Sunday, April 24, 2022

Where Christianity Went Wrong

 presented at the Unitarian Church of Quincy, Illinois
April 24, 2022

 Listen to the audio.

Opening words: Eugene Debs

Every robber or oppressor in history has wrapped himself in a cloak of patriotism or religion, or both.

Wisdom story

This is a story Jesus told, modernized a little.

A king called some of his subjects to a meeting, and as they came in, the King’s people carefully directed some to one side of the room and some to the other. Then the King turned to the group on his right and said: “I wanted to bring you here to reward you for all the good things you’ve done for me.”

Now, these were ordinary people who seldom had interactions with the King, so one of them said, “Your majesty, it’s wonderful that you’re pleased with us, but what have we done for you?”

And the King said. “Many things. When I had no friends, you sat with me. When I had nothing, you shared with me. When I was being lied about and no one else would defend me, you did. And when bullies had made me afraid, you walked home with me.”

Of course no one interrupted the King while he was saying this. But all the while they were trading looks with each other that said: “Do you know what he’s talking about? I don’t know what he’s talking about.”

So one of them spoke up and said, “Your majesty, when were you ever friendless or poor or undefended or afraid, that we could have done these things for you?”

And the King answered: “Many people in this land are friendless or poor or undefended or afraid. Some of them are so beaten down that they may never be in a position to return the favors you do them. But they are my people, and when you are kind to them, I take it personally, as if you had been kind to me. So when you go through that door, my assistants will reward you in the ways that you deserve.”

While this was happening, the people on the other side of the room were looking at each and whispering, “The King’s in a good mood. This is great.”

But then the King turned to them with an angry expression, and he said, “I brought you here today to call you to account for the ways that you have mistreated me.”

One man was so surprised that he couldn’t restrain himself. So he said. “Your majesty, you’ve got me all wrong. I don’t know about the rest of these people, but I’ve never mistreated you. I’ve got an ‘I Heart the King’ bumpersticker on my truck. When people complain, I tell them that if they don’t appreciate living in the greatest kingdom in the world, they should move somewhere else. Nobody is as good a king’s man as me.”

But the King said, “When I had no friends, you treated me like I was invisible. When I had nothing, you made fun of me. When people spread lies about me, you retweeted them. And when bullies made me afraid, you egged them on.”

And the man said, “But you’re the King. You were never friendless or poor. You were never bullied or lacked for defenders. How could I possibly have done those things to you?”

And the King said, “Even the lowliest people in the kingdom are still my brothers and sisters. When you mistreat them, I take it personally, as if you had mistreated me. So when you go through that other door, my assistants will call you to account for what you have done.”

 

Like most of Jesus’ stories people interpret this one in different ways. Some think the King is Jesus himself, and that when he comes back to Earth he will be King of the World and deal out justice in exactly that way.

Others think the story is about the afterlife. The King is God, and the two doors are Heaven and Hell.

I also think the King represents God, but I give it a different spin. I think the story is telling us that even the people you least expect have a piece of God inside them. It may be easy to recognize God the King. But I think the story also wants us to recognize God the Immigrant, God the Invalid, and God the Beggar.

If we could do that, and if we could treat everyone accordingly, with respect and consideration, then maybe we wouldn’t have to wait for the end of the world or for the afterlife to experience the Kingdom of God. We could live in the Kingdom of God right here, right now.

Reading from “If God is Love, don’t be a Jerk” by John Pavlovitz

If you want a good laugh, google the phrase, “You had one job.” The results are a hilariously tragic parade of seemingly impossible fails, unfathomably poor planning, and facepalm-inducing human error: a piece of melted cheese on top of a fast-food burger bun, the word “STOP” misspelled on a street crossing, a “Keep to the Right” sign with its arrow facing left, a toilet lid inexplicably installed below the seat itself. …

As a long-time Christian by aspiration (if not always in practice), I often envision an exasperated Jesus coming back, and the first words out of this mouth to his followers as his feet hit the pavement being “You had one job: Love. So, what happened?”

Sermon

If you devote much of your time to trying to make the world a better place, you’ve probably noticed a paradox. On the one hand, some of your most dedicated co-workers are probably Christians. You may not have realized it right away, because they’re not the kind of Christians who say “Praise the Lord” whenever something good happens. Rather than ask you if you’re saved or try to lead the group in prayer, they just show up and share the work: ladle the soup, stuff the envelopes, hammer the nails, make the phone calls.

Only after you spend some down time talking do you start to understand what motivates them: They think some guy named Jesus had some pretty good ideas about healing the sick, feeding the hungry, and welcoming the stranger.

But at the same time, if you pay attention to the news, it’s hard to escape the idea that Christianity is your enemy. If someone is loudly and obnoxiously working to make the world 
harsher, crueler, and less forgiving, chances are they’re waving the cross. There’s nothing subtle about it. All their rhetoric is about what God wants, what God hates, and the “Christian values” that the law should impose on Christians and non-Christians alike.

And strangest of all, those “Christian values” seldom have anything to do with healing the sick, 
feeding the hungry, or welcoming the stranger. The name of Jesus shows up in every paragraph of their rhetoric; his teachings, not so much.

Now, this talk derives from a blog post I wrote a month or so ago, which goes into a lot of detail about the contrast between the Sermon on the Mount and the issues currently being pushed by the Religious Right. But I think most of you already see that. So I’ll just sum that part up by pointing back to the wisdom story: The King in that story wasn’t interested in people’s sexual activities, or which bathroom they used. He judged people according to who they helped, and especially, how they treated people who had nothing to offer in return.

So how did “Christian values” become a code phrase for being anti-gay, anti-trans, anti-immigrant, anti-public-health, and refusing to fix (or even talk about) the continuing racism in America? How did the teachings of a man who owned nothing, and who often told people to give their possessions away, turn into a “prosperity gospel”, where God is expected to make his followers rich? How did Christian churches become hotbeds of the most malicious and baseless conspiracy theories? How did those churches become the political base for one of the least Christlike leaders this country has ever had?

Now, those are great rhetorical questions. They stir the blood and make us feel righteous just by contrast. But this morning I’m going to try to answer them. How did this happen? What is it about Christian theology, Christian habits of thought, and how Christian history has played out, that has made that faith vulnerable to such a complete reversal?

I’m going to identify seven specific points of vulnerability. But before I do that, I want to give one example that can serve as a paradigm for everything that goes wrong. The Gospel of John quotes Jesus making a very enigmatic statement: “The Father and I are one.” He doesn’t elaborate, so it’s hard to be sure what he meant.

But theologians hate to say “I don’t know.” So that one line has led to centuries and centuries of theorizing about the nature of the Trinity. At times the arguments over those theories have been so bitter that they caused violence. For example, Unitarianism’s most famous martyr, Michael Servetus, was burned at the stake in 1553 for having written a book called “On the Errors of the Trinity”. In short, people got so lost in the mystery of that one line, that they completely lost sight of loving their neighbors.

More generally, Jesus did not leave us tomes of philosophy or political theory or sociology. He never laid out a worldview or a theology. Instead, he told stories. The imagery in those stories looks like it was designed to upend the way his disciples were thinking. But he never told them step-by-step how they should think.

Mustard, for example, was the scourge of Mediterranean gardeners, because once mustard got into your garden you never got rid of it. But in one of Jesus’ stories, the Kingdom of God is a mustard seed, a weed in other words. In another story, an employer paid everyone the same, 
no matter how many hours they worked. A priest and a Levite could be bad neighbors compared to some nameless Samaritan. It was all pretty confusing.

And Jesus hinted that he didn’t expect people to understand right away. The Kingdom of God, he said, is like yeast; it works on you invisibly. His images and stories are supposed to sit in the back of your mind and ferment, not proceed logically from principles to conclusions.

And while that is a fine one-on-one spiritual teaching technique, it leaves an opening for people who do lay out systematic theologies and worldviews, and do tell people what to think. Over the centuries that opening has been exploited. A conservative worldview has built up around Jesus’ teachings and has almost completely sealed them off.

“The Father and I are one” started out as a mystery to meditate on. But eventually it  led to a dogma that people killed for.

So here are my seven weaknesses of conservative Christian theology and practice that have left Christianity vulnerable to the corruption we see today.

The first weakness is the Devil. The Devil may seem Biblical, but he really isn’t. The Bible tells us about the serpent in the Garden, the adversary of Job, the rebel angel, the tempter of Jesus, the chief of the demons Jesus casts out, and the antiChrist of Revelation. But it calls them by different names. Much later, theologians following the dualistic example of the Zoroastrians, unified those diverse characters into one single Prince of Darkness, a being powerful enough to compete with God.

In the current era, that construction has an unfortunate side effect: It makes just about any conspiracy theory plausible. Reasonable people assess a conspiracy theory by asking a series of questions: How many conspirators does the theory require? What motivates them? How did they come together? What keeps them cooperating rather than ratting each other out?

Those questions sink most conspiracy theories. But not if you believe in the Devil. The Devil doesn’t need any ordinary motive; he conspires just for the evilness of it. And the Devil has minions whom he has beguiled into fervent loyalty. They also do evil for its own sake.

Once you’ve imagined a cast of characters like that, motivated by nothing more than the desire to do evil, there is no conspiracy theory that you can’t make work. And since a well-selected conspiracy theory can explain or explain away just about anything, you’ve given yourself license to believe whatever you want.

The second weakness is Hell. Universalism envisions a unitary afterlife: We’re all going to Heaven. Various Eastern religions picture a unique afterlife for each being: You might reincarnate as anything from an insect to a god.

