Friday, December 11, 2015

Humanism, as simple as I can make it

Last Sunday, I got pulled into a Unitarian Universalist classroom to tell 11-year-olds about Humanism. As so often happens, attempting to simplify something for other people made it clearer for me.

I started with the New Testament story in which Jesus boils all the commandments down to two: love God and love your neighbor.

Just about every religion, I told the kids, has some version of that: Start by loving God, and then (because you love God) treat other people well.

The problem is that when religions start interacting, they get so caught up in arguing about God -- does God exist? is my God the same as your God? who was God's prophet? what book describes God? who can speak for God today? -- that they often don't get around to Step 2: treating other people well. At the extreme edge, you have groups like ISIS, who treat other people horribly on the way (they think) to establishing some perfect Kingdom of God that will eventually make all that suffering worthwhile.

Looking at that mess, Humanism says: Do it in the opposite order, and start at Step 2. Let's all focus on treating each other well, making the world better, feeding the hungry, healing the sick, giving hope to the hopeless, and so on. After we've worked together on that for a while, then some evening we'll be sitting around the fire talking about what motivates us to do this work. That would be a good time to tell me about Jesus or Muhammad or Buddha or the Tao or whatever else gets you out of bed in the morning.

From a Humanist perspective, even the hard-core atheists who want to start by explaining why God doesn't exist are still missing the boat. Start at Step 2. We can talk about God later.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Hope, True and False

I keep forgetting to post the link to the text and audio of the talk I gave at the Unitarian Church of Quincy, IL in September. It's called "Hope, True and False", and it's my answer to a question I get asked all the time: "How do you follow the news so closely without getting depressed?"

Searching for a UU Identity

a service presented by Doug Muder at First Parish Church of Billerica, Massachusetts on November 1, 2015
Opening Words
In the early days of Unitarian Christianity, William Ellery Channing wrote: 

