Reclaiming Humanism

Dr. Mtangulizi Sanyika addressing the 2017 UUA General Assembly

In the 1960s and early 1970s, Unitarian Universalism knew Dr. Mtangulizi Sanyika[1] as Hayward Henry, chair of the Black Unitarian Universalist Caucus (BUUC), a Black Power organization within the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA). Under his leadership BUUC advocated—initially successfully—for the UUA to dedicate one million dollars to a Black Affairs Council (BAC) to organize and fund projects for Black self-determination around the United States.[2] This funding was highly controversial. Almost as soon as the 1968 Cleveland General Assembly voted on a plan to disburse the money, the UUA’s board of trustees began backtracking on the commitment.[3] The controversy continued over the next few years, only a portion of the money was disbursed, and as many as 1500 Black Unitarian Universalists left the denomination, profoundly disappointed in the UUA’s inability to fulfill its promises. I had always understood this leave-taking was due primarily to the funding controversy. However, when Dr. Sanyika spoke at the 2017 New Orleans General Assembly, he offered a different interpretation. 

(The section I’m quoting begins at 15:00) “When we were within this denomination,” he said, “ we initiated a dialogue on something called Black Humanism…. When we left in 1969, that was not a walk out. It was an exodus. It was an exodus because we no longer felt we had a home. We no longer felt the love and care. We no longer felt that Black Humanism was on the agenda to be discussed…. We’ve always said human agency is at the center of transformation, but you can’t do it without divine reconciliation. We said we can be theist and non-theist—I know some of you want to argue that point…. I don’t mind talking about it, because we were no longer talking about kindergarten theology with no spookistic white guy sittin’ up in no sky…. We were criticizing the church, across the board. Not just UUism…. there can be no Humanism without discussing Black Humanism. It can’t be. Why? Because we are a part of the human family who has contributed to the discourse on what it means to be human. So we invite that conversation with everybody who claims to have some form of Humanism in their background. But you must remember you have a history of Christian Humanism in your background too. So, don’t throw the baby out with the bath water and say there is nothing but humanity, because once you do that you reinforce White Supremacy without even knowing you’re doing it. So, the conversation about Black Humanism is really a conversation about salvation. But it’s about the salvation of all humanity…. Just like Black Lives Matter, Black Humanism matters. But so does all humanity, so does all other Humanism that seeks justice and transformation and peace.”[4]

Dr. Sanyika says the exodus happened not simply because the denomination was unwilling to fully fund BAC. Black people also left for explicitly theological reasons. The UUA, whose dominant theological identity was Humanist, would not make space for Black Humanism. At least some Black UU Humanists were theistic,[5] meaning they maintained belief in God—though clearly not God in any traditional sense—“no spookistic white guy sittin’ up in no sky.” But the dominant form of Humanism in Unitarian Universalism was atheistic. Its theological assumption was, essentially, “there is nothing but humanity.” Black Humanism—at least the strand Dr. Sanyika represents—needed more. “We’ve always said human agency is at the center of transformation, but you can’t do it without divine reconciliation.” Finding no room for such reconciliation in the UUA, they left.

I’d never heard this argument before. It shook me up—in a good way. It inspired me to take stock of my own UU Humanist identity and reclaim it. I am a Unitarian Universalist Humanist, yet it has taken me a long time to speak those words with conviction. I have been ambivalent about my Humanism. But we live in uncertain times. We live with a variety of threats to our liberal faith, to democracy, to our health, to our social cohesion, to our planet. This is no time for spiritual ambivalence. I want to tell you about my journey into ambivalence and why Dr. Sanyika’s words have drawn me out of it.

As a child in the Unitarian Society of New Haven, most adults identified theologically as Humanists. I understood that to mean a few things. First and foremost, it meant placing human beings at the center of the religious life, specifically free and autonomous human beings. Humanism prioritized free thought, free inquiry, the free and the responsible search for truth and meaning. It embraced the results of science. It allowed and encouraged people to change their beliefs in response to new evidence. Humanism said the individual arrives at authentic, personal belief through the exercise of reason.

In our church most Humanists were atheists. Our Humanism removed God from the center of religion. The gods remained available to us as objects of study; but God was no longer the object of worship on Sunday morning, no longer integral to the spiritual life of the community. At its best this atheistic UU Humanism stood for human liberation. At its best it replaced the capricious whims of inscrutable deities and oppressive religious and secular hierarchies with individual human agency and creativity. At the heart of the world’s scriptures, it found poetry and wisdom rather than rigid doctrines and forever-sealed truths. It called for social and economic justice in this life on this earth, not in some future new life on some future new earth. It invited every human being to do their own thinking and feeling on spiritual matters rather than accept without question the pronouncements of religious authorities. At its best. I am forever grateful to this atheistic UU Humanism for imparting to me a strong religious identity, for nurturing me, loving me, instilling confidence in me, and sending me forth into the world with a hopeful, committed heart.

So where did my ambivalence come from? We weren’t always at our best. Our atheistic Humanist UU congregation developed a spiritual allergy to any God-talk that approached belief. It got nervous, even angry, around any God-talk that sought to bring God back to the center. We kept our spiritual distance from theism, and although I didn’t recognize it as a child, I learned to not take theism seriously, a message which runs counter to our third UU principles, “acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations.” People who believed in God, especially in a traditional God, were not as enlightened as we Humanists—not as rational, thoughtful, or discriminating in their understanding of ultimate things. We believed believers had been duped, deceived, misled, manipulated. How could they not see it? Their religion was outdated, anachronistic, an opiate, a crutch, a source of ‘pie in the sky,’ but not true spiritual freedom, not liberation. Their God was that spookistic white guy. Wouldn’t they be more happy not having all the answers?

We could be smug. Not always, and not everyone, but it was there. Nor was it unique to that church. Those of you who’ve been long-time members of this congregation report dynamics similar to waht I’m describing. Atheistic Humanism was the dominant spiritual identity in the majority of Unitarian Universalist congregations in the late 60s and early 70s when my family first became involved—the same era when theistic Black Humanism was asking for a seat at the UU theological table. My understanding is that this ‘not-our-best’ dynamic was denomination-wide, and it likely had something to do with why Dr. Sanyika said “We non longer felt that Black Humanism was on the agenda to be discussed.”

Nevertheless, as a child, and even as a college student, I didn’t recognize the distance between myself and traditional theists—or any theists for that matter. It wasn’t until I entered seminary in the 1990s that I began to question my atheistic Humanism. Seminary was the first time I had to defend my religious identity in a diverse, interfaith community where people with more traditional views of God were visible, vocal, progressive and intelligent. This was the first time I encountered theists who were thinking deeply about God, reasoning, arguing, weighing evidence, not accepting without question, even contemplating atheism. And their faith was flourishing. I began to understand that theism isn’t one thing, that God isn’t only the spookistic white guy up in the sky. In fact, I never meant anyone who believed in that guy. I loved the religious identity of my childhood, but I realized that clinging to it too tightly in the seminary environment might actually prevent me from engaging in the free thought and interplay of ideas I valued so highly. Slowly, I began to suspect that, along with humanity, there might be a place for God at the center.

Through the course of my seminary training and into the early years of my ministry, I discovered truths about the human experience which hadn’t been offered to me as a child, and which ultimately made my atheistic UU Humanism feel inadequate. There were moments wherein my rational mind just didn’t cut it. There were moments of heartbreak and pain, vulnerability and fear—my own and that of others—and there were no adequate words to say, no evidence to weigh, no inquiry to conduct. In such moments all I could do was trust—without any evidence—that I or they would eventually arrive at the other side of heartbreak and pain.

There were moments of decision, moments when I could no longer stay in whatever pattern I was in; moments in which I needed to change; moments in which, no matter how much I prepared, I was not ready. I could not reason my way to an answer, could not anticipate what the full impact of my decision would be. All I could do is surrender, let go and fall into something new.

There were moments of intense joy, hope, love and there were no words! Just energy flowing, spirit animating; the recognition that I was experiencing a reality vastly larger than me.

There were moments wherein I was arrogant, prideful, smug and I needed some power beyond me to sit me down and counsel me on the virtue of humility, to demand that I stop talking and start listening.

There were moments of awe in the presence of beauty, and the only possible response from me was reverent silence.

And there were moments when I thought I was carrying myself, but suddenly realized never in my life had I ever carried myself alone. Communities carried me. Ancestors carried me. The earth carried me. Flowing energy and animating spirit carried me. I realized my life is carried, held, fed, nurtured, challenged by countless realities larger than me. Humanity, I realized, isn’t alone at the center of religion. I became comfortable using the word God to name the totality of these larger realities. I became a theist. I didn’t jettison humanity from the center—that would be folly. I simply put God back.

Our childhood spiritual lessons run deep. For me, Humanism was atheistic. I thought I had to lay it aside. That has been the source of my ambivalence. Of course, my ambivalence isn’t rational. I’ve always known you could be a Humanist and a theist. The Unitarian Universalist Humanist Association states clearly there is room for theism within Humanism.[6] I just haven’t used the Humanist label, perhaps out of respect for my atheistic Humanist UU elders. But my ambivalence hasn’t been serving me well in these uncertain times. It’s as if a part of me is missing, though I didn’t fully realize that until I heard Dr. Sanyika say “We’ve always said human agency is at the center of transformation, but you can’t do it without divine reconciliation.” At that moment I knew I wanted my Humanism back.   

Of course, I cannot claim a home in Black Humanism. That’s not my journey. I am also mindful that some Black Humanists are atheists. And I also am not suggesting that atheist UU Humanists—or any atheists—ought to become theists. I continue to support atheists in this congregation and elsewhere, and I will continue to speak out against the marginalization of atheists in American public life.

But I know this about me: While I need humanity at the center of my religion, I also need clarity about what realities larger than me are carrying me—what communities, what ground, what land, what ancestors, what beauty, what spirit, what visions of the future carry me? Coming to such clarity and letting it guide my life is a form of divine reconciliation.

I will always need humanity at the center of my religion, but when pain, heartbreak, vulnerability and fear are ascendant, I also need realities larger than myself into which I can place my trust. When life-changing decisions must be made without knowing fully the consequences of those decisions, I need realties larger than myself to catch me as I surrender, let go, fall. Learning to trust such larger realities is a form of divine reconciliation.

I will always need humanity at the center of my religion, but I also need sources of joy, hope and love larger than myself. Learning to draw on such sources is a form of divine reconciliation.

I will always need humanity at the center of my religion, but I also need realities larger than myself to quiet me, center me, ground me, surround me with silence, beseech me to listen, and keep me humble. Bowing down to such realities is a form of divine reconciliation.

I will always need humanity at the center of my religion, but I also need realities larger than myself to inspire and embolden me to take action for justice and liberation not only for my human siblings, but for the earth and all its creatures. Taking such action is a form of divine reconciliation.

I am a Unitarian Universalist Humanist. I say this with no ambivalence. Knowing that we live in uncertain times and with news of white nationalists and neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville, each of us needs every piece of ourselves to remain clear about what’s happening, courageous in our actions, and spiritually whole, so that we respond at our best.

Amen and blessed be.



[1] To learn more about Dr. Sanyika, I recommend this powerful, short 2015 film by Darius Clark Monroe entitled Two Cities: A Portrait of Dr. Mtangulizi Sanyika at https://vimeo.com/137993474.

[2] One of the more well-known recipients of an early BAC grant was Dr. Maulana Karenga, the creator of Kwanzaa.

[3] For a historical timeline of the controversy, see: http://www.uua.org/re/tapestry/adults/river/workshop15/178882.shtml.

[4] Dr. Mtangulizi Sanyika, address to the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly, June 23rd, 2017. See: http://smallscreen.uua.org/videos/ga2017-303-dr-sanyika-presentation.

[5] For a relatively recent article on Black Humanism, see Pinn, Anthony B, “Anybody There? Reflections on African American Humanism,” Journal of the HUUmanists Association, vo. 31, #3, 1997. http://huumanists.org/publications/journal/anybody-there-reflections-african-american-humanism.

[6] See the ‘frequently asked questions’ section of the Unitarian Universalist Humanist Association website at http://huumanists.org/faq-page#n4639.