But the dualistic afterlife of Heaven and Hell is much more problematic than either of those alternatives for two main reasons: First, it encourages us-and-them thinking, Humanity isn’t all in the same boat. We’re in two boats one headed for Heaven and the other for Hell. 


And second, Hell makes punishment an end in itself. In the usual vision of Hell, the suffering of the damned serves no reforming purpose. Damnation is eternal, so no matter what you may learn, or how you might change, you’re never getting out. It’s punishment for punishment’s sake.  

No wonder, then, that conservative Christians offer the same solution for every social problem: Identify the bad people and punish them, preferably with extreme harshness.

The third weakness is the End Times. Polls have shown that 3/4ths of Evangelicals believe we’re living in the End Times, the period just before Jesus’ second coming at the end of the world.

Sometimes I wish the Romans had invented polling, because I suspect that if we had the data, it would show that some very large percentage of Christians have always believed they were living in the End Times. Two millennia ago, the Book of Revelation ended by quoting Jesus saying “Yes, I am coming soon.”

At its root, believing that we live in the End Times is a way of puffing ourselves up, of making our era seem uniquely important. Great stories are written about the days when the prophecies are finally fulfilled. Nobody wants to believe that they belong to one of those hundreds and hundreds of forgotten generations that pass between the prophecy and its fulfillment.

The big downside of belief in the End Times is that it justifies suspending normal reasoning processes. And this again feeds conspiracy theories. Most of us discount interpretations of events that depend on wild coincidences. But End Times believers approach the news the way the rest of us approach the final chapters of a novel. They expect diverse plot threads to start coming together. Wild coincidences are almost required.

What’s more, as the final battle of Good versus Evil approaches, the two sides should become easier to identify. So of course there’s an international conspiracy of blood-drinking pedophiles. How could there not be?

The fourth weakness is individual judgment. Supposedly, on Judgment Day, each of us will each stand alone, to meet our up or down fate according to our individual actions and beliefs. These individual rewards and punishments are supposed to right the scales of justice, once and for all.

It’s a short leap from that vision to the belief that evil is fundamentally individual. So an idea like systemic racism, or any kind of systemic injustice, has no place to take root. For believers in individual judgment, any discussion of injustice is always going to raise the question: Who is the bad person in this situation, and how should they be punished?

That’s why it’s almost impossible to have a reasonable discussion of racial justice or gender justice or oligarchy. Because the only thing Evangelicals will hear is that you want to punish White people or men or the rich. Similarly, discussions of the social roots of crime go astray, because all they hear is that you want rapists and murderers to escape punishment.

The fifth weakness is tradition. This one is not unique to Christianity. All over the world, 
traditional religion is more about tradition than about religion. Over time, the local religion (whatever it is) gets coopted to defend the privileges of the powerful, and to justify the local customs (whatever they are): We do what we do because God wants us to, and the people on top are there because God favors them. The old time religion inevitably becomes the religion that fights change.

In American history, slave owners quoted the Bible to protect their right to own other humans. Men used it to keep women in their traditional places. The lower-court judge who upheld Virginia’s law against interracial marriage wrote that the Lord God created the races and intended them to stay separate.

Today, people say “Christian values” when they really mean “traditional values”. White supremacy, male privilege, persecuting gays, insisting on binary gender roles — those are very traditional in America. But they’re not Christian, at least not if Christianity is defined by the teachings of Jesus.

The sixth weakness is autocracy. Jesus never wrote down his political theory, and we’re still arguing over what he meant by “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.” But Christianity is full of royal imagery. God is King of the Universe, and when Jesus returns he will be King of the World. Jesus’ disciples imagined that he would restore the Kingdom of David, and they argued about who would get the top jobs.

Democracy and human rights are not part of that vision. They are human institutions that will be swept away in the next world. So why not sweep them away sooner? God knows better than any human being, so why shouldn’t we all be ruled by men who know what God wants?

The seventh weakness is denial. Christianity and science had been skirmishing for centuries. But by the beginning of the 20th century, many Christians thought the situation was dire. Geology had discovered that the world was far older than Genesis implied, and evolution directly contradicted the Genesis account of God shaping Adam from dust.

It was time to draw a line in the sand, and that line was fundamentalism: The Bible was literally true in every detail, and any evidence otherwise had to dismissed somehow.

But there’s a problem with that strategy: Genesis really is wrong, and the more you study the scientific evidence, the more obvious it becomes. There’s no way to defend Genesis as a literal account of scientific facts while maintaining your intellectual integrity.

So fundamentalism jettisoned its integrity. I saw this first-hand growing up at St. James and for years afterwards. I’m still seeing it today. The most absurd pseudo-scientific arguments have been written into pamphlets and textbooks, and if they come to the “right” conclusion — that Genesis is true — fundamentalists are supposed to believe them.

When people compromise their integrity, they rarely think they’re setting a precedent, but they usually are. Here, the precedent was that Christians could support each other in believing something blatantly false if they wanted to believe it badly enough. It’s OK to twist facts and logic any way you need to in order to reach the desired result.

Now, I want to point out that this kind of denial is different from having faith in events that don’t fit inside a scientific model, like Jesus walking on water. The problem here isn’t that fundamentalists believe in something that science can’t explain. It’s that science actually explains the situation quite well, but fundamentalists don’t want to believe it.

Once you make that OK, you’ve built a hole into your reasoning processes. And it’s naive to think that you’re going to control what passes through it.

A hundred years later, we can see the results. Intellectual and political hucksters and flim-flam artists of all sorts have taken advantage of fundamentalists, often in ways that have little to do with the Jesus or the Bible. Fundamentalist churches have become centers of climate-change denial and Covid denial, as well as hotbeds of Q-anon conspiracy thinking.

Right here in Quincy, over on Broadway, a billboard says that a fetus has a heartbeat at 18 days. No it doesn’t, and it’s not at all Christian to lie like that.
 
Rose-colored views of American history — where the Founders are latter-day prophets, slavery wasn’t really so bad, and the Native American genocide shouldn’t be examined too closely — have become articles of faith among White Evangelicals. None of it stands up to scrutiny, but they want to believe it, so they do.

The last time I spoke to this group, I told you that Unitarians are precisely the people who can’t believe whatever they want. This is what I meant. Like all humans, we are tempted by motivated reasoning and fooled by confirmation bias. But we don’t get to deny science and logic outright, and we don’t get to patch the holes in our beliefs by making up conspiracy theories.

When you hear a list of vulnerabilities like the one I just gave, you might wonder why we’re talking about Christianity at all. What good can come from it? Maybe we should just write the whole religion off, and close our minds whenever someone mentions Jesus or the Bible.

But then I come back to the kinds of Christians I mentioned at the beginning, the ones who find in Christianity the motivation to keep doing the work, like Jimmy Carter still pounding nails for Habitat well into his 90s.

I’m not entirely sure how that motivation works, but I suspect it has little to do with Heaven and Hell, or the end of the world, or tradition, or the idea that Genesis teaches good science.

When I try to find something motivating or inspiring in the faith I was raised in, I keep coming back to that enigmatic phrase: the kingdom of God.

I don’t think all the odd things Jesus said about the kingdom of God explain anything, but they are evocative, at least to me. What they evoke is not hope for some future theocracy, or for a better life after death, but for a different kind of common sense here and now.

The metaphor I use is the sound barrier. Air flows differently on the other side of the sound barrier. There’s nothing magical about it, it’s just that the air-flow equations have a second solution, one we hadn’t known about before.

Maybe common sense also has a second solution, one that doesn’t revolve around scarcity, anxiety, and conflict. Maybe it could be common sense to treat each other with respect and kindness, to offer help freely, and to trust that help will be there when we need it. Maybe that second realm of common sense exists wherever two or more people decide to deal with each other according to its odd logic. Maybe that realm could become much, much larger.

And that possibility, I find, really is like yeast. If you let it sit in the back of your mind, who knows what might rise?

 

Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Renewing My Unitarian Universalism

 presented in a Zoom session of the Unitarian Church of Quincy, Illinois
January 23, 2022

First Reading

In his 1915 novel Of Human Bondage, William Somerset Maugham wrote: 

A Unitarian very earnestly disbelieves in almost everything that anybody else believes. And he has a very lively sustaining faith in he doesn’t quite know what.

Second Reading

In 2012,  April Fools Day fell on a Sunday. So Rev. Erika Hewitt preached a sermon on UU jokes. She started out by telling a few:

Each religion has its own Holy Book: Judaism has the Torah, Islam has the Koran, Christianity has the Bible, and Unitarian Universalism has Roberts' Rules of Order.

But eventually she raises the same issue Maugham had poked at almost a century before:

Our tolerance – or penchant – for ambiguous theology intersects with what I believe is the most egregious UU stereotype: that we are a faith with no core religious message.

When it comes to defining who we are as an Association and what we believe as individuals, our answers rarely satisfy.

Question: What happens when you cross a UU with a Jehovah's Witness?
Answer: They knock on your door, but they have no idea why!

We’re even mocked on “The Simpsons.” On one episode, the Simpson family attends a church ice cream social, where Lisa is impressed by the choice of ice cream available. “Wow,” she raves, “look at all these flavors! Blessed Virgin Berry, Command-Mint, Bible Gum....”
 
“Or,” Reverend Lovejoy says, “if you prefer, we also have Unitarian ice cream.” He hands Lisa an empty bowl. “There’s nothing here,” says Lisa. “Exactly,” says Lovejoy.

