about global warming and instead fight the drought in Texas with a day of prayer.

Some people even project their vindictiveness onto God. If Wiley Drake hates President Obama or Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, then God must hate them too. And maybe God will send an assassin if Drake prays hard enough and gets enough people praying with him.

Having spent my share of time sitting by hospital beds, I can testify that even those desperate emergency-room prayers can have a dark, narcissistic side. The crisis isn't about the person who might be dying. It's not even about the doctors and nurses. It's about me and my relationship to God. God kills or saves people just to make a point to me. That's how important I am.

Atheists ridicule talking to God. "You just have an imaginary friend," they say. And as I lost my childhood faith, the act of prayer did begin to seem ridiculous. So I stopped. I missed it, but it was like one of those silly toys you continue to feel sentimental about, even though you're past the age. You box it up and put it on a high shelf, because it's embarrassing. It's proof that you're not really as mature as you claim to be.

Eventually, though, I began to realize that what I missed most about prayer was not the prospect of magically healing the sick or changing the weather or getting some unfair advantage. I missed the doing of prayer. The simple thought experiment -- what if I did have the ear of the Almighty, what would I say? -- cut through a lot of the noise and fog in my mind. And when I asked myself: "What advice would a supremely wise being who loved me give in this situation?" the answer was often fairly obvious.

Some imaginary friends, I eventually decided, are worth talking to.

That insight set me to taking inventory. What if you ignore the metaphysics and theology surrounding prayer and just look at the doing of it? What beneficial practices has folk wisdom encoded into prayer over the centuries? How many of them can we rescue without falling into the corresponding traps?

We saw one of those beneficial practices in the responsive reading. It did not address God by name, but for all practical purposes it was a prayer of thanksgiving. I find that I need that. The mindset of my everyday life keeps me focused on what I deserve and making sure I am not cheated out of it. It is so easy to forget how many of the good things in my life are not of my own making. A practice that regularly evokes feelings of gratitude makes me happier and saner.

Another kind of prayer can be good group process. Taking a moment at the beginning of a meeting to step back from the nitty-gritty disagreements and recall the common ideals that bring you all together -- that can make for a more cooperative, more productive meeting.


Two traditional kinds of prayer involve stepping outside the Ego: the prayer for forgiveness and the prayer for help. As we've already seen, these prayers have dysfunctional uses as well as beneficial ones, but fortunately there is a simple rule that separates them: Prayer is a good first step, but a bad last step.

Obviously, if you have wronged other people, you should be confessing it to them and trying to make it right with them. But this is a good first step: Admit in your own mind, to the most compassionate judge you can imagine, that you did wrong. If you can't do that much, what hope is there that you'll make things right in the world?

Similarly, if even when you are alone you can't admit that you don't have all the bases covered, that you are not in control of the situation, and that you need help from somewhere -- then how will you admit that to anyone else? And how will get the help you need if your Ego will not let you admit that you need it?

The reading from James Ault illustrates how prayers for help can work in a community. Having assigned a long list of tasks to God, the parishioners of Shawmut River don't leave it there, they start looking for ways they can help God do his work. Sister Mabel wants God to find her a ride to the doctor next Thursday? Well praise Jesus, that's my day off. That nice young couple is asking God to replace their refrigerator that died? I've got one in the basement that I couldn't figure out what to do with. Hallelujah!

Now, we may laugh at this community, because Jesus isn't driving anybody to the doctor. They're doing it all themselves. But if our community doesn't have as effective and as cheerful a way to ask for and receive help from each other, then what do we have to laugh about?

I've already pointed out how prayer can excuse a lack of action. But sometimes action is impossible or unwise, and prayer can keep alive an idea that otherwise might fade away. Many slaves in the old South had no prospect of escape, but they sang and prayed about freedom, and the idea stayed alive. Generations of Jews said, "next year in Jerusalem" and did little to bring that about beyond teaching their children to say the same thing. But then, when action became possible, the idea was there.

It is worth asking: What ideas do you have today that you aren't acting on, but you also aren't willing to give up? How will you keep them alive?

Finally, we come to the most difficult kind of prayer to justify: the prayer for a miracle.

The reading from Robinson Crusoe raises an important question: What is a miracle, anyway? Something is a miracle to you if it is completely outside your expectations, like the English barley that springs up on Crusoe's deserted Caribbean island. But the Universe is vast and our brains are tiny, so we're constantly ignoring, overlooking, or forgetting things that turn out to be important -- like the rat-chewed chicken feed Crusoe had dumped out in a sheltered spot just before the rainy season. The results of those forgotten causes can be so close to a miracle as makes no difference.

The future always outgrows the box we build for it. It shrugs off our theories and wriggles out of our computer models. When we let ourselves look this fact in the eye, it is as wonderful and terrible as the most primitive tribal deity. Even within the natural order, we really don't know what might happen next.

I saw that in my own life a few years ago. I was at a shopping mall when I began to feel sick. I went to the food court, thinking that if I got off my feet and drank something, I might feel well enough to drive home. Instead, I got worse, and before long I was debating whether I would be able to make to the bathroom before I threw up.

I decided to run for it, but as soon as I stood up, I fainted ... and some stranger caught me before I hit the floor.

Now, I wasn't expecting that, because in my mind, I was alone. But the vast real world contained possibilities I was not taking into account. In fact, an impromptu emergency response team sprouted up around me like Crusoe's barley. Somebody laid me down gently on the floor. Somebody ran to get mall security. Somebody called 911. And when I woke up a few seconds later, somebody was sitting there to explain to me what was happening. Strangers, every one of them, taking action "as if they had been dropt from Heaven".

Supernatural? No. Miraculous? To me -- yes.

Prayer is dysfunctional when it gives us a false confidence that we can overpower the natural world, like the pastor who expects to be saved from the flood by some means other than boats and helicopters. But it's good to have a practice that encourages you to remember that the doom you seem to be facing may not be as rock-solid as it looks. The world is vast, and it contains unimagined possibilities for good as well as evil. We shouldn't count on them, but it's also a mistake to count them out.

Finally, I want to talk about Bill Sinkford's experience sitting beside his son's hospital bed. But before I go there, I want to take a detour.

There is a common situation in which it makes perfect sense to pray for any kind of miracle you can imagine: In a dream. In the Dreamworld, the traditional explanation of how prayer works is literally true: There is an all-powerful being who has good reason to care about you.

That being is the Dreamer, who in some sense is you. You run around the dreamscape doing your dream-character things and maybe being quite miserable. But no matter how impossible the situation seems, you could get it all straightened out if only you could a message through to the Dreamer.

Now, what does that have to do with the world we face when we're awake? I believe that we are physical beings who live in a world that obeys physical laws. But a lot of our experience of life is not forced on us by the physical situation. As I discussed last spring, our experiences are filtered through the stories that we tell about our lives. The meaning of our lives is not in the motions of the atoms of our bodies. The meaning of our lives is in the stories that we are living, and a single physical situation can support many different stories.