Surrender: A Path to Power

 

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Our ministry theme for March is surrender. In reviewing my past sermons on this theme, I notice a tendency in me—and not only in me, but among Unitarian Universalists and liberal religious people in general, among at least some of the American Buddhist and Yoga bloggers, and certainly on self-help bookshelves —a tendency to speak and write about surrender as this wonderful, liberating act that fills you with peace and joy. All you have to do is let go. All you have to do is be present, be in the moment, go with the flow, let what is yearning to emerge emerge, let the world be the world, accept that you don’t have control over outcomes, be soft, be gentle, bow down, bend in the wind, move with the current, yield, remain quiet.[1] It’s all good advice—solid, sound spiritual wisdom. I often ground it in a reference to the ancient Taoist philosopher, Lao Tzu, who writes in Chapter 22 of the Tao-te Ching “To yield [i.e, to surrender] is to be preserved whole.”[2] But there’s a risk in offering this advice. The risk, always, is that we make what is exceedingly difficult sound exceedingly easy. The risk is that we provide a kind of false hope. How does one let go when holding on for dear life?

I am thankful to Penny Field for coordinating last week’s service on addiction. To the addict, the advice to just let go, just be present, just accept that you don’t have control over outcomes isn’t wrong, but on one level it’s laughable, because surrender in the context of addiction is so exceedingly difficult. And it’s not just addiction. Surrendering to illness is difficult. Surrendering to loss and grief are difficult. Surrendering to the need to work on a relationship or to accept the reality of a broken relationship: difficult. Surrendering to the need to make major life changes—career changes, retirement, relationship changes, moving to a new community, becoming a parent: difficult. Surrendering to the need to accept and be and proclaim who you really are, even when the people in your life don’t accept you and won’t support you: difficult. The advice is always good—just let go, be present to what is, let what is yearning to emerge, emerge—but the risk is that we make what is exceedingly difficult sound exceedingly simple.

Prior to my mini-sabbatical this past month, Mary Bopp and I were talking about how to address surrender differently, how to speak about surrender in a way that accounts for how difficult it can be. Mary reminded me that engaging in nonviolent civil disobedience is an act of surrender. People who engage in nonviolent civil disobedience have made a decision to accept the consequences of their actions, including—historically and today—harassment, harsh language, having people spit in their face, beatings, firehoses, police dogs, bombings, jail time, death threats and even, at times, death. As they accept the consequences of their actions without retaliating, they are committing acts of surrender. And the hope at the heart of their surrender is that their actions will dramatize the injustice in a particular social, economic or political system, and thereby create conditions that will force that system to change. Change comes as a result of someone—or some ones—engaging in acts of surrender. Hence the title of this sermon, “Surrender: A Path to Power.”

This idea of nonviolent civil disobedience as surrender came home to me a few years ago, when Bishop John Selders, the co-founder of Moral Monday CT—a leading Black Lives Matter organization in our state—and a good friend to this congregation, was talking about why a campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience was necessary now. I’m not quoting him exactly, but he essentially pointed out that we all move through our lives and the world in the midst of profound injustice. We can identify a thousand different—though often related—injustices in the wider world when we put our minds to it. It’s not as if we who can identify injustice don’t try to do anything about it. We do. Many of us are quite willing and able to call or write a letter to an elected official, attend a city council meeting, participate in a rally or march, testify at the legislature on an important bill, make a donation, help settle a refugee family, etc. But even when we take these actions, so often their ultimate outcome is much less than we’d hoped for. So often we take our actions in good faith, month after month, year after year, and find ourselves still living in the midst of profound injustice. Bishop Selders was making the point that the way we engage matters. He was noticing that too often we take our actions in such a way that we maintain our own standing in society. We stay respectable. We express our concerns to those in power but we don’t hold them accountable. We don’t create any real tension. We don’t take genuine risks. And nothing really changes. He said—and this is a quote—“I can’t live like that anymore.”

It’s relatively easy to talk to a legislator about a bill. It’s relatively easy to march. We can do these things without too much risk to ourselves or our way of life. It is something else entirely to use one’s body to break a law in order to dramatize an injustice and, as a result, risk physical harm, fines, jail, etc. Moving from a willingness to engage in low-risk actions for social justice to a willingness to engage in high-risk actions for social justice requires surrender. The person who is willing to use their body to conduct nonviolent civil disobedience surrenders their attachment to whatever comfort they have in life, to whatever standing they have in society, and to the possibility that they will suffer violence in retaliation for their actions. That’s essentially what Bishop Selders was saying: I don’t want to live my life in a way that ultimately supports the status quo. I am ready to take bigger risks. I am ready to surrender for the sake of a more just society. And I am trusting the counter-intuitive proposition that through acts of surrender I will gain the power to change society.

I began reading up on people who famously organized nonviolent civil disobedience campaigns. As I read, I noticed a common dimension in those campaigns that is rarely discussed when we recount the histories: self purification. In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote: “In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self-purification; and direct action.” When he later described how they conducted self purification as part of the 1963 Birmingham Campaign, he says: “We had no alternative except to prepare for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and the national community. Mindful of the difficulties involved, we decided to undertake a process of self purification. We began a series of workshops on nonviolence, and we repeatedly asked ourselves: ‘Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?’ ‘Are you able to endure the ordeal of jail?’”[3] He doesn’t indicate that they prayed together or sang together as part of self purification, but I suspect both prayer and song were part of the process.

I looked for examples of self purification in the nonviolent campaigns of Mahatma Gandhi. I haven’t yet found instances of Gandhi using that term specifically, but he clearly engaged in disciplined spiritual preparation before taking action. In a book entitled Prophets of a Just Society, the historian and political scientist, Jake C. Miller says about Gandhi’s movement that “while there were many who gave lip-service to the doctrine of nonviolence, fewer were willing to undergo the suffering that was involved in its implementation. Although it was easy to talk about replacing hatred with love, some protestors were not able to meet the challenge when they came face to face with grave provocation. Thus, in order to ensure the success of civil disobedience as a weapon, it was necessary to prepare would-be-protesters for the difficult role they were expected to play. Self purification was regarded as essential in this process. Fasting, meditating and praying were essential components in Gandhi’s campaign of nonviolent resistance. He perceived fasting and similar acts of discipline as a means of self-restraint, but he insisted that if physical fasting is not accompanied by mental fasting, it is bound to end in hypocrisy and disaster.”[4]

Self purification—this preparation, this getting ready, this praying, fasting, meditating, singing, studying, this fortifying oneself, steeling oneself, bracing oneself, grounding oneself—this is not itself an act of surrender. Self purification is prelude to successful surrender. Self purification produces surrender that is more likely to result in change, more likely to have power in the world.

I wonder: in our various discussions of all the other ways we need to surrender at certain times in our lives, do we speak of a distinct self purification component? I usually don’t. But how radically would it alter the typical spiritual advice on surrender if we spoke first of self purification? Instead of the usual catch-alls—“just let go” or “just go with the flow” or “just be present to whatever happens”—how different would it sound and feel if the spiritual advice focused on practices of self purification before acts of surrender? Mindful that letting go, going with the flow, being present can be enormously painful, frightening, overwhelming, might we more effectively approach that real pain and fear and stress by engaging in self purification first—by praying some kind of sacred prayer, making some kind of sacred vow, bathing in some sacred waters, singing some sacred song, dancing some sacred dance, sitting in some sacred silence first? We surrender old ways so that we may take on new ways—new ways of living, thinking, feeling, being. We surrender not for petty reasons but because we desperately need to make a change. So instead of the catch-alls, which, the more I contemplate them just sound trite and platitudinous, what if the person seeking surrender were advised to perform a ritual of self purification, a symbolic emptying out of the old and a welcoming in of the new, an enactment of the transition to a new reality as a precursor to actual surrender?

I read to you earlier from the Buddhacarita, the chronicles of the life of the Buddha written by the first century Indian priest, Ashyaghosha. I read the passage in which Siddh?rtha Gautama sits beneath the Bodhi tree with the goal of attaining enlightenment. In this passage he is on the verge of a deeply profound act of surrender. He is surrendering his attachment to his experience of having a self. He is letting go of his self, literally going with the flow. What stood out to me reading the passage this time is that he didn’t just sit down and surrender. He sat down and made a vow. He fortified himself before his actual surrender. This vow feels to me like an act of self purification. And looking at it through that lens, there’s also a resonance with the nonviolent protests of the Civil Rights movement, especially the practice of the sit-in. Ashyaghosha writes “He then adopted the cross-legged posture, which is the best of all, because so immovable…. And he said to himself: ‘I shall not change … my position so long as I have not done what I set out to do!’”[5]

I am also mindful of Jesus, on the night before his crucifixion, struggling to accept the consequences of his actions and his ministry, wracked with fear and anxiety, preparing to surrender not just to the authorities but to his death on the cross. What does he do? He prays. Matthew 26: 39 in the Christian New Testament says, “And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, ‘My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.’” This prayer is not the act of surrender; it is self purification prior to surrender.

In the Hebrew scriptures, Exodus 3, Moses encounters a burning bush in the desert, and notices the flames do not consume the bush. He wants to look more closely. If you know the story, you know God is about to call him to return to Egypt and liberate the Israelites from bondage. Moses eventually surrenders to this call. But the burning bush is prelude to surrender. And what does he do? He takes off his shoes because this is holy ground. For me, this is an image of self purification prior to an act of surrender.

When you find you can no longer “live that way,” whether we’re talking about no longer living a life that tacitly supports injustice, no longer living a life mired in addiction, no longer living a life that is unsustainable in some way, a life that needs to move in some way, a life that needs to grieve, to accept some hard truth, to stop fighting whatever it is you’ve been fighting for so long, a life that is too rigid, too controlling, too in charge; when you can no longer live that way and it’s time to surrender, be wary of advisors who urge you with platitudes to let go without first guiding you in the ways of self purification. Our lives are too short for going through motions that leave us essentially unchanged. Purify first. Pray, fast, meditate, sing, dance, take off your shoes, study, make a vow. Self purification comes first. Then, and only then, attempt to sit in that immoveable way. Then and only then, surrender, and change your life. Then and only then, surrender, and change the world.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] This list is quoted from my March 2, 2014 sermon, “Surrender: In Search of the Present Moment,” delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Society: East, Manchester, CT.

[2] Wing-Tsit Chan, tr., Lao Tzu, Chapter 22, The Way of Lao Tzu (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1963) p. 139.

[3] King, Jr., Martin Luther, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” April 16, 1963. Read the text at https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html.

[4] Miller, Jake C., Prophets of a Just Society (Nova Publishers,   2001) p. 35.

[5] Ashyaghosha, “The Buddhacarita,” in Conze, Edward, Buddhist Scriptures (London: Penguin Books, 1959) p. 48.

No Room For Hate

[Rev. Josh Pawelek’s comments at the Connecticut Council for Interreligious Understanding’s event, “An Interreligious Call to Love They Neighbor and Act for All Americans,” at the Cathedral of St. Jospeh, Hartford, CT, January 29, 2017]

Friends:

It’s an honor to be invited to say a few words this evening about the call at the heart of all our faiths to love our neighbors as ourselves. Thank you to the Connecticut Council for Interreligious Understanding for organizing this event. Thank you to the Archdiocese for hosting. It is good to be together.

Like so many of us, I am concerned, unnerved, angered by the increasing normalization of hate—not only in our country, but in so many countries around the world. This hate is not new. Hate has always been a possibility in human hearts and in the hearts of nations, but in recent times—at least in my lifetime—it has been kept in check largely by human decency, compassion and love. Something has shifted. Hate seems to have found its way out into the open.

Let’s be clear about the difference between anger and hate. There are legitimate reasons for people to be angry. All across society, across faiths, across races, across classes, across the political spectrum from progressive to liberal to moderate to conservative to Tea Party—there are legitimate reasons for people to be angry. There are legitimate reasons for people to protest. There are legitimate reasons for people to engage in civil disobedience.  But hate? There’s no legitimate reason for hate. There’s no social, economic or political problem for which hate is a sustainable solution. There’s certainly no just law or policy that has hate at its core.

As people of faith we are called to resist this resurgent hate. Our ethics call us to resist. Our scriptures call us to resist. Our prophets (peace be upon them) call us to resist. Our Gods call us to resist. Anyone who professes to be a faithful adherent of any religion and yet urges us to hate another group, to exclude another group, to ban another group, to commit violence against another group has grossly misunderstood or purposefully disregarded their own ethics, their own scriptures, their own prophets (peace be upon them), their own God.