But by the end of her sermon, Hewitt isn’t laughing any more:

There comes a point, for me, at which jokes like these cease to be funny by virtue of their volume and ubiquity — and the truth that they hold. Isn’t it so, after all, that we continue to define ourselves by who we aren’t rather than who we are? Isn’t it true we’re rendered tongue-tied when friends or co-workers ask us, “What do UU’s believe?” …

I don’t want our distinguished liberal religious movement to be portrayed as an empty bowl. … I don’t want to belong to a faith where you can believe anything you want, and change your mind anytime you need to. Our beliefs will change throughout our lives; we’re never “done” learning. But religious faith is not disposable. I don’t want to be laughed at; I want to co-create a faith that garners respect.

Third Reading

One sign of old age is when you start using your own writings as readings. It’s an admission that your past has become so distant that your own memory of it should no longer be trusted. If you wrote something down at the time, that’s probably more accurate.

This reading is taken from a column I wrote for UU World called “At My Mother’s Funeral”. My mother died in 2011. The funeral was at Hansen-Spear, and I came back to Quincy for it. Mom had chosen all the elements of the service herself, so it reflected her Christian belief that death is just the beginning of eternal life in Heaven. I had trouble relating to that.

Here’s what I wrote afterwards:


Whether anyone else in the room was harboring secret doubts or not, I felt alone in facing the possibility that death is final, that I will never see my mother again, that our interrupted conversations will never be finished, and that all the things we didn’t understand about each other will never be understood.

Somewhere in the middle of those reflections, I almost laughed at myself: “Wait a minute,” I thought. “I’m the Unitarian Universalist in the room. I’m supposed to be the one who can believe whatever he wants!”

Over the years I’ve probably heard a dozen UU ministers’ explanations of why the old saw “Unitarian Universalists can believe whatever they want” isn’t quite right. But until that moment at Mom’s funeral, I had never grasped how exactly backwards it is. Unitarian Universalists are precisely the people who can’t believe whatever they want.

The image of Mom in heaven — young and vibrant again, seeing everything, hearing everything, skipping gaily about on two perfect legs — how could anyone not want to believe that?

The vision of heaven itself — a perfect place where all loved ones will reunite, and all pains and doubts and disagreements will be revealed as the illusions they always were: I don’t want to reject it, I just can’t sustain it. Like a multistory house of cards, it always collapses before I can get it finished. …

The old religious authorities taught … [that] people needed someone or something to keep their beliefs in line. Otherwise they’d believe all kinds of frivolous, self-serving, and wish-fulfilling things.

But is frivolity, self-service, and wish fulfillment what Unitarian Universalism is about? Is that what I was doing at the funeral?

No, quite the opposite. Today’s Unitarian Universalists continue to be free of external discipline, but the point is to be self-disciplined, not un-disciplined. We’re the people who take responsibility for disciplining our own beliefs.

Like any other responsibility, religious responsibility is a two-edged sword. On the one hand, my beliefs feel more straightforward and authentic because I haven’t twisted them to fit some external authority’s template. But on the other, I am cut off from the comforts of frivolous, self-serving, and wish-fulfilling beliefs, because no one can authorize them for me.

Sermon

Coming of Age. Every year, if we have enough interested kids of the right ages, my church (First Parish in Bedford, Massachusetts), offers a "Coming of Age" class. Starting in September, our teens explore what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist. They learn UU history, do service projects, hear what famous UUs have said about the big questions, and interview members of the congregation. And then in May, the program culminates in a service that turns the traditional Protestant confirmation ritual upside-down.

When I was confirmed at St. James in 1970, my classmates and I had to demonstrate that we understood the teachings of the Lutheran church, and in the spring we solemnly affirmed to the whole congregation that we agreed with them.

A UU coming-of-age service, by contrast, focuses on the young people’s beliefs, not the congregation’s. One by one, they stand in the pulpit and present a personal credo. In other words, they preach to us about their deepest convictions.

It’s always an engaging service, largely because there’s no predicting what you’ll hear. One of the teens might believe in reincarnation, another is inspired by Zen, and a third is a hard-core rationalist. Some are optimists and others pessimists. Some think the purpose of life is to pursue happiness, while others focus on serving others. Some want to create beauty; others want to acquire knowledge and solve problems.

My Lutheran confirmation was about pledging to remain steadfast in the common faith, a promise that I was unable to keep. If anyone had realized at the time how much my beliefs would change in the next few years, and keep changing for decades after, I imagine that thought would have depressed them. It would have undermined the meaning of the whole ritual.

But the adults who attend our UU coming-of-age service look back on our own religious journeys, and anticipate that the beliefs we’re hearing will change. Ten years down the road, the young man who tells us about reincarnation may not remember why he said that. The young woman who intends to center her life on pursuing happiness may someday come to a place where happiness seems impossible. She may need to find inside herself a grit and determination that has little to do with happiness, but that will see her through to a time when happiness once again becomes a viable goal.

But anticipating those changes doesn’t make the service any less moving or inspiring, because we understand the commitment that the young people are really making. They aren’t pledging to believe these things for the rest of their lives, a promise they would almost certainly break. Rather, they’re committing to take responsibility for their beliefs.

Alone up there in the pulpit, they can’t hide behind their parents or the church or a creed or a holy book or even God. They are announcing: “At this moment, this is how I choose to approach my life. And if those choices have consequences, they’re on me.” 

It’s a brave thing to do.

Watching young people construct their own version of Unitarian Universalism always makes me want to reconstruct mine. And that’s what I want to talk about today: How my own beliefs have had to change, not just until I became a UU, but since I became a UU.

Freedom and responsibility. Probably the most significant thing I’ve had to reevaluate about my faith is the centrality of freedom. Our Fourth Principle affirms “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning”. But when I was becoming a UU in the 1980s, freedom got way more emphasis than responsibility. The most important feature of UUism then wasn’t a presence, it was an absence: No one would tell you what you had to think. (That’s why we might have appeared from the outside to have a lively, sustaining faith in we know not what.)

That emphasis made sense for the kind of world I grew up in, where my family, my church, the teachers at St. James school, and American culture itself were all trying to imprint Christianity on me. To me, the outside world seemed like a unified oppressive force trying to squelch my capacity for independent thought.

Saying “no” to that, saying “I am going to live by the faith I actually have, rather than the faith everyone tells me I ought to have” was a revolutionary act. And I saw that revolution as a precondition for everything else. Until I had staked out and defended my spiritual and intellectual independence, it didn’t even matter what I believed in my heart of hearts. Because if I’m going to spend my life reciting the Apostles Creed, and pretending to believe it, who even cares what I really think?

But the kids in our coming of age classes don’t live in that world. And while some young people do still grow up in oppressive religious environments, that’s no longer the general experience of American society.

Yes, conservative Christians still aspire to dominance, and try to make laws that impose their faith on the rest of us. But that effort gets increasingly desperate every year. They need the power of government now, and especially the power of unelected judges, because they lost the battle for the larger culture long ago.

For most young Americans today, and particularly for those who have grown up UU, the outside world does not feel like a monolithic force trying to control their minds. It’s more like a desert or even a vacuum. The threat outside the walls of the church is not that some Eye of Sauron will dominate them, it’s that they will wander out there and get lost in the trackless waste where nothing is true and nothing is known and nothing is more important than anything else. When you find yourself in a trackless waste, no one needs to remind you that you are free to go any direction you want. What needs to be affirmed is that there are places worth going, and some hope of getting there.

In the current environment, it can actually be dangerous to tell people that they can believe whatever they want, because look around — lots of people are doing precisely that, to an extent that the UUs of the 1980s never imagined.

Do you want to believe that your candidate won the election when every method of counting the votes says that he lost? Go for it. Do you want to believe that Covid is a global conspiracy? Why not? Do you want to believe that your political opponents are blood-drinking, child-abusing Satanists? Or reptilian aliens? It’s up to you. There are no facts, just “I want to believe this and you want to believe that.”

That kind of freedom isn’t what Unitarian Universalism is about, or has ever been about. When our kids consider what they mean by the word “God”, and discuss whether such a God exists, they’re doing something very different from the QAnon folks who assure each other that JFK Jr. is going to return from his apparent death and lead them in a bloody counter-revolution.

The difference is in the responsible part of our free and responsible search. Our beliefs aren’t just for our own entertainment. If we hold our beliefs responsibly, they change how we live. And if we live actively, the effects of those beliefs go out into the world, benefiting some people and perhaps harming others. And we’re responsible for those benefits and harms. It’s on us.

Wanting to believe. Think about climate change. Do I want to believe that the planet is getting warmer, and that rising temperatures will have devastating effects unless we all make serious changes? Of course not. If I could snap my fingers and make that not be true, I would. You all would.

Am I free to deny global warming? I suppose so. If I say it’s all a hoax, and start living as if burning fossil fuels isn’t a problem, nobody’s going to punish me. But I’m not just free, I’m responsible. Living that way has consequences, and I have to take those consequences seriously.

Or think about privilege. I benefit from a long list of privileges. I’m White, male, heterosexual, cisgender, native born, neurotypical, English speaking, and professional class. I’m not just educated, I got my education at a time when it was cheaper, so I didn’t have to pile up student debt.

Do I want to acknowledge all those unearned advantages? Not at all. I want to say that everything I have comes entirely from my own talent and hard work. And I’m free to say that. But to the extent that I promote the myth that the world is already just, the continuing injustice becomes my responsibility.

In a world dominated by oppressive belief systems, the most important thing about Unitarian Universalism is the freedom it offers to develop your own conscience and pursue your own goals. But in American society as I see it today, the most important thing to emphasize is the responsibility of our search.

By contrast, much of what passes for religion in America today enables irresponsibility. Too many churches are like money-laundering banks. They shield their members from the ugly consequences of self-serving beliefs.