It has been the fault of all sects that they have been too anxious to define their religion. They have labored to circumscribe the infinite. 
Christianity, as it exists in the mind of the true disciple, is not made up of fragments, of separate ideas which he can express in detached propositions. It is a vast and ever-unfolding whole, pervaded by one spirit, each precept and doctrine deriving its vitality from its union with all. 
When I see this generous, heavenly doctrine compressed and cramped in human creeds, I feel as I should were I to see screws and chains applied to the countenance and limbs of a noble fellow-creature, deforming and destroying one of the most beautiful works of God.
The Apostle's Creed. 
A few minutes ago in the Affirmation of Faith, we made a covenant, a commitment to each other that we are going to be together in a certain way: in peace, in freedom, and in fellowship. 
In the Lutheran church where I grew up, and probably in the churches where some of you grew up, that spot in the service was filled by a creed, a statement of the common beliefs that defined the community.
As I read the creed that I grew up reciting, I want you to imagine two things: First, how alienating it would be if you realized that you didn't believe some of the things that your entire community was pledging that it believes. And second, if you did believe the creed, what a sense of belonging and common purpose you would feel to be surrounded by people publicly announcing that they agree with you.
Our creed went like this:
I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried. He descended into hell; the third day he rose again from the dead; He ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence He shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Ghost; the holy Christian Church; the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting.
The UU Principles 
By contrast, Unitarian Universalists have rejected creeds ever since Channing. In particular, the UU Principles are not a creed. They were never intended to be a creed and, for reasons I'll discuss later,
they wouldn't work particularly well as a creed. While they describe some widely shared UU beliefs and values they don't define our faith. So we don't throw people out if they don't agree with all the UU Principles. 
But we do use the Principles in one way that resembles how my childhood church used its creed. Namely, if you find yourself in a discussion of what Unitarian Universalists believe, sooner or later someone is going to pull out the Principles. This is what they say:
We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person; justice, equity, and compassion in human relations; acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations; a free and responsible search for truth and meaning; the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large; the goal of world community
with peace, liberty, and justice for all; respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.
In 1822, a Dr. Cooper from Pennsylvania wrote to ex-President Thomas Jefferson, complaining about religious fanaticism in his state. In his reply, Jefferson pointed hopefully to Massachusetts, where “Unitarianism has advanced to so great strength, as now to humble [the] haughtiest of ... religious sects.”
Jefferson prophesied the ultimate defeat of religious fanaticism by more reasonable modes of thought. “The diffusion of instruction, to which there is now so growing an attention, will be the remote remedy to this fever of fanaticism; while the more proximate one will be the progress of Unitarianism. That this will, ere long, be the religion of the majority from north to south, I have no doubt.”
Well, it didn't quite work out that way, did it?
Again around the beginning of the 20th century, Unitarians were optimistic, because everywhere they looked, the myths of religion were being replaced by the evidence-based theories of science. Darwin had explained the origins of humanity. Before that, Pasteur gave us the germ theory of disease, Franklin explained lightning, and Copernicus and Kepler the motions of the planets. 
And in this dawning 20th century, scientists were doing or about to do things that religion could only tell stories about: fly through the air, stop epidemics, and communicate instantaneously across oceans. If you were a young person who longed to do miracles, then you belonged in a laboratory, not in a pulpit or a monastery.
Surely, in this bright and promising new century, the old-time religion would fade away, beaten at long last by what Jefferson had called “the diffusion of instruction”. Soon everyone would be educated, and they would have no need for ancient tales about six-day creation or the virgin birth or Jesus ascending above the clouds, where, after all, there is only the dark vacuum of outer space.
And who would pick up the pieces after the inevitable collapse of myth and superstition? Why, we would: the Unitarians, the Universalists, and the other liberal faiths that were welcoming science rather than resisting it. We would sift through the wreckage of the old religion and preserve those nuggets that were worth saving, like the Golden Rule or the Sermon on the Mount. The rest would blow away like dust, and a more enlightened civilization would rise above its ruins. 
But History was actually headed in a different direction.
In 1910, conservative Christian theologians started publishing a series of books called The Fundamentals. And that was the beginning of a new movement called fundamentalism. Today's fundamentalists like to think of their movement as the old religion – Jerry Falwell called his TV program The Old-Time Gospel Hour – but in fact it was yet another new development of the 20th century. Fundamentalism is slightly younger than the airplane. 
The real old-time preachers and prophets had been innocent of science. They explained the world through myth because that was what they had. But fundamentalism wasn't innocent or ignorant, it was defiant. That was new. Fundamentalists knew that there were scientific explanations, but they didn't care. They would not listen, and they would not change.
And they succeeded. All over the world, in Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and many other faiths, wherever modern society threatened a traditional way of life, a fundamentalist movement developed. In religion, that – and not the triumph of rational liberalism – was the big story of the 20th century.
So why am I telling you this? What does it have to do with my topic of Unitarian Universalist identity? I started there because I think it's important for us to understand why fundamentalism succeeded when so many voices in our movement were predicting the exact opposite. 
The answer is fairly simple, and it leaves us a lot to think about. 
You see, religion has always been about more than just who made the world or why there are seasons or even how to get to Heaven. Religion is also about identity, about who I am and who my people are and why it's important that we live the way we do. As change accelerates, those questions become harder and harder for individuals to answer on their own. So they come to church.
Think back to village life in pre-modern times. In those days, being your parents' child might be all the identity you needed. A man quite likely would grow the same crops on the same land as his father and grandfather,  or perhaps practice the same profession in the same shop. A woman would marry and raise children, sew clothing from the same patterns her mother and grandmother had used, and feed her family the same foods prepared in the same ways. The question “Who are you?” didn't require deep introspection; it was a public fact. In the village, everybody knew who you were.
Today, though, you might live in half a dozen cities in the course of your lifetime, with a different set of friends and co-workers in each one. They can't tell you who you are, because they won't know until you tell them
And what will you say? There is almost nothing about you that can be counted on to stay the same from the beginning of your life to the end. In your lifetime, you might practice three or four completely different professions. You might have more than one marriage, each with its own children. Your identification as gay or straight might shift from one decade to the next. You might even change your gender. Everything about you is potentially fluid; nothing is solid. 
So who are you? Why does it matter that you are alive now, doing … whatever it is you do? Today, those are the kinds of questions that bring people to religion. 
Fundamentalism succeeded because it has compelling answers to those questions. When you join that movement, you become one of the people who are preserving God's true revelation. You are a warrior in the cosmic battle of Good against Evil. That is a story that will get you out of bed in the morning. In uncertain times, it will tell you what you ought to be doing with your life, and build a strong bond with all those who share that mission.
As I was reading the Apostles' Creed, many of you were probably picking apart all the places where it is unreasonable, unsupported by evidence, or in defiance of common sense. But perversely, that's why it works so well to bond people together. The more outlandish a statement sounds, the more rejection it provokes from outsiders, the better it establishes the common identity of the people who say it. 
Think about it: If you sit next to a stranger on an airplane, and during the flight you agree that water is wet and chocolate is tasty and the airline should make these seats bigger, then you don't necessarily develop a sense that you have much in common. But if it turns out that you both believe the same bizarre conspiracy theory about the Kennedy assassination or 9-11 or the secret cabal that rules the world, then by the time you step off that plane you're practically family.
An outrageous creed is like a military haircut. It makes a statement that binds people together. If the boot-camp buzz cut were stylish, if everyone were imitating it, then it wouldn't mean anything. It wouldn't tell the other recruits: “I am one of you. I value being one of you so much that I am willing to look like this.”
