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.

1 comment:

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