Imagine, for example, that I am a young man looking for a wife. If I tell the women I meet that I intend to dominate, and that after we are married, I will decide what she can and can’t do with her life, I sound like a jerk.

But suppose I say instead that my church believes in the traditional family. God has a plan for us all, and that plan has separate lanes for men and women. The content and consequence of those beliefs are exactly the same, but my responsibility for them vanishes. Now I’m not a jerk, I’m a man of faith. And if being dominated doesn’t make you happy, don’t blame me, blame God.

Or suppose that I want to persecute gays and lesbians, or maintain White supremacy. I don’t have to account for damage those ideas do. I can find a church that holds those beliefs for me, one that emphasizes the parts of the Bible I like, and interprets them in ways that please me. And suddenly I am no longer hateful, I’m just devout. I make the choices, but God bears the responsibility.

Unitarian Universalism doesn’t provide that service. It won’t launder the dirty consequences of your ideas and leave you spotless. If your beliefs cause harm in the world, that’s on you. It’s not the church or some prophet or priest. It’s not a creed or a holy book, and it’s certainly not God. It’s you. This is a faith for people who take responsibility.

On the elevator. One of the exercises we always have the coming-of-age students do is to write an elevator speech. The idea is that you’re on an elevator when someone asks you what your religion is all about. What can you manage to say about UUism before the doors open and you go your separate ways?

UUs are particularly bad at this exercise, because we always want to include a few more caveats and nuances. In all the times I’ve been involved with coming of age, I’ve never come up with an elevator speech I liked.

Until now. Here it is: 

Unitarian Universalists take responsibility for disciplining our own beliefs so that they are factual, reasonable, just, and kind. We will not stop learning, growing, and changing until we become the people the world needs.

Credo. Having come this far, I might as well close by completing the coming-of-age exercises and presenting my credo. So far I’ve mainly talked about how UUs believe, and haven’t said much about the content of my personal beliefs.

So here it goes: This what I believe.

I believe that the Universe is far bigger and more intricate than human minds can grasp, and that we deal with that deficiency by telling stories. But the Universe is not a story, so we will never get it completely right. Nonetheless, I constantly try to improve my stories by testing them against observable facts, and changing them when they conflict.

I judge right and wrong by human standards. Things are good or bad according to how they affect people and other conscious beings, and not because some book or institution says so.

I give precedence to the things I know, rather than the things I merely imagine. So while I sometimes have intuitions about higher intelligences or what might happen after death, I hold those beliefs so lightly that they have little effect on my actions.   

I believe meaning is something that stories have, and so I look for a meaningful life by striving to tell a meaningful life story. A meaningful story has to be credible, which is why integrity is so important; I believe in trying to be the person I say I am.

A good story evokes awe and wonder, so it is important that I find and create beauty in my life. The variety of beauty I personally resonate with most is the beauty of knowledge and ideas, which is why I put so much effort into understanding what is happening around me. Other people resonate primarily with other forms of beauty, and that’s fine. We don’t all need to be the same.

A story is more convincing when it is shared, when many people tell similar stories about similar things. And so it is important that I not be the only significant character in my story. I want to share my life with others, and to live in a community of people who care about and appreciate each other. 

Nothing undoes the beauty of a story quite so effectively as a sense of hidden evil, of questions that we dare not ask and doors that we dare not open, lest all that hidden ugliness spill out. And so I believe in justice. I believe in looking squarely at the evil in the world and trying to fix it, rather than hiding it away and pretending it’s not there.

And finally, I believe I’m going to die, probably at some unpredictable moment, and that everyone I care about will die someday as well. Any organizations I might join will someday fail. Cultures will change. Civilizations will collapse. And ultimately the Universe itself will go cold. So the satisfaction invoked by my life story can’t depend on a happy ending.

Fortunately, it doesn’t need to. I don’t need a story that lasts forever, I only need one I that stays meaningful until I die, and that is not undone by the prospect of my death. In other words, I need my story to be part of a larger story that will continue past my death in the stories of others, in the story of my community, and in the larger story of the struggle to understand the world and achieve justice. That is the kind of life I am trying to live and the story I am trying to tell.

And you? That’s me. But this is Unitarian Universalism, so you are free to disagree with any of that. Nonetheless I invite and encourage all of you to examine your own lives, your own stories, and your own beliefs.

Deciding who you’re going to be is not just a job for teen-agers. Periodically throughout our lives, I think, we need to renew our sense of who we are, how we’re going to live, and what we think about the world we live in.

I wish you well in your free and responsible search for truth and meaning.

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

A Brief Observation On Genesis and Gender

If you google up a survey of conservative Christian condemnations of transgenderism or gender fluidity, you'll notice that they pretty much all go back to the creation story in Genesis 1

So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.

That's the approach, for example, of the Focus on the Family article "A Biblical Perspective on Transgender Identity". 

Those of us committed to the Christian worldview base our view of gender and sex on the biblical book of Genesis

The Christian Q&A site "Got Questions" gets a little more precise: It admits the Bible doesn't cover nonbinary gender issues specifically, but invokes Genesis as the best it can do: 

The Bible nowhere explicitly mentions transgenderism or describes anyone as having transgender feelings. However, the Bible has plenty to say about human sexuality. Most basic to our understanding of gender is that God created two (and only two) genders: "male and female He created them"  (Genesis 1:27). All the modern-day speculation about numerous genders or gender fluidity—or even a gender “continuum” with unlimited genders—is foreign to the Bible.

Both articles (and all the others I've found claiming that the Bible mandates exactly two genders) share an interpretative choice: "male and female" is read as prescriptive, not expansive. Male and female, in other words, aren't examples of the breadth of God's creation, they define the limits of it. That's the choice Got Questions is making when it says "and only two". Once you make that choice, you can claim that anyone talking about some possibility outside the male/female duality is going against God.

Here's my brief observation: That's a weird interpretation.

In particular, that's not how anybody reads similar poetic forms in the rest of the creation story, or in the Bible in general. In Genesis 1:11, for example, we read: 

Then God said, “Let the land produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it, according to their various kinds.”

While 1:24 says:

And God said, “Let the land produce living creatures according to their kinds: the livestock, the creatures that move along the ground, and the wild animals, each according to its kind.”

Think about those. After God says "vegetation", does God then intend to legislate that plants must produce seeds? Mosses don't. Neither do ferns; they rely instead on a complicated two-generation reproductive cycle that involves spores. Are they in violation of the divine command? For that matter, were human agronomists subverting God when they produced seedless watermelons?

What if an animal species fell somewhere between the categories of "livestock" and "wild"? (Cats, for example.) Would they be abominations? What about animals that move primarily through the trees rather than "along the ground"?

Now back up and take a wider view: Isn't the whole creation story an elaboration of the idea that God created everything? But the list in Genesis 1 doesn't include mushrooms or insects. Should we then assume they are unholy creatures that come from somewhere else? 

Of course not.

In every phrase but "male and female", we read Genesis 1 as expansive and celebratory. The point is to stretch our imaginations by suggesting the breadth of creation, not to restrict creation down to the entries on a list. 

"Male and female he created them" should be read the same way.



Thursday, July 29, 2021

Return to Krypton

 My 2010 UU World article needs an update.

Like many people not considered essential workers, I experienced the pandemic as an ambiguous gift of unexpected free time. With both responsibilities and diversions blown away, I often didn’t know what to do with myself. 

Some people used that time better than others. Maybe they learned a new language, or finally got around to writing their novel. Some read great literature, or worked their way through lists of movie masterpieces.

I ended up watching a lot of super-hero TV shows: the various incarnations of X-Men cartoons, The Gifted, Cloak and Dagger, Titans, Doom Patrol, Young Justice, Arrow, Runaways, Superman and Lois, WandaVision, The Falcom and the Winter Soldier. I could go on.

Superhero fiction was not a new vice for me. In fact, back in 2010 I wrote a cover article for UU World about what Unitarian Universalists could learn from the changes the superhero mythos had been going through in the previous decades. 

And while I can't claim I set out to learn anything from my pandemic video binge, in fact I did: My article needs an update.

Then. Back in 2010, I was looking at this sea change: When I had been introduced to superheroes in the 1960s, everybody was an orphan: Spider-Man’s parents were dead. Batman’s parents were murdered in front of him. Superman’s whole planet blew up. Having no parents was almost a prerequisite for getting into the superhero club. You had super powers and no one to tell you how to use them.

It made a certain amount of sense that the Boomer generation (the one that grew up vowing not to trust anyone over 30) would have an orphan fantasy. Older people, and the institutions they tried to force us into, were sources of oppression. So John Lennon envisioned a future where institutions largely went away: “Imagine there’s no country … and no religion too.” Corporations, universities, governments – they all just wanted to wrap us up in ticky-tacky so we’d all look just the same.

Screw that. Superman may not have appreciated how lucky he was to come from a planet that no longer existed, but we did.

If you fast-forward a few decades, though, everything changes. The X-Men of the 1970s had a mentor, Professor Xavier, and by the 90s, almost every new hero was the inheritor of a legacy that some wise elder could initiate them into. Buffy belonged to a long line of vampire slayers. Witchblade-wielders, Jedi knights, and Star Fleet captains also had storied histories for successive generations to live up to, and if you were lucky a Giles or a Yoda would show up when you needed one. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles had their sensei. The Power Rangers had Orson. The age of making your own way, free from adult supervision, was over.

Even the older superhero mythologies adjusted. Alfred became more parental to the young Bruce Wayne, and the Kents of Smallville got ever more credit for how well their boy turned out. In Batman Beyond, the cowl of Batman became a legacy like the mantle of Elijah.

