Thursday, June 15, 2017

The Born-Again Unitarian Universalist

Versions of this talk were delivered at the Unitarian Church of Quincy, Illinois on April 30, 2017 and at First Parish Church of Billerica, Massachusetts on March 26, 2017

Opening Words

"Our faith comes in moments; our vice is habitual. Yet there is a depth in those brief moments which constrains us to ascribe more reality to them than to all other experiences. For this reason, the argument which is always forthcoming to silence those who conceive extraordinary hopes of man, namely, the appeal to experience, is forever invalid and vain. We give up the past to the objector, and yet we hope." -- Ralph Waldo Emerson


"Philosophy lives in words, but truth and fact well up into our lives in ways that exceed verbal formulation. There is in the living act of perception always something that glimmers and twinkles and will not be caught, and for which reflection comes too late." -- William James


from The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James,
Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet by Sherry Turkle,
Reality is Broken by Jane McGonigal,
and “Oh, When I Was in Love With You” by A. E. Housman

When Modern Library selected the 100 Best Non-Fiction Books of the 20th Century, #2 on their list was William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience from 1902. In that book, James was trying to break down the wall between psychology and religious studies. He wanted to claim religious experience as part of human experience, and expand the language of psychology to include it.

And so in this book he walks a narrow path, neither rejecting religious testimony outright nor accepting it at face value. He constructs what was then a new kind of objectivity, one that could listen to people’s accounts of experiencing God’s presence the same way that it listened to their accounts of falling in love or sliding into depression. People experience things, and describe them honestly but imperfectly. What, if anything, do we think actually happened?

The center of the book is James’ description of conversion experiences, when people report that God reaches into their lives and changes them top to bottom, so that they become, in essence, new people. He begins his explanation of this phenomenon by noting that we are all, in some unremarkable way, different people in different settings. Teddy Roosevelt, he imagines, is a different person on a hunting trip than in the White House.

Our primary identity, then, the person that we think we are most of the time, is not the whole of who we are, it’s just the center of a larger system. The ordinary experiences of life may change this larger system in ways that we do not always take account of, until our central identity doesn’t fit quite right any more, leading us to feel a vague wrongness about ourselves that we don’t really know what to do with.

Sometimes that sense of wrongness resolves itself suddenly, and we may feel as if some external force has changed us. In James’ account, though, the new identity forms not in the mind of God, but in the unconscious of the individual. Without us even realizing what is happening, who we are in some tiny sliver of our lives may be the model for who we become in a broader sense.

He writes: "Neither an outside observer nor the Subject who undergoes the process can explain fully how particular experiences are able to change one’s centre of energy so decisively, or why they so often have to bide their hour to do so. We have a thought, or we perform an act, repeatedly, but on a certain day the real meaning of the thought peals through us for the first time, or the act has suddenly turned into a moral impossibility. All we know is that there are dead feelings, dead ideas, and cold beliefs, and there are hot and live ones; and when one grows hot and alive within us, everything has to re-crystallize around it."

An example of how a new identity might incubate in one sliver of your life and then spread comes from a much more recent book, Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet by Sherry Turkle:

"My mother died when I was nineteen and a college junior. Upset and disoriented, I dropped out of school, I traveled to Europe, ended up in Paris, studied history and political science, and worked at a series of odd jobs from housecleaner to English tutor.

"The French-speaking Sherry, I was pleased to discover, was somewhat different from the English-speaking one. French-speaking Sherry was not unrecognizable, but she was her own person. In particular, while the English-speaking Sherry had little confidence that she could take care of herself, the French-speaking Sherry simply had to and got on with it.

"On trips back home, English-speaking Sherry rediscovered old timidities. [So] I kept returning to France, thirsty for more French speaking. Little by little, I became increasingly fluent in French and comfortable with the persona of the resourceful, French-speaking young woman. Now I cycled through the French- and English-speaking Sherry until the movement seemed natural; I could bend toward one and then the other with increasing flexibility.

"When English-speaking Sherry finally returned to college in the United States, she was never as brave as French-speaking Sherry. But she could hold her own. ...

"When I got to know French Sherry. I no longer saw the less confident English-speaking Sherry as my one authentic self."

Even more recently, computer-game designer Jane McGonigal’s book Reality is Broken has added one further twist: The part of life where your new and better self first manifests doesn’t even have to be real.

Sometimes gamers feel that their characters a virtual universe are closer to their true selves than the characters they express in everyday life. It is not unusual to hear someone say that their game character is simply a better person — bolder, more honest, more courageous, and perhaps even brighter and more creative — than who they are outside the game. McGonigal herself claims she sometimes envies her character in World of Warcraft. “If I have one regret in life,” she says, “it’s that my undead priest is smarter than I am.”

But a discussion of such transformations wouldn’t be complete without acknowledging
that sometimes they don’t stick, as A. E. Housman noted in the following poem.

Oh, when I was in love with you,

Then I was clean and brave,
And miles around the wonder grew

How well did I behave.

And now the fancy passes by,

And nothing will remain,
And miles around they’ll say

that I am quite myself again.


A few months ago my wife and I drove to Florida and back, so we passed through a sizable chunk of the South, where we saw a number of billboards about Jesus.

What fascinated me about these Christian messages was the way they seemed intended to bring people up short, to stop an everyday thought-process in its tracks. “When you die,” said one, “you will meet God.” Others asked drivers where we were headed: not which exit, but towards Heaven or Hell?

Now, I’ll cut to the chase and tell you that I did not find Jesus and get saved on this trip -- I knew you'd be worried about that -- so the billboards failed in their direct purpose. But I grudgingly came to admire the underlying attitude: that religion ought to bring you up short. From time to time it ought to break through the hypnotic song of everyday life, the one that constantly keeps us focused a few exits or hours or days down the road: Who’s picking up the kids? What’s my next deadline at work? Where’s that TV series going? What’s Trump up to this time? And so on.

Too often, Unitarian Universalism just adds its own verses to that song: Should I make an announcement about that? Who do I want to talk to at coffee hour? Am I ready for my next committee meeting? A speaker may give you another issue to keep track of or another book to read. But your church experience usually doesn’t jolt you out of that focus on the near future.