So a very important aspect of your life is under your control, because you are the primary story-teller of your life.

But using that power is incredibly difficult. For most of us most of the time, being the Story-Teller of our lives does us no more good than being the Dreamer does us when we are dreaming. We get trapped in our stories. And even if they are largely of our own devising, we can't figure out how to escape.

Just deciding to tell a new story doesn't work. For example, whether I am a success or a failure depends more on the story of my life and how it is told than on my physical situation. If the story of my life says that I'm a failure, yes, I could start telling a new story that says I'm a success. But would that make me a success? More likely, I'd feel like a fraud -- a failure who is conning people about how successful he is.

No, the story of your life has more substance and momentum than that. Like the power of the Dreamer, the power of the Story-Teller can be very hard to access.

Now let's get back to Bill Sinkford sitting by his son's hospital bed, praying for a miracle. At that moment, Sinkford is trapped inside one of the most horrible stories there is: He is the Bad Father who deserves to watch his son die. Because he wasn't there at the important moment, and he never said this significant thing, and he did say that terrible thing instead. This character that he believes he is deserves no mercy and no compassion. He's just reaping what he sowed.

As long as Sinkford goes round and round that hamster wheel, as long as the story is about him and the failings of his character, he can't get out.

But then he experiences a pure cry of the heart, what he calls "the pure prayer": Let my son live. He's not controlling the situation. He's not reminding God of his previous promises or trying to negotiate a new deal. He's not living in the past or the future. He's just arrived at the essence of his experience of this moment: Let my son live.

That cry of the heart does not heal Sinkford's son. But it is so intense that it breaks the story. It wakes him up. For just a moment he stops being a character in a story and becomes a fully conscious human being, with all the power that entails.

I think it's important to understand what that power is. It's not physical power. He recognizes that the physical world will do what it does. His son will live or not live. Even in Sinkford's heightened state of awareness, that's not his choice to make.

But he is no longer trapped inside the character he has been, and his relationship with his son is not trapped inside the story he has been telling about it. Whatever happens, there can be a new story. That story will have the possibility of meaning and the possibility of love and the possibility of joy.

Sinkford ends his account by saying, "The experience stayed with me." I think he's acknowledging the temptation he felt to box that experience up and put it on a high shelf, the temptation to say "Things got crazy there for a while, but I'm OK now."

If you've ever had an experience like Sinkford's that seems life-changing at the time, you know that often the moment passes and you get pulled back into your old story. Or sometimes the new story is no better. That moment of revelation doesn't always work out. But it certainly won't work out if you reflexively get embarrassed about such experiences and explain them away as soon as possible.

So I close with this advice for those moments when you feel the need for a miracle: Don't repress that need, don't crack the whip and try to get yourself back in line. Try to hone it. If what you think you need is a violation of the natural order, it's probably not coming. But never forget that the natural order is bigger than you think. Stay open to the unexpected.

And if the miracle you really need is related to your character and your story, that can happen. If you need an inner transformation, if you need to reshape your relationships, if you need to break free of your patterns, if you need a new way to find meaning in the world -- that can happen. There is a powerful being who cares about you who could make that happen.

In some sense that being is you, if you could just wake up.

The first step in that awakening process is very similar to the kind of prayer I described at the beginning. Sit with your need and strip away everything that is non-essential. Strip away all the ego, all the self-importance, all the self-pity, all the desire for control, until you find that pure cry of the heart.

That is the moment when things can start to change.


Sunday, May 29, 2011

My Volo Credere

This year, random fluctuations got my church's Coming of Age class down to one student. (It's usually five or six.) I was the young man's mentor, so my role in the Coming of Age Sunday service was to introduce his credo-reading*. The lack of other credos meant that I had a little extra time, so I decided to use it to say something about Unitarian Universalism in general, and how Coming of Age fits in.

[* If you're unfamiliar with the UU Coming of Age tradition, we have a year-long program that is comparable to what confirmation would be in a Protestant Christian church, with this exception: We're not just teaching the students what UUism is, we're encouraging them to assemble their own ideas about what they believe and don't believe. The culmination of the program is that the students write personal credos -- statements of their own beliefs -- and present them to the congregation.]

One of the old saws about UUism (which tends to get repeated when people describe Coming of Age) is that UUs can "believe whatever we want". Over the years I've heard a number of writers and speakers attack that idea with logic and evidence, but the refutation never sticks. That's why I decided to go after it in a more humorous way, by taking it literally. So instead of a credo ("I believe"), I talked about my volo credere ("I want to believe").


For years, people have been telling me that Unitarian Universalists can believe whatever we want. And I find that notion intriguing, because for as long as I can remember, I have wanted to believe that I can fly.

I want to believe a lot of things about myself. I want to believe that I don't really need to sleep. I want to believe that if the plan depends on me being in two places at the same time, I can do that.

I want to believe things about the world, too. Those problems that you hear so much about -- climate change, poverty, war -- I want to believe that they're not really that bad. I want to believe that it will all be OK. And most of all, I want to believe that none of it is my fault, so no one has a right to expect me to do anything about it.

That's what I want to believe.

I'm sure there are many things that you want to believe too.

And we are Unitarian Universalists. We are free from creeds and dogmas and scriptures and institutional authorities. Who is going to stop us from believing whatever whimsical, irresponsible, and self-serving things we want?

Well, I think already you know the answer to that: We're going to stop ourselves. We are going to use our eyes and our minds and our hearts, and we are going to realize that we can't believe whatever we want, because many of the things we want to believe are just not true.

You see, Unitarian Universalists are not un-disciplined. We are self-disciplined. And that is what we are celebrating today.

The public credo-reading that completes our Coming of Age program is one of the most meaningful and moving rituals in our tradition -- not because of what the credos say, but because of what they represent: young people taking responsibility for their own beliefs, demonstrating that they have the self-discipline not to "believe whatever they want".

What's inspiring about our Coming of Age program is not that we restrain ourselves from telling our young people what they have to believe. The inspiring thing -- what our coming-of-age classes prove year after year, and what I expect D_____ to demonstrate yet again today -- is that no one needs to tell our young people what to believe. They are up to the job.

I think you are about to see what I have been seeing all year as I worked with D____: a young man who is ready to claim his place in a community of self-disciplined people.

And that is truly something to celebrate.

D____, the pulpit is yours.


Wednesday, April 06, 2011

The Story of Our Deaths

a service given at the Unitarian Church of Quincy, Illinois

April 3, 2011


We live not just as physical bodies, but also as characters inside countless stories that motivate our actions and make meaning out of our lives: the stories of our careers and projects, the stories of our relationships, the stories of our days and months and years.