Again, this made sense: Gen-X and the early Millennials didn’t grow up with a father who “knows best”, and many of them probably wished they did. As I put it in UU World: “Needing to figure out how to save Metropolis from scratch, with no received wisdom to build on, isn’t a fantasy anymore. It’s a nightmare.”

 

My advice in 2010 was that older UUs needed to stop pitching their faith as a refuge for orphans, and instead become mentors of a noble legacy (which we happened to have). If young people came to our churches looking for something they could build on, they weren’t going to be impressed be our assurance that they could believe and think and do whatever they thought best.

Freedom they already had. A little bit of direction might go a long way.

Now. So what has been happening in the superhero world since 2010?

The heroes I saw in my latest binge certainly weren't orphans, but they also didn't need to go looking for a legacy. Instead, parents have become ambiguous figures whose inescapable influence is both good and bad. The forces that shape you almost always also screw you up as well. Nobody makes it to adulthood unmarred.

Again and again, young heroes are realizing that they can’t simply reject their parents, but they also can’t follow them. In Runaways, teens discover that their parents are a child-sacrificing cult. Ultimately, though [spoiler alert], the parents themselves are not the villains; they are in thrall to an evil force that they need their children’s help to escape.

The central conflict of Titans is 20-something Dick Grayson’s (i.e., Robin’s) struggle to make peace with the upbringing he got from Bruce Wayne (Batman). Unsurprisingly, he suffers from unachievable standards, relentless self-criticism, an inability to walk away from trouble, and a disturbing propensity towards violence. He can leave his costume in its case, but if he isn’t the protege of Batman any more, who is he?

Grayson’s attempts to mentor younger people with powers (Beast Boy and Raven) eventually lead him to make peace with his own history: Bruce, he decides, did what he knew how to do. Some of it gave Dick his virtues, and some left him with problems to overcome. He tries not to make the same mistakes with his charges. But his very urge to want to help them, to “take in strays” as one character puts it, is a positive inheritance from Bruce Wayne.

Raven, in turn, is the daughter of a demon that she has to banish to another dimension before he destroys the Earth. Beast Boy’s powers come from an experimental cure worked by the semi-benevolent/semi-abusive Dr. Caulder of Doom Patrol. One Titans character seems particularly on point: Superboy, who is an escaped science experiment with DNA from both Superman and Lex Luthor. He is largely a blank slate, but knows he has it in him to be either a great hero or a great villain.

Where the 90s' Batman Beyond was about struggling to live up to a legacy, the recent The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is about struggling with the legacy itself: What does it mean to be the new Captain America? Can a Black man carry that tradition forward? Should even he want to, given America’s history with his race? What is there about America that a Black man would want to embody?

In short, if the heroes of the 90s wanted to reclaim a legacy, the heroes of today want to redeem a legacy they didn't choose but can’t escape.

Again, it’s not hard to tie that theme to current headlines. What is the debate over so-called “critical race theory” (a.k.a. teaching accurate American history) other than a conflict over legacy? Is America the vision of “all men created equal”? Or is it the reality of slavery and racism? Or both?

Where will you find a bigger bundle of virtues and vices than Thomas Jefferson, who not so long ago figured prominently as a famous Unitarian? He wrote the Declaration of Independence, drew the line between Church and State, founded the University of Virginia, designed Monticello, sent Lewis and Clark to explore the Louisiana Territory he had just bought from France, and (along with the other early presidents) built the tradition of a lawful Republic where power is transferred peacefully. 

But he also raped his slave and enslaved their children. What do you do with that?

What do you do with American democracy? It favors the rich. It tilts towards minority rule. Changing anything is incredibly hard. And given recent history, who can say with certainty that the skewed and gerrymandered electorate will not ultimately install some form of fascism?

What do you do with capitalism? It has created a level of abundance the world has never known before. And it’s destroying us. Not one or the other. Both.

We live in a world that has the DNA of both Superman and Lex Luthor. What do we do with it?

Again, the answers of previous generations won't do. “Whatever you want” is not good enough. Returning to our legacy, making America “Great Again”, is also inadequate, because America was never truly great. All the way back, you’ll find nothing but alloys of virtue and vice – never fully good, never fully evil.

Like the Runaways, we are inheritors of a corrupt tradition. Our powers come from tainted sources, and yet they are all we have. There is no singularly virtuous place to stand, and yet we must move the World in a better direction.

What is needed right now is not zeal alone, but also discernment. The redemption of our various inescapable legacies requires an essentially alchemical operation: They need to be reduced to their constituent elements and recombined anew. I revere this Jefferson; I revile that one. This America is the base on which we will build; that one belongs in history's dumpster.

So what should a UU church be in this era? Not a place of perfect freedom for the last sons of dying planets, and not a heroic order whose oath you can take and whose mantle can be passed down to you. In the 20s, a UU church needs to be an alchemical athenor, a crucible where we melt our legacies down to their elements and rework them into something better. We need to account both for what has been done to us and what has been done for us. We need to be both critical and grateful.

Our ancestors did what they knew how to do and left us here, with this collection of strengths and wounds, this ledger of assets and debts. We can’t start from scratch and we can’t go on like this. But we can (and we have to) start from here.

Sunday, May 23, 2021

Musing on God

I just listened (over Zoom, of course) to my church's annual Coming of Age service, where the teens tell us what they believe and what Unitarian Universalism means to them.

Every year, this service sets me musing about some aspect of my own beliefs, and sometimes I crystalize something that I have been sort-of thinking for some while.

Two things hit me this year. First, the idea that UUs can "believe whatever we want" has it backwards: the underlying truth is about responsibility, not freedom. Unitarian Universalism teaches that we are all responsible for what we believe, and that no book or authority or creed can take that responsibility away from us.

Second, I thought about God, where my beliefs are not as simple as theism or atheism. 

I believe that God can be a useful concept if you hold it the right way. In day-to-day life, we all live inside a story that we tell about the world, as if we and all the people we run into were characters in that story. We live with the purpose of making the story come out "right", according to some notion of rightness.

But the world and the people in it, ourselves included, are so much more than what our story captures. Occasionally that more-ness breaks through, and for a short time we are without a story, without a self, and without boxes to put other people into. This is both wonderful and terrifying, but without those moments we would never grow.

Used artfully, "God" can be a word in our story reminding us that our story is incomplete, and that its incompleteness makes it brittle. This kind of God points to the great mystery, the great more-ness, of the world. In times of crisis, when our stories fail, God can be a reassurance that new stories are possible, and that chaos is not the final word.

But used badly, "God" can serve the exact opposite purpose. This kind of God is just one more character inside the story we tell, and God lives in a box as confining as any other character's. We have God defined and mapped out; we always know what God wants. 

Worse, this God may be an authoritarian character who mainly wants all the other characters to stay in their boxes. If you notice something odd about your story, something that makes you wonder if you have it right, God will shout you down and tell you to ignore whatever it is you thought you saw. And if you ever try to set the story aside for a moment and look at the world beyond, you are going against God. 

So I believe in the God who breaks us out of our stories, not the God who holds us in them.

Monday, January 25, 2021

Did We Inaugurate a New Era, or Just a Person?

 from a Zoom service of First Parish in Billerica, Massachusetts
January 24, 2021

Opening Words

The opening words are by Pheidippides, the Athenian messenger who ran all the way from the plains of Marathon to the Acropolis. Just before collapsing and dying from exhaustion, he announced the outcome of the battle against the Persian invaders: “Nike! Nike! Nenikekiam!” Victory! Victory! Rejoice!

Meditation

Imagine that it is a year ago — January 2020. We are gathered in your beautiful, historic sanctuary. I’m standing at Ralph Waldo Emerson’s pulpit, when suddenly I am overcome by the spirit of prophesy. And I tell you that one year hence, we will have inaugurated a new president, who will receive a record number of votes and win by more than seven million, even flipping states like Arizona and Georgia. For the first time in American history, a woman of color will be vice president. The new White House will be backed up by majorities in both houses of Congress.

Now imagine that you all believe me. After the service, we go downstairs to share that wonderful spread of food you always assemble. Listen to the room as it burbles with optimism and idealism and we envision all the wonderful things the new administration might accomplish.

Responsive Reading

It Matters What We Believe” by Sophia Lyon Fahs

Reading

Excerpts from:  “A QAnon ‘Digital Soldier’ Marches On, Undeterred by Theory’s Unraveling” by Kevin Roose.

Every morning, Valerie Gilbert, a Harvard-educated writer and actress, wakes up in her Upper East Side apartment; feeds her dog, Milo, and her cats, Marlena and Celeste; brews a cup of coffee; and sits down at her oval dining room table.Then, she opens her laptop and begins fighting the global cabal.

Ms. Gilbert, 57, is a believer in QAnon, the pro-Trump conspiracy theory. Like all QAnon faithful, she is convinced that the world is run by a Satanic group of pedophiles that includes top Democrats and Hollywood elites, and that President Trump has spent years leading a top-secret mission to bring these evildoers to justice. ...

These are confusing times for followers of QAnon. They were told that Mr. Trump would be re-elected in a landslide, and that a coming “storm” would expose the global pedophile ring and bring its leaders to justice.

But there have been no mass arrests, and Mr. Trump is leaving office on Wednesday under the cloud of a second impeachment. Many prominent QAnon followers have been arrested for their roles in this month’s deadly mob riot at the U.S. Capitol. They are being barred by the thousands from major social networks for spreading misinformation about voter fraud, and law enforcement agencies are treating the movement as a domestic extremist threat.

