Thursday, October 11, 2012
In September, I went back to my hometown (Quincy, IL) to speak at the UU church there, as I have several times before. I didn't know about that church when I was growing up Lutheran in Quincy, but in recent years I've arranged to speak there at times when I knew I was going to be in town anyway to visit my parents. Since it's the church where I speak most often (sometimes twice in a year, which I know sounds like nothing to ministers), it tends to be the place where I try out new stuff.
I used to publish the texts on this blog, but the Quincy UUs do such a good job putting up texts (and even audio!) promptly that I've started just linking to the uuquincy.org site.
The talk I gave there September 30 (text, audio) was called "Whence Cometh My Hope?", which is a play on "Whence Cometh My Help?" from Psalm 121. It's sort of a sequel to "The Story of Our Deaths", which I gave there in April, 2011. (It later got expanded into "A Humanist Approach to Death" for the Concord Area Humanists.)
"The Story of Our Deaths" is about the problems that can arise when you conceive your life story as ending (or just possibly ending) in death rather than going on to a glorious, eternal afterlife. Stories are an important way that we motivate ourselves to do things that are not pleasant in the moment (like get out of a warm bed when the alarm clock goes off on a cold and dark winter morning). Through stories, our experiences acquire a aura of meaning that is larger than the immediate sensations. (I'm not just driving through monotonous traffic; I'm on my way to something really important or cool. So I'm not bored, I'm excited.)
Just as the moment gets an aura of meaning from its place in the story of your day, the day gets meaning from its place in larger and larger stories, all the way up to the story of your life. But if the story of your life just ends in death, what kind of motivation can it provide? If you obsess unskillfully on that ending, all your stories can collapse like a row of dominoes, until even the current moment (which may not be threatening death at all, and may even be pleasant) can start to seem meaningless. What's it all for, if I'm just going to die anyway?
So "The Story of Our Deaths" is about that problem of meaninglessness, and how to imagine the story of your life in a more skillful way, so that the prospect of death does not unravel all the meaning in life. It comes to two conclusions: First, the fortune-cookie-obvious notion that you have to appreciate moments as they come; if your life is actually finite, you can't keep pushing the meaningful part off into the ever-shrinking future. And second, you have to find a role for yourself in a story that won't end when you die. If you're totally self-centered, then the end of your life might as well be the end of the Universe. But if you have a role in a larger story, your actions can continue to be meaningful right up to the moment you die.
The example I give is from Martin Luther King's "Mountaintop Speech", delivered the night before he died. In that speech he anticipated that he could die soon, but said "I don't mind, because I've been to the mountaintop". King saw himself playing a role in the story of his people's march to freedom, which would go on even if he died.
The obvious objection is: "Well, that's fine if you're Martin Luther King." Most of us can't write ourselves into history that way; the world will little note nor long remember us after we're gone. In "The Story of Our Deaths" I mention this objection and suggest that we can find meaningful roles in the stories of our loved ones, our communities, our professions, and other stories smaller than the kind of history that will appear in textbooks. But I didn't say much more about it.
That's where "Whence Cometh My Hope?" picks up. This talk is more personal; it centers on my own effort to write myself into a larger story. It's about my political blog, "The Weekly Sift", and the story I hope to play some small role in: the battle between journalism and propaganda, which I think is key to whether or not democracy will continue to be feasible.
A number of problems come up, which I'll let you read in the text. But I save the most interesting one to the end: the problem of failure. This turns out to be remarkably similar to the problem of death, in that it threatens to unravel all meaning. How meaningful would Martin Luther King's story be if Jim Crow had come back in his lifetime? What happens to my story if propaganda wins and democracy is effectively over in my lifetime?
Traditional religion offers multiple levels of faith-based responses to this problem: (1) You won't fail because God will help you. (2) Even if you should lose this battle, you can identify with the ultimate victory of Good (as in King's "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice").
I find (1) to be like the afterlife solution to the problem of death: It works fine as long as you can believe it, but I just lack that faith. I almost have the faith required by (2), but it tends to desert me at the worst possible times. (What if the long-term bend towards justice is just a wrinkle in the even longer bend towards injustice?)
Both of those are optimism-based solutions: They explain why the future is going to turn out well. I end up going for a hope-based solution, in which I don't pretend to know whether the future will turn out well or not, but I believe that trying is better than not trying.
Hope, I recognize, also requires a kind of faith. But it turns out to be a faith I have, so I don't have to constantly gin it up or talk myself into it. And that, I suppose, is the ultimate message of the two talks together: Every solution to the problem of meaninglessness requires some kind of faith. But I would rather look into my soul, find the faith I have, and build on that, rather than accept some external authority's description of the faith I'm supposed to have, and try to talk myself into it.