It could, in either direction. Like a meditation practice, it might remind you of the irreplaceable richness of this moment, the glimmering, twinkling aspect of perception that you can only notice by being fully present here and now.

Or, like those billboards, it could call your attention to the larger story of your life. One of the many wise things Yogi Berra is supposed to have said is, “If you don’t change direction, you’ll probably wind up where you’re going.” So, where are you going? You don’t have to believe in a literal Heaven or Hell to realize that someday your life story will be complete. Are you satisfied with how it’s turning out?

It isn’t that UUs don’t ask questions like this. All people do from time to time. But we tend to have these thoughts someplace other than church. They show up, for example, on round-numbered birthdays. I turned 60 last fall: Is this where I thought I’d be? How do I feel about that? They also occur when somebody we measure ourselves against reaches a milestone: graduates or gets a promotion or retires or marries or has a child or grandchild. That’s where they are in their lives; where am I in mine?

And because these thoughts occur to each of us on our own idiosyncratic schedules, we tend to have them alone, when we’re waiting in line or awake in the middle of the night. If we’re lucky, some friend might listen to our concerns, but even then, the thoughts remain our own.

What we usually don’t do is get together as a community and admit that we all sometimes wonder where our lives are going, if we’re where we’re supposed to be, or if we need some kind of drastic change. Those questions are simultaneously intensely personal and very generically human.

One reason I think Christianity can get away with raising these kinds of questions, and even actively promoting people’s dissatisfaction with the course of their lives, is that Christians have a narrative of transformation. At the root of their worldview is a belief in sudden, sweeping change.

In an instant, the power of God could remake you completely. The Lord appears to Moses in a burning bush and calls him to save his people. On the road to Damascus, the voice of the risen Jesus speaks to Saul, the persecutor of Christians, and he becomes Paul, the greatest of the apostles. “Amazing Grace” claims that any sinner can go from lost to found, from blindness to sight — not through a long process of education and rehabilitation, but “the hour I first believed”. Grace comes into your life and blows away all the old obstacles.

In traditional Christianity, instant transformation goes all the way back to the Genesis Creation story, where there’s darkness, and then there’s light. The Sun and Moon, plants, animals, people — God says “Let there be” and there is, and it’s good. Just like that. By contrast, we tell the story of evolution, where progress is incredibly hard and takes forever. Generations live and die to mutate one little gene, so that over thousands or millions of years those tiny changes might add up to something.

Similarly, our church services are full of suggestions for change, but usually they are a thousand little changes: You should write your political representatives more often, and drive less, and recycle, and eat less meat, and stop using the language of the patriarchy, and boycott unjust corporations, and volunteer in soup kitchens, and register people to vote, and on and on and on. And nowhere in that story of being a good UU does otherworldly power infuse new energy into your life.

As a result, I sometimes come away depressed from talks that are supposed to inspire me. Rather than feeling fired up to go promote change, I sometimes think: “I have trouble getting taxes done and keeping the laundry from piling up. How am I going to do all that?”

Now imagine that someone starts talking about changing your whole life, and becoming a better person across the board. How? Without a belief in some kind of transforming power, bringing people up short and making them question where their lives are going is like a bad version of the old Listerine commercial: You persuade them that they have bad breath, but then you don’t have any mouthwash to sell them. Raising dissatisfaction without offering the hope of change on a similar scale is just cruel.

So I started to wonder if there might be some way to translate the Christian transformation narrative into Unitarian Universalist language. In other words: What would a born-again UU be like?How might a Unitarian life transform top to bottom?

Like William James, I went back and read a bunch of transformation stories out of the Christian tradition. And one of the first things I noticed is that the changes usually don’t happen as instantaneously as we sometimes think.

Moses isn’t listening to the burning bush one day and challenging Pharaoh the next. First he argues with God, then he meets with Aaron, then travels to get his father-in-law’s approval, then makes the 300-mile trek to meet with Jewish leaders in Egypt, and only then goes to Pharaoh. The Bible doesn’t tell us how long that took.

Saint Paul, similarly, has his experience on the road to Damascus, then continues into the city and waits three days before he’s healed of his vision-induced blindness. Then he spends time studying with the Christian community in Damascus, then goes to Jerusalem for another unspecified period, then sets off on the missionary voyages that eventually make him famous, and only then acquires his new name. The man whose authoritative voice we hear in the New Testament was many years removed from his supposedly instantaneous transformation.

But the story that really brings this point home is that of John Newton, who wrote “Amazing Grace”. His life did indeed transform. From a wild and rebellious sailor on slave ships, he eventually became a tea-totaling abolitionist Anglican priest.


Newton dated his conversion from 1748, after his ship survived a storm that he had been sure would kill him. But he continued captaining slave ships until 1754, when he had a stroke. Then he began studying for the priesthood and was ordained in 1764. “Amazing Grace” was published in 1779, and he wrote his first abolitionist tract in 1788, four decades after his conversion. So his transformation did not happen “the hour I first believed”, but played over the course of a lifetime.

Now, at this point it would be easy to stop and conclude that I’ve debunked the whole born-again idea, so we can ignore it and go on. But that’s not where I’m headed. Instead, I’d like to hone in on what exactly does happen in that first hour. Why do people like John Newton decades later still celebrate their “moment” of conversion, when they themselves must know just how many insights and how much hard work still had to happen? And the answer seems to be that while your whole life doesn't completely change in an instant, what you can do in an instant is turn around.

Moses did not become Moses the moment that he saw the burning bush. But after that experience, his life could never be the same. Suddenly he was on a new path, and eventually that path went somewhere.

This description fits with the testimonials you can hear today from people in 12-step programs. The traditional bottoming-out story, when the addict realizes that life can’t go on this way, resembles the Christian born-again testimonial in many respects. But the addict does not instantly transform. Quite the opposite, often the idea that change will be quick and easy is exactly what he needs to let go of. Part of turning around is realizing what a long, hard road now lies ahead.

It turns out that a major influence on the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous was William James’ account of conversion experiences. In particular, the vagueness of the “higher power” in 12-step programs comes from James’ observation that conversion experiences are universal, and depend barely at all on particular doctrines. The story of a spiritual crisis that resolves in a moment of renewal can be told in any religion.

