Wednesday, March 09, 2016

Who Owns the World? (2016 version)

presented at First Church in Billerica on March 6, 2016

Opening Words

When I give food to the poor, 
they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, 
they call me a communist. — Archbishop Hélder Câmara of Brazil


Pope Francis is often thought of as a progressive
 or even radical pope, 
but much of his message has been 
to re-emphasize Catholic social justice teachings 
that go back more than a century, 
and have been restated by every pope since. Our first reading is from one of those prior encyclicals, Laborem Exercens, written by John Paul II in 1981. (One progressive thing popes didn’t do in 1981 
was to use gender-inclusive language. So I apologize for that in advance.)

Working at any workbench, 
whether a relatively primitive or an ultramodern one, 
a man can easily see that through his work 
he enters into two inheritances: 
the inheritance of what is given 
to the whole of humanity in the resources of nature, and the inheritance of what others 
have already developed 
on the basis of those resources, 
primarily by developing technology, 
that is to say, 
by producing a whole collection 
of increasingly perfect instruments for work.

The second reading is from Ayn Rand, 
a favorite author of Speaker Paul Ryan 
and many other conservatives. This paragraph is from her magnum opus Atlas Shrugged, and in particular from the John Galt speech 
that is the philosophical climax of the novel. Here, Galt is also talking about 
those “increasingly perfect instruments for work” — specifically, the steel factory owned 
by one of the novel’s other heroes, 
the industrialist Hank Rearden. 

The machine, the frozen form of a living intelligence, 
is the power that expands the potential of your life 
by raising the productivity of your time. If you worked as a blacksmith in the mystics’ Middle Ages, the whole of your earning capacity would consist 
of an iron bar produced by your hands 
in days and days of effort. How many tons of rail do you produce per day 
if you work for Hank Rearden? Would you dare to claim 
that the size of your pay check 
was created solely by your physical labor 
and that those rails were the product of your muscles? The standard of living of that blacksmith 
is all that your muscles are worth; 
the rest is a gift from Hank Rearden.

I’ll hit this point harder later on, 
but look at what Galt has done 
to what the Pope called “the second inheritance”, 
the inheritance of technology. In Galt’s view, Hank Rearden is not just the inventor 
of the specific new products his factory produces, 
he is the sole rightful heir 
of all technological progress since the Middle Ages. Having been disinherited from the legacy of past inventors, the workers’ standard of living rises 
only through their employer’s generosity. Anything more than a medieval wage 
is essentially just charity. It is “a gift from Hank Rearden”.

The final reading is “The Goose and the Common”, 
a protest poem from 18th-century England. For centuries, the people of England 
had been suffering through a process 
known as Enclosure, in which a village’s common land 
would be fenced off 
and become the private property of the local lord.  To appreciate the poem’s biting humor, 
you need to know this piece of 18th-century slang: a goose was not just a bird, 
it was also an ordinary person — 
a usage that survives today 
in phrases like “silly goose” 
or “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.” 

The law locks up the man or woman

who steals the goose from off the Common,

but leaves the greater villain loose
who steals the Common from off the goose.

The law says that we must atone

when we take what we do not own,
but leaves the lords and ladies fine

when they take what is yours and mine.

The poor and wretched don't escape

when they conspire the law to break.

This must be so, but they endure

those who conspire to make the law.

The law locks up the man or woman

who steals the goose from off the Common.

And geese will still a Common lack

until they go and steal it back.


The meditation is a vision of peace and prosperity 
that comes from the prophet Micah: “They will sit under their own grapevines 
and their own fig trees, 
and no one will make them afraid.”


Unitarian Universalists talk a lot about social justice. And when we when talk among ourselves, 
we all more-or-less know what social justice means: Things should be more equal. 
The disadvantaged should be less disadvantaged. 
No one should be hungry. 
The sick or injured should be cared for. 
Education should available to everyone. 
And so on.

We’re much better making these kinds of lists 
than we are at explaining 
why this world we’re envisioning is just. Where is the justice in social justice?

Among ourselves, 
we usually don’t need to answer that question. Most people with UU values just feel it, 
without explanation. You say, “Isn’t it awful that in such a wealthy country, 
so many people are hungry or homeless
 or go without healthcare or education?” And whoever you are talking to probably says, 
“Yes, it is awful.” And the conversation goes on from there.

There’s nothing wrong with that conversation. But if that’s what we’re expecting, 
then we’ll be at a loss 
when we talk to people 
who have a different notion of justice. For example, justice could also mean 
that people get to keep the things they own, 
unless or until they decide to give them away.