These setbacks have left QAnon believers like Ms. Gilbert hoping for a last-minute miracle. Her current theory is that Mr. Trump will not actually leave office on Wednesday, but will instead declare martial law, declassify damning information about the “deep state” and arrest thousands of cabal members, including President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. ...

What attracts Ms. Gilbert and many other people to QAnon 
isn’t just the content of the conspiracy theory itself. It’s the community and sense of mission it provides. New QAnon believers are invited to chat rooms and group texts, 
and their posts are showered with likes and retweets. They make friends, 
and are told that they are not lonely Facebook addicts 
squinting at zoomed-in paparazzi photos, 
but patriots gathering “intel” for a righteous revolution. ...

Q, who once sent dozens of updates a day, has essentially vanished from the internet in recent weeks, posting only four times since the November election. ... But Ms. Gilbert isn’t worried. For her, QAnon was always less about Q and more about the crowdsourced search for truth. She loves assembling her own reality in real time, patching together shards of information and connecting them to the core narrative. ... When she solves a new piece of the puzzle, she posts it to Facebook, where her QAnon friends post heart emojis and congratulate her.

This week, when Mr. Biden becomes president and Mr. Trump leaves the White House, it will be a huge blow to QAnon’s core mythology, and it may force some believers to acknowledge that they’ve been lied to. Many will cope by spinning the development as a win, or saying it proves that Mr. Trump is playing the long game. Others will quietly ditch Q and transfer their enthusiasm to a new conspiracy theory. A few might be jolted back to reality.

But Ms. Gilbert is undeterred. She trusts Q’s plan, at least for a little while longer, and she wants [others] to trust it, too.

Sermon

I want to start by standing up to show you my t-shirt. It says “Democracy & I Survived 2020”. I had it made because in spite of Wednesday’s inauguration, 2020 felt less like a triumph than like something to get through.

The reason I had the meditation take you back to a year ago, and then imagine forward how we might have felt then if we had foreseen this outcome, is that it contrasts so strongly with how I and so many of the people I know actually do feel right now.

If I’d convinced you of that prophecy a year ago I think we really would have buzzed with excitement. But to be honest, I’m not doing a lot of buzzing and burbling these days. Because I didn’t get to jump straight from last January to this one. Like everybody else, I had to make that journey one day at a time, and it wore me down. Maybe it wore you down too.

All the unnecessary death. All the senseless partisan conflict about basic public-health practices like masks and social distancing. All the things we had to give up: restaurants, travel, concerts, aimless shopping, hanging around reading in coffee shops and libraries. Deb and I missed the funeral of my brother-in-law in Tennessee, and broke a decades-long tradition of spending Christmas with our friends.

I’m sure each of you has your own list of missed events and broken habits -- habits that probably turned out to mean more to you than you had ever realized. Worse, maybe the virus took someone close to you. Maybe you had a rough time with your own health. Maybe you lost your job or had to close your business. Or maybe you kept your job because you are an essential worker who has to deal with the public, but every day you wonder whether some customer or client is going to infect you.

This has also been a hard year to live through politically. It started and ended with an impeachment. George Floyd was murdered, touching off weeks of protests both peaceful and violent.

The big question in the election turned out not to be who the voters would choose, but whether our choice would even matter. After he lost, the president did everything he could to hang onto power, and every time the issue seemed to be settled, it wasn’t. There was always one more thing he could try, one more weak spot in the system that he could push on, all the way up to gathering a mob and inciting it to attack Congress as it counted the electoral votes. Not until the inauguration Wednesday could we really be sure that democracy had held.

So rather than bursting with optimism and excitement, I think many of us arrive at this moment feeling as exhausted as that Athenian messenger. Nike! Nike! Nenikekiam! 2021! The Biden administration! We made it; now we can collapse.

But if there’s one message I want you to take away from this morning, it’s that this is not the time to collapse. And I’m directing that message as much at myself as at the rest of you. What I would like to have offered you this morning is a visionary, energizing message about all the possibilities of this moment. I would like to have sparked that classic Unitarian optimism you can hear in the hymns. “These Things Shall Be” — the Future is coming, and won’t it be wonderful.

Instead, what I can find it in myself to tell you is that the Future needs us. It needs us active, it needs us engaged. Because if we pull back now, if we say, “I voted. Now let Joe do it” then all that Wednesday will mean is that we inaugurated a man. But we will not have inaugurated the new era our country needs.

The old president may be gone, but simply replacing the people in power does not produce real change in a democracy. Because real change doesn’t come from the top down. Democracies only transform when those at the top respond to a genuine hunger for change that bubbles up from the People. Without that popular demand, even well-intentioned government loses momentum. The big financial interests, the people who benefit from the status quo — they never go away.They never stop asking for what they want. They never tire of spreading disinformation and corruption.

If those are the only voices our leaders hear, it won’t matter how many good intentions they had when they took office. Eventually, they’ll once again end up explaining to us how they want the same good things we do, but it’s just not possible. Change is never possible unless the People demand it.

But if the Future needs our engagement as citizens, I think it needs even more our participation as Unitarian Universalists. Because I believe that Unitarian Universalism has something very special to offer this nation and the world at this moment in history.

It’s not hard to make a list of the challenges we face: not just the pandemic and the economic problems it has caused, but also the less immediate but far less tractable challenge of climate change. The long history of systemic racism demands our attention. Growing economic inequality. The rise of authoritarianism around the world. The millions of people who are here without legal status and the millions of others who would like to come. Working out a world order that finds a place for China, but is not dominated by it. I could go on.

But no matter which of those challenges you feel called to address, you’re going to run into the same obstacle: Our society, our culture, is losing its respect for Truth. More and more all the time, our national conversation is corrupted by the idea that if you don’t want believe something, you don’t have to. We’ve lost sight of the fact that there is a Reality out there that can only be denied for so long.

Look at the pandemic. For nearly a year, our recently departed president tried everything he could think of to conjure it away. He told us the virus wouldn’t come here, that it would fade away by magic, that it would be gone when the weather got warm, that it was just the flu, the common cold, it wasn’t serious, people weren’t really dying, the numbers were exaggerated, and on and on. Wednesday morning, before he boarded Air Force One for the last time, he spoke of the pandemic in the past tense, as if hadn’t been at its peak at that very moment. But all that denial, all that distraction, couldn’t make it go away.

Or think about global warming. The reality is simple: Burning fossil fuels increases the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas; it reflects back to Earth infrared radiation that otherwise would escape into space. So the planet gets warmer. 

It would be nice if that weren’t true. I see the attraction of a world where we all keep driving, keep flying, keep drilling, keep mining, keep living the way we feel entitled to live — and nothing bad happens. So I understand the temptation to say "It’s all a hoax." "It isn’t that bad." "God controls the weather, not us." "The climate is always changing." And so on.

But there’s a real Earth out there, and it really does keep getting hotter. All the denial in the world isn’t going to stop that process.

Our former president didn’t like the fact that he lost the election, so he said he didn’t lose. He said it loud, he said it often. He got other people to say it with him, because they also didn’t like the truth about the election. Some of them came together in a violent mob and invaded our Capitol. People died. If events had played out just a little differently, some of our elected representatives might also have died. But there are real ballots with real marks on them, and when you total them up, he did lose.

Whatever challenge you choose to take on, you’re going to have to battle that plague of wishful thinking. Like: "Racism ended in the 60s." "Evolution is just a theory." "People wouldn’t have to be poor if they just worked harder." "Sexual orientation is a choice." "Whatever the problem, we won’t have to make any hard choices because technology will save us."

If there’s one thing that the world needs right now across the board, it’s a rededication to Truth. Not even just a reluctant resignation to dismal facts, but an active fascination with what is real, the pursuit of Truth with passion, with a religious fervor. At its best, that’s what Unitarian Universalism offers.

All religions talk about Truth, but what most of them really want is to convince themselves and others that the beliefs they already have are true. Unitarianism is one of the few traditions on Earth that is committed to following the Truth wherever it leads. If you look back at the pillars of that tradition through the generations: Channing, Emerson, Theodore Parker, James Freeman Clarke, John Dietrich, James Luther Adams, Thandeka — you won’t find much consistency in the specifics of their theologies.

William Ellery Channing’s Christianity sounds quaint to me when I read it now. But what rings as clearly today as it did in the 1820s, what shines through in the work of that whole succession of giants I just listed, is a commitment to use the full power of their minds and all the knowledge available in their eras to follow the Truth wherever it leads. That’s the kind of commitment the world needs right now. It doesn’t just need you as a person, or a citizen, or a political partisan. The world needs you as a Unitarian Universalist.

I say the world needs you particularly now. But of course, wishful thinking is not new. It’s a very human trait; we are all tempted by it. But there’s something different in this current era of social media. Today, if there’s something about reality you don’t want to believe, you can easily find an entire community of people who also don’t want to believe it. And then you can support each other in saying that it’s not true. You can make up the most outrageous fantasies and believe in them together. (That’s why I included that QAnon reading.) 

Today, if you want to believe something badly enough, you can. You don’t have to do it by yourself. You can find thousands and thousands of people to believe it with you. Your belief won’t stop Reality from being what it is, but by joining together with others, you can remain comfortable in your denial for a long, long time.

And that temptation, I think, is the biggest problem in the world right now. All our other problems are harder, because so many people believe that they can just imagine a different reality and live there instead of here. If we can’t come to terms with that temptation, I think it’s going to get us all killed someday.