In fact, if you listen to an atheist’s story of the moment when he escaped religion, you may well hear an affect that would otherwise be described as religious fervor. Whatever the content of the new belief system might be, suddenly there is a new way to look at life. Old barriers fall, old burdens can be cast aside, and new possibilities open up.

Unitarian Universalists also tell stories of crisis and renewal, but we don’t do it in any organized way. Former UUA President (and current interim co-president) William Sinkford has talked about finding unsuspected inner strength and spiritual depth while sitting by his son’s hospital bed, wondering if he would live.

In her book Blessing the World, UU theologian Rebecca Parker told of a crisis that led her to walk toward the waterfront late at night, planning to drown herself. What she found when she got there, though, was not the deserted lakeside park she had pictured, but a meeting of the local astronomy club with their telescopes, all eager to show her what they found beautiful and wonderful. “In a world where people get up in the middle of the night to looks at stars,” she writes, “I could not end my life.“ A central premise of all the essays in her book, it says in the introduction, is “that moments of despair can be opportunities for spiritual and theological breakthrough.”

In fact, modern Universalism begins in the 1700s with a series of born-again experiences that — from an Evangelical point of view — went astray. Trailblazers like George de Benneville and Hosea Ballou went through the spiritual crises that the fire-and-brimstone sermons of that era were supposed to ignite, but instead of leading to a sense of God’s personal love for them, and assurance of their own personal salvation, their crises resolved with an experience of God’s universal love, assuring the salvation of everyone.

Clearly, the Holy Spirit misfired.

But that bit of our history brings us back to the central question: For those of us who no longer share a belief in a God who takes direct action in the world, where can the energy to renew our lives come from? Is it also part of a naturalistic explanation, or are we left to either return to Christianity or gin up our own transforming power?

Here’s my hypothesis about one possible source of transformational energy: Dissatisfaction has a way of sneaking up on a person. You aren’t usually thrilled with your life one day and then in despair about it the next. So as the course of life slowly diverges from your hopes, one natural reaction is denial: Dissatisfaction, you tell yourself, is just a mood. Everything is fine. Life is under control, or soon will be. Any deviations from the ideal are temporary, incidental, and not my fault.

But as dissatisfaction grows, the denial of it has to grow as well. What begins as minor dissembling and a few omissions can turn into a 24/7 pretense of a happy life. And since part of pretending is pretending that you are not pretending, you can be completely unaware of just how much effort goes into maintaining that illusion. And when the things that are supposed to make you happy actually don’t, the natural reaction is to try harder. Maybe if I just did them right, did them perfectly, then everything would be OK. If I were just smarter, richer, more attractivemore vibrant, more lovable … then it would all work.

So when the crisis comes and pretense collapses, there is a hidden benefit: All the energy you have been putting into denial comes free again. Everything can just be what it is now, and doesn’t need to be explained away. Your castles in the air have fallen, but you also no longer need to hold them up.

In the period of despair that comes between the collapse and the beginning of renewal, it can be hard to notice that freed-up energy or appreciate the extent of it. I doubt Paul was feeling terribly energetic during those three days when he was sitting blind in Damascus. But once the process of renewal began, the energy to make a new life was available.

One final aspect of the born-again experience that I have yet to translate this morning is the one suggested by the word grace: the sense of being loved and nurtured and forgiven by some external power. When we are in denial, we often project the need for that denial onto the people around us. To the extent that we realize we are pretending, we tell ourselves that we do it for them. If the important people in our lives only knew what we are really like, if they suspected how unhappy, how angry, how depressed, how afraid, or how guilty we feel deep inside; if they knew what complete and total failures we really are, how little we resemble the people we pretend to be, they would drop us like a hot rock.

Or so we think.

But sometimes the exact opposite is what turns out to be true. The people who love us may be both better and smarter than we give them credit for. They may already see through us. They may already be rooting for us to confront our demons, to embrace our potential, and to become the person that is inside us waiting to come out. To the extent they cooperate in our denial, they may do so because we need it, not because they do.

The New Testament God, the loving all-knowing being who is patiently waiting to forgive us and welcome us back home if we would only ask, is both a symbol and a projection of that possibility. Accepting the perfect love of this divine archetype can be a step toward accepting the imperfect, human love of others, and ultimately, the deeply flawed love that we might someday have for ourselves. As Lewis the Dauphin says about his intended bridein Shakespeare’s King John, “I do protest I never loved myself till now infixed I beheld myself drawn in the flattering table of her eye.”

So, pulling this all together, I think Unitarian Universalism ought to be about more than a long list of small improvements we should make in our lives, or of projects that good people ought to contribute their energy and resources to. Now and then it ought to bring us up short, and ask us what — on the largest possible scale — we are doing with our lives. If we don’t change direction, we’re likely to wind up where we’re headed. Where is that? How do we feel about it?

And thinking outside of the box of our current identity, who could we be? Who have we thought about being, imagined being, wished we could become? Is there some tiny part of our lives in which we already are that better person? What’s stopping us from breaking down the barriers that keep our better selves from changing everything?

Changing everything is a big job. It doesn’t happen overnight. But if you start, if you turn around, you may be surprised how much energy suddenly comes free for the work of transformation, and how many people will support you in it. Those who love you, and who will love you, may have seen this truer, more authentic version long before you did, and have been waiting to meet you for a long, long time.

Closing Words

The closing words are by Sara Moore Campbell: "We receive fragments of holiness, glimpses of eternity, brief moments of insight. Let us gather them up for the precious gifts that they are, and, renewed by their grace, move boldly into the unknown."

Monday, February 27, 2017

Why Be a Congregation?

Presented at the Unitarian Universalists of Lakewood Ranch, Florida on February 26, 2017.

First Reading: “Principles and Purposes for All of Us”

The next thing in the Order of Service is Responsive Reading #594, “Principles and Purposes for All of Us”. But before we read that, I like to say a few words about it.

I grew up in a Lutheran church where we recited the Apostles’ Creed every Sunday. So when I became a UU, at first I tried to interpret the Principles as some kind of Unitarian Universalist creed.

But that didn’t work very well. You see, when my old Lutheran congregation had said its creed, we were proclaiming that certain things were facts: The world was created by an almighty God, Jesus rose from the dead, Judgment Day was coming, and so on.