If that’s what justice means to you, 
then when you hear that list of social justice goals, you’ll wonder where the money is going to come from. Who is going to pay the farmers and teachers and doctors who provide those goods and services? And more specifically, 
is the government going to take that money by force from the people who rightfully own it. Because, what’s just about that?

In one of the 2012 presidential debates, 
a young man asked the Republican candidates: “Out of every dollar that I earn, how much do you think that I deserve to keep?” Afterwards, Ron Paul had a clear and simple answer: “All of it.”

Former Judge Andrew Napolitano, 
a frequent Fox News contributor, 
has generated this fantasy:

You're sitting at home at night, 
and there's a knock at the door. You open the door, 
and a guy with a gun pointed at you says: 
"Give me your money. 
I want to give it away to the less fortunate." You think he's dangerous and crazy, 
so you call the police. Then you find out he is the police, 
there to collect your taxes.

Napolitano saw the income tax 
as representing “a terrifying presumption. 
It presumes that we don't really own our property.” 
We only own the part of it 
that the government chooses not to take.

No wonder Glenn Beck told his listeners: “Look for the words ‘social justice’ or ‘economic justice’ on your church web site. If you find it, run as fast as you can.”

When people respond to your social justice talk 
by grabbing their wallets and running away, 
it’s tempting to write them off 
as selfish or hard-hearted. But many of them aren’t. Some people who look at the world this way 
are quite generous. 
They give money away. 
They volunteer. 
They put themselves out for other people. 

But the model they put on this behavior 
isn’t justice, it’s charity. They do it out of the goodness of their hearts, 
not because they are under some obligation. And they expect the beneficiaries of their generosity 
to receive those gifts with humility and gratitude. Because, after all, beggars shouldn’t be choosers. 

And if the amount 
that individuals are willing to give away 
doesn’t match the need 
— which it never does — 
then the charity mindset sees that 
not as a flaw in the system, 
but as a problem of personal morality. We need to do a better job of preaching generosity, 
not change the way our economy works.

Ultimately, if our social justice work is going to succeed, we need to do more than just talk to each other 
and shake our heads at people who disagree. We need to critique that charity-based worldview 
and explain why it’s inadequate. In short, we need to explain what’s just about social justice. 

The beginning of that critique was in our opening words: It’s fine to give food to the poor, 
but we also need to take the next step 
and ask why the poor have no food. Why can’t everybody buy their own food,
 save for their own retirement, 
pay for their own health insurance, 
and educate their own children? And if they can’t, 
what does that have to do with those of us who can? Why should our property or income 
be entailed with some kind of obligation 
to provide for them?

Those are hard questions, 
and so right away you notice a major difference between a charity mindset
and a social justice mindset: Charity comes from the heart, 
and often finds itself in conflict 
with more practical thinking. 

But social justice demands 
that head and heart work together. It’s not enough feel sorry for the poor, 
we need to understand how poverty happens, 
and how the system that creates 
such a gulf between rich and poor justifies itself. If the system that your reason supports 
leads to a result that your compassion rejects, 
social justice suggests 
that maybe you're taking something for granted 
that you shouldn't. Social justice doesn’t ask you to give up on thinking 
and follow your heart. Instead it tells you to check your assumptions 
and think again.

Whenever I try to rethink things, 
my first instinct is to go back in time 
and read works that are a little closer 
to the era when the original assumptions were made. In this case there’s also a considerable irony 
in the author I want to tell you about, 
the Revolutionary War pamphleteer Thomas Paine. 

You see, at about the same time 
that Glenn Beck started telling everybody 
to run away from social justice, 
he was also styling himself 
as a modern-day Thomas Paine. He named one of his books Common Sense, 
and claimed to be updating Paine’s classic 
to call for the Tea Party revolution that we need today. Now, if you actually know something about Thomas Paine, this is perversely hilarious. Because in addition to his role in founding our country, Paine is also one of the founders 
of the American social justice tradition.

Thomas Paine was one of the true revolutionaries 
of the American Revolution. After we won our independence, 
he moved to England to stir up revolution there. And when the British deported him, 
Lafayette invited him to Paris 
where he tried to be the conscience 
of the French Revolution. That got him thrown into prison during the Reign of Terror, and only a bureaucratic mistake 
delayed his execution 
long enough for Robespierre to fall. Eventually the American ambassador, 
future president James Monroe, 
got him released. And in 1795, while he was staying with the Monroes 
and recovering from his ordeal, 
he wrote a little book called Agrarian Justice.