Perhaps the scariest thing about death is that it cuts those stories short. Our plots may have no climaxes. Our mysteries may come to no solutions. Our odysseys may never reach home. Facing those possibilities can undo the motivation that our stories give us and make our lives seem meaningless.

One way to maintain motivation and meaning is to tell death-denying stories about eternal life. Another is to live in the moment and put off thinking about death for as long as possible. But wise and skillful story-tellers have other options.

Opening Story: "The Tigers and the Strawberry"

A man was walking through a field when he saw a tiger watching him. The man began to run, and the tiger loped after him. He ran faster, and the tiger ran faster. Suddenly there was a cliff ahead, and the man tried to stop, but his heels skidded and he fell.

But on his way down he grabbed a vine, and amazingly, the vine was strong enough to hold him. And he thought: "Maybe I can figure out a way to climb to the bottom, and get away from the tiger." But then he looked down and saw a second tiger pacing back and forth at the bottom of the cliff, waiting for him.

So he wrapped his legs around the vine and hung on. "Maybe," he thought, "I can hang here until the tigers get bored and go away." But then, just out of his reach, he saw two mice come of out of a hole and begin gnawing on the base of the vine that held him up.

The man closed his eyes and began preparing himself for death. But when he opened his eyes again, he saw a luscious red strawberry growing out of the face of the cliff, hanging right next to him. He plucked the strawberry and ate it. It was the most delicious thing he had ever tasted.

Hymn: #12 "O Life That Maketh All Things New"

Responsive Reading: #558 "For Everything a Season"

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:

A time to be born, and a time to die;

A time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;

A time to kill, and a time to heal;

A time to break down, and a time to build up;

A time to weep, and a time to laugh;

A time to mourn, and a time to dance;

A time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;

A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;

A time to seek, and a time to lose;

A time to keep, and a time to throw away;

A time to tear, and a time to sew;

A time to keep silence, and a time to speak;

A time to love, and a time to hate;

A time for war,

And a time for peace.


I want to introduce the readings by telling a story from my own life, a story you can think of as the motivation for this service.

Random Death. In high school I had a weekend job at the Herald-Whig. In those pre-computer days, one of my duties was to get typewritten pieces of paper from editors like Joe Conover and walk them back to the composing room, where they were set into metal type.

[Footnote: Quincy is my home town and the Herald-Whig is its local newspaper. Joe Conover attends this church and was in the room as I was speaking.]

I was a curious kid, so I usually managed to read the stories on the way, if they weren't too long.

One Saturday, when we were putting together the Sunday morning edition, I was given one sheet of paper, about three paragraphs. There had been a windstorm that day. Some middle-aged man -- his name meant nothing to me then and I don't remember it now -- had been in his yard when a large tree-branch blew down and killed him.

Now, that was not the first time I had ever thought about death. I grew up watching westerns and cop shows on TV. People died left and right on those shows, but they died inside plots that made sense. Their deaths were heroic or tragic or the result of their own foolishness. And I had known relatives to die after long illnesses, but those illnesses themselves were a kind of story in which death was a logical conclusion.

But this guy in his yard -- I knew nothing about him, but I was convinced that this branch blowing down was not the climax of any story he thought he was living. I was sure he must have been in the middle of a million other things, and then suddenly he wasn't.

That bothered me. It bothered me, so much that for days afterward I fantasized about suicide, as teen-agers often do. I think I wanted to reclaim control of the story of my death. Better to die at the climax of a tragedy of my own devising, I thought, than to risk dying randomly and meaninglessly.

But then -- as teen-agers also often do -- I got distracted by things I don't even remember now. My death tragedy was never performed, those unanswered questions moved to a back shelf of my mind, and life went on.

The readings represent a range of responses to those questions about death. The first is the traditional Christian story of salvation, from the Gospel of John. If you were at my mother's funeral, you heard this reading there:

The Christian Salvation Story: John 11: 21-25 and 14:2-3

“Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother [Lazarus] would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”

Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”

Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die."

In my Father’s house are many rooms; ... I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.

A second possible answer is in the Zen story I opened with. To me that story says that since there is no escaping death, we should accept it, and appreciate what this brief moment of life has to offer. Eat the strawberry.

But to William James things were not so simple.

from Varieties of Religious Experience by William James

[M]ankind is in a position similar to that of a set of people living on a frozen lake, surrounded by cliffs over which there is no escape, yet knowing that little by little the ice is melting, and the inevitable day drawing near when the last film of it will disappear, and to be drowned ignominiously will be the human creature's portion. The merrier the skating, the warmer and more sparkling the sun by day, and the ruddier the bonfires at night, the more poignant the sadness with which one must take in the meaning of the total situation.

In other words: The strawberries may be sweet, but that just makes it worse.

Finally, there is this example, from Martin Luther King's last speech, given the night before he was assassinated.

from The Mountaintop Speech by Martin Luther King

And then I got into Memphis. And some began to ... talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?

Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop.

And I don't mind.

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!

And so I'm happy, tonight.

I'm not worried about anything.

I'm not fearing any man!


What Makes Humans Special? There is something special about human beings, something that makes us different from the other animals.

It's not our bodies, which need to eat and sleep like any other animal.

It's not our basic drives. Like other animals we are driven to run from predators, to attract mates, to protect our offspring, and to compete to be alpha dog.

Even our emotions seem similar to the other mammals. Like us, they form attachments. Some signal and communicate with each other. Some primates can even be taught to arrange symbols to make rudimentary sentences.

It can be hard to put your finger on what makes us special. Some people say that we have an immortal soul. Some say human reason is a special spark of divinity. Some people imagine us as the pinnacle of evolution.

This morning I'm not going to deny any of that. But when I look at humanity and ask what sets us apart, I see something much simpler: We are story-tellers. We imagine situations that are different from what is happening here and now. We populate those situations with characters, and then let imaginary time roll forward in plots about what would happen or could happen.

I don't think any other animal does that. And if one did, then I think we'd have to see that animal as special in the same way. If someday it turns out that chickens have been clucking out their life stories, and pigs have been grunting about their plans for the summer, then I think you'll see vegetarianism become much more popular.

The Importance of Stories. We often think of stories just as entertainment, as movies or TV shows or novels. But stories are how we came to dominate this planet. Through stories, we live on time scales much bigger than the present moment. We gather wood in the day for a fire we won't need until night. We plant in the spring because the end of that story is the reaping in the fall.

Because we tell stories, the future seems real to us. Everything we do is in the context of time.

Somewhere tonight a high school student is going to study, not because that is the most exciting activity she can imagine, but because she is already living in the story where she passes tomorrow's test, and she's already living in the story where she gets a good grade at the end of the term, and goes to college, and has a career she can take pride in, and someday has the financial security to give good things to her own children.

Everything we do is part of a story. It's part of many stories. We get out of a warm bed when the alarm goes off, because we are characters in stories that we want to bring to a successful conclusion. Those characters have motivation, and to the extent that we believe in our stories, we have motivation too.