But the UU Principles aren’t facts. “justice, equity, and compassion in human relations” is not a fact. I wish “respect for the interdependent web” were a fact, but in the world I see around me, it isn’t.

So my second thought was that the Principles are opinions about how the world should be. But if what unites is is that we stand apart from the world and having opinions about it, that seems like a weak foundation to build a community around.

Eventually, I came to view the Principles as vision statements: They describe not the world that is, but the world that we are working together to bring into existence. So as we do this reading, I invite you to try on that interpretation: We’re not stating facts, we’re not just having opinions; we’re sharing a vision of the world we want to make.

We affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person.

We believe that each and every person is important.

We affirm and promote justice, equity, and compassion in human relations.

We believe that all people should be treated fairly.

We affirm and promote acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth.

We believe that our churches are places where all people are accepted, and where we keep on learning together.

We affirm and promote a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.

We believe that each person must be free to search for what is true and right in life.

We affirm and promote the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process.

We believe that all people should have a voice and a vote about the things which concern them.

We affirm and promote the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.

We believe that we should work for a peaceful, fair, and free world.

We affirm and promote respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

We believe that we should care for our planet earth.

Second Reading: “The Tilted Metronome”

The next reading is from the essay “The Tilted Metronome” by Ian Carroll, who I know because we’re part of the same congregation in Bedford, Massachusetts.

One of the advantages of belonging to a congregation is that because you’re seeing the same people over and over again, ideas bounce back and forth. If you put something out there, somebody might improve it and give it back to you.

A few years ago I gave a talk where I compared a healthy spiritual life to a pendulum that swings back and forth between action and contemplation. One is not better than the other; they’re parts of a whole. We do inner work; we do outer work.

A few weeks ago, Ian took that metaphor and changed it a little. Being a musician, he turned my pendulum into a metronome. And he observed that if you put a metronome on a tilted surface, one side of the cycle is longer than the other: tiiiick-tock, tiiick-tock.

He used that to represent the idea that we all have natural inclinations that make us more comfortable on one side of the spectrum than the other, and yet we still need both to be complete.

Ian has always experienced himself primarily as a contemplative person, but as he looks at the current situation in the world, he is feeling the need to enter an active phase. And he closes with this lovely vision of how the members of a congregation balance each other.

“The week after the election, yes the one that ushered Donald Trump into the presidency, Rev. John spoke of the urgency of this moment in history, and of the need to immerse ourselves more deeply in beauty, art, nature, and creativity. But he also spoke of the need to be outraged, to protest, to fight for justice with greater intensity than ever before.

“Not surprisingly, I initially gravitated towards his encouragement to find more quiet and solace in our lives. That’s what I need, I thought.

“The more I’ve considered his words, though, the more I’ve realized I need to respond to his exhortation to act. I’m certain that others in the pews that day had the opposite reaction to me, and felt their hearts leap at the call to action. But like me, they too will feel, in time, their pendulums swinging the other way.

“If you’re one of those people, and you feel the need to take a step back, to regroup for a little while, there might be a vacant seat up in the rear of the balcony. Because I’ll be in a pew near the front. …

“I will always be a listener first and foremost. That’s how I feel most comfortable. Tiiiick, tock, tiiiick, tock, is the sound my metronome—my tilted metronome—makes. If you are a doer, yours may make quite a different sound.

“In this healthy, spirited community, we honor both. But the collective, beautiful weight of this congregation also challenges us, subtly shifting the ground on which we stand, altering the tilt of our metronomes. And so too does the ominous gravity of the present era.

“Now is a time for us all to seek comfort, but more importantly, to embrace discomfort as well. That’s precisely why I’ll be sitting near the front of our Sanctuary, and it’s also why you might drift to the back, for a time.

“There is a chorus of pendulums in motion around us, and one inside each of us, all swinging between their poles. Listen—can you hear them? From contemplation to action. From outer work to inner work. You protest, and I listen. I rise up, and you observe.

“Together we will make ourselves, and our world, better. As individuals and as a community, in this historic moment, we need to find quiet. And we will make noise.”

Sermon: Why are we here this morning?

It’s exciting to be here at such a young fellowship, because when something is this new, you never know where it’s going to go. Maybe this group will maintain its small, intimate character, where everybody has a chance to know everybody else. Or maybe it will grow by leaps and bounds, and someday become a congregation of hundreds or even thousands.

Maybe you’ll stick with the fellowship model, maybe you’ll evolve towards the traditional church model with a building and a staff, or maybe you’ll come up with something completely unique, so that years from now groups all over the country will say, “We’re following the Lakewood Ranch model.”

Nobody knows what the future might hold, and that’s always keeps things interesting.

One thing I can guess about the present, though, is that if you have friends who aren’t UUs, and if you happen to mention to them that you’re involved in starting a new Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, they probably look at you with a certain amount of confusion. Why would you do that?

Other religions give their followers very good reasons for joining a congregation, or even for starting new ones. But most of those reasons don’t apply to us.

In the church where I grew up, for example, we showed up on Sundays because one of the commandments says, “Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy.” Of course, we never considered observing the original Jewish Sabbath, but we had reinterpreted that commandment to mean that God was ordering us to go to church on Sunday.

My Catholic neighbors had even better reasons to go to church, because their place in Heaven was not determined by their personal relationship with God, it depended on rituals that could only be performed under the auspices of the Catholic Church.

A lot of sects teach that it is vitally important to believe the correct dogmas, and how are you going to know what those are unless you come and listen while some authority stands in a pulpit and tells you? Some teach that there is a cosmic battle going on between Good and Evil, and joining a church is how you pick a side.

All good reasons, but none that apply to us.

Universalists will tell you that everyone is already going to Heaven, no matter what they believe or where they spend their Sunday mornings. And UUs who don’t think of themselves as Universalists usually don’t have much to say about the afterlife. If we believe in it at all, we know so little about it that we can’t even guess how you might improve your prospects. So if it turns out there is a Judgment Day, and we get asked how faithfully we attended a UU church, I will be as surprised as anybody.