Agrarian Justice is addressed to the English, 
and proposes that when each young adult comes of age, the government should give him or her
— I’m not being politically correct, 
Paine wrote gender equality into his system — 
a stake of capital to get a start in life. Also, those who survive to old age should get a pension. And all this should be funded 
by an inheritance tax on land. 

Paine writes: “It is justice and not charity 
that is the principle of the plan.” In his mind, young adults were entitled 
to a stake in the economy, 
and old people were entitled to a pension. And the rationale for his inheritance tax 
would strike fear into the heart of Judge Napolitano: Paine believed that we don’t entirely own our property, 
and that all property comes entailed 
with obligations to others.

So Paine was not trying to appeal to people’s compassion and preach personal generosity. He was challenging their fundamental assumptions, 
and asking them to think again 
about one of the most basic concepts 
of the 18th-century economy: landed property.

When people have lived under a property system 
their entire lives 
-- as the English had then and we have today -- 
they tend to take it for granted. But Paine did not take the property system for granted, because he had seen the example 
of the Native Americans. He writes:

The life of an Indian is a continual holiday compared with the poor of Europe; 
and, on the other hand, it appears to be abject 
when compared to the rich. … Civilization, therefore, or that which is so called, 
has operated in two ways: 
to make one part of society more affluent, 
and the other more wretched, 
than would have been the lot of either 
in a natural state.

But wait, European-style civilization 
is supposed to be a good thing, isn’t it? Paine agrees:

The first principle of civilization ought to have been, 
and ought still to be, 
that the condition of every person born into the world, after a state of civilization commences, 
ought not to be worse 
than if he had been born before that period.

Now that’s a fine heartfelt sentiment. But if our heads are going to come along on this trip, 
we need to understand 
why things didn’t turn out that way. Was there some reason why the poor had to be wretched, 
or did European civilization make some early mistake 
that led to that result? Paine says there was a mistake, 
and it has to do with 
how we invented the concept of property.

Let me stop here for a minute, 
because I just snuck in a radical idea: Property is a human invention. Today, a lot of people write about property 
as if it were natural, 
something that exists prior 
to all societies or governments. But that’s just not true.

Paine uses theological imagery to lampoon this belief: "The Creator of the earth," he says,
 did not "open a land office 
from which the first title deeds should issue."

He might also have pointed to the animal world, 
because nothing remotely like property 
exists in nature. Animals have territory, 
which is a very different idea. A bird may chase rival birds away 
from the tree where it nests. But no bird has ever sold a tree to another bird, 
or rented a nest, 
or taken in someone else’s egg 
in exchange for a few worms. The tree and the nest are not property.

Similarly, land as private property 
is not a natural concept at all. Paine writes: 

The earth in its natural, uncultivated state, was, 
and ever would have continued to be 
would have been born to property. He would have been a joint life-proprietor with the rest 
in the property of the soil, 
and in all its natural productions, 
vegetable and animal.

Being a practical man, Paine recognizes 
that modern agriculture would not work on those terms, 
because it requires a long investment of effort 
before you see any product. You have to cut down the trees 
and pull up the stumps 
and dig out the rocks. Each year you have to plow and plant 
and fertilize and weed. And who would do all that if, in the end, 
he had no more right than anyone else 
to gather the harvest?

So Paine believed it was right and just 
for the difference in value 
between cultivated land and uncultivated land 
to be private property. Not the land itself -- 
the difference in value 
between cultivated and uncultivated land. And here he locates the original mistake, 
the original sin for which the poor pay the price. Rather than just let people own the value 
of their improvements in the productivity of the land, we created a system 
in which they own the land. We created a system in which the Earth itself is owned, 
not by humanity in general, 
but only by the people who have their names on deeds.

Consequently, a hungry Indian 
could go hunt in the forest or fish in the pond 
that was part of his tribe’s territory, 
but a hungry Englishman could not, 
because those natural resources 
were owned by some other Englishman. In short, the poor of Europe 
were worse off than the Native Americans 
not because God created them that way, 
and not because they were lazy or stupid, 
but because they had been disinherited; 
their share of the common inheritance of humankind had been usurped.

Paine was just talking about land, 
but it’s easy to see how his ideas extend to other areas. No one would dig a mine or drill a well 
if they had no claim on the resulting iron or gold or oil, but some part of that output 
also has to belong to the common inheritance. It can't all be private property.