Love your neighbor as yourself. In my Unitarian Universalist tradition, this is our first principle. We say “respect for the inherent worth and dignity of every person.” This simple principle—love your neighbor as yourself—has always resided at the heart of our respective faiths. It has always been there to guide us. And it has always been an enormously difficult commandment to fulfill. But in the struggle to resist hate in our time, this principle is our plumb line, our north star, our grounding, our guiding light. Love your neighbor as yourself. Does your neighbor have to look like you to worthy of your love? No. Does your neighbor have to speak like you to worthy of your love? No. Does your neighbor have to pray, worship, or believe like you to be worthy of your love? No. Is the immigrant worthy of your love? Yes. Is the refugee worthy of your love? Yes. Is your political opposite worthy of your love? Is the transgender person worthy of your love? Is the coal miner worthy of your love? Is the police officer worthy of your love? Is the prisoner worthy of your love? Is the domestic worker worthy of your love? Is the corporate CEO worthy of your love? Yes, yes, yes.

Oh, there is room for disagreement and debate. There is room for anger, even rage. There is room for winning and losing in the political process. There is room for sticking to your convictions and fighting a principled fight. But there is no room for hate. Resist hate in everything you think, say and do. Let love prevail. Love will prevail. Great love, we pray, that you will prevail. Amen and blessed be.

Living Principles

Public Witness In my sermon following the election of Donald Trump as United States President, I said “the church is not serving you fully if it is not sending you forth into the world to live your principles proudly, resolutely, urgently, lovingly.” But I offered only a very general suggestion of what that might mean in this historical moment. The more I spoke with members and friends of the congregation, the more it felt important to continue this morning exploring what this means, rather than preaching on the sources of rage in American culture and society as I had originally planned. I think this is important. I think the post-election narrative about rage in the nation is far too simple. It ignores many sources of rage, many longstanding grievances that continue to go unaddressed. I’ll preach that sermon on January 15th.  For now, what does it mean that our congregation sends us forth to live our Unitarian Universalist principles proudly, resolutely, urgently, lovingly?

Rehearsing the Beloved Community[1]

I don’t expect any of us, myself included, to know how to live our principles just because we say they are our principles. As we read through the Unitarian Universalist principles on the back of the order of service, we say, “yes, these are my principles, they speak to me, they resonate with me.” But that doesn’t mean we automatically know how to apply them to our lives. We certainly aren’t born knowing how to live them. We have to learn how to live them. And, in fact, we have to constantly relearn how to live them as the world changes. How do we learn and relearn? We practice. We practice here at church. This is, in fact, one of the purposes of church. Rehearsal. Heaven may not have come to earth, but we can rehearse for its arrival here. We may not experience beloved community out in the wider world, but we can rehearse it here. Practice, practice, practice.

Practice respect here. That’s our first principle. Practice acceptance here. That’s our third principle. Practice respect for and acceptance of people who are different from you in some way: people who believe differently than you; people with religious, cultural or geographical backgrounds different from yours; people whose age, ability, gender or sexual orientation is different from yours. Learn another’s perspective, then practice encountering the world from that perspective.

Practice compassion here—that’s part of our second principle. Practice approaching and being present to people who are suffering or in pain. Practice being attentive. Practice listening. Practice caring. Practice empathizing. Practice being supportive and nonjudgmental as others share their vulnerabilities in your presence. And, while you’re at it, practice asking for help from others. Practice accepting help from others. Practice being vulnerable, sharing your fears, your concerns, your anxieties in the presence of others who love and support you.

Practice democracy here. That’s our fourth principle. If you know the congregation is holding a meeting and taking a vote, learn what the vote is about, and then vote. But democracy is more than voting. Practice finding common ground. Practice building consensus. Practice letting everyone speak who wants to. If someone expresses a concern, practice pausing to address the concern, even if it means we might not finish everything on the agenda. If you’re typically quiet and reserved, practice speaking up. If you’re typically vocal and always offer ideas, practice waiting until everyone else has spoken. And if you are a person of privilege, practice making room for those with less privilege.

Practice justice-making here. That’s the heart of our second and sixth principles. Practice being fair. Practice peace-making. Let’s practice together not perpetuating sexism here, not perpetuating racism, homophobia, transphobia, ageism and classism here. We’ve made some wonderful strides in recent years, so let’s also practice not taking our success for granted. If we want to move the wider world toward more justice, equity and compassion, then let’s practice moving ourselves toward more justice, equity and compassion.

Practice earth stewardship and sustainable living here, our seventh principle. Practice searching for truth and meaning here, our fourth principle.

Learn what living these principles feel like in practice here. Let the visceral experience of them here seep into your consciousness, your psyche, your heart, your bones. Let the experience capture your imagination for what your community, your town, the nation, the world can be. Begin looking for such experiences in other parts of your life. Begin to notice where they are present in the wider world, and where they are absent. Where they are present, name them, celebrate them, encourage them, build on them. Where they are absent, begin to introduce them, just like you’ve been practicing at church. Let church be rehearsal space for beloved community.

Don’t Take the Bait: Thoughts on the Second Unitarian Universalist Principle

Injustice and inequality don’t happen because individuals hold and profess extreme views. Injustice and inequality happen because those views operate in institutional structures and culture. Here’s an example of what I am talking about. If a company with a sexist culture fires a sexist boss, will that make sexism go away? No. A company with a sexist culture can’t make sexism go away simply by firing a sexist boss. A company with a sexist culture can reduce the impact of sexism by changing institutional structures and culture, by mandating equal pay for equal work, a fair and transparent path to promotion for all employees regardless of gender, a zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment, a trustworthy reporting process for victims of sexual harassment, and so on. Firing the sexist boss is relatively easy. But changing structures and culture takes time, education, organizing. It takes endurance, resilience and creativity. Firing a sexist boss might feel good—it might feel like a triumph for our values—and it might be the right thing to do, but there’s no guarantee anything will be different afterwards. Changing sexist structures and culture will reduce sexism in the company regardless of any individual’s personal views and behaviors. For me, living our second principle has rarely meant focusing on the things extremist individuals or groups do and say. It has always meant working to change structures and culture.

That’s become a very difficult line to parse recently. Throughout the presidential campaign Donald Trump would offer controversial, hateful statements into the crowd, then sit back with a smirk as the nation spun like a pinwheel around his words. We reacted. We took the bait. He would let it go on for a few days then walk the statement back. “No, we won’t punish women who get abortions.” “No, we won’t commit war crimes.” Later he would criticize the media for continuously replaying the first thing he said but not the second thing. “That’s unfair. You’re being biased.” The end result was nobody knew what he was proposing. The pinwheel ride continues. He’s still using this technique. And now some of his extremist supporters are using it too—provoking, testing, discerning what hateful words and actions they can get away with. Liberals are living in a state of constant reaction. Of course, some of this hate is more than mere provocation. Some of it poses a real threat and we need to respond. But we also need to learn how to recognize the difference between a real threat and an action intended just to get a reaction. The line is admittedly blurry, but we need to stop taking the bait.

Since November 8th I’ve never heard so many people—here and elsewhere—say “I want to get involved” or “I want to crawl out from under my rock and work for a more just society.” I think it’s great that people want to live our second principle more forthrightly. (I hope many of you who feel newly motivated will join our Social Justice / Anti-Oppression Committee at its next meeting on December 6th at 7:00.) But a word of caution: The principle is “justice, equity and compassion in human relations,” not “earnest reaction to Trump’s latest tweet.” We’re not taking the bait.

The church sends us forth to dismantle the structures and culture that hold injustice and inequality in place. For more than a decade we’ve been advocating for more humane treatment of undocumented immigrants, civil rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, health care reform, criminal justice and drug policy reform, an end to mass incarceration of people of color, and a reversal of the policies and practices that drive income inequality. More recently we’ve committed ourselves to the Black Lives Matter movement and refugee resettlement work.  Let’s stay focused on these issues that have defined us, rather than reacting to the provocations of extremists. We sought justice, equity and compassion in human relations throughout the Obama presidency. We would be doing it throughout a Hillary Clinton presidency. We will do it throughout the Trump presidency. In the words of the old civil rights song, “keep your eyes on the prize!” Don’t take the bait.

Loving the Haters: Thoughts on the First Unitarian Universalist Principle

Love yourself fiercely. I say this because it truly is difficult to extend love outward if you cannot extend love inward. If you struggle with self-doubt, if you carry feelings of guilt or shame, if your confidence and esteem are low, if you feel you don’t deserve the love of others, if you’re wrestling with your privilege, if you’re angry, frightened, immobilized, lost, remember: the inherent worth and dignity of every person applies to you too. I know it can be incredibly difficult to move from self-doubt to self-love. It’s not a straightforward path. There may be wounds that run deep, that have never healed, that still hurt. It may be easy for me to say, but I feel I must say it: Love yourself fiercely. That is the foundation upon which we can offer genuine love to others.

Our first principle has been—and still is—for me, the starting-place for a liberating, anti-oppressive vision of the world. It focuses our attention on the oppressed, the impoverished, the most vulnerable. It calls us to love and support undocumented people, not because we all agree that it’s OK they entered the country illegally, but because they are our fellow human beings, the vast majority of whom are seeking to fulfill the same promises in life so many of us seek—honest work, a chance to succeed, safety for their families, education for their children, peace. It calls us to love and support the transgender teenager before they feel so hopeless that the only path they can imagine is suicide; to love and support Black lives before another young man lies dying in the street or incarcerated for nonviolent crimes; to love and support Muslim women who face the excruciating decision whether or not to wear the hijab and invite ridicule and violence, or to take it off and deprive themselves of a source of spiritual strength; to love and support the combat veteran struggling with PTSD; to love and support the Standing Rock water protectors; to love and support the opioid addict, the person living with AIDS, the homeless person; to love and support everyone now living in fear that their life-sustaining health care coverage is going to vanish.  

This vision of love and support for the oppressed and the vulnerable is the right vision; and it is difficult enough to make real. But it does not exhaust the scope of our first principle. It actually gets more difficult. Respect for the inherent worth and dignity of every person requires us, also, to love and support the neighbor or the family member with the political lawn sign that disagrees with our political lawn sign; to love and support the person who wrote that insensitive letter to the editor, not to mention the troll comments further down the page; to love and support those White working class voters who feel not only forgotten and neglected but full of rage; to love and support the police officer who fired the fatal shot; to love and support the people who propose policies that threaten your rights or your well-being; the gun manufacturer who just produced a weapon that will be used to murder; the prison guard who abuses the prisoners; the drug dealer who peddles death in shiny little bags; the oil driller, the pipeline worker, the coal miner, the factory farmer, the rain forest logger—all those people whose livelihoods depend on industries and practices that destroy the earth; the 1% who hoard the wealth of the nations. And yes, it calls us to love the haters, the people who suddenly feel they have license to spread hate and division, to harass and bully—the avowed racists, the homophobes, the sexists. Love them. Love their families. Love their children.

So many have said, “No, I will not do this. I will not love people who hate. I’m sick and tired of the appeal to understand their perspective when they have never respected my perspective. I’m sick and tired of being asked to make nice with racism.” I keep saying some version of “When you hate I have no obligation to love you.  You don’t even want my love. You mock my love. So why should I bother?”

That’s how I feel. It’s an impasse. But I also know that if someone else’s hate has the power to define the scope of my principles, then hate wins. And that cannot happen. The impasse is real, but the power of love is greater. Someone else’s hate may be frightening, saddening, demoralizing, infuriating, anxiety-producing, but that doesn’t mean it has to weaken your capacity to love yourself, your neighbor, a stranger or your enemy. That doesn’t mean you must reduce the scope of our first principle from ‘every person’ to ‘only some people.’ I confess I don’t know how to love people who hate. I know I don’t have to accept hate. I know I still have to hold people accountable for their hateful words and deeds. I may have to forgive, but that does not mean I have to forget. So what do I have to do? I’m not sure yet. This dimension of our first principle requires an examination most of us haven’t done. But right now there is an abundance of hate, so it’s time to relearn how we live this principle. It’s time to come to church to practice loving the haters. That may sound elitist and arrogant to some listeners, but I’m not sure what choice we have. I principles require it.

In the very least I know this: as I am sent forth into the world, I will not let hate determine how I live my principles. Abundant love will determine how I live my principles. And abundant love has no limits.

Earlier I read to you Annette Marquis, “Deliver Us to Evil.” I’ll conclude my remarks this morning by sharing her re-working of the Lord’s prayer, a reminder to let love guide us in how we live our principles. She prays:  “Spirit of Life, which exists wherever there is love, / Blessed be all Your names. / Strengthen our will / To create heaven on earth, / And help us embody a peace-filled world. / Give us all our daily bread. / Teach us to forgive ourselves for our failings, / And to forgive those who have failed us. / Deliver us to evil / And give us the courage to transform it with Love. / For Love is the power, and the glory, / For ever and ever. / Amen.”[2]

Blessed be.