As for dogma, the person in the pulpit — today it’s me, next week it might be you. There’s no particular authority here. If a sermon makes sense or helps you figure out how you want to live, that’s great. But if it doesn’t, you should follow your own conscience rather than do what you’re told. Institutionally, the Unitarian Universalist Association doesn’t spell out how you should live or who you can love or what you have to eat or wear.

So what does a UU church do for you?

For a long time, a chief selling point of Unitarian Universalism was in all the things that it doesn’t do. It doesn’t ask you to check your brain at the door. It doesn’t make you feel guilty for asking questions or having doubts. It doesn’t dogmatize some pre-scientific cosmology or social prejudices that come down to us from the Bronze Age. It doesn’t set a clergy in authority over you. It doesn’t insist that you recite a creed you don’t really believe.

That less-is-more idea is summed up in a probably apocryphal story about Fanny Holmes, the wife of Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. Supposedly, Fanny was talking to one of Oliver’s clerks, who knew that the old man wasn’t particularly religious, and so expressed some surprise when he discovered that they were Unitarians.

“Well,” Fanny explained, “we’re from Boston. In Boston you have to be something. And Unitarian is as near nothing as you can get.”

That argument made a certain amount of sense a hundred years ago, but it really doesn’t any more. Because today, you don’t have to be something. If you’re looking for a religion that’s near nothing, you can pick nothing.

A lot of people do, and more all the time. The Pew Research Center says that in 2014, 23% of Americans considered themselves religiously unaffiliated. That was up sharply from 16% in 2007.

Even the people who identify with a religion don’t necessarily belong to any congregation. In rough numbers, about a thousand American congregations affiliate with the UUA, accounting for about 200,000 people. But pollsters who ask people about their religions estimate that about 600,000 Americans call themselves Unitarian Universalists.

Now that makes for some head-scratching at the UUA. Think about it: We could triple the size of every UU congregation in the country without converting anybody. All we’d have to do is sign up all the people who already would tell a pollster that they’re UUs.

Nobody’s sure exactly who these other 400,000 are. Some are probably young adults who grew up UU, and never revolted against it, but didn’t bother to find a church of their own after they left home. Others might be older people who had a congregation up north, but never joined a new one after they retired and moved south.

Some are probably people who have heard of Unitarian Universalism and agree with it philosophically, but they’re just not joiners. Like Kurt Vonnegut, for example. When he gave the Ware Lecture at General Assembly in 1984, he said, “In order not to seem a spiritual quadriplegic to strangers trying to get a fix on me, I sometimes say I’m a Unitarian Universalist.” But as far as I can tell, he never signed anybody’s membership book.

I once made a project out of verifying one of those lists of “Famous UUs” you sometimes see on the internet. Dr. Seuss was a tough case to decide. He certainly would have fit in. I found a lot of resonances, a lot of very UU-sounding statements, but no specific congregation that claimed him. Maybe he just wasn’t a joiner.

A lot people aren’t. And why should they be? Like Fanny Holmes’ “You have to be something”, many arguments for joining don’t make sense any more.

If you’re looking intellectual stimulation, you could spend your Sunday morning reading The New York Times, or watching one of the news talk shows, or listening to a TED talk on YouTube.

Some UU churches put their whole service on YouTube. You can watch at home, on your own schedule. You don’t have to get out and rub shoulders with other people.

And that points out the first, fairly obvious, answer to the question of why people attend and why they join: You attend because you want to be in the physical presence of other people. That’s not a cost, it’s a benefit. And you join because you want to be together with some of the same people over and over again, to recognize them and be recognized by them.

There are a whole bunch of reasons you might want that, but the catch-all term for them is community. People come to UU churches looking for community.

Sometimes community is nothing more complicated than just looking for friends. Judgmental people might think that motive sounds a little lightweight compared to saving your immortal soul or joining a side in the great cosmic battle, but personally, I’m not in a position to look down on it.

My wife and I met John and Kathy Brackett [the Lakewood Ranch members who invited us to speak] in 1988 at a UU church in Lexington, Massachusetts. They went on to have children and we didn’t, so to a certain extent their kids became our kids. Through them, we experienced two decades worth of Halloween costumes and Christmas mornings and birthday parties and graduations.

In fact, UU churches are where I met most of the people I consider my friends for life. If those relationships were all I had ever gotten out of Unitarian Universalism, it would still be a pretty good deal. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why, and your mileage may vary, but for me personally, UU congregations have a higher percentage of people I could imagine being friends with than any other groups I know.

I consciously started taking advantage of that about 13 or 14 years ago. That childhood Lutheran church I mentioned in was in Quincy, Illinois, a town of 40,000 that is about a hundred miles from anyplace you’ve heard of. It’s not on the way to anywhere else, so unless that’s your destination, you’ll never see it.

In adulthood, I came back about twice a year to see my parents. One day I was walking around the city, through the parks, past the town square where Lincoln and Douglas debated, when I thought about the fact that like myself, the people I knew from childhood and high school had almost all moved far away. So I had very few local connections of my own any more. And it dawned on me that someday my parents would die, and that when they did, I would never have any reason to come back here. That suddenly seemed tragic to me, as if some important part of my history was in danger of disappearing without a trace.

So I decided I needed my own Quincy community. For a lot of reasons, I couldn’t pass as a Lutheran any more, but there was also a small Unitarian church that had been started by some Emersonians back in the 1800s. So I started going there whenever I was in town, and arranged to talk there if their calendar had an opening. I also went to social events, met people, and looked for friends.

And wouldn’t you know, it worked. As my parents declined, I had to visit more and more often, and stay for longer stretches. Five years ago when my father died and I had to clean out the house and start settling the estate, I was in town for a couple of months. And that community took care of me as if I had been there forever. And now, years down the line, the future I was afraid of has not come to pass. My parents are gone, but I still have a relationship with my home town. I have people I care about there, and reasons to go back. And I do.

So if your purpose in being here is nothing deeper or more complicated than just that you need more nice people in your life, I get that.

But at the same time, I think the reason it works is that a Unitarian Universalist congregation is more than just a place where a lot of nice people hang out. It’s a community of shared values. I think John and Kathy welcomed us into their children’s lives not just because they liked us, but because we also were committed to the values they wanted Josh and Tory to learn. When I reached out to the Quincy Unitarians, in part they responded because they’re generous, hospitable people. But also I think they recognized, even as we were just meeting each other, that we shared something deep.