By contrast, we UUs often struggle with our religious identities. Because we are all about freedom and the individual conscience we've never had a creed. And trying to write one now would violate something deep in our covenant with each other. Who would dare claim the authority to tell other UUs what they have to believe? It's unthinkable.
And because we don't insist that you believe unlikely things or submit to institutional authority, we have the reputation of being an easy, undemanding religion. Do you disagree with what you hear from the pulpit? Fine. Don't want to come every Sunday? Don't. You don't have to embarrass yourself by trying to convert your friends and co-workers. There are no onerous rules about what you can eat, or who you can love, or what you have to wear. You don't have to tithe, or give anything at all unless you want to. Make up your own mind about that. You are a free individual.
And yet, in this era when it is so hard to know who you are, the religions that grow are the difficult ones. Easy religions just don't create that sense of common challenge and shared hardship that builds a group identity. All that UU freedom and individuality often leaves us at a loss to explain what we stand for, what we have in common, or why we are here together at all.
In my congregation over in Bedford, in our Coming of Age program, one of the exercises we assign our teen-agers is to write what is called an “elevator speech”. The premise is that you are on an elevator when someone asks you what Unitarian Universalism is about. You have less than a minute before one of you gets off. What can you say?
Back in 1970, if my Lutheran confirmation class had been given a similar assignment, it would have been simple. I could have just said: “Because Jesus died for our sins, we can go to heaven.” Even in a short building with a quick elevator, that would have left plenty of time to move on to discuss the weather or the Patriots. 
But a UU elevator speech is very challenging, and I am always a little ashamed to admit that I've never come up with one I really like. I wrote a column for UU World about that once. It's called “Stop the Elevator, I'm Not Done”. 
Another project we assign the kids – which also appears in some adult-ed classes –  is to write a credo, a personal creed, a statement of your own beliefs, whatever they might be. 
A credo a marvelous exercise in introspection, and the service in May when the teens read their credos to the congregation is one of the most inspiring things we do. Not because they necessarily come up with such wonderful answers to life's big questions – some are always more thoughtful than others – but because the act of standing in the pulpit and telling us their ideas marks a commitment to begin a lifetime of thinking for themselves. 
And yet sometimes I wonder how much good it does to have a creed that no one will say with you, and that you yourself may change at any time. How does that give you a sense of identity as a Unitarian Universalist?
Now, some UUs might say that we don't need that. We're a loose association of individuals who enjoy each other's company, and maybe that's enough. 
But I have to say that for myself, it isn't enough, and I doubt that I'm the only one. I suspect a lot of Unitarian Universalists long to feel that we are part of something larger than ourselves, part of something that is big enough to go “forward through the ages” and grand enough to be worth singing about. 
So today I want to suggest a third kind of statement UUs might work on. Not an elevator speech to describe Unitarian Universalism in general,or a credo that states your personal beliefs, but something that brings the two together in a statement of your own identity as a Unitarian Universalist. 
I'm still working on the best way to phrase the question I have in mind, but it might go something like this: How does what I am trying to do with my life relate to what Unitarian Universalists are doing together? Or, more concisely: What am I doing here?
Rather than just read you a personal statement that might apply only to me, I thought it might be more usefulto walk you through some of my thought process as I tried to answer that question.
Now the individual side of the question is already fairly difficult, because it requires at least some notion of what you are trying to do with your life, or what you want to be doing. As I wrestled with that, I noticed two important shifts: First, unlike the elevator speech or the credo, this question is about doing, not believing. Deeds, not creeds.
And second, I found my focus shifting away from freedom and towards commitment. If the question is what I want to do with my life, then yes, I need to be free. But that's a prerequisite, not a goal. If I'm not free to look at the world with my own eyes and draw my own conclusions and choose my own actions, then someone else is deciding what I'll do with my life, and what I want doesn't really matter. 
But the point of that freedom is not so that I can live whimsically from one day to the next, doing whatever comes into my head. To me, the point of being free is that if a goal bubbles up inside me, I have the power to commit myself to it. My best days, the ones that I look back at with a sense of “Yes! That's the person I want to be.” are not my idle or whimsical days, they're the ones in which I have felt driven to pursue a vision that comes from deep inside. 
We don't talk a lot about vision in our churches. Visions tend to be those things that aren't there that crazy people see. But vision is also how freedom turns into commitment. When you have seen something beautiful in your mind and had the thought, “Yes, this can happen. I can do this.” then nobody has to push you or goad you or make you feel guilty. When you are possessed by a beautiful vision, you don't resign yourself to tasks and say, “Oh, I suppose I ought to be doing that.” It's more like, “Look! It's right over there! Come on!”
That's the personal side of the identity-statement process, the what-do-I-want-to-do-with-my-life side, but what about the community side? In other words, what kinds of visions can I hope to have in a Unitarian Universalist congregation? What visions can I hope that other UUs will share and get excited about?
And that brought me back to the UU Principles. When I started asking those questions, suddenly the Principles began to sound very different to me. 
If you think of the Principles as beliefs, then they quickly become nice ideas that it feels good to nod your head to. That's why they make such a terrible creed; reciting them is too easy. Run the Principles past somebody who would never in a million years become a UU, and they're likely to say “Yeah, sure, why not? Justice, equity, and compassion in human relations? I mean, I'm not for injustice, unfairness, and hard-heartedness. So sure, why not?”
But if you think of the Principles as visions, as things that we are trying to see now in our minds so that we can bring them into reality in the future, that becomes a lot more challenging. For example, it's easy to nod your head to the idea that every person has worth and dignity. But when you're alone on the T, and somebody gets on who is so different from you that you find them scary or disgusting, do you see that person's worth and dignity? Is it present to you, like a physical reality?
Developing that kind of vision is not just a nice idea, it's a challenging spiritual practice.
That's the whole point of Black Lives Matter. Of course you believe as an abstract principle that lives matter. But can you look specifically at African Americans, who have been demonized and stereotyped for centuries, and see their value?
Similarly, it's easy to nod your head when someone says that everything is connected. But the interdependent web of all existence – is it real to you? When Boko Haram wipes out an entire village in Nigeria, or when refugees stream out of Syria with nothing but the clothes on their backs, do you feel that vibrating down the web until it shakes something inside you?
When you're trying to envision rather than just believe, suddenly this isn't such an easy religion any more.
Justice in our relationships – of course we believe in that. Who doesn't? 
But what about all those relationships we don't usually think about? What about your relationship with the people – probably poor people living somewhere like Bangladesh or Indonesia – who made the clothes you're wearing, or the phone that's in your pocket? What about your relationship with people all over the world whose lives are affected by the government that represents you? Can you bring those relationships into your mind at all? Can you envision a world where those relationships are all just and equitable and compassionate? How would that world come to be?
So for me, the community side of the question, the part about what Unitarian Universalists are trying to do together, boils down to this: We're not just trying to believe in these seven principles, we're trying to make them real, first to ourselves, so that we actually see them rather than just nod our heads when we hear the words – and then, having seen in our minds a world where the principles have become reality, we are committed, maybe even driven, to push the real world in that direction.
Is there anything in that project that echoes what you personally want to do with your life? Does any of that reverberate in your soul and make you say “Yes, that's what I want my life to be about.”? 
It may not. It doesn't have to. You are free. Free to see the world through your own eyes and draw your own conclusions and set your own goals. 
But if some part of that vision and that mission does overlap with what you want your life to be about, then I believe that a Unitarian Universalist congregation is a good place to work on it, and Unitarian Universalists are good allies to have. If that is true for you, as it is for me, then I believe this is a place you can belong, and Unitarian Universalists can be your people.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Universalism, Politics, and Evil