And consider not just our physical inheritance, 
but our cultural inheritance. I’m a writer. I work in words and sometimes I sell my words. But I did not invent the English language, 
or teach it to all of you 
so that you could understand me. And the ideas I’m telling you this morning: 
I have some claim to them, 
but large parts come from Thomas Paine 
and Pope John Paul II 
and other benefactors of our cultural legacy. So if there is value in my words, 
I didn’t create that value out of nothing. Part of that value should belong to me, 
but part rightfully should go back 
into the common inheritance.

The same is true for the Hank Reardens of this world, 
the inventors, researchers, and industrialists. They do indeed create value, 
but they don’t create it out of nothing. As Newton put it, they stand on the shoulders of giants, 
and the legacy of those giants 
should belong to everyone.

In short, I’m endorsing that idea 
that so scares Judge Napolitano: We don’t really own what we own, 
free and clear, with no obligations. And to that young man at the presidential debate, 
I would say: 
“You earned that dollar 
by using the common inheritance. 
Some part of it needs to go back.”

We all owe a debt to the common inheritance, 
because none of us makes things 
by calling them out of nothing, 
like the God of Genesis. Everything we make 
relies on the resources of the Earth 
and the tools that have been passed down to us. Paying our debt to the common inheritance -- 
and particularly to those 
whose share of that inheritance 
has been usurped -- 
is the “justice” in social justice.

The flaw in the charity mindset 
is that it refuses to recognize that debt. It accepts, without question or objection, 
disinheriting the poor from the common legacy. Once you have done that, 
they have no rightful claim on anything 
beyond what the rest of us volunteer to give them. And any tax collector who shows up 
demanding money to help the less fortunate 
is just a well-intentioned thief. 

But if you do accept that the poor 
are owed a share of the common inheritance, 
how should they collect it? Paine, as I said, was a practical man, 
and he recognized that he couldn't even calculate 
the rents and royalties that the poor have coming, 
much less collect and distribute them. 

Instead, he proposes that everyone be offered a deal: In payment for your share of the common inheritance, 
in exchange for your acceptance 
that you were born into a world 
where virtually everything of value 
was already claimed by someone else 
-- we’ll offer you this: When you reach adulthood, 
we’ll give you a stake, some bit of capital 
that can get you started in life. And if you make it to an age 
where you can’t reasonably expect to work any more, we’ll give you a pension. That's how he proposes to make good on the principle 
that civilization should benefit everyone, 
and not just some at the expense of others.

Notice that Paine does not propose a dole, 
or some program of bread and circuses, 
or make-work projects 
that will give everyone a meaningless job. His proposal is much more radical than that: 
The poor should be capitalized. Everyone should have a stake, 
a chance to launch themselves 
into the middle of the economy 
rather than start at the bottom.

In Paine’s day, that didn’t take much.

When a young couple begin the world, 
the difference is exceedingly great 
whether they begin with nothing 
or with fifteen pounds apiece. With this aid they could buy a cow, 
and implements to cultivate a few acres of land; 
and instead of becoming burdens upon society … would be put in the way 
of becoming useful and profitable citizens.

A similar idea has popped up in many other guises. In Biblical times capital meant land, 
which is why Micah envisioned every family 
under its own vines and fig trees. Later on in the encyclical I quoted, 
Pope John Paul II envisions the ideal society 
not as a Great Feeding Trough 
but as a Great Workbench, 
where we all have our place 
and access to the tools we need to be productive.

Launching yourself into today's information economy 
may be more complicated than in Paine's day, but the value of the common inheritance has grown. Exactly what deal it makes sense to offer now, 
in lieu of the inheritance we still can’t deliver, 
is a topic for another day. But certainly education must be part of it, 
and childhood nutrition. In general, people should be freed from poverty traps, 
from situations in which their short-term survival depends on doing things 
that harm their long-term interests. No heir of a rich inheritance 
should ever have to eat the seed corn.

The Pope’s image goes a long way 
towards helping us evaluate the adequacy 
of any proposal: Everyone should have a seat at the Great Workbench. That seat should belong to them by right, 
and not depend on anyone's approval or generosity.

Even if we had such a program, 
if we had a way to deliver 
to each and every person 
the value of their share of the common inheritance, things could still go wrong. A Prodigal Son might waste his inheritance. Unlucky people might lose their stakes 
to accident or illness. Some people's abilities might be so limited 
that no tools we can provide 
will make them productive. There would, in other words, still be occasions for charity.