It’s no small thing to carry in your imagination the vision of a world where the UU Principles can be taken for granted, where of course all people have worth and dignity, of course we practice justice and compassion, of course we all nurture the interdependent web. As a description of how the world is, it’s pretty naive. But as a vision of what could be, of what we could work towards and make happen, it’s powerful.

Something else happens when you take seriously the distance between the world we live in and the world we hope for. If you think of yourself as just one person, alone, it’s overwhelming. Justice, democracy, the search for truth — what can I, by myself, do to bring any of that into reality? If the Unitarian Universalist vision is going to be anything more than just a pleasant daydream, we need allies. We need each other.

That really came home to me the last time I was in Quincy, which was the weekend after the election — that same Sunday when Ian was listening to our minister back in Massachusetts. Months before, when I had volunteered to lead a service in Quincy on the second Sunday in November, I had pictured a very different situation than the one I found when I arrived in town on Thursday afternoon, not even 48 hours after we found out who our next president would be.

Now, I don’t want to try to speak for all UUs — I’m taking advantage of that lack-of-authority-in-the-pulpit thing I mentioned a few minutes ago. But to me personally, last fall’s campaign felt like a continuous assault on my values and what I think of as Unitarian Universalist values. Day after day, I would hear that climate science is some kind of sinister conspiracy, that women often lie about sexual assault, that there is no racism worth talking about in America any more, that the international system in which America has 5% of the world’s population but consumes 25% of its resources — that system is actually rigged against us. When Mexicans come into this country and do our dirty jobs for less than minimum wage, they’re exploiting us. When I can buy inexpensive shirts at Walmart because people in Bangladesh are so desperate that they work in factories that could collapse on them at any time, and sometimes do, killing hundreds — that’s them taking advantage of me.

Rather than encouraging people to see each other’s worth and dignity, we were told to fear and resent anyone who is different from us. If we’re native-born, we should fear immigrants. If we’re in an opposite-sex marriage, we should resent the same-sex couples who now have the same rights we do. If we’re from a Christian or Jewish background, we should fear Muslims. If we’re white, we should fear blacks, and be grateful that police are so willing to shoot them down if they seem to be getting out of line.

For months, I had stayed calm by believing that America wasn’t really like that. These kinds of arguments came from a fringe group, a tiny minority. And then, they won. Suddenly, everything I had believed about my country and my fellow citizens seemed to be wrong.

If I felt that way up in New England, the UUs in Quincy had it much, much worse. Quincy is precisely the kind of heartland small town journalists go to when they’re trying to understand the new right-wing populism. The county voted 3-to–1 for Trump, and the discrepancy in yard signs and bumper stickers was even larger.

In the Boston suburbs, we speculated abstractly about the anger of the rural white working class. In Quincy, they looked at the neighbors and wondered: “How can these be the same people I’ve lived next to all these years?” If I felt challenged, they felt surrounded, encircled. Was it even still safe for them to have their own yard signs and bumper stickers? Was it safe to talk openly in public places where people you don’t know might overhear and respond?

So when the congregation gathered that Sunday, they weren’t just looking to hear an interesting talk and hang around with some nice people. They needed to be together. They needed to look into each other’s eyes and see some hope and courage.

That morning I had them do the same responsive reading we just did, so that they could hear themselves and hear each other proclaim what Unitarian Universalists stand for. In that time and place, it felt like a radical act. It felt like the beginning of resistance.

And that, I believe, is also why we join. Because if I am alone, it is easy to become intimidated. It is easy to start thinking of UU values as just some funny ideas I have, that maybe I shouldn’t talk about too loudly. If I am alone, it is easy to fall into despair, to think “I used to have these visions of a better world, but it didn’t happen. What was I thinking? I used to try to change things, but wasn’t that stupid? I’m just one person. Why did I think that my thoughts, my beliefs, my values could change anything or should matter to anybody?”

So yeah, it’s great to have friends. It’s good to have a pleasant place to go on a Sunday morning. It’s nice if somebody will provide interesting ideas to discuss over breakfast.

But there’s a deeper reason to be a congregation. We come together to hold each other up through difficult times. On days when you are feeling intimidated, you can be with people who have courage. When you feel yourself slipping into despair, you can look into the eyes of people who still have hope. Maybe today I do that for you. Maybe tomorrow you do it for me.

We join together because we are stronger that way. We need each other.

Friday, February 03, 2017

The Hope of a Humanist

presented at First Parish Church of Billerica on January 29, 2017 

A little over a week ago, we inaugurated a new president. It wasn’t a surprise; we’d known for months that event was coming. That election itself was a shock to a lot of people, myself included. But then we had some time to adjust.


It probably won’t amaze you to learn that I was hoping someone else would win. Anybody my age has been on the losing side in many elections, but this one seemed different. I had never before felt so intensely that the vote was a referendum on my values, and on what I think of as Unitarian Universalist values. 


So losing hit me harder than just an ordinary partisan loss.  It challenged my faith in my countrymen, my faith in democracy, and even my faith in the direction that history is going in my lifetime. 


In the last few months I’ve done a lot of traveling and talking to people, and I can report that I’m not the only UU who felt that way. I suspect that a number of you did also. (But in case some of you didn’t, I’m going to give you another way to get into this sermon in a minute. I hope you’ll bear with me until it comes around.)


I’ve been hearing two kinds of reactions. Some of us are energized now, feeling that history is putting us on the spot, and we need to respond. My editors at  UU World feel that way, and so do a lot of the ministers I’ve talked to. Last Sunday at my home church in Bedford, our service centered on the dozens of members who had marched the day before, either in Boston or down in DC, and they seemed pretty energized. I gather that some of you marched as well.


But I’ve also been hearing about an opposite reaction: a general deflation, a loss of energy, a loss of hope, a falling into despair. For some it manifests as a turning inward, a retreat into the personal: "The news can happen without me. The larger world will have to take care of itself for a while." A lot of us, I suspect, have bounced back and forth between those two reactions: I have to do something, and yet I can’t bear to think about it. 