Sometimes, though, we stop believing in our stories. Sometimes the whole future -- the test, the grade, the college, the career, the children -- starts to sound like a ridiculous fantasy. None of it's real. None of it is actually going to happen, or come out the way I want it to, so why shouldn't I keep playing this game or watching this show or texting my friends?

In order to have motivation that lasts longer than a few minutes, you need to be able to tell stories that you can believe about a character that you want to be. If you can really do that, then your life rocks. You bounce out of bed in the morning so that you can be that character and live that story.

But if not, if the stories you are living aren't believable or aren't appealing, then the best you can hope for is to lose yourself in the moment. Eat, drink and be merry and try not to think about where this is all going.

On the other hand, sometimes we believe our stories too much. We get so caught up in them that we forget they are stories and imagine that they are the world. If our stories aren't working for us any more, we believe that there is something wrong with the Universe or with the human condition. If I feel distant from the protagonist of my life story, then I say that the Universe is an alienating place. If the plot of my life does not engage me any more, then I complain that the Universe is supposed to have meaning in it, but it does not. I may think I need a God or a Savior to put meaning back into the Universe, when actually I need something much simpler: I need a story-teller.

Mission and sustenance: The temptation of Jesus. One of the ways people express humanity's illusive uniqueness is to quote Jesus: "Man does not live by bread alone."

Let's talk about the story that comes from. According to Matthew, Jesus has just been baptized by John, and the spirit of God -- whatever that might be -- has come down and entered into him. But he hasn't done anything with it yet. He goes out into the desert on a vision quest, and after forty days the vision quest is starting to work, because he sees the Devil.

And the Devil says, "You want to know what it means to have the Spirit of God in you? It means you don't have to be hungry like this. You can just command those stones to be bread."

And Jesus says, "Man does not live by bread alone." Which I think means: "I didn't come out here for bread. They had bread in Galilee. They've got bread in Jerusalem. If I wanted bread, I would have stayed where I was."

And so the Devil tries again to appeal to Jesus' animal drives. He says, "You don't have to be afraid of anything." And then he says, "You can be Alpha Dog of the whole world."

And Jesus says no, that he's not looking for any of that. He's looking for "words from the mouth of God".

What could that possibly mean? I think he's out there in the desert looking for a mission, looking for a way to tell the story of his life that will make sense out of this strange thing he feels inside himself that Matthew calls "the Spirit of God." And he wants that story to ring so true that no matter what he has to do and what he has to suffer, he will never doubt it.

He wants words from the mouth of God.

The Devil can't give him that, so he goes away and the angels come. We aren't told what the angels say. But after that Jesus does have a mission, and it stays with him all the way to his death. As he breathes his last, he says, "It is complete."

And that brings us to the subject of death.

Death as a Plot Hole. The unpredictability of death throws a wrench into all our personal stories. The story of your life might end for no reason that has anything to do with the plot. A tree branch blows down on you and you're dead. It happens.

The unpredictability of your death creates a plot hole in the story you are telling about your life. And as any story-teller knows, the effects of a plot hole tend to ripple backwards in time. If you don't know where your story is supposed to end up, then you don't know what should happen just before that, and just before that, and so on.

A plot hole is like a loose end in a tapestry. If you tug on that end, the tapestry can start to unravel. Similarly, if you can't stop yourself from tugging on the loose end in the story of your life, all your motivation can unravel, all the way back to the present. If you can't stop thinking about your death, and you can't figure out how to tie off that loose end, you can end up like the people William James imagined living on the ice. What does anything matter, when the ice is melting and we are all going to die? The strawberry of life may taste as sweet as ever, but so what? That just makes it worse.

When your stories unravel like that, they start to work against you. Instead of motivating you, they demotivate you. Instead of adding meaning to the tedious periods of your life, they subtract meaning from moments that otherwise would be satisfying and enjoyable. It may be a bright spring day, but what is the point of noticing? The sunshine, the flowering trees -- they don't change anything. We're still all going to die.

Eternity vs. this moment. So how can you tie that thread off? How can you keep the plot hole of your death from unraveling the story of your life?

The readings provide some suggestions. In the Christian salvation story, death isn't a problem because it isn't really going to happen. Your stories will just get interrupted, their conclusions delayed, but ultimately they will continue in a place where they can't help but reach a happy ending. Your relationships will continue in a place of perfect love, your enemies will be called to account in a place of perfect justice, and all your questions will be answered.

Who can deny that that is a wonderful story? And if you can believe it, whole-heartedly, with confidence that it will not start to ring hollow as the prospect of your death approaches, then God bless you. I mean that. Don't let anything I say disturb you in the least.

But St. Paul was right: Faith like that is a gift of God, not something we can achieve by trying. If you can't believe the salvation story, then you can't. No amount of telling and retelling is going to help. The people living on the ice could all tell and retell a story that said the ice is not melting. But that would just make their lives harder. When they were together they would put on a happy face and tell a happy story, but inside, each of them would be alone with his dread.

The strawberry story points in the opposite direction. Are we all doomed in the future? Then accept it, and don't live for the future. Live for now. Savor this moment, and when death comes, it comes.

Collective stories. It's easy to imagine that those are the only choices: Deny death by believing in eternal life, or don't look into the future at all and live in the moment. But we know they aren't the only choices, because history gives us other examples. The ancient Greeks and Hebrews did not make either choice. They clearly did look into the future -- otherwise they couldn't possibly have achieved everything they did -- but for centuries neither had any notion of personal salvation. Neither the Greek afterlife in Hades nor the Hebrew one in Sheol were anything to look forward to.

In The Odyssey, the ghost of Achilles tells Odysseus: "Say not a word in death's favor; I would rather be a paid servant in a poor man's house and be above ground than king of kings among the dead."

And Ecclesiastes agrees: "even a live dog is better off than a dead lion! For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no further reward, and even the memory of them is forgotten."

So how did ancient peoples motivate themselves? Without any pleasant notion of eternal life, how did they plan for the future without seeing all their stories unravelled by death?

The answer turns out to be fairly simple. Although ancient peoples certainly were individuals and had individual stories and motives, compared to us they lived collective lives. The bulk of the stories that motivated them day-to-day were collective stories -- stories of planting and harvest in the country, and the annual cycle of festivals in the city. Where a 21st century person wakes up and asks "What am I doing today?" they were more likely to ask "What are we doing today?"

You can see a modern account of this mindset in Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. Levin, the aristocratic character who most resembles Tolstoy himself, can't understand why the peasants resist his efforts to modernize agriculture, no matter how attractive and profitable he tries to make it for them. Eventually, he spends several days working side-by-side with them and comes to understand that the peasants are not motivated as much by the individual story of profit and loss, as by the collective story of the people and the land.