May 3, 2015 at the Unitarian Church of Quincy, Illinois.

Opening Words: "Outwitted" by Edwin Markham

Introduction to the Reading: Historically, Unitarian Universalism gets the “Universalist” part of its name from the Christian doctrine of universal salvation, the belief that Jesus’ sacrifice paid the freight for everyone, so sooner or later — no matter what they believe or how evil they are — everyone is going to wind up in Heaven. There couldn't possibly be a Hell, because God is too good to create one, and God loves each human soul too much to give up on it and cast it away forever. 

As you might imagine, the Catholic Church considered universal salvation a heresy. They started stamping it out in the third century, but no matter how many books or heretics they burnedit kept popping up every few generations, until in colonial America it became the Universalist Church.

What made universal salvation so hard to suppress was that unpredictable people at unpredictable times kept having the same religious experience: a vision of the goodness of God and the unconditionality of God’s love. 

Christians are still having that vision, whether they’ve ever been exposed to Unitarian Universalism or not. Occasionally they have it at very inconvenient times. In 2005, the radio program This American Life devoted an episode to the extremely inconvenient universalist awakening of Carlton Pearson.

Carlton was a rising black televangelist, a protege of Oral Roberts. He had appeared in the pulpit with Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. His Higher Dimensions megachurch in Tulsa was drawing 5,000 people a week. And then this happened:

Reading: From This American Life (December 16, 2005)

Well, my little girl, who will be nine next month, was an infant. I was watching the evening news. The Hutus and Tutus were returning from Rwanda to Uganda, and Peter Jennings was doing a piece on it. 

Now, Majeste was in my lap, my little girl. I'm eating the meal, and I'm watching these little kids with swollen bellies. And it looks like their skin is stretched across their little skeletal remains. Their hair is kind of red from malnutrition. The babies, they've got flies in the corners of their eyes and of their mouths. And they reach for their mother's breast, and the mother's breast looks like a little pencil hanging there. I mean, the baby's reaching for the breast, there's no milk.