[1] This language of “rehearsing the beloved community” is not original to me, though I am not sure who to credit. I first encountered it at Middle Collegiate Church in New York City. Since then, I have heard numerous clergy around the country use this language to describe the purpose of the church.

[2] Marquis, Annette, “Deliver Us to Evil” in Montgomery, Kathleen, ed., Bless the Imperfect (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2014) pp. 75-76.

A Remote Important Region

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Josh at Ministry Days“And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy, / a remote important region in all who talk”[1]—words from twentieth-century American poet, William E. Stafford. I don’t pretend to know what the poet meant by the phrase, “a remote important region,” though I suspect it was something he felt, something essential in us he imagined must be real and must be accessible. But it isn’t easily accessible. It is shadowy, remote.

As we come to the end of the 2015-2016 congregational year, I want to reflect on a theme that has caught my heart and with which I’ve been wrestling in my preaching over the past year. Maybe Stafford didn’t have words for this remote, important region; or maybe he did but he didn’t want to name it explicitly; and maybe this isn’t what he meant at all: but when I encounter this appeal “to something shadowy, / a remote, important region,” I imagine he is talking about the body. I imagine he is talking about our physical, sensual bodies that breathe deeply as they enter into worship, sit quietly and comfortably, rise to sing, light chalice flames, meditate and pray, share joys and concerns, give money, hold hands, hug and love; our physical, sensual bodies that revel in pleasure and beauty; our bodies that grow, age, decline, forget, and eventually die; our bodies that witness and sometimes experience horrors and thus hold stress, anxiety, pain; feel fear, anger, despair. Our bodies—shadowy, remote, but utterly important regions. Why remote? Because for too long our faith, like our larger western culture, has kept the body separate from the mind. You’ve heard me come back to this claim again and again this year.

We know body and mind aren’t separate. Anyone who practices yoga or Buddhist meditation has some inkling of this non-separateness, this non-duality. Mystics, healers, yogis, gurus, sages, TED talkers, therapists, life coaches and UU ministers tell us all the time of this non-separateness. I’m telling you again right now. And yet somehow, in practice, our faith, like our larger western culture, resists this knowledge. Religiously speaking, the body remains shadowy, remote. “I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty,” says Stafford, “to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.”

Let’s face it (and I don’t mean this metaphorically): the Unitarian Universalism we inherit is not a deeply embodied faith. Those of you who attended Thomas Moore’s lecture here last weekend heard me say this to him. Historically we favor mind, ideas, words, talk. We stack books by our bedsides. Our clergy start sermons quoting poems. We may not identify as Abrahamic “people of the book,” but surely we are people of the word. Whether we care to admit it or not, we’re good Protestants who privilege the word in worship, expecting preachers to prove their point through reasoned argument. So many of our congregations debate whether it’s OK to clap or shout amen or hallelujah in worship. Sometimes the music moves us so much we want to physically move, but we’re not sure it’s ok. Sex education is great for our children, but feels dicey for adults. And most importantly for my purposes this morning, we’re often unable or unwilling to move anywhere until we’ve crafted the perfect mission and vision statements. We want to get the words right. But the body doesn’t typically occur to us as a religiously significant region. It is remote. Those of you who hail from less wordy faith traditions couldn’t stay there for many good reasons, but sometimes you whisper to me privately that you miss the ritual, the darkness, the incense, the spiritedness, hands raised high, even a living, incarnate God. You miss the invitation to live religiously in the body. We stay mired in mind, which, given what we know about non-separateness, is irrational.

This is what I’ve been coming to terms with over the last year: our minds are sharp and we don’t want to lose them, but alone they are insufficient for the ministry our era demands. There is a growing dissonance between the vision our words proclaim and our bodies’ knowledge of the world. Are you one who has felt this dissonance? We envision a world made fair, a glorious, golden city, a land where justice rolls down like waters. “The moral arc of the universe is long,” we say with Parker and King, “but it bends towards justice.” Do we ever pause to consider whether these wonderful, hopeful visions are remotely realistic? Do we ever peer beneath them to explore honestly what we must do to achieve them and how radically different our lives would be if they became our reality?

Fifty people gunned down on Latinx night at a gay night club in Orlando, FL. Is it possible our vision of a world free of violence is growing not closer but more distant? When we proclaim visions of a world free of racism, sexism, homophobia, violence, or fossil fuel consumption, does something shadowy in you feel dissonance? Do you wonder in some remote region of you how on earth this is really going to happen? Do you get a flash of maybe it won’t happen? And if you do, how quickly do you put it aside? How swiftly does it rise up in you only to find no outlet, only to have your mind tell you not to speak it because it may be misunderstood, may sound cynical, faint-hearted, privileged, or worse, like you’re not a real Unitarian Universalist. Do you tell yourself you shouldn’t feel this way? And what way is it exactly? If you probe, is there hopelessness or despair churning your stomach, tensing your shoulders, dizzying your head? And might you suddenly feel guilty, ashamed or weak for feeling this way? Yet this is one way the body tries to speak in our era. Let’s learn to listen.

Let’s face it. We name wonderful visions Sunday after Sunday, year after year—and I intend to keep naming them—but the naming hasn’t been enough to stem the tide of oppression, income inequality, global warming and so much needless violence. Despite our words, and despite all our good work and the work of so many others, those things are getting worse, not better. No doubt our words help people feel hopeful—and that matters—that is part of our ministry—but let’s come down from the mountaintop of our minds and join our bodies in the desert where they’re already facing it: facing extreme weather patterns and hottest years on record; facing gun violence in the home and almost daily mass shootings; facing opioid addiction; facing mental illness; facing decreasing life expectancy, a hollowed out American middle class looking for work that doesn’t exist, political polarization; the trauma of endless war, terrorism and its threat; mass incarceration, racist police violence, modern slavery, tens of millions of stateless people; and reactionary backlash to any effort to address any of it in a principled, peaceful and just manner. Sometimes it is too much for the mind to take in, but our bodies feel it whether our minds think and reason and vision or not. Our bodies know something of how deep it goes. Just remember how you felt as news of the Orlando shooting unfolded. Unless we can integrate this body-knowledge into our religious lives, our beautiful, hopeful, visionary words will come, in time, to mean nothing.

I was moved by Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, a letter to his son explaining the historical and ongoing violence against Black bodies in the United States. I preached about it on Martin Luther King Sunday. Coates counsels his son—and his readers—not to become too dependent on visions of a better world. He says, “You must resist the common urge toward the comforting narrative of divine law, toward fairy tales that imply some irrepressible justice.”[2] “You must wake up each morning knowing that no promise is unbreakable, least of all the promise of waking up at all.”[3] Hard words. But he’s facing what his body knows! His words collapse the distance between body and mind. Lay the vision aside for a moment. Consult your flesh-bone-and-blood body that breathes and bleeds, laughs and cries, ponders and thinks, makes love, gives birth, ages, dies. What is the body capable of doing in this moment? That question matters as much as what our vision is. Coates’ answer is struggle. It sounds hard. It sounds barren. But he offers to his son as a path to integrity and wholeness. “You are called to struggle,” he says, “not because it assures you of victory but because it assures you an honorable and sane life.” The more I sit with this, the more I realize I find it so much more hopeful than repeating the words of a vision whose realization grows more distant with each passing year. 

Bishop John Selders of Hartford’s Amistad United Church of Christ is a great friend of this congregation. He was deeply moved by his experiences in Ferguson, MO in the months following the police killing of Michael Brown. He returned from a visit there in December, 2014 and, at a meeting of clergy to discuss convening yet another dialogue with police he said “No. I’m done trying to talk the system out of racism.” What he learned in Ferguson, and what he was teaching us is that it’s time for the creative use of our bodies in the struggle against racism. It’s time for the physical disruption of business as usual. It’s time to take streets. These are the lessons of Ferguson and the Black Lives Matter movement. Social justice movements need our bodies as much—or more—than they need our words. As one who’s invested much in the talk of social justice, it was hard for me to transition to body-based struggle. I’ve named that from this pulpit a number of times. I’ve always been affirmed for using words. Would embodied struggle receive the same affirmation? But what a difference it has made for me to say nothing with my mouth and everything with my body, to stand in a street blocking traffic because Black Lives Matter, to spend an evening in jail. And how much more powerful the words that finally do come when the mind speaks what the body knows.

I’ve come to understand over the years many Unitarian Universalists feel paralyzed when it comes to social justice work, not because they don’t agree with the various causes, but because the distance between body and mind is so great. It’s counter-cultural for us, but it’s time to start naming the concerns, pain, anxiety, shakiness, nervousness, hopelessness and despair that can live in the body. This is the leadership our faith needs now. As we name what our bodies know, we give permission for others not only to name it, but to sing, dance, pray and laugh it. As we name what our bodies know, we’ll be making this important region less remote.

There’s a story making its way around the internet. Bill Graver sent it to me a few weeks ago. The teacher asks a group of young students to list the seven wonders of the world. They name the usual Pyramids, Great Wall, Taj Majal, etc. One student isn’t sure she understands. “Well, tell us what you have; we’ll help,” says the teacher. The student hesitates but then says, “it’s different for different people, but the seven wonders of the world are that we can see, taste, smell, hear, touch, feel, and love.” Friends: before we appeal to our lofty, beautiful visions of a world made fair, Let us learn to consult our bodies? The question is not only What do I think about what’s happening? The question is What does the body know about what’s happening? And a corollary: What is the body capable of doing in this moment? And as we ask, let’s be ready to encounter and welcome the hopelessness and despair that lives in our bodies. Let’s face it. Let’s see it, hear it, smell it, taste it, touch it, feel it, love it. We may have to reign in our vision, but we will move farther than we thought possible.

And let us remember: the body doesn’t only hold the world’s pain. It holds the world’s joy too. In a faith community that understands the body as religiously significant, not only does our hopelessness and despair become speakable and thus more manageable, our joy and ecstasy become speakable too. Bringing the body in opens avenues for eye contact, touch, color, fragrance, dance, art, intuition, dreaming; for ‘let’s break bread together,’ for the creative occupation of space in the service of social justice struggle, and for the rediscovery of ritual, darkness, incense, spiritedness, hands raised high in praise, a living, incarnate God and a reenchanted world.

May our bodies find their home in our faith. May we learn to hear their voice. May we struggle for what matters. And may our lives be honorable and sane.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Stafford, William E., “A Ritual to Read to Each Other.” See: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/58264.

[2] Coates, Ta-Nehisi, Between the World and Me (New York: Spiegel and Grau, 2015) p. 70.

[3] Coates, Between the World and Me, pp. 70-71.

For Gravity’s Sake

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Did you feel it? I didn’t either.

4-3 gravitational wavesIn the new issue of Smithsonian Magazine, physicist Brian Greene writes: “More than a billion years ago, in a galaxy far, far away, two black holes executed the final steps in a fast-footed pas de deux, concluding with a final embrace so violent it released more energy than the combined output of every star in every galaxy in the observable universe. Yet, unlike starlight, the energy was dark, being carried by the invisible force of gravity. On September 14, 2015, at 5:51 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time, a fragment of that energy, in the form of a ‘gravitational wave,’ reached Earth, reduced by its vast transit across space and time to a mere whisper of its thunderous beginning.”[1] This was not the first time gravitational waves have grazed or graced our planet, but it was the first time scientists detected it. It took fifteen months to determine the data were accurate, but on February 11th, 2016, scientists announced the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), operating identical detection systems simultaneously in Louisiana and Washington, had detected a gravitational wave emanating from the collision of two black holes 1.3 billion years ago on the other side of the universe. [2]

When they pass by a planet or person, gravitational waves squeeze in one direction, and in a perpendicular direction they pull. How often does something more than a billion years old give you a squeeze and a pull?