But that is not where we are now. In the world we live in today, 
people are poor 
because the common inheritance has been usurped 
by people who believe that what is theirs is theirs, 
and they owe no one for its use; who believe that only land-owners 
are beneficiaries of the Creation; that businessmen and industrialists 
are the sole heirs of technological progress; that only the educated rightfully inherit our cultural legacy.

After the inheritance 
or some fair compensation for it 
has been delivered to all people, 
then charity might be enough. But until then, we should never stop demanding justice.

Closing words

The closing words are 
by Billie Holiday and Arthur Herzog Jr.

Rich relations may give you
crusts of bread and such.
You can help yourself,
but don’t take too much.
Cause Mama may have,
and Poppa may have.
But God bless the child that’s got his own.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Humanism, as simple as I can make it

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Hope, True and False

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

Searching for a UU Identity

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

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

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Universalism, Politics, and Evil

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

Opening Words: "Outwitted" by Edwin Markham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Yes." "And what would change that?" 

"Well, they need to get saved." 

"And how would that happen?" 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Down the line, politically correct.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Universalism says no to all that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s not a Universalist style of rhetoric.

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

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

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

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

Closing words: “Fire and Ice” by Robert Frost

Tuesday, April 28, 2015


Out there, the old man says, 

brushing the morning condensation off the inside of the glass,

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

A river came down from the Mountain,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Religion and the Imagination, Bedford version

Almost exactly a year ago, I gave a talk “Religion and the Imagination” at the Unitarian Church of Quincy, Illinois. The text and audio of that Sunday service is here. (It’s slightly longer, and has two additional readings.)

This past Sunday, I updated that talk for my home church in Bedford, Massachusetts. You can watch that service here, and also hear the choir do several thematic songs, including John Lennon’s “Imagine”. 

All the text pieces of the Bedford service are in this post. 

Thought at the beginning (printed in the order of service)

The human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor. — Jonathan Haidt

Opening Words

All [people] dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds, wake in the day to find that it was vanity. But the dreamers of the day are dangerous ... for they may act on their dreams with open eyes, to make them possible. — Lawrence of Arabia, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom


From “The Folly of Half-way Liberalism” by John Dietrich (1930)

The modern liberal …  is constantly telling us that things are both this and that, instead of either this or that. Would that our modern liberal would take the bull by the horns and grapple decisively with that tremendous either-or. Either the things of which religion speaks are realities, or they are illusions. If they are realities, let us embrace them. If they are illusions, let us dismiss them. 

From “How My Daughter Taught Me To Love Myth-Making” by Kyle Cupp

Today my daughter would have been four years old. Though Vivian is no longer with us, we will celebrate her birthday this evening, lighting a candle, and in its glow, dine and sing and share her story. We’ll do all this in memory of her.

Her older brother, now seven, has a few memories and mementos. Her younger sister knows her only by our pictures, treasured keepsakes, and our words. My wife and I contemplate her life as best we can with what we have left to us.

This is our ritual, our tradition, our own little family myth-making. It is how we, in an ever new present, give meaning to a life lived in an ever more distant past. It’s how we bridge the distance. It’s how we devote ourselves to someone now with us only in memory.

Vivian breathed, cooed, and gave us one loud cry when she was first carried through the cold hospital air. Not what I’d usually call major life accomplishments, but they were hers and about all she did. My own achievements seem insignificantly small 
next to the movements of the planets and the stars. If I can think the world of anyone’s small steps, I can think the world of hers.

What is the meaning of her life? What is the meaning of my own? I’ve come to believe that these are not questions with answers “out there” discoverable only if I search long enough, but questions I am called to answer creatively in my own small way, responding to the past from where I happen to be in the present moment, 
making something new for the future.

Vivian won’t be present for her party, so we will have to make her present.

Religion and the Imagination

Why, a little girl once asked me, don’t grown-ups like to use their imaginations? Hidden in that question was a judgement and an accusation. At the time, we had just landed on a distant planet, and we had a mission that I kept losing track of. Her younger brother had a lot to add to the shared fantasy, but I could barely keep up. Why was I so dull, so unimaginative, so grown up?

That question stuck with me for months, especially when I was with children. And eventually an answer came to me: The adult imagination is every bit as vigorous as a child's, and we live surrounded by imaginary things. But rather than take credit for those imaginative products, we insist that they are real. 