And I, with my little fat-faced baby, and a plate of food and a big-screen television. And I said, "God, I don't know how you can call yourself a loving, sovereign God and allow these people to suffer this way and just suck them right into Hell," which is what was my assumption. 

And I heard a voice say within me, "So that's what you think we're doing?" 

And I remember I didn't say yes or no. I said, "That's what I've been taught." 

"We're sucking them into Hell?" I said,

"Yes." "And what would change that?" 

"Well, they need to get saved." 

"And how would that happen?" 

"Well, somebody needs to preach the Gospel to them and get them saved." 

"So if you think the only way they're going to get saved is for somebody to preach the Gospel to them and that we're sucking them into Hell, why don't you put your little baby down, turn your big-screen television off, push your plate away, get on the first thing smoking, and go get them saved?"

And I remember I broke into tears. I was very upset. I remember thinking, "God, don't put that guilt on me. You know I've given you the best 40 years of my life. Besides, I can't save the whole world. I'm doing the best I can. I can't save this whole world." 

And that's where I remember, and I believe it was God, saying, "Precisely. You can't save this world. That's what we did. Do you think we're sucking them into Hell? Can't you see they're already there? That's Hell. You keep creating and inventing that for yourselves. I'm taking them into My presence."

And I thought, well, I'll be. That's weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. That's where the pain comes from. We do that to each other, and we do it to ourselves. Then I saw emergency rooms. I saw divorce court. I saw jails and prisons. I saw how we create Hell on this planet for each other. And for the first time in my life, I did not see God as the inventor of Hell.

Talk: If you read my Weekly Sift blog, you probably know that I reliably take the positions that are known as “politically correct”: I support marriage equality, I think black lives matter, I believe women when they talk about rape, I defend Muslims, I wish the rich paid more taxes, I advocate negotiating with unpopular countries like Iran and Cuba, I think voting should be easy, I believe in unions and a higher minimum wage, I think poor people usually work harder than rich people, I want everyone to have access to health care, and the idea that a few cheaters might be abusing food stamps doesn’t bother me nearly so much as the possibility that there still might be some hungry people out there. 

Down the line, politically correct.

Now, describing those positions that way is disparaging, because it implies that they are just a fashion. These are the chic ideas among the liberal tribe these days, and we display them so that we will recognize each other.

And it works. If I meet a stranger and she says, “It’s a shame Elizabeth Warren won’t challenge Hillary” I think: “Ah, one of my people.”

Because human beings are like that. We’re tribal. It’s evolution — another one of those fashionable liberal ideas. One explanation for why the brains of primates got bigger was that we needed to do a lot of social processing to hold together larger groups. Larger groups have a survival advantage, so evolution favors larger brains. 

If you compare humans to other primates, our brain size says we should run in tribes of about 150, compared to under 100 for chimpanzees and bonobos. That’s called “Dunbar’s number” and even today, it shows up in the literature about church size. In congregations with less than 150 members, everybody can have a personal relationship with everybody else. But 150 members is often a crisis point, and requires some kind of reorganization. It’s biology.

Now, one way our ancestors got around those limitations and held together tribes larger than 150 was to invent fashion. We learned to identify with each other's external trappings even if we didn't have a personal relationship. So we’d paint our bodies red or put bones through our noses, and that way if we met someone we didn't recognize, we could tell whether or not he belonged to our tribe. And if the next tribe started to copy us, then we’d have to change to a different color or a different kind of bone. Because that's how fashion works. It’s how like-minded people recognize each other.

Naturally, it’s easier for me to spot political fashionability in people I disagree with. For example, I’ll bet most of you know some smart, scientifically literate conservative who for some reason is blind to the evidence for global warming. You can be having a perfectly intelligent conversation, but something strange happens when climate change come up. He just can’t go there.

It’s tribal. Ten or fifteen years ago, a John McCain or a Newt Gingrich could acknowledge global warming. But fashion shifted, and climate change became a global socialist conspiracy. Today, a conservative who admits to believing in it risks being ostracized from his political community.

Of course, liberals and conservatives aren’t perfect mirror images of each other, so just because the other side has some fault doesn’t mean my side necessarily has it too. But in this case I think it’s fair to say that sometimes we do. Because tribalism and fashionability aren’t flaws in the conservative worldview, they’re part of basic humanity. We are all tempted to bend over backwards to fit in with the people we recognize as our own.

But just because an opinion or a practice is fashionable doesn’t mean it’s just fashionable. There also might be some good reason for it. For example, children are still reciting “Eeny Meeny Miney Moe”, but they say it differently than I did. Today they say, “Catch a tiger by the toe.” But if you’re my age or a little older, maybe you remember saying, “Catch a nigger by the toe.” We didn’t necessarily think about what we were saying, that’s just how the rhyme went in those days.

That version is out of fashion now, but it’s not just fashion that keeps us from teaching it to our children. There’s a reason to say it the new way, and I don’t think the old rhyme is ever going to come back.