For a brief explanation of the discovery of gravitational waves, check out Brian Greene’s video: 

I knew immediately I wanted to address this in a sermon. Our theme for April is creation, and that seemed an appropriate time. Historically creation is a reference to the earth, the sun, moon, stars, waters, dry land, plants, trees, fish, animals, human beings—everything God is said to have created in the book of Genesis. I use creation in the broadest sense possible, as a name for all there is, all existence, everything—the visible and the invisible, the near and the far, the new and the ancient. And here comes this invisible ripple in the fabric of space-time—its size a billionth of the diameter of an atom—gently squeezing us in one direction and pulling us in another. Our bodies don’t sense it, but now we have tools that can detect this very slight, very subtle, but very real movement across creation. “A wind from God swept over the face of the waters,” said an ancient Hebrew priest. Gravitational waves likely weren’t what he had in mind, but there it is, sweeping over us. The universe speaking? [3]

I want to offer some reflections on gravity as a way to deepen the message of my sermon from two weeks ago. In that sermon I spoke about how the modern world—specifically the Western industrialized nations—separated mind from body and separated divinity from the earth after humans had lived for millennia without such separations. In that sermon I offered prayers that we may learn to reunite mind and body, that we may learn to experience divinity present in the earth. I said, “May ours be a religion that gently sinks its people into intimate relationship with Nature, intimate relationship with the divine earth—a relationship that is the ancestral birthright of [us all].”[4]

I named René Descartes and Francis Bacon as two of the leading philosophers of modern science—people responsible for advancing these separations. I did not name Isaac Newton who is often identified as the symbol of Western science. According to science historian, Morris Berman, “Newton defined the method of science itself, the notions of hypothesis and experiment, and the techniques that were to make rational mastery of the environment a viable intellectual exercise.”[5] But there was something different about Newton. Not only did he help invent a whole new way of doing science and a whole new way of understanding Nature—my fourth grader just completed a unit on Newton’s Laws; and not only did he discover gravity; but he was also deeply immersed in the ancient scientific traditions—Occultism, Hermeticism, Alchemy. The 20th-century British economist John Maynard Keynes said “Newton was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians.”[6]

Today, if we learn about alchemy at all, we learn it was spurious, late medieval attempt to turn lead into gold, or to create an elixir to prolong life. It never worked. But this begs a question: if it didn’t work, why was it around for some many hundreds of years? What accounted for its staying power? There was much more to alchemy than these fantastic quests.[7] For my purposes here, it’s enough to know that alchemists did not understand themselves as disembodied observers of the natural world. More to the point, they weren’t observers in the sense that we understand that word today. They were participants. They did not experience a mind-body separation, nor did they experience a separation between themselves and the materials with which they worked. To them, all matter possessed Mind—its own kind of consciousness. Some refer to alchemy as “the search for the God-head in matter.” Everything was alive, and the alchemist was part of it. As they sought to transform matter, they expected themselves to be transformed in the process. Berman says “the alchemist did not confront matter; he permeated it.”[8] Apparently Isaac Newton subscribed to this archaic world-view, and took his role as a steward of the ancient practices quite seriously.

But alchemy’s ascendency also ended with Newton. He lived in an age of great social disruption, class conflict, revolution and war in England. Apparently the more ancient and occult world-views, including alchemy, aligned with the more radical and revolutionary political views. When the English monarchy was restored to power in the 1660s, it became dangerous for anyone to espouse radical and revolutionary views, whether political or scientific. In this climate, the ruling elites saw the new modern science—what they called the mechanical philosophy—as an antidote to the radicalism of the previous decades.[9] A vision of an ordered, mechanical universe translated into an ordered, mechanical society. As a highly public figure, Newton hid his affinity for alchemy and the occult. This affinity was only discovered when his private manuscripts were made public many years later. According to Berman, Newton delved “deeply into the Hermetic wisdom for his answers, while clothing them in the idiom of the mechanical philosophy. The centerpiece of the Newtonian system, gravitational attraction, was in fact the Hermetic principle of sympathetic forces, which Newton saw as a creative principle, a source of divine energy in the universe. Although he presented this idea in mechanical terms, his unpublished writings reveal his commitment to the cornerstone of all occult systems: the notion that mind exists in matter.”[10]

I didn’t know this about Newton. Learning it now, I find it highly ironic that a person who regarded himself as a steward of ancient wisdom, as a magician—a person who sensed God in matter—would become synonymous with a view of Nature and the universe as cold, inert, inanimate, orderly and vast. As physicist Joel Primack and science historian Nancy Ellen Abrams say in their book, The View from the Center of the Universe, after Newton, “the universe that had once felt like a great cathedral filled with angels had vanished, and infinite reaches loomed.”[11] Human beings had lived for millennia with a sense of belonging and confidence because they experienced themselves as intimately embedded in a universe filled with divinity. Now they began to experience existential terror in response to a universe seen as infinite or at least incomprehensively large, almost empty, and with no inherent purpose.”[12] “No place was special,” they say. “There was no secure foothold in the universe, no anchor…. Physics claimed to define physical reality, yet it treated human beings like objects, and those objects were left wondering whether anything in the universe recognized them as more than that. Perhaps they were just a random occurrence on an average planet in a vast and uncaring scheme of things.”[13] “The Newtonian picture left humans drifting in a kind of cosmic homelessness that persists to this day.”[14]

Some might call this sense of cosmic homelessness excessively bleak. Others might call it ‘overdone,’ something only philosophers experience. Obviously not every human being feels it. If anything, humans more commonly feel existential terror in response to more immediate concerns: war, migration, the climate crisis, violence, etc. So perhaps cosmic homelessness isn’t such a big deal. However, it is also true that 325 years since Newton published his Principia, many of us are used to the picture of the universe physics paints. To the extent we can grasp it, we’re used to its impersonal vastness. We’re used to our smallness. We’re even used to the conclusion that there is no larger purpose. Of course, many people don’t accept the astronomers’ conclusions and never have. They continue to resist the idea of a meaningless universe. Billions across the planet still take refuge in other-worldly religious visions, still bow down to a commanding, disembodied God, still look forward to a non-physical eternity in Heaven. As such they still help perpetuate the great separations of modernity—the separation of body and mind, and the separation divinity from the earth.

These separations are hurting us. We need a new alchemy for our time. I included in our liturgy this morning Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem, “When Something Comes to Me at My Window,” and Heather McHugh’s poem “A Physics,” because, for me, they begin to name an alternative to both cosmic homelessness and anti-scientific blind faith in a disembodied God. They gently sink us into intimate relationship with Nature. They blur the lines between us and Nature. They embrace what the body experiences. And they both start with a reverent shout-out to gravity. “How surely gravity’s law,” says Rilke, “strong as an ocean current, / takes hold of even the smallest thing / and pulls it toward the heart of the world.”[15] McHugh is more veiled. “When you get down to it,” she says. And then the lines between us and Nature blur. “Earth / has our great ranges / of feeling—Rocky, Smoky, Blue— / and a heart that can melt stones. / The still pools fill with sky, / as if aloof, and we have eyes / for all of this—and more, for Earth’s / reminding moon. We too are ruled / by such attractions—spun and swaddled, / rocked and lent a light.”[16] She seems to know something of what the alchemists knew.

Rilke challenges the idea of a disembodied existence. “Only we, in our arrogance,” he says, “push out beyond what we each belong to / for some empty freedom.”[17] And McHugh, though not exactly challenging, clearly sees God as somewhere else. “The whole / idea of love was not to fall. And neither was / the whole idea of God. We put him well / above ourselves, because we meant, / in time, to measure up.”[18] But gravity is real, and we do fall. I think McHugh is saying we’ll never measure up, and if anything, we need to measure down, get down to it, let gravity works its magic, pull God off the pedestal, squeeze God out of disembodied existence, out of other-worldly heaven, out of the judgement seat, out of timelessness into this time, into the body of this world, into the energy of this life. Rilke says, “like children, we begin again / to learn from the things, / because they are in God’s heart; they have never left.”[19] This is an alchemical vision for our time. And McHugh says, “We want the suns and moons of silver in ourselves.”[20] This is an alchemical vision for our time.  

And if this alchemy is still too mired in words, still too abstract, still leaves you wondering, “yes, but how shall I live?” perhaps there’s a lesson in Gary Short’s poem, “Teaching Poetry to 3rd Graders,” in the image of a teacher endlessly kicking playground balls to his students at recess. “The balls rise like planets / and the 3rd graders / circle dizzily beneath the falling sky, / their arms outstretched.”[21] That’s how we ought to live: with joy and outstretched arms, awaiting our playground balls—whatever they may be—as they, like we, are pulled gently towards the heart of the world.

There is mighty work ahead. My next two sermons will name what this work is. This reunification of body and mind, of earth and divinity—it is the work of generations. It is work we are doing and must continue to do. And don’t be surprised, if in the midst of this work, you find yourself transformed into something more whole, like an alchemist, such that even your senses work differently, and you awake one fine morning, and you just know—because your body now knows—an ancient wave, rippling its way across the universe has just passed by, has just touched you, has squeezed you and pulled you, softly, as if to say “I know you’re there,” and then continued on its endless way.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Greene, Brian, “The Detection of Gravitational Waves Was a Scientific Breakthrough, but What’s Next?” Smithsonian Magazine, April, 2016. See: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/detection-gravitational-waves-breakthrough-whats-next-180958511/.

[2] Brian Greene Explains the Discovery of Gravitational Waves: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s06_jRK939I.

[3] In addition to Brian Green’s article in Smithsonian Magazine, see also MacDonald, Fiona, “It’s Official: Gravitational Waves Have Been Detected, Einstein Was Right,” Science Alert, Feb. 11, 2016, http://www.sciencealert.com/live-update-big-gravitational-wave-announcement-is-happening-right-now; and Krauss, Lawrence, “Finding Beauty in the Darkness,” New York Times, Feb. 11th, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/14/opinion/sunday/finding-beauty-in-the-darkness.html?_r=0.

[4] Pawelek, Josh, “I Am Lush Land and Rugged Rock,” a sermon preached to the Unitarian Universalist Society: East, March 20, 2016: http://uuse.org/i-am-lush-land-and-rugged-rock/#.VvwLLKQrKhc.

[5] Berman, Morris, The Reenchantment of the World (New York City/ Ithica: Bantam Books and Cornell University Press, 1984), p. 107.

[6] Quoted in Berman, The Reenchantment of the World, p. 108.

[7] C. G. Jung famously explores the depth and breadth of alchemy in his Collected Works, specifically Vol. 12, Psychology and Alchemy, Vol. 13, Alchemical Studies, and Vol. 14, Mysterium Coniunctionis.

[8] Berman, The Reenchantment of the World, p. 82.

[9] Berman, The Reenchantment of the World, p. 114.

[10] Berman, The Reenchantment of the World, p. 115.

[11] Primack, Joel and Abrams, Nancy Ellen, The View from the Center of the Universe (New York: Riverhead Books, 2006) pp. 80.

[12] Primack and Abrams, Center of the Universe, p. 83.

[13] Primack and Abrams, Center of the Universe, pp. 80-81.

[14] Primack and Abrams, Center of the Universe, p. 82.

[15] Rilke, Rainer Maria, “When Something Comes to Me By My Window,” in Barrows, Anita and Macy Joanna, trs., Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God (New York: Riverhead Books, 1999) p. 116.

[16] McHugh, Heather, “A Physics,” in Keillor, Garrison, ed., Good Poems (New York: Penguin, 2005) p. 103.

[17] Rilke, Book of Hours, p. 116.

[18] McHugh, Good Poems, p. 103.

[19] Rilke, Book of Hours, p. 116-117.

[20] McHugh, Good Poems, p. 103.

[21] Short, Gary, “Teaching Poetry to 3rd Graders.” See: http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/index.php?date=2009/03/29.

The Things That Heal

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Hygieia: Greek Goddess of Health

Hygieia: Greek Goddess of Health

This morning I continue exploring our February ministry theme, resilience, by reflecting on the role spirituality plays in healing: healing from illness—physical illness, mental illness; healing from addiction; healing from childhood traumas, from abuse, from rape, from neglect; healing from being the victim of a crime; healing in the wake of the death of a loved one; healing from broken relationships; healing from stressful life circumstances—overwork, exhaustion, job loss, financial struggles, caring for a family member or friend with a chronic illness, distress and anxiety in response to world events—terrorism, global warming, war. I’m sure you can add to the list. Nobody leaves this life without having to heal from something. Nobody leaves this life without suffering in response to something. For me this is an integral facet of the human condition, an inevitable feature of the human experience. Yes, some people need more healing than others, and some suffer more than others, and sometimes the unequal distribution of need and suffering seems immensely unfair. But nobody escapes this fate entirely. So many things can and do happen to our bodies, our minds, our spirits, our souls that unravel us, pull us apart, break us into pieces, leave us living in fragments. How does spirituality help us bind the pieces of ourselves back together? How does it aid in healing? How does it strengthen our resilience?