Tolstoy does not tell us how Levin's peasants view death, but it's not hard to imagine. If the story that motivates me day-to-day is a collective story, then the prospect of my death has no effect on it. There is a time to plant and a time to reap, a time to tear and a time to sew, a time to break down and a time to build up -- and ultimately a time to live and a time to die.

If the meaning of all that was never in me or in my personal story. If it is what my people do, then my death will not undo it.

The Mountaintop. And finally, that brings us to Martin Luther King. On the eve of his death, the story that is motivating Dr. King is a collective story. It's the story of justice for his people and justice for the world. He knows that he is playing an important part in that story, and he knows that the story will go on whether he lives or not. "I may not get there with you," he says, "but we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land."

"Like anybody," he says, "I would like to live. But [if I have to die] I don't mind."

Mindful present, collective future. Now, I realize that none of the examples I've mentioned is a perfect fit for an ordinary American in the 21st century.

Obviously, we can't all expect to be Jesus or Martin Luther King.

And while the increased individuality of the 21st century has its costs, it has benefits too. I doubt that many of us would want to recreate the collective mindset of a Russian peasant or an ancient Hebrew or Greek.

The timeless mindset of a healthy animal, always living in the moment -- that also has its charms. But the advantages we get from having a vision of the future, and the satisfaction that comes from finding your role in the larger sweep of history -- that would be a lot to give up.

But if none of the examples provides a perfect model, I still think we can cobble something together.

The strawberry story contains one piece of the truth. Personal life is not the kind of thing you can enjoy in the abstract; you have to enjoy it in a time and a place. And if not here and now, then where and when?

So to the extent that you are looking for personal satisfaction in life, you'd better grab it while you can. Feel the sunlight, taste your food, see the beauty, enjoy your friends, love your loved ones. If life will not seem complete until you see the Grand Canyon, then go see it. See it now. Don't wait until your eyes are failing and your knees won't let you hike. Eat the strawberry.

But that's not enough, I think. We still need the kind of meaning in our lives that can only come from stories that play out over time.

And so the ancient Greeks and Hebrews, the Russian peasants, and Martin Luther King give us another piece. When you do look to the future for your motivation, recognize that the further into the future a story goes, the more likely it is you will be dead before the end of it. So: the further into the future a story goes, the more collective it needs to be. Your long-term stories need to be able to contain your death; they should go on and not be interrupted when you die. Inside those collective stories, you need to find a personal role that is believable and motivating.

And that implies something that sounds paradoxical: For purely selfish reasons, you need to reach beyond yourself. You need to be part of something bigger, something whose story will go on after you die: a family, a community, a profession, this country, the human race, the web of all life.

And that connection to the larger whole can't just be theoretical. It won't motivate you, it won't get you out of bed in the morning unless you feel it and believe it in your heart and soul.

So that's the full package: Learn to take personal satisfaction in the moment, to live with a mindfulness that does not send the baggage of regret into the future. And simultaneously, learn to care deeply about something that will outlive you. Find a role you want to play in a story that will not end when you die.

It's a tall order. But if you can do it, there's a prize. You too may be able to contemplate your death and say, "Like anyone I would like to live, but I don't mind. I may die tomorrow, but I am happy today. I am not worried about anything. I am not fearing any man."

Closing Hymn: #114 "Forward Through the Ages"

Closing Story

President Kennedy used to tell this story: An old man and his young gardener were laying out plans for the trees they would plant in the coming year. But the gardener objected to one tree the old man suggested, pointing out that the species grows so slowly that it would not reach maturity for a hundred years. "Oh my," said the old man. "I had no idea. In that case, we'd better plant it today."

Monday, February 28, 2011

At My Mother's Funeral ...

… I learned that you never really know a person. Not completely.

You may have a life-long relationship, more than half a century, but you still only see one facet of the whole. Someone else remembers a buddy from high school, the kid next door, the person my father dated, an older sister, an old woman who needed help getting to the bathroom, a face at the beauty parlor, a fellow member of the Bible Study group, somebody to laugh with while the kids (me) played downstairs, and dozens of other people -- most of whom I had never met, but who nonetheless were (somehow) the same person as my mother.

After you talk to enough of your fellow mourners, you start to wonder about all the people who couldn't be here, the ones already gone. Her parents and teachers, bosses and supervisors, the staff and other patients when she was a teen-ager in a hospital far from home. And all the people who never even came up in conversation, the ones who (if they could talk to me) would have to tell a long story before I even knew who they had been.

Human beings are big. They're so big that in 54 years you can't wrap your mind around even one.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

The Humanism of the Sun

a talk given to the Concord Area Humanists at Wright Tavern in Concord, MA December 6, 2010

1. Hope and/or Rationality

I'm going to begin by reviewing a few facts about people who believe in the supernatural or paranormal.

  • People who believe in mental telepathy nonetheless make long-distance phone calls.
  • People who believe in levitation nonetheless buy airline tickets.
  • And while there are some well-publicized exceptions, the vast majority of people who believe in faith healing will nonetheless take antibiotics when they have bacterial infections.

Now, sometimes examples like this are used to claim that people are hypocrites, that most religious people, in particular, don't really believe what they claim to believe. When push comes to shove, they'll take the antibiotics. "Yes, the Lord will provide and protect, but I'm also going to buy insurance and put money in my 401-K."

That's not where I'm headed. Instead, I want to draw this lesson: When there's a proven, evidence-based way to get where you're going, the vast majority of people will take it. That's part of human nature, and it's why we've survived this long.

But there's another part of human nature: We don't give up easily. If the best rational analysis says that we're screwed, then we'll just keep going irrationally. Because we won't just lay down and die. That  also is who we are and why we've survived.

So if you are lost in the desert with a group of people and you point out that the lake they are walking towards is a mirage, whether or not they believe you depends on what you say next. If you go on to outline a reasonable plan for getting back to safety, and if you make it sound credible enough, then your compatriots might listen to you. But if your entire point is to dash their hopes, they won't.

Just last month I heard about a study done by two Berkeley psychologists. They exposed two groups of people to information about global warming. Both groups heard the same dire predictions of the heat waves, droughts, floods, famines, and so on that will happen if we keep doing what we're doing. But the first group then heard about all the steps we can take to head off those disasters. The second group got a no-hope message, that it is already too late.

As you would expect, the first group came out of their session more hopeful about global warming, the second more despairing. But there was another difference: The first group, the hopeful group, was more likely to accept the reality of global warming. The hopeful prognosis made the dire facts more believable.

Why? Because human beings have an instinctive resistance to despair, and an instinctive attraction to hope. Evolution built us that way, and it's not hard to see why. People who keep struggling -- even irrationally, even with a wrongheaded view of the situation -- sometimes stumble out of the trap they're in and go on to have descendants. People who give up, don't.

Now you would think that if any religion or philosophy could align itself with what we know about human nature, it would be Humanism. But in fact we often don't. Too often, we act as if exploding other people's illusions were an end in itself: "You may think you're going to heaven, but you're not. You may think that some Higher Power is looking out for you and will step in to save you from harm, but really you're on your own. You may think Someone guarantees that ultimately the forces of Evil will not prevail. But you're wrong."