So yes, I understand that all the opinions I listed at the beginning of this talk are fashionable among liberals, but that doesn’t mean that nothing more than fashion links them all together. 

Conservatives usually will grant me that. My views aren’t just liberal chic, they come from a higher principle. Like: I hate America. Or I want to destroy western civilization. Or maybe I just hate myself, so I push against whites and men and Americans and anybody else who resembles me. 

Those certainly are unifying principles. But they’re not the one I had in mind. To me, all those positions on all those diverse issues arise from the spirit of Universalism as I understand it. Which is not to say that Universalism has a political dogma, or that you can’t be a good Unitarian Universalist if you disagree. But this is where Universalism takes me.

When I introduced the reading I talked about the origins of Universalism in the doctrine of universal salvation. When you describe it that way, Universalism seems very etherial and other-worldly. It’s all about God and the afterlife, and doesn’t seem to have much to do with food stamps or foreign policy. But those theological ideas laid the groundwork for a radical kind of Humanism that we're still practicing today.

You see, in orthodox Christianity, as in many other faiths, the afterlife isn't one place, it's two places: a blissful Heaven and a torturous Hell. And that creates a fundamental division in humanity between the Saved, who will be on the boat to Heaven, and the Damned, who will be on the boat to Hell. Orthodox believers see this not as some unfortunate accident, but as divine justice. The Damned are bound for eternal torment because that is what they deserve.

That vision of the afterlife doesn’t force believers to take a harsh view of life here and now — many people who believe in Hell are kind and generous here on Earth. But if you have any harshness already in you, this vision of the Saved and the Damned will magnify it. Because it does lend itself to the harsh view that once you step off the path of righteousness, you deserve whatever you get. 

So if a young woman gets raped, well, what did she think would happen when she went to that party dressed like that? If a gay man gets AIDS, if a petty criminal gets killed by police, if a Muslim villager becomes collateral damage in a drone strike, why do they deserve our compassion? They stepped off the path laid out in a fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible, and they got what was coming to them.

If you’re not careful, the Saved and the Damned can come to seem like two different species. In the New Testament, Jesus uses Judgment Day metaphors that seem to say that. He talks about God separating the sheep from the goats, or about the harvest, when the grain is kept but the weeds are burned. 

John Calvin went a step further. Not only would humanity be divided at the end of time, but it had been two species all along. From the moment of Creation, God had predestined some souls for Heaven and others for Hell. That was the kind of Christianity that many of the early American Universalists grew up with.

Human beings, as I was saying before, have a tendency towards tribalism. And if you’re not careful, this theology of the Saved and the Damned can ally itself with your tribal impulses. And then the Saved become the Good People, the people like us, and the Damned are the Bad People, the people like them. It becomes easier to look at someone who is different, and see not a fellow human being, a child of the same God, possessed of the same rights and faculties I have, but rather someone whose ticket to Hell is already punched and only the formality of death is delaying the completion of his damnation.

That is certainly how colonial Americans behaved sometimes. These heathen Indians — why shouldn’t they be driven off this land where I want to build my City on a Hill for the greater glory of God? These pagan Africans — why shouldn’t they be my slaves? And if I convert either of them to Christianity, well then they should thank me. I get their land and their labor, but they get eternal salvation, so it works out for everyone. 

Universalism said no to all this. There aren’t two afterlives or two boats to the afterlife, no Saved and Damned. There are just people. Humanity is one species, and we are all in the same boat. We all have the same basic set of emotions, the same drives, the same temptations, and the same yearnings for a better life. 

From the very beginning, that had political implications. When American Universalists began to think of themselves as a national movement, one of the first things they did was to call for the abolition of slavery. (They were the second denomination to do that, after the Quakers.) And perhaps the beginning of American feminism was the essay “On the Equality of the Sexes”, written in 1779 by Judith Sargent Murray, the wife of Universalist leader John Murray.

The political upshot of Universalism — which continues in Unitarian Universalism today, even among those of us who don't believe in God or the afterlife any more — is that since God isn’t writing anybody off, we don’t get to either. We are obligated to try to imagine the full humanity of everyone, to picture them not as damned or evil or inconsequential, but as people deserving of the same kind of consideration we would like to claim for ourselves.

That’s an easy thing to say, and easy to nod to when somebody else says it. But in actual practice, it is difficult and radical. Not many people manage it consistently, and I know I find it a struggle. 

When people live far away from us, or live so differently from us that we are afraid of them, or if they act in ways we find inconvenient, or if they are unpopular and lack the power to make us respect their point of view, it’s easy to slip into imagining them in stereotyped ways rather than seeing them as human beings as deep and as complicated as we are.