Some people may find it amusing that I offer Unitarian Universalism as an antidote to the problem of people believing whatever they want to believe. Because that’s usually what people say about us. We aren’t bound to follow a leader, a creed, a catechism, or a holy book. That’s the free part of our free and responsible search for truth and meaning. So outsiders imagine our freedom must mean that we all just believe whatever we want.

But people who make that criticism have missed the “responsible” part of the free and responsible search. Because not having an external authority over us also means that there is no authority for us to hide behind. We are responsible for what we believe. If our beliefs, or the actions that we take based on those beliefs, hurt other people, or promote injustice, or bring about an environmental catastrophe, that’s on us. We can’t blame those consequences on our church or on God.

One major way religion does harm in the world today is when it shields people from responsibility for their beliefs. Don’t blame me for these beliefs, religious people say, because I got them from my minister, from my church, from our holy book, from God. So  I have nothing against gays and lesbians, but my church teaches that they are sinners, and that marriage is reserved for one man and one woman. I’m not trying to keep women in their place, but the Bible tells wives to submit to their husbands. 1 Timothy 2:12 says “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence.” That's the Word of God.

Very often, if you push on those statements, you’ll discover that people are not so much submitting to authority as finding an authority to excuse them for believing and doing what they want. Consider this analogy: Maybe you remember how, during the Iraq War, President Bush would claim that he was following the advice of his generals. But if a general gave him advice he didn’t like, he’d fire that general and get another one. So who’s advice was he really following?

Well, something similar goes on with churches. Sometimes, if you question people who simply claim to be following the teachings of their church, you’ll discover that they used to belong to some other church, but left it because it liberalized, and began to tolerate things they didn’t like. When it stopped justifying their particular bigotry, they traded it in for the church they attend now. So who is really responsible there?

Many people who claim to follow the Bible have found ways to get around its inconvenient passages. Matthew 19:21 says “sell all you own and give to the poor”. Who does that?

Leviticus 19:34 says: “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Quote that to a fundamentalist who wants to deport all the undocumented immigrants, and he will uncork a whole bottle of interpretation to explain why that passage doesn’t mean what it so obviously does mean. Because that’s how the game is played: When the Bible tells you what you want to hear, then it is the Word of God and must be followed no matter what. But when it tells you something you don’t want to hear, it needs interpretation. Who takes responsibility for that?

Unitarian Universalists don’t play those games. We are responsible for what we believe. We are responsible for what we do. Not our ministers, not our theologians, not the books we read, not even God. We are responsible.

If you take it seriously, that kind of responsibility can be a hard thing to shoulder. And that’s why we do it together. While others may choose a community that supports them in believing what they want to believe, we have chosen a community that keeps us honest. We help each other to carry our responsibility, not to make excuses for putting it down.

And so, if from time to time you fool yourself into forgetting or discounting the crises I listed, or any of the other aspects of Reality it would be pleasant to ignore, count on someone here to remind you before too much time goes by. If you start living inside a self-serving fantasy that harms others and excuses your sense of entitlement and privilege, you can hope to find the kinds of friends here who will call you on it.

After the recent Capitol riot, the UU minister Kristin Grassel Schmidt wrote: “Here’s a deep truth: it is only through real, sometimes very tough accountability that some people will understand that they’ve lost their way. Being held accountable has helped me to learn, and to be and do better, so why would I hold that blessing back from others? Sometimes helping people find their way to truth, love, and justice means insisting that truth is truth — even if it isn’t polite; even if it leads to argument. We may even need to say ‘I love you, but I will never agree to disagree on this. Truth is too important to set aside just because it challenges and upset you’.”

That’s how we roll.

At this particular moment, there’s something else that we need from each other, something I wish I could have brought to you this morning: a sense of the wonder and possibility of this moment. I’m afraid I have painted Reality only as harsh and demanding, because that’s how I’ve been experiencing it recently. But I think that’s more of a symptom than an observation. My reason tells me that Emerson was right long ago when he wrote: “This time, like all times, is a very good one, if we but know what to do with it.”

Reality can be harsh and demanding sometimes, but it also has a depth and complexity that gives it a beauty no fantasy can match. In the long run, time and effort spent trying to grasp and deal with what is really going on — in personal life, in a laboratory, or on the world stage — is always more rewarding than arranging the components of a fantasy to get the outcome you want. There are unexpected dangers and disappointments, but also unexpected opportunities.

And the kind of betrayal that QAnon followers are experiencing now — Reality doesn’t do that to you. You have to meet Reality on its own terms, but it is always there for you.

And finally, I want to point out that if you do have an appreciation of the wonder and possibilities of this moment, then you have special gift to offer. You have something that is in short supply right now, and I encourage you to be generous with it.

But even if, like me, you are feeling tired and worn down these days … Yes, you should take care of yourself. You should do whatever you need to do to stay healthy, both mentally and physically. But at the same time I hope you remember that the world needs Unitarian Universalists right now. It needs us maybe more than it ever has.

Closing Words

The closing words were written by Pascal in the 17th century: “Truth is so obscured nowadays and lies so well established that unless we love the truth we shall never recognize it.”

Tuesday, December 01, 2020

OK, the Election's Over. Now What?

 

a service at First Parish in Billerica
, Massachusetts

November 29, 2020


Reading

From “Who Will We Be Without Trump?” by New York Times columnist Frank Bruni.

A friend was all worked up about the possibility of Trump 2024.

“I can’t go through this again!” she cried. But what I heard was that she couldn’t stop going through this. Her contempt for Donald Trump is too finely honed at this point, too essential a part of her psyche. Who would she be — conversationally, politically — without it?

Another friend sent me an email in which he’d worked out the economics of a web-only Trump news channel of the kind that Trump may — or may not — start. With minimal investment, Trump could rake in millions and millions!

We were supposed to be breathing a huge sigh of relief about Joe Biden’s victory. But instead he was finding a fresh source of outrage about Trump.

And here I am writing about Trump — again. It’s a tic, not one I’m proud of. But I’m surrendering to it now to acknowledge that I can’t continue doing so. None of us can. …

On Jan. 20 — praise be! — his presidency will be over. But his hold on us may not end as quickly and cleanly. And his departure from the White House will be more disorienting than some of us realize, posing its own challenges: for Democrats, for news organizations, for anyone who has grown accustomed over these past four years to an apocalyptic churn of events and emotions. …

I … worry that in the wake of Trump’s presidency, which both reflected and intensified the furious pitch of American politics, melodrama may be the new normal. I worry that while Americans are exhausted by it, we’re also habituated to it; that we’ll manufacture it where it doesn’t exist … [and] I worry that my worry is part of the problem.

Sermon

Back in the 90s, my wife Deb was battling breast cancer. I think I’ve told that story here before, so I won’t go into a lot of detail. But for months at a time, I was worried that she might die.

It never got to the point where I expected her to die in the next few days, but she was also never entirely in the clear. Surgery is always risky. And when high-dose chemotherapy had wiped out her immune system, I knew that any infection could proceed pretty quickly. And of course there were constant tests, any one of which might tell us that things had taken a bad turn. Treatment went on for a very intense nine months.

And then it was over. Microscopic cancer colonies might still be in there somewhere, the doctors told us, but maybe not. Come back in six months.

So she was home. She went back to work. We saw our friends, went to restaurants, took vacations. We could make plans now and not worry so much about needing to cancel them. Life could be more or less normal. Though we continued to be nervous, we were relieved, and happy that things were working out so well.

But we also didn’t know what to do with ourselves. For most of a year, we had lived with a sense of desperate intensity, constantly afraid that terrible news was coming, constantly worried that we might make some wrong decision and only later discover its horrible consequences.

And then that intensity was gone, and we had to recalibrate all our standards. Now, “bad news” meant that the movie we wanted to see was sold out. A “bad decision” meant buying the wrong pair of shoes, or misjudging rush hour traffic and being late. That comparative triviality took some getting used to.

Soldiers back from war often report something similar. Suddenly, “screwing up” doesn’t mean somebody is going to die. It just means that you’ve burned dinner, or that the project due Friday won’t get done until Monday. It can be hard to adjust, hard to take seriously the drastically smaller ups and downs of your new life.

In 2011, a New York Times reporter interviewed soldiers returning from Afghanistan and noted the difficulty of “dialing back the hypervigilance that served them well in combat.” A sergeant told the reporter: “The hardest part for me, I guess, is not being on edge.”

People who escape dysfunctional social relationships are often drawn back in. Abused spouses go back to their abusers, ex-members of cults return to the fold, and so on. Bad as they can be, those relationships are intense. Everything that happens in them feels terribly important. Healthier relationships -- where conflict still happens, but shouting and crying are rare, and no one ever winds up in the emergency room -- can seem flat by comparison.

You may wonder where I’m going with this.

Almost a month ago, we had an election. By a margin of more than six million votes, we told Donald Trump to pack his bags. It’s over. At noon on January 20th, he’ll be gone from the White House. There’s a counter on the internet that will tell you to the second just how much longer we have to wait.

When I signed up to do this service, I didn’t know how the election would come out. So I had several possible sermon topics in mind.

If Trump had gotten re-elected, I was planning to do a keep-the-faith talk, about how to maintain hope and endure four more years of a government so hostile to Unitarian Universalist values.

Another possibility was the Great Blue Wave — not just a new president, but a new Congress open to the kind of structural change American democracy needs. That outcome called for a visionary talk. Instead of tinkering around the edges of the status quo, let’s sit down with a blank sheet of paper and think about what we really want for this country.

What actually happened was somewhere in between. In some sense, the Great Blue Wave did roll in. Turnout was enormous, and Joe Biden got more votes than any presidential candidate in American history, over 80 million.