In short, our message to the believers often amounts to this: "Everything that keeps you going, everything that makes your life palatable or adds zest to your existence -- it's all a mirage, a fairy tale. There's nothing to it."

If that's the end of the message, is it any wonder that we get so few converts?

2. The Sun vs. the North Wind

In one of Aesop's fables, the Sun and the North Wind argue about which is stronger. So they have a contest: Which of them will be able to get this threadbare old cloak off the shoulders of a traveler?

"This will be easy," the North Wind thinks, and with a quick gust he almost snatches the cloak away. But the traveler grabs it at the last instant and pulls it back around his shoulders.

"Well, I'll blow harder then," the Wind says. But now the traveler is wrapping the cloak tightly around himself, and the harder the Wind blows, the tighter he hangs on.

Eventually the North Wind is exhausted and it's the Sun's turn. The Sun shines down on the traveler, and before long he is so warm that he takes the cloak off on his own.

Now, why does the Sun win? Because the North Wind is looking at things on the wrong level. To the Wind, it's all just physics. If he can get more force on that cloak than the traveler is using to hold it, he can blow it away. But the Sun understands that he's dealing with a person who has motives. If he can understand why that cloak is important to that traveler and make it unimportant, then the traveler will set it aside on his own.

Too often, we take a North Wind approach to promoting Humanism. If I just blow harder, if I make stronger arguments against religion, if I raise the level of my rhetoric and announce to my believing friends that God is Not Great, that we're at The End of Faith (and that's good), that they  are suffering from a God Delusion and consequently need my help Breaking the Spell -- in short, if I heap more and more ridicule on my friends' illusions and superstitions, then I'll finally rip that cloak away from them.

And what happens? They grab it tighter. If you defeat one of their justifications for religion today, tomorrow they'll have another one. If in the morning you convince them to give up one dysfunctional superstition, by evening they'll have adopted another one that is even worse.

Why? Because we're arguing at the wrong level. This is not the kind of debate you can win by blowing harder. Religion is about people and their needs and what motivates them. They hang onto their beliefs because they are cold; and the harder we blow, the colder they get.

3. Solar Secularity

Successful arguments for secularity don't work that way. Telephone companies do not waste their advertising budget explaining that mental telepathy doesn't work. No doctor has ever told me not to pray for better health. "You want to pray? Knock yourself out. But take your antibiotics, because they work. If you take your antibiotics, you will get better."

Reasonable solutions replace superstition not because people suddenly realize that superstition is unreliable. People have always known that superstition is unreliable.

In spite of all the stories of miracle cures, even the most ignorant parents know that sometimes you pray over your sick daughter and she dies anyway. Doctors don't need to belabor that point. The parents know. But they need to be told that there is a better way. Someone needs to convince them that if their daughter takes this pill, she will live. Someone needs to tell them that children who are vaccinated don't get sick to begin with.

Convince them of that, and superstition doesn't have a chance.

Similarly, you don't need to convince your believing friends that the afterlife is uncertain and that the prospect of joy in Heaven is poor compensation for the reality of suffering and injustice here on Earth. They know that. You don't need to tell them that some of the most convincing priests and evangelists are charlatans, or that the most publicly righteous people sometimes turn out to be monsters behind closed doors. They know that.

You don't need to tell People of the Book that the Book is confusing, and that they often have to tie themselves into knots to avoid seeing its contradictions. You don't need to tell oppressed people that God's deliverance sometimes takes centuries to arrive and sometimes doesn't come at all. You don't need to tell them that blowing themselves up is an improbable road to success, that it will bring sadness to their families and most likely help no one. [A questioner challenged this point at the end of the talk, so I'll elaborate: Even groups that defend suicide bombing and claim it transports the bomber straight to Heaven only take up the practice as a last resort. People who have any other viable military or political strategy do not blow themselves up. That tells me everything I need to know about their true assessment of its effectiveness.]

They know all that. As much as they may argue with you when you point these things out, they know. That's why winning those arguments changes nothing, because they already know.

What they don't know is that there's a better way. Convince people of that, and you will change them.

In short, it's pointless to tell the traveler that his cloak isn't keeping him warm. He knows better than you do how cold he is. But that's not going to convince him to take that cloak off. What works better is to say, "Are you cold? I have just the thing. It's a better way to get warm."

4. Humanism and Progress

Now that I've told you something about believers, let me tell you something about Humanism and its history. Times and places where religion was becoming more humanistic have in general been prosperous and showed rapid progress, like Holland in the 1600s or England a little bit later.

We like to tell that story as cause-and-effect: Humanism leads to progress and prosperity. And that's true, but the reverse is also true: Progress and prosperity lead to Humanism. Wherever people have rational hope that they can solve their problems and improve their lives, it's not hard to convince them to liberalize their religion and expand the secular sphere to take in more of life's issues and decisions.

Consider the United States in the decades following the ratification of the Constitution. In New England trade was booming, industry was developing, population was rising, jobs were plentiful, wages were higher than anywhere in Europe, and if you could save up enough capital to get you through the first year, you could go west and claim land of your own. Particularly among the educated classes, life was hopeful and opportunities abounded.

And in this setting, Calvinism evolved into Unitarianism. Even the religious conservatives of the era are only relatively conservative; their beliefs were liberalizing more slowly. Those Puritan-founded churches that didn't turn Unitarian remained Congregationalist, and are now part of the United Church of Christ, Barack Obama's denomination.

Contrast that with what was happening among the slaves in the South. They lived hard lives with little reason for optimism. Small-scale rebellions were harshly put down, and because slaves were largely illiterate and tied to one plantation, their prospects for organizing a large-scale rebellion were dim. If you knew of no whites who would help you and had no place to go in the North, you had little chance of escape.

What came out of that environment was the deep religiosity you can hear in the Negro spirituals.

Go down, Moses,

Way down to Egyptland.

Go tell that Pharaoh

To let my people go.

Deprived of any rational hope, they irrationally identified with the Old Testament Israelites, and they hoped irrationally that someday the God of Moses would deliver them too -- if not in this lifetime, then by rewarding them in Heaven. With that hope, they endured. They held out -- day to day, year to year -- until processes they could not have foreseen set their descendants free.

That's how people are. That's how evolution made us. Given reasonable opportunities, we will take them. But if we are cut off from any reasonable hope of a life worth living, we will find some other way to keep going. We are a persistent species; that's how we survived.

5. John Dietrich's Idealistic Humanism

Real Humanism -- not just liberal Christianity or reformed Judaism, but full-fledged God-is-optional Humanism -- took off in America in the 1920s, the Roaring 20s.