When this country first started debating marriage equality, I’d often hear someone say, “I can’t understand why two men would even want to get married.” Of course the people who said this were often married themselves and knew exactly why they had done it: They wanted to share a life with someone, to tell the world that this relationship was special, to build a secure household for raising children. Why a same-sex couple might want to marry was a mystery only to straights who could not let themselves imagine that gays and lesbians could be so much like them.

When protest — and sometimes violence — was erupting in Ferguson, and again last weekend in Baltimore, I heard the most amazing explanations of why people were out in the streets: Looting and burning weren’t isolated responses to mistreatment, they were the whole point. Michael Brown or Freddie Gray were just excuses to throw off the constraints of law and civilization. 

Again and again, I heard TV pundits talk about our fellow citizens as if they were animals to be tamed or vermin to be controlled. So few called on us to imagine our own neighborhoods being similarly tamed and controlled, or to ask ourselves how we would respond to such treatment.

Even when the poor are quiet, I hear astounding things about them. They are “lucky duckies” because they don’t have to work or pay taxes. They have no pride or ambition, and they don’t want their children to work hard and get an education and succeed. Somehow, that description is easier to believe than that the poor want the same things from life we do, but just have a harder time getting them.

Foreign countries are also split into the Good People and the Bad People. The Good Foreigners accept the place in the world order that the United States has assigned them, and the Bad Foreigners don’t.

And the reason they don’t is not because they love their land and their people the way we love ours. It’s not because they want their country to find its own place in the world or to shape its own system of government like we did. It’s not even because they fear and distrust us the same way we fear and distrust them. 

No, they oppose us because they are all madmen and monsters. They hate freedom. They are enemies of all human civilization. There is no understanding them or talking to them; all we can hope to do is go to war and kill them.

Universalism says no to all that.

It says that if you want to understand other people, the place to start is with our shared humanity and all that it implies. People living very different lives from us may have been shaped by different experiences, but underneath all that nearly all of them have the same needs, the same drives, the same fears, and the same hopes that we do. They aren’t a species of Bad People pledged to the Devil with a reservation on the boat to Hell. They have the same ticket to life and death that we all do.

Now I can’t just stop there without responding to the most common objection to Universalism: Universalism, people will tell you, is a rose-tinted worldview. Everybody is nice. Everybody is trustworthy. Everybody is like us. If you believe that, the critics say, you’ll be a sucker. Because bad people exist, evil exists, and you won’t be able to deal with that evil, because you have made yourself blind to it.

There is a difficulty there, a challenge. But it’s not the one the critics claim. If you approach the world as a Universalist, if you envision all people as human in the same way that you are human, then you won’t be able to deal with evil — if you imagine that there is no evil in you.

But if you give in to the tribal temptation to say “We are the Good People”, if you give in to the egotistic temptation to say “I am Good”, then you need to believe in the Bad People. Because how else could the world be this way? We didn’t do it. 

Earlier in the talk I criticized a couple of things Jesus said. Now I’d like to give him credit for an observation I find insightful: “Whosoever hates his brother is a murderer.” 

A lot of people interpret that in a way that doesn’t do Jesus much credit. They think he’s holding us responsible for the bad thoughts we don’t act on. But I think he’s saying that you’re kidding yourself if you imagine that some great moral divide separates you from the Bad People. 

Have you ever hated someone? Then you know where murder comes from. Have you been afraid and humiliated? Then you know why people lash out. Have you ever wanted to slough off inconvenient responsibilities? To forget a promise? To look at someone else’s suffering and say, “I don’t have anything to do with that” when deep down you know you really do? Then you know why people cheat and betray each other’s trust. Don’t act like evil is some great mystery; it isn’t. We all live with it all the time.

Universalism doesn’t deny the existence of evil, or the struggle between good and evil. It just refuses to frame that struggle as an external battle between Good People like us and Bad People like them. It doesn’t see the battle between good and evil as something that’s happening far away in Syria or the Ukraine, or in Washington, or in the poor neighborhoods of St. Louis or Baltimore. 

Good and evil are both part of our human inheritance, and not even an Almighty God can divide them so neatly as to send the Good to Heaven and the Evil to Hell. The battle between good and evil is always happening, right here right now, inside each and every one of us. We win some and we lose some. All of us.

I want to close back where I started, with political correctness and the liberal tribe. One consequence of recognizing that humanity is one species and we’re all in the same boat is that we have to own up to feeling the same tribal temptations that we see in our opponents. Universalism can warn us against that human tendency, but it can’t completely inoculate us. 

And so every day on my Twitter and Facebook feeds, I see link after link about the horrible things the other side is saying or doing;links that are there mainly to raise my anger, and to reinforce the idea that I and my friends are the Good People fighting the Bad People. And the Bad People do not have their own, perhaps misguided, view of right and good. They are monsters and maniacs, committed to falsehood and impervious to reason or compassion. So if my side doesn't do whatever it takes to win, the world will plunge into eternal darkness.