Much of a child’s education consists of learning to see what adults see, things that (strictly speaking) are not there. We see danger in streets that (at the moment) have no traffic. We see property lines, and invisible connections between objects and their owners. When the living room floor is cluttered, we see not just where things are, but also where they belong, and the system of organization that wants to pull them back into place. We see not just where we are in a room, but also where we are on the map and in the schedule and on the org chart. The left side of the highway looks physically different to us than the right side.

Kids don’t see any of that stuff until we teach them. Because it’s not real.

A few years ago I was in London with the LaFrance-Lindens. Jo-Jo was ten and Tommy seven. When they knew where we were going, they loved to run ahead, which got kind of scary in underground stations. The boys would thread their way through a crowd by racing up to within an inch of somebody, and then changing direction at the last instant like a halfback avoiding a linebacker. It was nerve-wracking to watch, but they never ran into anybody, and so it was hard to explain why they should slow down.

Eventually I realized that they simply did not see what I saw. I saw a bubble of personal space around each person. And so I saw the boys violently bashing their bubbles into other people’s bubbles. But they didn’t see that, because those bubbles were imaginary.

In some theories of physics, actual particles are surrounded by clouds of virtual particles, which probably aren’t there, but they could be; and somehow all that possibility needs to be accounted for. Similarly, in the adult world actual events are surrounded by clouds of virtual events: things that haven’t happened and maybe never will, but could. 

So a child will set a glass of orange juice on the edge of a table and go on playing. But any adult who looks at that glass will instantly see all the ways it could be knocked off. It is as if the real glass were surrounded by virtual orange-juice glasses that have already toppled to the floor and broken. We see those broken glasses, but children don’t, because they’re not really there.

Some days a virtual event is the most striking thing that happens. Say you’re walking beside the Great Road holding a child’s hand. But your grip gets sweaty. She slips away, 
darts out into traffic, and in just a second or two is on the opposite sidewalk perfectly safe. A couple of cars screeched to a halt, but no real harm was done.

The girl will probably not think twice about that incident, because she experienced only what really happened. But you ... you saw all the virtual cars that didn’t stop in time and all the virtual little girls who were injured or maybe even killed. That’s what leaves you shaking, 
and what will come back to you in the middle of the night: not the real event, 
but the one you saw in your imagination.

Like children, we adults make our fantasies more elaborate and more stable by sharing them with others. A shared fantasy can seem to have an external reality, because even if it slips your mind, other people can keep it going and pull you back in. 

But I like to run what I call the amnesia test: Test something's reality by asking whether it would still exist if we all forgot about it at the same time. For example, if one night we all forgot about the Sun, I’m pretty confident we'd rediscover it in the morning. And if we all forgot about gravity, I think it would regain our attention fairly quickly.

But on the other hand, if everyone simultaneously forgot that paper money has value, then it wouldn’t. Real as it may seem sometimes, money is an act of shared imagination. So are laws. If we all simultaneously forgot the laws, there wouldn’t be any. It’s our shared imagination that holds that system together.

Communities also fail the amnesia test. If I forgot about this church, I hope the rest of you would pull me back. “Where have you been?” you might say. “We miss you.” Or I might do the same for you.

But if we all forgot at the same time, First Parish would just be gone. Because the fundamental place this church exists isn’t in this building or in the legal structure of the bylaws, 
but in our imaginations. So if you new members are wondering exactly what you've signed up for, this is my answer: You've joined our shared fantasy, and we hope you'll lend the power of your imagination to the task of making this community as real as money or law.

Now, many of our social and cultural inventions serve some kind of purpose. So even if everybody forgot about them, they might eventually get replaced by something similar. Eventually there could be new communities and new laws and new economies that had some kind of currency. But I don’t believe those amnesiac people would rediscover the inherent worth of dollar bills or driving on the right. Because the value of those things is fundamentally imaginary.

But what would happen to the objects of religion? What would happen to God or the afterlife or souls? If everyone simultaneously forgot about those things would they be gone? Or are they as real as the Sun or gravity, so that we would have to rediscover them?

Reasonable people disagree about this, but personally I believe religion would be like law or money. New religions might develop. But the specifics of current religions — the theologies and cosmologies, the visions of Heaven and Hell and the plans of salvation that get us to one or the other — I believe those things would be gone, because they are products of imagination.

Now, for people who share my opinion, it’s easy to stop the thought experiment there 
and congratulate ourselves on how realistic we are: Jehovah and Allah and Zeus are imaginary; we don’t believe in them; aren’t we smart?

That self-congratulation is what I hear when atheists like Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins compare God to the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy. But I have a problem with that. Because it isn’t just other people’s God-based religions that fail the amnesia test. My own humanistic religion fails it too. 