It is hard to put yourself back into that mindset today, because it was a time not just of booms, but of real live reproducible miracles. There were horseless carriages and machines that flew men above the clouds. Glowing devices would sit in your living room and pull voices out of the ether.

One of those voices was John Dietrich.

Dietrich's sermons were so popular that his church, the First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, had to rent out a theater on Sunday mornings to fit everybody in. He called his message Humanism, and in many ways it resembled what is taught as Humanism today. But the tone of it was very different.

Dietrich preached a Humanism of the Sun, not a Humanism of the North Wind.

For one thing, Dietrich could not be bothered to argue whether or not God exists. Dietrich's Humanism wasn't about theology, it was about responsibility. So if you wanted to form a concept in your mind and call it God, fine. If you wanted to sing about your God, fine. But Dietrich insisted that you recognize this: All those things people have been praying to God for down through the centuries -- if humanity could just get its act together, we could do them rather than pray about them.

"To become a humanist," he preached, "does not merely mean throwing off the yoke of the old religion; it means assuming personally the responsibility that heretofore was supposed to rest with God."

Imagine yourself in the 1920s and let me recreate Dietrich's message.

Have people been praying for centuries for God to feed the hungry? It's an age of steel plows and tractors and threshing machines. Every year we get more grain for less work. There's plenty of food, and there's going to be even more in the future. Just figure out how to distribute the Earth's bounty, and humans, not God, will feed the hungry.

Have people been praying for God to heal the sick? It's an age of vaccines and nutrition and sanitation. Every year, science learns more about the human body and the diseases that afflict it. Turn that knowledge loose, apply it everywhere, devote ourselves to learning more, and humans, not God, will heal the sick.

Have people been praying to God for justice and peace? Injustice and war don't come from angels or demons; they come from people, and it's up to people to end them. Every year we learn more about social, political, and economic systems. What if we harnessed that knowledge to the insight that we are one human family sharing one beautiful, bountiful planet and all hoping to thrive in the same ways? What if all the resources wasted on weapons could be applied to things that actually make life better? What if people could express their heroism by devoting their lives to justice rather than sacrificing them to war?

He preached: "Burn that one truth -- that it can be done -- into the mind of the race, and the work will begin."

And that work -- at least as Dietrich told the story -- was the most meaningful, most interesting, most satisfying thing you could be doing with your life.

His Humanism had come not to snatch something away from you, but to give you something so valuable that you would drop the useless baggage you'd been dragging around. Dietrich recognized that there is no need to denounce people's unbelievable hopes -- they, better than anyone else, know just how hard it is to keep believing in those hopes. Just give them believable hopes, and the fantastic ones will fall away on their own. Why would you base your hopes on an unseen world, on an undiscovered country from which no traveler returns, if you could base them instead on things that you see happening all around you?

6. The Disillusioning 20th Century

It would be nice if I could just tell Humanists to start preaching Dietrich's sermons again, but I can't. The rest of the 20th century was hard on Dietrich-style optimism. There was the Great Depression and then the most destructive war in history. That war ended with the atom bomb, which put down once and for all the idea that progress and science are entirely beneficent  forces. After the war we discovered just how bad the death camps were, and that made people wonder whether folks like John Dietrich had underestimated the depths of evil in the human soul.

Worst of all, a lot of Dietrich's ideas about science and reason and social progress -- as well as his point about the uselessness of traditional religion -- were echoed in the rhetoric of the Soviet Union. In many ways that connection is unfair, because Dietrich's highest principle -- that each person is an end in himself, and that no one should be treated just as a means to someone else's ends -- was exactly what Communism needed and didn't have.

But in another way the connection is fair. Communism made the world skeptical of utopian plans. We all know now that people who diagram the perfect society on a blank sheet of paper can do horrific things, things that a person bound by tradition would never imagine. Even Ivan the Terrible was not so terrible compared to Stalin.

And that's why today the people with the most radical plans to transform society disguise themselves as restorationists. The Tea Party claims to be restoring the vision of the Founding Fathers. Bin Laden wants to restore the Caliphate. Christian Dominionists want to prepare the way for the return of Jesus.

In short, we 21st-century people have lost our faith in the limitless potential of blank sheets of paper.

In addition, I think Dietrich underestimated the ability of the Powers That Be to co-opt new insights into people and social structures. It is just as easy -- and in the short run more profitable -- to make better propaganda than better education. Social insights that might produce better human beings and a more just society might also produce better sheep and a more controllable society.

You don't have to look far to see that happening. Just look at the election we just held. Look at the quantity of corporate money spent and the lies and distractions it promoted.

So if we can't go back to the 20s, where do we go?

Well, the first thing I want to point out is that the easiest thing for the Powers That Be to co-opt is our cynicism and skepticism. If North Wind Humanists come together in small groups and congratulate each other about how bright and tough-minded we are, if we see ourselves as the elite few who can face the cold, hard Truth -- the Powers That Be are fine with that. That's no threat to them.

But the Humanism of the Sun, Dietrich-style Humanism, the kind of Humanism that raises worldly hopes rather than dashing other-worldly hopes -- that is a threat. That is something that could catch on and change the world.

The Humanism of the Sun has got to be optimistic. It's got to be idealistic. It's got to be inspiring. Because humanity is a hopeful species, and you are never going to channel human energy without hope.

7. Hope and History

Now, where can we find that hope and idealism and inspiration? Let's start with the easy part: Dietrich's basic insight still holds. It is well within the power of humanity to answer the vast majority of prayers.

In spite of everything we've done to it in the last century, this is still a rich planet. No external force or natural limit prevents humanity from living in peace, feeding the hungry, healing the sick, giving every child a good education, recognizing everyone's human dignity, and making sure that everyone has access to the information they need to actively participate in their own governance.

What's more, that vision is still inspiring. It still stirs the blood, if you can bring yourself to believe in it.

But that's the problem, isn't it? Humanists are realists. We believe in facts. And doesn't the evidence tell us that the world going to hell in a handbasket?

In a lot of ways, it certainly is. Endless wars, global warming, the exhaustion of natural resources, the long-term inability of our economy to generate good jobs, antibiotic-resistant germs, the increasing separation between rich and poor, and (what is most disturbing to me personally, because as a political blogger I run into it every day) the corruption of our national discourse. We can't even talk about most of our real problems any more. Even as we come to the end of the hottest year on record, the percentage of the American population that believes global warming is a hoax is going up. Even as staph and tuberculosis bacteria evolve to defeat our best drugs, we face increasing demands to teach children alternatives to the theory of evolution.

Yes, the world is going to hell in a handbasket. How can Humanists in good conscience go to people with an optimistic message?

My answer is that if you study history, if you really put yourself into the mindset of past eras, you realize that world has almost always been going to hell in a handbasket. Times and places where progress is obvious to the casual observer are very exceptional. And yet, somehow, when you take the long view, good things happen. Slavery ends. Jim Crow ends. Women get the vote and eventually equality under the law. Apartheid ends. Fascism falls. Communism falls. The prospect of a civilization-ending nuclear war recedes.