This second reaction raises what I think is a very important question: When our hope gets damaged, how do we heal it? And this is where you can come back into this sermon, even if you don’t relate to the political angle. Because we all, from time to time, experience damage to our sense of hope: maybe from illness, or a career setback, or aging, or the breakup of a relationship, or some other misfortune. There are any number of ways that hope can get damaged, and we can find ourselves thinking: “Why do I bother? What is the point of trying to do anything?”


Now, if you complain about this despair in front of your Christian friends, I can predict what they’ll say: "This is why you need to come back to God." Matthew 19:26 says “With God all things are possible.” So believers never have any reason to feel hopeless, no matter how bad the prospects look. 


The Bible offers many assurances that God will look out for you and intervene on your behalf. The 23rd Psalm says: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of Death, I will fear no evil. For Thou art with me.” And Psalm 121 makes an even bolder promise: “The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade on your right hand. The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night. The Lord will keep you from all evil.”


Now, I think we all realize that promises like that often fail in this life. Christians and other believers, no matter how dedicated and devout, seem to suffer misfortunes at more-or-less the same rates as the rest of us. But even then, the afterlife gives hope a second chance. In Heaven, the scales of justice can be rebalanced, and happy endings appended to all earthly tragedies. At the Lutheran church I grew up in we used to sing:


What though the tempest rage,

Heaven is my home;

Short is my pilgrimage,

Heaven is my home;

And time’s wild wintry blast

Soon shall be overpassed;

I shall reach home at last,

Heaven is my home.


That answer works for a lot of people. I saw it work for my parents as they faced aging and death, and I could think of no good reason to try to talk them out of it. So if the promise of Heaven keeps you going through times of hardship, all I can say is: “Good for you."


But that doesn’t mean it works for me. To me, heavenly solutions seem a little too easy. All the scenes I would like to examine for evidence are conveniently off-stage. St. Paul says that faith is a gift of God. And while I’ve received a lot of gifts in my life, that wasn’t one of them. 


So where does that leave me? Or leave anyone who takes a more humanistic view of life?


There is a traditional Unitarian answer to the question of what hope can be based on. Back in 1886, James Freeman Clarke, probably the greatest Unitarian minister of his era, listed what he called the five points of the new theology: "The fifth point of doctrine in the new theology will, as I believe, be the Continuity of Human Development in all worlds, or the Progress of Mankind onward and upward forever. ... The one fact which is written on nature and human life is the fact of progress."

 So if you are experiencing a personal loss of hope, you just need to expand your scale and your time horizon to identify with the upward march of humanity.  Those 19th-century Unitarians wrote their own inspirational hymns about the future they were building here on Earth.


Hail, the glorious golden city

pictured by the seers of old. 

Everlasting light shines o’er it.

Wondrous things of it are told.


Who will live there? Their descendants, like maybe us.


For a spirit then shall move them

we but vaguely apprehend.

Aims magnificent and holy

making joy and labor friend.

Then shall bloom in song and fragrance

harmony of thought and deed,

fruits of peace and love and justice

where today we plant the seed.


Like Clarke’s sermon, both of those progress-praising hymns were written before Auschwitz, before Hiroshima. James Freeman Clarke was a white male, living in a rising nation that seemed to have infinite potential, and ministering to a congregation of people who, by and large, were doing well. Optimism probably came easily to him, maybe a little too easily.


But similar arguments have been made more recently in a more nuanced way. In The Better Angels of Our Nature, for example, Steven Pinker argues that human society has been getting less and less violent for thousands of years. Martin Luther King certainly had an appreciation of injustice and human suffering, but he often quoted another 19th-century Unitarian, Theodore Parker: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” And King himself was identifying with future progress when he accepted that he might never see the freedom and equality he was fighting for, “I may not get there with you,” he said, “but I have been to the mountaintop.”


Optimistic liberals today point to young voters, who seem to be less susceptible to traditional prejudices. As a group, they are less racist, less sexist, less homophobic, less xenophobic, and in general just less deplorable than their elders. Eventually, the world will belong to them, so there’s reason to be hopeful about the long-term political future.


Countering that, though, is the observation of the great 20th-century economist John Maynard Keynes, that in the long run we are all dead. In other words, having the long-term trend on your side might not be that comforting, if the short-term trend in the opposite direction seems likely to continue for a very long time. Even if history eventually vindicates me, will I live long enough to deliver my I-told-you-sos?


And of course when you’re feeling hopeless, you can point to plenty of negative trends. In a thermonuclear age, Pinker’s millennia of progress towards nonviolence could be wiped out in one bad day. Climate change looks ominous, and if you look way, way down the road, eventually the Sun expands and this whole planet burns.


So as a reason to be hopeful, I wind up feeling about Progress much the same way that I feel about Heaven: If it works for you, that’s great. But I find that my faith in Progress deserts me when I need it most. When life is good, then “onward and upward forever” can sound pretty credible. But at times of defeat and despair and discouragement, it doesn’t.


Clarke’s faith in Progress is an example of a common first step as people abandon traditional religion: Their new worldview has a God-shaped hole in it, which they plug with a God-sized concept. Similarly, among early Marxists, the Revolution and the perfect Communist society to follow could sometimes sound a lot like the Second Coming and Christ’s millennial kingdom.


But I think a more mature humanism involves a deeper rethinking, rather than just finding a human concept to plug into the hole left by a religious concept. Usually, that rethinking takes the form of eliminating the middleman: So for example, medieval philosophers used the patterns found in Nature as indications of how God’s mind worked, and then drew conclusions from that. But when modern science came along, it eliminated the middleman: It left God out and drew conclusions directly from the patterns in Nature. Similarly, traditional religious morality revolves around the question of what God wants from us, and it deduces right and just behavior from that. But humanistic morality just goes straight at the question of what is right and just.


I want to do something similar with hope and despair. In dealing with a loss of hope, I think traditional religion goes the long way around: Faith in God leads to optimism about the future, which leads to hope in the present. And 19th-century Unitarianism takes the same long way round, but plugs Progress into the God-shaped hole: Our faith in Progress makes us optimistic about the future, so we can live hopefully in the present. 


I’d like to eliminate those middlemen, and think about hope more directly. 