That’s not a Universalist style of rhetoric.

I face that issue every week when I put the Sift together. Whatever outrageous thing Michele Bachmann or Louie Gohmert said this week, am I tempted to include it because my readers need to know the full range of the ideas that are out there? Or am I just trying to raise their blood pressure and build their sense of our common righteousness?

I can't ignore that question. Because there is a weakness in the Universalist position, one that the other side doesn’t share: We can lose by winning. If we win by demonizing and stereotyping, if we win by casting ourselves as the Saved and our opponents as the Damned — then we’ve lost. If good vs. evil is a battle inside each person, then evil can win in us at the very moment that we are winning in the external world. 

Polarization is a fact of today’s political landscape, and we have to deal with it. But we can’t afford to lose ourselves in polarization. Because our virtues are not divine, they’re human. And their vices are not demonic, they’re human. 

Good and evil are both part of the human inheritance that everyone shares. And whenever we forget that, no matter what is happening on the battlefield out there, we’re losing.

Closing words: “Fire and Ice” by Robert Frost

Tuesday, April 28, 2015


Out there, the old man says, 

brushing the morning condensation off the inside of the glass,

the desert swallows whole rivers.
I’ve seen it. Long ago. Before.

A river came down from the Mountain,

roaring like the Source of Life itself.
And I thought, if I followed, it might lead me
to a port on some great salt sea,
like the ones in all the stories.

But it didn’t.
The sun, the wind,
and the simple incongruities of scale had their way.
Until in the end, it was just a damp place in the sand,
and then nothing.

I would like to have seen that, I say.
But really I mean
I wish I could hear it.
What would water have to do to roar
rather than burble or trickle or drip?

It’s better this way, he says.
We had to seal up.
Before the Dome, our little spring
didn’t amount to much on the desert's scale.
Barely a puddle most of the year.
If you timed your migration wrong you might miss it.
But now …
He waved his arm to take in the gardens and the trees
and the our healthy little village.
… now there’s a little paradise in here.

Do you think Paradise is really like this? I ask.
With a spring and gardens and a dome?

What else could it be?
It’s a place of goodness,
and what good survives without protection?
Without a dome over Heaven,
Hell would leech all its life out
until God Himself was just a damp place in the sand.

The Ancients, I say, for I like to study such things,
the Ancients pictured God much bigger than that.
Bigger than the desert, bigger than the whole world.

The Ancients, he says, and spits on the black dirt beneath our feet,
the thin topsoil it took decades to coax and conjure into existence.
They made that desert, in their infinite fucking wisdom.
If they’ve got a cock in this fight
I’ll bet on the other one.
We had to seal it up.

Occasionally, I recall as I look towards the horizon,
we still see travelers out there.
They come towards us as if we were a mirage,
as if there were still an open oasis here.
I saw one close up once.
He was pounding on the glass
like it was a door I could open.
He licked the glass as if it were porous
and some of the inside moisture might leak through.

He died there.
I tried to tell him to move on,
that I lacked the power to let him in,
that he needed to look elsewhere.
But either he didn’t speak our language
or he just didn’t want to believe me.

You shouldn’t think about him, the old man says.
He’s scary that way, hearing my thoughts.
People out there, they don’t concern us.
We’re separate now.
And even if you could have let him in,
where would it stop?

He’d want to rescue a wife or a child.
They’d get a message to their cousins,
and then word would get out that all the water is in here.
It isn’t, but they’d say that.
And as long as we weren’t dead,
we’d have more than them
and feel like we had to let them in.
But every day we’d have a little less more,
until eventually we’d be dead too.
You can’t start something like that,
if you don’t know where it will end.

I know he’s right.
But sometimes, sometimes,
sometimes the wishing builds up in me
until I think I might burst.
It wells up until it wants to roar down the mountains like a great river.
But what then?
I know there’s no sea to run to.

In here, in here we look after each other.
We’d never just watch each other die.
Paradise is a place of love.
But how long could such soft feelings survive
in the harshness out there?
How long before the roaring river of my compassion
became a damp place in the endless sand
and then nothing?

Do you still think about painting over the panels? he asks.
Just the lower ones, I say.
The ones about as high as my head.
It’s fine to look out and up.
I like it, most of the time.
What about the birds? he asks.

I’d forgotten about them.
It was three years ago they came.
A whole flock. Migrators.
Our little puddle, we figure,
must have been a stopover
on the route of some ancestor.
(Going where? I wonder.)

They sat up high on the Dome.
Feeling what, I can’t imagine.
Anger? anticipation? confusion? betrayal? hope?
Maybe they were just too tired to go on.
It took forever for the wind to push their bodies off.
And months more before I got back in the habit of looking up.

I’m glad you didn’t start, the old man says.
Don’t start things, if you don’t know where they’ll end.