I want to first critique a common assumption about the role of spirituality in healing, essentially that one’s capacity to heal is determined by the strength of their belief, by the power of their faith in God. Most often this assumption is grounded in the deeper assumption that Biblical stories are literally true. For example, in the book of Mark, Chapter 10, a blind man comes to Jesus pleading, “Teacher, let me see again.” Jesus says to him, “Go, your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regains his sight.[1] It could have happened. It could be literally true. And if one believes it is literally true, it is understandable they might conclude strong faith is essential to healing. I don’t reject this idea entirely. I know many people who are convinced that their faith played a significant role in their healing. And certainly strong faith in God can bring a person through very difficult times. But there’s a pernicious ‘other side’ to this assumption. What happens when the person of strong faith doesn’t heal? Does that mean their faith still isn’t strong enough, that they don’t believe correctly, that they aren’t praying right, that they’ve sinned, that God doesn’t find them worthy of healing? Sometimes people say God must have a reason and we aren’t meant to know. But that’s a theological cop out. The reality is, some illnesses have no cure. Some circumstances are beyond help. Sometimes our brokenness is larger than all the resources we have to address it. To fault the strength of one’s faith in such situations is unhelpful and unfair—sometimes it comes across as downright mean. The role of spirituality in healing is far more multifaceted than simply having correct belief.[2]

Taking this critique further, one of the challenges I encounter as a minister entering a hospital to provide pastoral care to one of our members or friends is that people I meet there—doctors, nurses, other staff, and occasionally patients and their families who I meet inadvertently—will sometimes apply this common assumption about faith and healing to me. When they realize I’m a minister, they assume I am Christian. I’m not. They assume I am a traditional theist who worships some version of God the Father. I’m not. They assume I intend to pray to God the Father with my parishioner, which happens, but very rarely. They assume I hope to buttress my parishioner’s faith in God the Father in order to aid in healing—also very rare. I don’t expect people to know how a Unitarian Universalist minister approaches pastoral care—or even what a Unitarian Universalist is—so it makes sense that these assumptions get attached to me. I try to be gracious. If someone pulls me aside and says “pray with me, father,” I pray with them. And those can be very powerful moments for me. But these assumptions don’t begin to describe how I approach my role in healing, and they don’t relate to the ways I witness spirituality aiding in the healing process for Unitarian Universalists who, we know, come in many theological varieties: atheist, theist, humanist, agnostic, Buddhist, mystic, pagan, Jewish, Christian and endless combinations, mixtures and mongrels. Given this diversity, the ways spirituality can aid the healing process are endless—no two situations are exactly alike. But over the years I’ve discerned five liberal commandments for spirituality and healing that emerge out of my journeys with you—Unitarian Universalists—as you seek healing in your lives.

First, get out of the body’s way. Healing begins with confidence in the body’s capacity to repair itself, to return from or adapt to physical and mental illness. Specialized white blood cells fight harmful microbes. Blood clots to heal wounds. Skin and bones fuse back together after breaking. We learn how to live well with anxiety. I recall those times as a child watching cuts scab over and slowly disappear, watching bumps slowly dwindle in size and disappear, watching big, ugly bruises slowly fade and disappear. I remember some cuts and breaks that needed a doctor’s attention, that needed antibiotics, stitches, bandages, splints, casts—they took longer to heal, and the healing often left a scar, but with the proper care and attention, the body’s healing capacities would take over. In fact, much of what the doctor did was simply ensure that the body’s healing capacities could function at their highest level. Even to my childish eye those capacities were remarkable.

Recently my youngest, Max, had four baby teeth removed—his first experience with anesthesia. He was understandably nervous before the procedure. My role as a parent, besides signing the consent forms and paying the bills, was to comfort him. “You’re going to be OK. You’ll be back to normal in no time.” In saying these things, I’m not just mouthing platitudes. I say them because I have confidence in the body’s capacity to heal. I have confidence that with a day of rest, patience, chicken soup, apple sauce, ice cream, extra TV and video games, extra attention and care from his family, his body will heal from the minor trauma of the surgery.

There is a life force, a will to live, an innate power to mend, a natural tendency toward repair. We encounter it not only in ourselves but throughout nature—starfish regenerate lost arms; deer regenerate lost antlers; eco-systems repair damage after earthquakes and oil spills. Trusting in this power may not restore sight to the blind or resurrect the dead, but it will help us remember what we can do to get of the body’s way so it can follow its natural processes of mending, repair and adaptation.

Second, approach healing from a place of openness. This is hard to do, especially when one is in pain. Pain makes us rigid, brittle and single-minded. It closes us off. But human beings heal in many ways, and because healing is not always a given, we need to search for what works. Indeed, some treatments emerge out of years of study and have firm scientific grounding. Sometimes they result in healing, sometimes they don’t. Some treatments are completely irrational, make no logical sense, and have no scientific grounding. Sometimes they result in healing, sometimes they don’t. I want us to be open to as many opportunities for healing as we can find—from the most scientifically grounded to the most implausible, even ludicrous. I put more faith in the former, but I never rule out the latter, and I combine them wherever and whenever possible. Even though we know healing doesn’t always happen, I want us to cultivate an attitude that healing is always a possibility. When it comes to healing, I want us to live with the prayerful sentiment we sang earlier: “Open my heart to all that I seek.”[3] Cast a wide net!         

Go to your doctor. Go to a second doctor, even a third. Follow their advice, except in those moments when it doesn’t feel right in in the depths of your soul—but even then, check with a loved one or a good friend to make sure you’re not in denial. But don’t stop there. Sit still. Sit still some more. Meditate. Pray. And if you do pray, and if you do invoke a holy name, I advise you first to get rid of any god, goddess or higher power who is distant and judgmental, frightening and inscrutable, and who doesn’t love you. Find a god, goddess or higher power who loves you deeply, who longs for you to heal as much as you long to heal. Pray to them with all your mind, all your heart, all your soul. But don’t stop there. Talk about your illness, your brokenness, your dis-ease to people who will listen attentively and support you. Express all your feelings about what is happening to you; express your anger, your rage, your sadness. But also express your joys, the blessings that remain in your life, the things for which you are grateful. Express your hope. Eat well, if you can. Sleep well, if you can. Give and receive lots of hugs. Spend time with pets and other animals. Speak the truth. Remember what matters most to you and spend time contemplating it. Let it bring meaning and purpose to your life in your time of trial. Create. Sing, dance, write, paint, take photographs. And in conversation with your doctor, indulge liberally in alternative therapies: yoga, reiki, the laying on of hands, music therapy—the  retuning of your frequencies—faith healing, exorcism, homeopathy, naturopathy, herbal remedies, old folk remedies, family healing traditions, chicken soup, acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine, especially if they are culturally relevant to you; Ayurvedic medicine, especially if it is culturally relevant to you—I’m only scratching the surface here, but you get the point. If you have the slightest inclination that it might aid in your healing process—that it might bring your life back into balance, that it might recreate some lost harmony—and it isn’t contraindicated with some other therapy you’re receiving, then try it.

Third, be willing to fight for healing. When necessary, be direct, be assertive, be aggressive. As Unitarian Universalists we talk about discerning who we are, what we’re passionate about, what our purpose is. We talk about being our truest, most authentic selves. On many occasions I’ve watched people struggling to heal, and everything they know about themselves just disappears. They listen to everyone but themselves, and there’s no fight in them. And on many occasions I’ve witnessed just the opposite: People struggling to heal suddenly realize they’re not healing because the healthcare system isn’t responding to them, isn’t seeing them, isn’t caring for them. And when this dawns on them, and they become angry about it, suddenly they gain wonderful, powerful clarity about who they are, about the value and sacredness of their own life, and they find their voice.  And they start fighting. It’s your body, it’s your health, it’s your life: fight for what you need. And if you don’t feel strong enough to fight on your own, look for allies and advocates.

Fourth, discern root causes. Sometimes healing doesn’t come. A cold lingers for weeks; a back aches with no respite; sleep never seems to arrive or doesn’t last; a wound refuses to close; the wrong cells start dividing, start spreading—words and names don’t come as easily to mind as they used to; nerves go numb; physical strength wanes; emotions come more forcefully than they should, and don’t quite match the moment; memory fades; meds lose efficacy; relationships fray. We lose confidence. Why am I not getting better? Why am I not healing? Perhaps you’ve been focusing too much on the symptom, and not its root.

For a simple example, I have pain in my lower back due to arthritis and deteriorating disks. Usually I can help my body manage the pain trough stretching, exercise and taking the occasional ibuprofen. But sometimes the pain persists despite these treatments. I’ve learned that this persistent, untouchable pain almost always correlates with high levels of stress in other parts of my life. The symptom is in my back, but the intervention I need is emotional and spiritual. So often the reason our body’s natural healing tendencies don’t work is not because they are broken, but because they are blocked by stress, fear, grief, anxiety; or they are stunted by a larger culture whose guiding values and practices conflict constantly and relentlessly with the values and practices we hold most dear; or they are weakened because something essential is missing from our lives—healthy relationships, community, safety, peace, meaning, purpose. Sometimes all these things are happening at once and it’s difficult to know why healing isn’t occurring. Often we know the what but not the why. I know arthritis and deteriorating disks cause back pain. But I don’t always know why the pain persists or why it is more intense than usual. I have to stop and examine why I’m experiencing stress and what is weighing on me. I have to discern the root.

Finally, when healing fails, seek wholeness. Healing may not always be possible, but wholeness is our birthright. In her meditation, “Mending,” Nancy Shaffer asks, “How shall we mend you, sweet Soul? / With these, I think, gently, / we can begin: we will mend you / with a rocking chair, some raisins; / a cat, a field of lavender beginning /now to bloom. We will mend you with songs / remembered entirely the first time ever they are heard. / We will mend you with pieces of your own sweet self, sweet Soul—with what you’ve taught / from the very beginning.” She’s not referring to physical healing. She’s referring to returning to a state of balance and harmony, an original state, a primordial state, a womb state. “With what you’ve taught /from the very beginning.” She’s referring to wholeness.

Sometimes our best efforts at healing, and the best efforts of our physicians, simply aren’t enough. What I’ve come to trust is that even in such situations, even when the prognosis is grim, we can still attain wholeness. Sometimes, through the course of our attempts to heal, we realize that we’ve repaired long-broken relationships. We realized that we’ve forgiven those who’ve wronged us. And we’ve accepted forgiveness from those we’ve wronged. Sometimes, through the course of our attempts to heal, we suddenly realize that we’re deeply in touch with our passions, that we’re affirming and celebrating the things that matter most. Even when the body’s natural tendencies toward healing no longer work, we can still be the people of integrity and purpose we long to be. And with that realization comes an experience of completeness, of fulfillment, of enduring, abiding peace. It can happen at any age. That’s wholeness. When healing fails, may wholeness come.

Amen and blessed be.

 

[1] Mark 10: 51-52.

[2] For an excellent and far more nuanced discussion of this longstanding assumption of the role of spirituality in healing, see Bowler, Katie, “Death, The Prosperity Gospel, and Me: Some Christians Believe God Rewards the Faithful, So Why Did I Get Stage 4 Cancer?” New York Times, Sunday Review, February 14, 2016. See: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/14/opinion/sunday/death-the-prosperity-gospel-and-me.html?_r=0.

[3] Flurry, Henry S., “Open My Heart” Singing the Journey (Boston: UUA, 2005) #1013.

When Seeing Isn’t Believing

Rev. Josh Pawelek

IMG_0787I question the definition of religion that begins with belief. To begin with belief—to assume from the beginning that religion requires belief—limits the scope of the religious life too sharply.  

I welcome the definition of religion that begins with discernment of the things that matter most in our lives. Such a definition expands the scope of the religious life and makes religion accessible to people who would otherwise turn away.

I chafe at news reports about religious issues that equate being religious with belief in God.[1] They overlap. They certainly overlap in my spiritual life. But they are not the same thing. I resist the notion that to be religious one must be a believer. I offer instead that the hallmarks of a religious life are questioning, imagining, wondering, being curious, being in dialogue, learning, reasoning, following intuition, being alert, living soulfully, and loving abundantly.