And yet, the turnout on the other side was also impressive. Trump’s losing campaign netted 74 million votes, which is millions more than Barack Obama got in his 2008 landslide, and 11 million more than Trump himself got in 2016. Unless Democrats sweep the runoffs in Georgia, Mitch McConnell will retain control of the Senate, and Nancy Pelosi’s majority in the House will be smaller, not larger. So if there was a Blue Wave, a lot of the red power structure survived it.

To me, the shock of this election was those 74 million Trump voters. I could almost understand people who voted for him the first time: Maybe they didn’t like Hillary Clinton. Maybe they believed that a businessman could run the government more efficiently. Maybe they were just generally frustrated and thought, “What the hell? He’ll shake things up. How bad can he be?”

But by now we’ve had four years to answer that question. We’ve seen Covid kill a quarter million of our fellow Americans. We’ve seen our nation inflict pointless cruelty on helpless people who come to our border looking for asylum — including separating families and then deporting the parents without giving their children back. In hundreds of cases, we’ve even lost the connection between them. We could find Osama bin Laden, but somehow we can’t find these kids’ parents.  

We’ve seen the Justice Department protect allies of the President who commit crimes, and heard him demand that the attorney general arrest his rivals based on conspiracy theories rather than evidence. We’ve seen unprecedented levels of corruption, including millions of dollars of government money flowing into the President’s businesses. We’ve heard no apologies from him when mass shooters repeat his rhetoric to justify slaughtering Hispanics or Jews.

And after all that, 74 million Americans got their ballots and said, “That’s good. I want four years more.” I found that not just surprising, but unsettling. And for a week or so I thought this talk would focus on that issue: How can I come to terms with what the election has demonstrated about my fellow citizens? Because for UUs this is more than just a political challenge. It goes to the heart of our religion.

Our Unitarian principles commit us to democratic process. But democracy has to mean more than just majority rule. Real democracy involves forming a common vision of ourselves as a people, respecting one another, and developing some common core of facts on which to base our national conversation. When either party  says to the other “We outnumber you, so we’re just going to vote you down” that isn’t the kind of democracy we’re looking for. So when President-elect Biden talks about healing America by reaching across the partisan divide, he’s speaking our language.

At a more personal level, our Universalist values tell us that no one is irredeemable. No one should be written off as unworthy of consideration. No matter how many times a person refuses to see the light as we see it, or to recognize what seem to us to be undeniable facts, we can’t stop trying to communicate or trying to understand.

And that’s a challenge right now, because our efforts to understand or communicate meet with so little reciprocity. Monday, Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson suggested a reading list for conservatives who want to understand “the opaque and inscrutable Joe Biden voter”. He was, of course, making fun of the mainstream media’s four-year long effort to understand white working-class Trump voters.    

After 2016, he writes, “Reporters and researchers swarmed what seemed like every bereft factory town in the industrial Midwest, every hill and hollow of Appalachia, every windswept farming community throughout the Great Plains. I’m pretty sure television crews did, in fact, bring us reports from every single diner in the contiguous United States — at least, those where at least one regular patron wears overalls.”

“Logically, then, we should put aside those dog-eared copies of J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy and subject ‘the Biden voter’ to the same kind of microscopic scrutiny. Venture out of your bubble, Trump supporters, and try to understand how most of America thinks.”

Robinson was writing tongue-in-cheek, of course, because he knows that project will never be undertaken. Fox News reporters are not going to hang out at black barber shops in Detroit, or interview white suburban UUs to find out why so many church-going professionals voted against what regular Fox viewers must see as our self-interest.

The situation is quite the opposite, in fact. A popular slogan on Trump campaign merchandise, one repeated at rallies by Don Jr. himself, was “Make Liberals Cry Again”. For many on that side, our distress and disappointment is not an unfortunate byproduct of achieving their positive vision for America. It’s a goal in itself. Making us cry is something to celebrate. How should we respond to that?

I thought that theme might make a good talk, one that I probably need to write even more than you need to hear. I still think so, and maybe it will happen someday. But try as I might to assemble that talk, the voice of inspiration just wouldn’t speak to me; I couldn’t make it come together. And that was my first clue that maybe I was skipping over an important step in the process. Maybe the healing of America needs to start somewhere else.

My second clue came from the post-election media coverage. Ordinarily, when an opposition party wins the White House, the president-elect and the new administration instantly become the center of all attention. Who’s going to be the chief of staff? Who’s going to be in the cabinet? What's the first issue on their new agenda?

Usually, it’s like the Eagles sang: “There’s a new kid in town. Everybody’s talking about the new kid in town.”

But not this time. And like Frank Bruni, I find that I am part of that phenomenon. I write a weekly politics blog, and week after week, even after it became clear that Trump had lost, it’s been hard to talk about anybody else: Why won’t he concede? Would he ever let the Biden transition begin? What’s going on with all those absurd lawsuits? And with his calls to local election officials and Republican legislators in states Biden won? Why is he replacing the leadership in the Pentagon? Is he staging a coup? Can it possibly work? Who’s he going to pardon? Will he try to pardon himself? Will he resign so that Pence can pardon him? On and on and on.

But wait. Isn’t there a new kid in town? Of course there is. And he’s doing the kinds of things presidents-elect typically do. For example, he quickly rolled out his team to deal with our most pressing problem: the pandemic.

But by the standards of the last four years, that event was missing a certain pizzazz. His team was all doctors and public health experts. Not a quack or a charlatan in the bunch. Not even somebody from Biden’s family.

And what did those well-qualified experts tell us to do? Stuff we’d already heard: wear a mask, wash your hands, stay out of crowds. There’s a vaccine coming, and it’s going to work, but it’s not going to be a miracle. Distributing it will be an enormous logistical problem that takes months. They’re going to do the best they can.

Then Biden got up there and repeated the same things. He didn’t promise the virus was going to go away by magic. He didn’t offer us a miracle cure or suggest that we inject bleach. He didn’t yield the podium to the My Pillow guy or some other campaign donor with something crazy to say.

That’s news, I guess. But what can I write about that will grab my readers’ attention? And more important: What am I supposed to feel? If government becomes sane and sensible, where’s my next jolt of adrenaline going to come from?

Eventually it dawned on me: For five years now, pretty much since he came down the escalator in 2015, I’ve been in an abusive relationship with Donald Trump.

Day after day, I have approached my news sources by armoring myself against attack. I have expected that each day I will somehow be insulted or threatened by my President. Or he will do or say something that will make me feel ashamed of the country I love and want to take pride in. In my name, he will attack the environment or harm innocent people or involve me in some other sin that I can never make right.

I came to expect that again and again, he would abuse his power in some way I didn’t see coming, because I had taken the norms of American democracy for granted. I had imagined that somehow the laws and the Constitution would enforce themselves, without any human process that could be disrupted or ignored.

Day after day I would think, “He can’t do that” only to realize that yes, he can. He can set up concentration camps on our border. He can create a masked federal police force and unleash it on the streets of cities where the mayor and the governor don’t want it. He can slow down the Post Office to keep mail-in ballots from arriving in time to be counted. He can threaten to take federal emergency money away from states whose governors aren’t nice enough to him, and foreign aid away from countries that refuse to do him political favors. He can trade pardons for the silence of his co-conspirators. He can shrug off responsibility when his supporters mail pipe bombs to his critics or plot to kidnap the governor of Michigan.

Yes he can.

And because I have so often failed to anticipate what he can do, I have lived for years with a constant sense of dread. What else haven’t I thought of?

That’s what has made his attempts to overturn the election results so riveting. I didn’t see how it could possibly work. But what if I was missing something? What if I was taking for granted some boundary that he could just step over, as he has stepped over so many others?

So for years, I have lived with unrelenting feelings of fear and outrage and shame. An alarm bell has been constantly ringing in my head, telling me that I need to do something, but I don’t know what.

It has been a difficult, terrible four years. But at the same time, it has also been very, very intense.

So after all this, can I really just go back to normal? Or have I gotten, in Frank Bruni’s words, habituated to melodrama. Do I need that regular jolt of adrenaline? If there is no daily outrage, where will my sense of mission come from? What happens to the dragonslayers after the dragon is gone?

On a more mundane level: What’s going to happen to my blog when my readers realize that they don’t need to watch politics as closely as they’ve been doing? When they realize that they can let down their guard for weeks at a time, trusting that the administration will do more-or-less the right thing most of the time? What am I going to write about when the drama of the rise of fascism is replaced by the day-to-day slog of good government?

What we’ve been seeing from the Biden transition these last few weeks is what normal governance is supposed to look like: Presidents choose qualified people, who then say and do sensible things. But watching a well-run government closely is an acquired taste. It’s not the kind of circus we’ve gotten used to.

So it’s a real question: What am I going to do after January 20th, when my emotions are my own again? When my buttons are not repeatedly being pushed? When I am not constantly being trolled? When I can approach the news every morning without already knowing how it’s going to make me feel?

On the one hand, that sounds wonderful. And I believe that eventually it will be wonderful, in more ways than I currently appreciate. That ongoing abuse has probably done me more damage than I realize. And defending myself against it probably has been weighing me down more than I knew.

But on the other hand, experience tells me that this adjustment is going to be a harder than it looks. The psychological wear and tear of the last four years isn’t going to repair itself instantly on Inauguration Day.

President-elect Biden is totally right when he says that America needs to heal its partisan divide. And as a UU, I hope that someday soon I’ll be ready to pitch in and work on that project. But I’m not there yet, and I’m not going to pretend that I am. Before there can be healing between people, I think there needs to be some healing within people.

People like me.

At least that’s where I intend to start.