What would happen to, say, human rights if we all forgot about them? I think they’d be gone. Look at that list of Unitarian Universalist principles at the front of the hymnal. What would happen to the inherent worth and dignity of every person if we all stopped imagining it? What would happen to the right of conscience or the goal of world community? What would happen to the interdependent web of all existence? What would happen to something as venerable and glorious as Justice itself?

I think all those things would be gone. These things are not truths, they're visions, and they exist because we imagine them. And so that is another thing I believe you commit yourself to 
when you become a Unitarian Universalist: We're not asking you to commit yourself to believing in the truth of the principles, the way Christians commit themselves to the Apostles Creed. We're asking you to commit your imagination to envisioning the principles, to live as if everyone had worth and dignity, as if we were all part of an interdependent web, as if justice, equity, and compassion were as real as property or the banking system.

So where am I going with all this? My point is that John Dietrich's either-or question 
is the wrong one. It sets us up to keep having the wrong arguments about religion, arguments that will keep going round and round without convincing anyone. On one side, fundamentalists tell us that the objects of their religion — God, Heaven, and so on — are as real as the Sun or gravity. And so they are important and deserve respect. On the other side, atheists tell us that the objects of religion are imaginary like the Easter Bunny. And so they are unimportant and deserve scorn.

But what the amnesia test teaches me is that if God and the afterlife are imaginary, 
they do have something in common with the Easter Bunny. But they also have something in common with justice and human rights. Just because something comes from the human imagination doesn't mean that it isn't also important and deserving of respect.

The discussion we ought to be having is not whether the objects of religion are real, as if we ourselves stand in an unembellished reality and can reject the products of imagination whenever they invade our rock-solid realm. No, the discussion we ought to be having is why human beings have imagined these things, what we are trying to accomplish by imagining them, and which imaginative products best fulfill those purposes.

For example, when my father was dying, he used his imagination to envision a way that his life story might continue past his physical death. He imagined that he had a soul, and that when he died, his soul would live on in Heaven, a place where the souls of the dead go, where his wife and parents already were, and where his children might join him someday. 

I didn't -- and don't -- believe in this vision. But that's not because I stand firmly in rock-solid reality and dismiss all imaginary things. I also use my imagination to envision my life as part of a story that does not end when my body dies. I do this by identifying with causes larger than myself, and by imagining connections between myself and the people who will carry on those struggles after me. 

Tom Joad is doing something similar in The Grapes of Wrath when he says

wherever there's a fight, so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever there's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there. I'll be in the way guys yell when they're mad. I'll be in the way kids laugh when they're hungry and they know supper's ready, and when the people are eatin' the stuff they raise and livin' in the houses they build - I'll be there, too.

That's vision. That's imagination. Humanists do it too.

Now, once you've had that realization, it's tempting to go relativistic: I imagine things, you imagine things ... it's all the same. But my point is different: Once we give up the pretense that our religion is realistic while their religion is fantasy, once we realize how important imagination is to everybody, then we're in a position to talk about the right issue: the difference between good imagination and bad imagination.

The reading about the birthday party for the girl who died in infancy is another example of this middle position. A fundamentalist might claim Kyle Cupp's family ritual speaks to a real soul in a real Heaven. An atheist might say that souls are not real, so there’s no point trying to “make Vivian present” on her birthday. She’s dead, so she’s not present, and that’s that.

But Cupp himself takes a more subtle view. He recognizes that Vivian’s presence is imaginary, but her imaginary presence is precisely the point. Without such a ritual, his ability to imagine Vivian would fade, and part of the meaning of his life would be gone. The ritual addresses a question whose answer is not “out there”, but one that he feels “called to answer creatively in my own small way.”

I don't think I can finish this talk without confessing just how far 
I've been willing to take these ideas in my own life. For a few years in the 80s and 90s, I had what should have been my ideal job as a mathematican: I made an industry-level salary, but had an almost academic level of freedom to research whatever interested me. 

I thought I ought to be deliriously happy, and yet I wasn't, and I wondered why. So I asked myself: "What’s the difference between a good work day and a bad work day?" And the answer popped right into my mind: On a good day, I was motivated by a pure spirit of inquiry. I had questions I wanted to answer, so I just sat down and worked on them. But on a bad day, I fretted about the usual office stuff -- reviews and funding and promotions -- and the spirit of inquiry got lost.