I appeal to the work of Karen Armstrong, one of the world’s most well-known scholars of religion. In her 2006 book, The Great Transformation,” which chronicles the rise of the great world religions during what she calls the Axial Age—approximately 900 to 200 BCE—she says: “It is frequently assumed … that faith is a matter of believing certain creedal propositions. Indeed, it is common to call religious people ‘believers,’ as though assenting to the articles of faith were their chief activity. But most of the Axial philosophers had no interest whatever in doctrine or metaphysics. A person’s theological beliefs were a matter of total indifference to somebody like the Buddha. Some sages steadfastly refused to discuss theology, claiming that it was distracting and damaging. Others argued that it was immature, unrealistic, and perverse to look for the kind of absolute certainty that many people expect religion to provide. All of the traditions that were developed during the Axial Age pushed forward the frontiers of human consciousness and discovered a transcendent dimension in the core of their being, but they did not necessarily regard this as supernatural, and most of them refused to discuss it. Precisely because the experience was ineffable, the only correct attitude was reverent silence…. What mattered was not what you believed, but how you behaved.”[2]

If I may, let me adapt that last sentence. “What matters is not how strongly you believe, but how deeply you live.”

The title of this sermon is “When Seeing Isn’t Believing.” I said in my announcement for the service that “nothing dampens the spiritual life more than a strongly held belief.” That was meant to be provocative. It’s not entirely fair. There are many people with strongly held beliefs who also have rich, undampened spiritual lives. I count myself among them. My concern is really with a species of belief: belief marked by absolute certainty— theological certainty, doctrinal certainty, moral certainty. My concern is with beliefs so strong, so staunch, so firm, so dogmatic there is no room for human beings being human—no room for questions, creativity, imagination and curiosity; no room for learning and growing, for changing one’s heart and mind, for making mistakes; no room for sitting, talking and working with those who believe differently; no room for the soul. Often it is true: the stronger the belief, the less room for one’s humanity. In some instances, the stronger the belief—the more anxious, the more fear-based, the more desperate the belief—the less religious the living. The staunch believer is often unwilling to explore gray areas, to question, to engage deeply with difference, to wrestle with doubt. If religion is to begin with belief, I want nothing to do with it. I want a religion that begins with discernment of the things that matter most.

Note: through a rich process of discernment I may arrive at strong beliefs, strong convictions. But I will have gotten there through wondering and questioning, through searching and journeying, through creating and experimenting. I will have gotten there through the use of these wonderful human capacities we all possess in some measure. But I also may go through my discernment process and not arrive at any beliefs. I may arrive at more questions. I may arrive at silence, at mystery, at awe, at wonder, at emptiness, at surrender, at relinquishment—and I would be no less religious!

In using the title, ‘When Seeing Isn’t Believing,’ I’m playing with that old idiom, ‘seeing is believing.’ I don’t reject the idiom. There’s certainly some truth to it. If I can see it—taste it, touch it, smell it, hear it—if I can measure it—then I have some basis for proclaiming it is real. I have no reason to doubt what my senses or my data tell me exists. I believe it. In playing with the idiom, though, I’m offering a way to conceive of the religious life beyond belief. By ‘seeing’ I mean a process of discernment. When I say ‘seeing is not believing,’ I mean it’s important in the beginning to decouple discernment and belief, to remove the assumption that the purpose of the religious life is to believe correctly. Use every capacity you have—your senses, your creativity, your gifts and talents, your passions, your past, your relationships, your dreams, your intuitions, your intellect, your mind—use it all, but don’t use it for the purpose of finding a belief. Use it to find the things that matter most, to identify what it sacred to you. Use it to live a life of meaning and purpose. Use it to serve others. That’s religion. Beliefs may emerge—and if so, then believe! But they may not. Seeing isn’t necessarily believing. Belief does not test the depth of one’s religiousness. What matters is not how strongly you believe, but how deeply you live.

I’ve been forming some new ideas about what religious living means. It started when I decided to teach a course on Thomas Moore’s 2014 book A Religion of One’s Own. Thomas Moore is a former Catholic monk, a psychotherapist, and a popular spiritual writer, perhaps most famous for his 1992 book, Care of the Soul. It took me a while to decide to teach this book, mainly because, as a parish minister who wants people to participate in the life of the congregation, promoting the idea that one doesn’t need organized religion to be religious, that one can simply have a religion of and on one’s own, well, that doesn’t seem consistent with growing a congregation. But Moore doesn’t devalue church, synagogue, mosque, temple or sangha. In an increasingly secular, technology-addicted culture where, he says, “there is little room left over for religion,” what matters most to him is that the people he serves learn how to deepen their religious lives and live soulfully. He’s not concerned about where it happens; he’s concerned that it happens. For some it happens on their own. For some it happens in a congregation. For some it happens both ways. As far as I’m concerned, any organized religion that emphasizes discernment, searching and creativity over strict belief and doctrinal adherence is supporting its people in the kind of religious living Moore describes.

I find Moore’s book unexpectedly liberating. He makes a distinction between spirituality and soul work. I didn’t recognize this distinction at first. I thought it was confusing and unnecessary. And then it hit me—it really hit me—this distinction makes religion possible for people regardless of belief. This distinction allows for an atheist and a theist to share common religious language and a common process of discernment while believing entirely differently.

What is the distinction between spirituality and soul work? Here’s a story. During my interview with the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Ministerial Fellowship Committee (MFC) in April of 1999—the 50 minutes that would determine whether I could begin professional ministry—someone on the interview panel said, ‘describe your spiritual life.” I had secretly been dreading this. While I felt confident in my overall ability as a minister, I also felt that my spiritual life needed a lot of work. I didn’t have an intentional spiritual practice. I didn’t have a prayer life. I couldn’t meditate—still can’t today. Nothing that fell into the category of ‘spiritual practice’ appealed to me. I could say “I believe in God,” but I didn’t have a strong or regular experience of God that I could report to the MFC. I wanted more than anything to be honest and straightforward with the panel. I wanted to be myself. But I didn’t think it would go over well to say, “I feel my spiritual life is lacking, but please let me be a minister!” I put my best spin on it. I told them I felt I was still at the beginning of my spiritual life and that I saw spirituality as something that would unfold and deepen through the course of my ministry.

Some jaws dropped. Some faces looked puzzled. I thought, well, that’s it for me; at least I told the truth.  But then someone said, essentially, “Josh, I beg to differ. Your life is full of music and rhythm and running and paying attention to your health and well-being, and you write wonderful prayers and meditations and sermons and you dedicate time and energy to social justice work. You have a deeply spiritual life.”  And I said, essentially, “Oh, yeah, well, of course—that! Then I remember being quiet for a moment. And I smiled. And I said something like, “All those things are meaningful to me. Thank you.” And the interview continued.

I was caught—and many of us get caught—on a definition of spirituality that assumes a connection to spirit or God—to some power beyond the physical world. That definition isn’t wrong, but it wasn’t useful for me at that time. Luckily the interviewers weren’t caught on that definition, and they were content with a much more mundane and earthly list of practices. Thomas Moore is also interested in that more mundane list—but he would distinguish it from my spiritual life. He’d call it my soul work. In pursuing those things I am caring for my soul. If I’m reading Moore correctly, he defines spirituality, like many do, as a practice or way of living that connects one to God or spirit. He says “People often focus on the spiritual side of religion: beliefs, morals, eternity, and the infinite.”[3] He doesn’t argue that spirituality in this sense is wrong, though he seems to find it too abstract to be useful. He suggests that the way into religious living is through the soul. Through soul work one can begin to discern the things that matter most. Through soul work many paths may open up. One may enter into a robust spiritual life, encountering spirit, encountering gods and goddesses. Or one may find beauty, depth and sacredness in the mundane, in the ordinary, in the garden, the simple, hearty meal, the service project, the blade of grass, the lone, wild bird, the freshly fallen snow, the downward facing dog, the quiet mind, a letter to the editor, a cup of tea with a good friend, the surgeon’s skilled hands, a memorable dream, a haunting melody. Or one may discern there is no difference between the gods and the ordinary stuff of life.

Moore resists offering a concrete definition of the soul. In Care of the Soul he said “It is impossible to define precisely what the soul is. Definition is an intellectual enterprise anyway: the soul prefers to imagine. We know intuitively that soul has to do with genuineness and depth…. When you look closely at the image of soulfulness, you see that it is tied to life in all its particulars—good food, satisfying conversation, genuine friends, and experiences that stay in the memory and touch the heart.”[4] In A Religion of One’s Own, he says soul is “a mysterious word that eludes definition…. We talk about people, places and houses that have soul. Soul is the unreachable depth, felt vitality, and full presence of a person or even a thing…. Soul is the invisible, mysterious and softly radiant element that infuses your being and makes you human.”[5]

Moore’s suggestions for soul work seem simple an obvious at first: spend time in nature, pay attention to your dreams, review your past, take time to feel your feelings and understand them, surround yourself with art, weave eros into your life in healthy ways, listen to your muses and respond creatively to them, read great books, wrestle with your shadow side, notice coincidence and serendipity, learn to follow your intuitions, pursue your passions. They sound simple, but they aren’t when one approaches them with intentionality on a sustained basis. All of these practices are tools for discernment. They help us cultivate depth, help us see into or beyond the mundane to the sacred, help us see beauty, help us see the things that matter most. All of these practices cultivate in us a capacity to engage the world with imagination, to ask “what if?” “What if” is the imagination’s question. What if I leave my job and do the work I feel called to do? What if I do that writing, that painting, that sculpting, that speaking that I feel called to do? What if God is real? What if God isn’t. What if there is a spirit that moves among us and connects all to all? What if there isn’t? What if I act on my anger about injustice and violence and war? What if? What if? What if? Imagine, because what matters is not how strongly you believe, but how deeply you live. Religious imagination is a key to depth.

Soul may be difficult to define, but there is a profound invitation here to discover, name and knit together the essential pieces of you—the pieces without which you would not be you; the pieces that, when dampened and muted, you are not you; the pieces that, when buried, overwhelmed and crushed, you are not you. And we are, so often, not our essential selves. But even in this highly secularized and technology-addicted culture, those essential pieces of us poke through. Our soul pokes through. It gives hints here and there, shows up in our dreams and intuitions, rides along at the heart of our strongest desires, and even makes itself known in tea leaves and angel cards. The world picks up on our soul, even when we don’t. The world reflects our soul back to us in melodies that catch our ear, images that catch our eye, smells that activate long-dormant memories. The soul comes to us in insights and aha-moments, eurekas and amens. It comes to us in our deepest fears and our greatest joys. The world reflects back to us, but are we aware? Are we alert? Are we ready? Soul work makes us ready. Soul work enables us to bring together the essential pieces of us, to let them reveal to us the things that matter most, to let them speak, shine, shimmer and sparkle.

Seeing isn’t always believing. What matters is not how strongly you believe, but how deeply you live.

Amen and blessed be.  

[1] A good example of this tendency of the media to equate being religious with belief in God is Nuwer, Rachel, “Will Religion Ever Disappear,” BBC online, December 19th, 2014: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20141219-will-religion-ever-disappear?ocid=ww.social.link.email.

[2] Armstrong, Karen, The Great Transformation: The Beginnings of Our Religious Traditions (New York: Anchor Books, 2006) pp. xvii-xviii.

[3] Moore, Thomas, A Religion of One’s Own: A Guide to Creating a Personal Spirituality in a Secular World (New York: Avery/Penguin, 2014) p. 3.

[4] Moore, Thomas, Care of the Soul, (New York: HarperCollins, 1992) pp. xi-xii.

[5] Moore, Thomas, A Religion of One’s Own: A Guide to Creating a Personal Spirituality in a Secular World (New York: Avery/Penguin, 2014) p. 2.

Perhaps Struggle is All We Have

Moral Monday CTThe first title for this sermon was “Where Do We Go From Here?”—a reference to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1967 book, “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?” The intention behind that title is still at work at the heart of this sermon, and is indeed at work at the heart of all my sermons that focus on social justice work. That intention is twofold—to reflect on what it means to engage in social justice work in our time; and then to suggest, as best I can, the most effective ways we—and by “we” I mean we as Unitarian Universalists and we as a unique, liberal faith community—can most effectively participate in social justice work here in Greater Manchester, greater Hartford, and Connecticut. What are the most pressing social justice issues in our time and place? Who is organizing in response to these issues? With whom can we partner? Where and how can we exert our own individual and institutional power to create the greatest positive social change? In short, where do we go from here?

I decided on a different title, a quote from author and The Atlantic correspondent Ta-Nehisi Coates’ recent book Between the World and Me: “Perhaps Struggle is All We Have.” This is my seventeenth year in ministry, my thirteenth in this pulpit. I have always made social justice work a centerpiece of my ministry. When I came into the ministry I possessed, as many new ministers do, a strong idealism. I was confident that a certain kind of beloved community could be fashioned within Unitarian Universalism, that we could build anti-racist, anti-oppressive, multicultural identity and practice within our congregations. I also possessed a conviction that the problems of racism, classism, sexism, homophobia and environmental injustice could be substantively addressed in my lifetime, that I would come to the end of my career, look back, and know that I, along with the congregations I’ve served—motivated by our principles—had played a role in successful movements to eradicate the most pernicious injustices of our time. I had a vision that I would come to the end of my life and be living in a society where racism is no longer baked into our social, economic and political systems the way it is now. Similarly with sexism, with homophobia, with classism. I had a vision that we would overcome.