So what is hope? I see hope as an experience in the moment, the feeling that it is worthwhile to try. It’s worthwhile to get out of bed in the morning. It’s worthwhile to speak to that person you don’t know. It’s worthwhile to apply for that new job or sign up for those new classes.  It’s worthwhile to start turning your creative ideas into reality: writing that song or scripting that movie. 


Hope gets intertwined with optimism, but they are not at all the same thing. Maybe while you’re writing that song, you keep yourself going by telling yourself that it’s going to be a hit and make you famous. But anybody who actually does write hit songs, or is successful in some other creative pursuit, will tell that those thoughts about the future just get in the way. Creating things is worthwhile because it just is; it’s a primary thing that you feel in the moment, not something you deduce from its prospects for success.


We human beings put effort into all kinds of things that we know from the get-go are pointless: We play games, we solve puzzles. We do it just to experience the sense of striving, not to produce something for the future. When a crossword puzzle is complete, we will crow for a moment, and then throw it away.


I see hope as that pure feeling of let’s-do-this. It doesn’t depend on judgments about the future. When my wife had cancer, she was optimistic and I was pessimistic — and wrong, as it turned out — but we both lived in hope. We both kept asking ourselves what we could do, and we felt that whatever we did to try to save her life was intensely important, whether it worked or not.


Hope is part of the natural equipment of a human being. Evolution built it into us because it helped our species survive. I imagine that proto-humans faced many discouraging situations through the ages. But some kept going anyway, and those are the ones who became our ancestors. They passed on to us this sense that we should do things, try things, and not give up.


But like the rest of our natural equipment, our hope doesn’t always work right. Some of us are born with a hope disability. Others have a weak hope that wears out over time. Some people’s early life wasn’t conducive to healthy hope development. Those are all difficulties worth our attention on some future day.


But what I want to focus on today is when a basically healthy hope gets injured by a traumatic event, the way that an accident might sprain your ankle or break your leg. Traditional religion tells you to approach that the long way around, by experiencing it as a loss of faith. Its prescription is to work on your relationship with God. 


Humanism would have you eliminate that middleman, and look at your hope directly. You’ve been injured. How do you heal? How do you rehabilitate?  


Watching myself, and other UUs I know, deal with the trauma of the election, I think many of us did the right things more-or-less by instinct, and I wonder how many of us consciously or unconsciously applied the model of physical injury. 


When you sprain an ankle, you stop putting weight on it for a while. Similarly, many people’s reaction to the election was to stop paying attention to national affairs for a while, stop watching the news, stop participating in social-media forums where the election might be discussed, and change the subject when politics came up in their face-to-face conversations. 


If you did that, you may have felt guilty, as if a better or a stronger person wouldn’t have needed to retreat like that. And if you had sworn off the duties of citizenship forever, that might have been blameworthy. But just pulling back for a while was probably wise. In the first days after the election, the people I felt sorriest for were the ones who were clearly injured, but couldn’t step back, who couldn’t stop reading things that made them more and more miserable, and kept throwing themselves into bitter arguments that couldn’t possibly turn out well.


But the injury metaphor tells you not just to rest, but to rehabilitate. And the first step there is usually to find the motions you can make without pain, and move those muscles so they don’t atrophy.


And so, the people who had retreated from politics looked for other areas of life in which to exercise their hope: in projects around the house, in planning social events, in trying new things at work, or maybe something entirely frivolous, like a difficult jigsaw puzzle. It was important simply to work through the motions of hope: to visualize something you might do, to try it, and to see it work out well enough that you were glad you did it.


Before long, especially when you’re rehabilitating a complicated joint like a knee or a shoulder, you start taking it through the range of motion that hurts. But you do it first under controlled circumstances, and you do it with help. Maybe a therapist moves the arm for you, or you do your first exercises in a pool, letting the water absorb your weight. 


In the same way,  those first forays back into public affairs were best taken under the watchful eyes of close friends whose recovery was a bit further along — settings where you wouldn’t be ashamed to wince or yelp, among people who would know when to slow down and move more carefully.


Eventually, when the injured part has mostly knit itself back together and you just need to get strong again, you seek out the support of a community. You join an exercise group or take a class at a gym. 


Those of us who already belonged to UU churches had an advantage at this stage, because we had an obvious place to go. And I think a number of people whose previous connection to a UU church was a little shaky have drawn closer, recognizing their need for community support. 


For some, Saturday’s march was a search for community support; they came out to be reminded that they are not alone. But for others it represented a return to the full exercise of their hope. They envisioned showing up with a bunch of their friends, maybe with some creative costumes or signs. They took some action to bring that vision into reality, and it worked. They’re back in the political arena, and some are back stronger than ever.


Because that’s the ultimate goal of rehabilitation after injury: not just to return to a semblance of your previous life, but to come back stronger. 


Injury isn’t just a setback, it has a lesson to teach: The body doesn’t always take care of itself. It needs regular attention and maintenance. Similarly, maintaining healthy hope in your life doesn’t just happen. It isn’t a gift of God that we can just sit back and receive. Keeping your hope in a state of fitness that resists reinjury involves maintaining a good mental hygiene, observing what you take in and what you expose yourself to, watching to see what in your life builds your hope up and what tears it down. 


And most of all, healthy hope requires exercise. On a regular basis, we need to visualize worthwhile things, try them, and see them come to pass. Not just because the world needs good things to happen, but because we, for ourselves, need to make good things happen and see ourselves making good things happen. 


So in conclusion, I want to urge you: If you have had or are having a crisis of hope, don’t take the long way around. Don’t approach it as a crisis of faith. Don’t get distracted into debates about optimism and pessimism. Some people believe in God and some don’t. Some people are optimists and some are pessimists. But any of them can learn to live hopefully in the present. There may be a God or not. Sometimes the optimists are right and sometimes the pessimists are right. But it’s always better to live in hope than to live in despair.


So if it helps you to pray, feel free. If it comforts you to think about positive long-term trends, don’t stop on my account. But also take care of your hope the way you would take care of a knee or a shoulder or your lungs or your heart. Practice good hope hygiene. Break hope-defeating habits. And most of all, exercise your hope and keep it in shape. Going forward, let’s maintain a fit and healthy hope, both for ourselves and for the world.