And it never, ever looks like it's going to happen until just before it does. The forces of goodness always seem ephemeral compared to the entrenched institutions that support the current corruption. Look at today's European welfare state through the eyes of Charles Dickens or Victor Hugo. Think of all the vested interests of their day who profited from the desperation of the poor. How could they possibly have been defeated? And yet they were.

Or go back a little further. Dietrich talks about humanity taking responsibility back from God. Before the Enlightenment, the official rhetoric said that God was responsible for choosing a nation's rulers. Kings ruled by divine right, by the will of Heaven. Against that orthodoxy, men like Locke and Rousseau argued that government was a human responsibility, that government was created by a social contract, not mandated by the Almighty. Obvious as that is now, you can't imagine how airy-fairy it must have sounded when it was new. "Lovely idea, but the King is the King. We have always had kings. Be grateful that our King is so benevolent as to let you prattle like this."

It has always been that way. And yet, good things happen.


Partly it's just the illusion of size. Whatever is big enough to be obvious is probably already in decline. The rising mammals always seem insignificant compared to the declining dinosaurs.

But the deeper reason is that the ultimate source of goodness in the world is the conscience and compassion and empathy and loyalty and honor of the individual human being. And those qualities are always hidden until someone evokes them.

They say in Harlan County, there are no neutrals there.

You'll either be a union man or a thug for J. H. Blair.

Which side are you on, boys? Which side are you on?

It paid a lot better to be a thug for J. H. Blair. It always has. But somehow enough miners stood together to make a union. How did they do that? Who could have seen it coming?

How many times in the last several decades have we seen oppressive governments fall when unarmed people by the tens of thousands flood out onto the streets and refuse to be intimidated by soldiers -- until the soldiers just give up?

It always looks impossible until just before it happens. Because the force that wins the victory is hidden inside the individual human being. And it stays hidden until somebody evokes it, until somebody who has faith in the goodness hidden inside everyone else takes the risk of saying in public what everyone is thinking in private. Someone puts the question to society, and then you either have to watch someone else's goodness be stamped out, or you have to risk bringing out your own.

And that's how good things happen.

8. Humanistic Faith

Now, if you've been keeping your head and you haven't let yourself be carried away by idealistic rhetoric, you may have noticed that I just committed a horrible heresy: I just told a group of Humanists that their ultimate success depends on having faith in hidden forces.

I don't see any way around that. Any effective Humanist message has to be optimistic. And any honest optimism about humanity has to depend on believing that human beings have it in them to be better than the society they currently live in, and better, in fact, than they often appear to be in everyday life. Good things don't happen because the events in the headlines proceed inexorably towards goodness. Good things happen because the most unlikely people find it in themselves to be heroes at the precise moments when heroes are needed.

I know of no way to measure or quantify that hidden power of human goodness, but it's what everything depends on. For me, and I suspect for you, it works best to think of that hidden power as a natural phenomenon, just part of what human beings are.

But I can foretell the future enough to say this: If you start talking about this hidden human goodness, some people are going to want to call it God. For example, I think that's what Forrest Church was talking about when he said "God is our name for what is greater than all and yet present in each."

So what do we do with that? What do we do when something seems a little mysterious, maybe, but not at all supernatural to us, and somebody else wants to call it God?

9. Humanism's Uncompromisable Core

And that brings up the final question I want to consider: What is the essence of Humanism? What is the line that we can't let be crossed, that central thing that if we don't stand for this, we stand for nothing?

A lot of people will tell you that the essence is atheism. There is no God. If someone starts talking about God, we need to show them the door, because there's no place for that here.

I think that's a mistake. It diverts us away from changing the world and turns us back towards metaphysical arguments that accomplish nothing and help no one. Also, I think we wind up separating ourselves from people who ought to be our allies.

I put the essence of Humanism where John Dietrich did: The responsibility for the survival and the flourishing of the human race in this world lies with human beings. It's up to us to feed the hungry, to heal the sick, to make peace, and to establish justice. And it's up to us to gather the facts and make the plans to carry out that mission. That is our responsibility and it is our highest responsibility.

To me, any one who recognizes that responsibility is a Humanist. And if they symbolize human goodness with the word God, if some of them want to talk about a God who is a cheerleader and an inspirer, if they want to imagine a God who stands on the sidelines and roots for us to fulfill our responsibilities ... then I say we let them. If they want to sing songs about such a God and use his or her name in invocations and benedictions, let them. The essence of Humanism has not been compromised.

But anyone who serves God to the detriment of serving humanity, anyone who makes God a commander rather than a cheerleader, anyone who trades off well-being in this world for some other kind of blessing in some other world, anyone who prays for divine solutions instead of working for human solutions -- that person is not a Humanist. To me, those are the lines we can't cross without losing ourselves.

Finally, if the essence of Humanism is a set of responsibilities rather than a theological position, that tells us how we can work with others and who we can recognize as allies. Because human vs. divine responsibility can be judged issue by issue. John Locke was not an atheist. But he believed that the choice of rulers was a human responsibility rather than a divine one. On that issue, I could work with him without compromising my integrity.

10. Conclusion

Before we break for discussion, let me sum up where we've been: Humanism should not just be nay-saying and skepticism. Exploding people's other-worldly hopes is not only pointless, it is unnecessary: Put forward believable worldly hopes and unbelievable other-worldly hopes will fade away on their own.

For that reason, a Humanism that matters, a Humanism that can catch on and make a difference the world, has to be idealistic rather than cynical. It has to be visionary rather than curmudgeonly, optimistic rather than pessimistic.

And unless you are so lucky as to find yourself living in one of those rare times and places where progress is obvious, you're going to have to postulate beyond the visible facts. Because what is declining is always more visible than what is rising, and it's always easier to project selfish and self-interested motives into the future than to imagine the kind of creative heroism that again and again seems to come out of nowhere and push humanity forward. Cynicism works against us. We need not to puncture people's faith in God, but to raise their faith that humanity still has the ability to overcome its vested interests, that (like our ancestors) we can make real progress towards justice and compassion and dignity for all.

And finally, theology is a distraction, and arguing against God pulls you into that trap just as surely as arguing for God. Humanism is about humanity taking responsibility for its own fate and its own flourishing. Anyone who accepts their share of humanity's responsibility for itself should be considered a Humanist in good standing, and anyone who accepts humanity's responsibility for some particular issue is a worthy ally on that issue.

"This," preached John Dietrich, "is the faith that the world needs today. It does not need an ecclesiastical religion, it does not need more priests and prayers and holy books, it does not need literary essays on academic subjects; but it does need the never-ending voice of the prophet going up and down the land, crying, not as of old, "Prepare ye the way of the Lord," but "Prepare ye the way of mankind, and make its way straight."