And then I listened to what I had just said: “the Spirit of Inquiry”. Sure, it was a metaphor, a figure of speech. But the metaphor captured something. What my job had on its good days 
and lacked on its bad days was a reverent attitude of service. On my good days, my work was a kind of worship.

So I went with that. I created a one-man religion devoted to the Spirit of Inquiry. I drew a symbol for my religion on a big piece of paper and taped it to my desktop. All day long it was covered by my desk pad, so only I knew it was there. 

When it was time to go home, I put my desk pad aside, looked at the symbol and asked how well I had served the Spirit of Inquiry that day. And then, whatever the answer, I would reverently put the four tools of my research -- compass, calculator, ruler, and pencil -- in their appropriate places on the symbol. The next morning, the symbol would be the first thing I saw when I came in. I would reverently ask the blessing of the Spirit, remove my tools, replace the desk pad, and begin my day.

I did that for years, as long as I had that job, and from those years of practice, 
I can report this about the worship of the Spirit of Inquiry: It worked. I became happier, saner, and more focused on what was important to me. And the Spirit never got out of hand. It never demanded sacrifices or made me its prophet or condemned my co-workers to Hell.

Now, a hard-line atheist might scornfully tell me that the Spirit of Inquiry is not real. I didn’t work in the presence of a deity, I just had an imaginary friend. In response, I could turn fundamentalist and argue for the Spirit’s reality. And if I were stubborn enough, that argument could go round and round, the way religious arguments do.

Or I could accept the content of the criticism and reject the scorn it carries: The Spirit isn’t real the way rocks and tables are real. It was a projection of my unconscious. I had an imaginary friend.


If we make that shift, if we stop arguing about whether the objects of religion are real, and instead think about why we might imagine them and how well they serve the purposes we need them to serve, that opens a whole new conversation. Instead of questioning whether someone’s God is real, let’s talk about what is accomplished by envisioning that God. 

If God is the organizing principle of someone’s life, what kind of life does God organize? Is it a life of compassion and generosity, or of self-centeredness and self-righteousness? Do worshippers open up to mystery and wonder, or embrace small-minded arrogance? Are they filled with awe and gratitude, or with a sense of special entitlement? Does a vision of the afterlife help people accept death, or fill them with guilt and anxiety? Does it give them confidence to live more fully, or does it freeze them into inaction or rationalize procrastination?

As I think we all know: It can go either way. In religion as anywhere else, the power of imagination can be used wisely or unwisely. 

And once we recognize that, we face the challenge laid down by the philosopher Stan Lee: "With great power comes great responsibility."

If we tell ourselves that we just believe in what is real, we're not just fooling ourselves, we’re letting ourselves off the hook. Because reality can take care of itself, but visions need our participation. If justice is a vision, then it’s not enough to passively believe in it. We need to make it real. We need to practice envisioning justice, so that it will always be present to us 
and not wink out when we need it most. 

If the inherent worth of each person and the interconnected web of all existence are visions rather than facts, then we need to invoke those visions, experience them, and pass them on to others. 

And if a community like First Parish exists primarily in our imaginations, then we need to do more than just join and attend or even contribute. We also need to share our visions of what this community is and what it means and what it could be. A church is a vessel for shared imagination. So if we're not regularly filling that vessel and then drinking from it when our personal visions falter, we're missing the point.

Or, on the other hand, we could be asking ourselves what kinds of visions we need and the world needs. We could commit ourselves to that envisioning process and do it together,  pooling our imaginative power to resist the cynical and nihilistic forces 
of the larger culture. If we did that, then, I believe, we would truly be using our imaginations like grown ups.

Closing Words

Adapted from “It Matters What We Believe” by Sophia Lyons Fahs:

It matters what we imagine.

Some visions are like walled gardens. They encourage exclusiveness, and the feeling of being especially privileged. Other visions are expansive and lead the way into wider and deeper sympathies.

Some visions are like shadows, clouding children's days with fears of unknown calamities. Other visions are like sunshine, blessing children with the warmth of happiness.

Some visions are divisive, separating the saved from the unsaved, friends from enemies. Other visions are bonds in a world community, where sincere differences beautify the pattern.

Some visions are like blinders, shutting off the power to choose one's own direction. Other visions are like gateways opening wide vistas for exploration.

Some visions weaken a person's selfhood. They blight the growth of resourcefulness. Other visions nurture self-confidence and enrich the feeling of personal worth.

Some visions are rigid, like the body of death, impotent in a changing world. Other visions are pliable, like the young sapling, ever growing with the upward thrust of life.