I still have that vision. I have not lost my idealism, my confidence or my conviction, except for the part about coming to the end of my career and living in a transformed society. That’s not going to happen. But that’s OK. I’m much more aligned today with the wisdom of the 20th-century Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr who said, “Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; therefore, we are saved by hope.”[1]

I haven’t lost my idealism because I’ve witnessed and been part of too many social justice victories. So have you. I know we can win. However, none of those victories was an end-point; none meant, we’re done, we’ve arrived.  Marriage equality was a monumental social justice victory, but it didn’t end homophobia and heterosexism. The Affordable Care Act was a monumental social justice victory, but it has not brought health care justice to every American. Connecticut’s addition of transgender people to its anti-discrimination statutes was a social justice victory, but it didn’t end transphobia. Governor Malloy’s Second Chance Society, which made significant changes to Connecticut’s criminal justice statutes was a social justice victory, but it hasn’t ended mass incarceration of people of color. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Brown vs. Board of Education, Roe vs. Wade—the list goes on and on, victory after victory—but none of them was an end-point. None of them achieved the beloved community. These victories matter not because they conclude our collective social justice struggles, but because they keep them going. They keep us moving toward our vision, toward justice, toward a society that honors the inherent worth and dignity of every person. They remind us we can make real change, we can improve suffering peoples’ lives, we can win and we are thus justified in continuing. The fact that we’ve won in the past assures us we are not naïve to take next steps, to ask “Where do we go from here?” After seventeen years of ministry and 48 years of life, I am still an idealist.

But my idealism is different, tempered. Seventeen years ago I wouldn’t have said that just because history tells us we can win, doesn’t mean we will. I see it more clearly now. There are no guarantees, there never have been. Peoples’ willingness to struggle for what they believe in makes all the difference, but it doesn’t always make a difference. In Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates, writing to his teenage son, articulating the profound vulnerability of Black bodies in the United States, articulating the historical and ongoing violence against Black bodies in the United States, says, “You must resist the common urge toward the comforting narrative of divine law, toward fairy tales that imply some irrepressible justice.”[2] He challenges the assumption so many liberal activists and people of faith take to heart, that we will eventually win. Martin Luther King, Jr. said “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”[3] Coates says, essentially, “maybe so, but don’t count on it.” He suggests our previous social justice victories can lull is into a false sense of inevitability. “Perhaps our triumphs are not even the point,” he writes. “Perhaps struggle is all we have because the god of history is an atheist, and nothing about his world is meant to be. So you must wake up each morning knowing that no promise is unbreakable, least of all the promise of waking up at all. This is not despair. These are the preferences of the universe itself: verbs over nouns, actions over states, struggle over hope.”[4]

I’ve underlined these words multiple times, highlighted and starred them, dog-eared the page. I’ve come back to them often. They’ve become scripture to me, though I’m not sure I fully understand their meaning. The God of history is an atheist. I need to sit with that, to pray on it, maybe shed tears. The universe prefers struggle over hope. I’m not ready to let hope go. I know Coates isn’t talking to me—he’s talking to his son. But there is something universal here. The universe prefers struggle over hope. Struggle sounds harsh beside the softness, the ‘everything-will-be-alright-ness’ of hope. Struggle is mired in the here and now, in staying alive, waking up, surviving, getting by; in next steps, in ‘where do we go from here?’ In social justice work struggle means painstaking processes of building relationships, attending meetings, taking actions, losing over and over, learning from mistakes, starting again, and being supremely patient. Hope, so much easier, tells us a better future is coming. But that future is impossible without struggle.

Many will object to Coates’ downgrading of hope. Without hope, why go on? Why care? These, of course, are questions of despair. Coates is quite clear: “This is not despair.” Given that there has been and continues to be so much violence and oppression against Black people—and I would add against women, gay, lesbian and bisexual people, transgender people, poor people, low-wage workers, immigrants, refugees, elders—there are unlimited reasons for despair. But Coates is saying hope isn’t a sufficient antidote to despair precisely because there are no guarantees. You might win, but you might not. God might bring your through, but how often does that not happen? Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Aquon Salmon, Malik Jones, Amadou Diallo. Coates adds the heart-rending police murder of Prince Carmen Jones to that long list. The world can let you down in a flash no matter how hopeful you are. Given the pervasiveness of injustice—given the violence, the oppression—given the sheer tenuousness of life, hope for a better future isn’t the source of our integrity. Our willingness to struggle is the source of our integrity. Our willingness to work for human survival, human dignity, human community, peace, justice and planetary sustainability despite our lack of certainty, despite knowing we may lose, despite knowing it all may be for naught—that is the source of our integrity. I am not sure what saves us ultimately, but I am sure our willingness to struggle for what we believe in gives meaning to our lives and saves us today. Recasting Reinhold Niebuhr: “Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; therefore, we are saved by struggle.”

I invite you to live with this idea in the coming weeks. Sit with it. Examine it. Pray on it. Shed tears. And I invite you, especially on this weekend as the nation commemorates the life and struggle of Martin Luther King, Jr., to listen not for messages of hope, but for invitations to struggle for justice.

I have a few invitations for you now. Our congregation, primarily through the work of our Social Justice / Anti-Oppression Committee, has been very involved in the Black Lives Matter movement through our partnership with Moral Monday CT. We’ve held workshops on non-violent civil disobedience and a course on “Revolutionary Conversations.” There’ve been actions to address police brutality, income inequality in Greater Hartford, and racist hiring practices at the baseball stadium construction site. We know this kind of engagement is not for everyone, does not appeal to everyone. In fact, in most congregations involved in the Black Lives Matter movement, it is usually only a small cadre of people who are highly involved. Mindful of this, and on behalf of the committee, I invite you to join an open conversation about Black Lives Matter next Sunday at 12:30. We’d like to hear what others in the congregation think and feel about the movement. What do you know? What do you need to know? And we’d like to put at the center of that conversation the question, should we place a Black Lives Matter lawn sign on our property along West Vernon Street? Many congregations have done this. Some have had their signs vandalized or stolen. What do you think? Is this a constructive way for us to express our collective concern for Black lives, to proclaim our ongoing intentions as a congregation to struggle for racial justice? Let’s have a conversation.

Here’s another invitation, though it is less specific. Given Connecticut’s age demographics, the state is going to need 10,000 new Personal Care Assistants in the coming decade. Personal Care Assistants or PCAs are the people who work in someone’s home providing medical care, cooking, cleaning, companionship and sometimes childcare. They work mostly with elders, people with disabilities, or people living with a chronic illness. Sometimes they work for agencies, sometimes as independent contractors. Who are the people who hold these jobs? They are primarily women, who are immigrants, who are people of color—the most vulnerable of the vulnerable. In these jobs they are extraordinarily vulnerable. What many don’t know is that PCAs have not historically been protected under national fair labor standards laws. This has meant that PCAs are not entitled by law to receive the minimum wage, overtime pay, paid time off, or pay for travel between jobs. They are not entitled to receive health insurance or workers’ compensation if injured on the job. They have no legal recourse in the event of harassment in the workplace, and can be dismissed from their job without warning, reason, or severance pay—and often end up homeless because of this. They receive minimal training and have few, if any, professional standards, which compromises the overall care they are able to provide. Is it surprising that a class of jobs held primarily by women who are immigrants who are people of color is more akin to a system of exploitation than legitimate employment?

This is changing. The federal law is changing, and there are efforts underway to change Connecticut’s laws, but the status of PCAs is still tenuous. There are opportunities for us to strengthen these jobs, to make them decent, middle class jobs, so that PCAs can support their families, so that we can slowly lessen the tide of escalating income inequality and the race-based income and wealth gaps in the United States. These opportunities are coming through partnerships with other congregations across the state, with the Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford, with a phenomenal organization called the Brazilian Cultural Center, and with a regional faith-based community organizing entity called the InterValley Project. I expect there will be educational forums here later in the winter or early spring. I hope you will feel called to attend those forums, called to learn more about these issues, and called, in some way, to join this struggle.

There are more invitations coming—invitations to become involved in the struggles to resettle refugees, to protect undocumented immigrants, to further advance criminal justice reform, to continue our efforts to support ex-incarcerated people. Yes, the word struggle carries a harshness with it, a hardness. It implies messiness, difficulty, perhaps even suffering. Of course, there is messiness, difficulty and suffering in life whether we choose to struggle or not. But struggle is not only harsh and hard. It is also a source of integrity, a marker of our idealism and compassion. Struggle is the path to a meaningful, purposeful life. It can be filled with joy, with new learnings about self and others, with new relationships, with growth, and it is the only way to achieve our vision. So let us struggle together, knowing there are no guarantees, no irrepressible justice.  Let us struggle together, knowing it may be all we have.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Neibuhr, Reinhold, “We Must Be Saved,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and UUA, 1993) #461.

[2] Coates, Ta-Nehisi, Between the World and Me (New York: Spiegel and Grau, 2015) p. 70.

[3] This quote was likely adapted by King from the Unitarian Transcendentalist minister, Theodore Parker. Parker’s whole quote is less well-known than King’s shortened version: “Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”

[4] Coates, Between the World and Me, pp. 70-71.

Dispatches from the Culture War, 2015

Culture WarI’m wrestling this morning with two conflicting impulses in me. They arise in response to the American culture war, in response to deep divisions in the country over sexual orientation, gender identity, reproductive rights, sexuality education, marriage, guns, end of life issues, family values, and the age-old and still raging debate between science and religion. While the media often portrays the culture war as between religious people on one side and secular people on the other, it’s rarely that simple. Liberal religious people often line up against conservative religious people in the culture war. It is at once an inter-religions struggle—meaning between religions—and an intra-religious struggle—meaning it plays out within some religions. My conflicting impulses have to do with how I, as a liberal religious person, relate to people on the conservative side of the culture war.

One impulse is to approach such people with openness, curiosity, friendliness. This impulse emerges from a desire to learn, to find common ground, to achieve interfaith understanding, to build community. The other impulse is pugnacious and looking for a fight. This impulse emerges from moral anger and what I call “soul sadness.” For example, I am angry at people whose religion—often in combination with short-sighted and selfish political and economic interests—leads them time and time again to ignore, deny or denounce the findings of science, as if science is a liberal conspiracy, a tool of elitist subterfuge, an enemy. And, yes, I experience a profound, soul-sadness not only because so many people seem to react to science in this way, but because the consequences of such reactions are so destructive for the earth.

Last week I ran into an old acquaintance, someone with whom I had interacted at the edges of the first congregation I served. He attended worship there occasionally. He wondered if I remembered him. Of course I did. I’d eaten a few meals at his home where we used to debate evolution and creationism or “intelligent design,” which was in vogue at that time. When I saw him last week I said I remembered the articles on intelligent design he used to share with me and that I have always appreciated his willingness to be in conversation around what is still a highly divisive topic. He said, “But you’re an evolutionist.” I said, “Yes, I am. And I try to remain open-minded about other ways of understanding reality. I try to remain curious. ” That’s my friendly, learning-oriented, community-building impulse at work. In a religiously pluralistic society it is essential that we nurture and act on this impulse. In the midst of interfaith dialogue—especially dialogue across culture war lines—we grow more knowledgeable, more accepting, more peaceful. In learning another’s point of view, we develop and sharpen our own.

But then my blood boils when people of faith not only refuse to be in dialogue, but ignore, deny or denounce firmly established scientific consensus. One such consensus is that human activity—specifically the burning of fossil fuels—is a significant driver of climate change. More than 13,000 peer-reviewed scientific papers published in over 80 countries since 1991 have confirmed this position. That’s 97 percent of all formal scientific papers published on the topic.[1] Many religions embrace this consensus. On April 29th the Pontifical Academies of Sciences and Social Sciences together issued a report entitled “Climate Change and the Common Good.” The statement affirms that “Today, human activities, involving the unsustainable exploitation of fossil fuels and other forms of natural capital, are having a decisive and unmistakable impact on the planet. The aggressive exploitation of fossil fuels and other natural resources has damaged the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the land we inhabit…. Some 1000 billion tons of carbon dioxide and other climatically-important ‘greenhouse’ gases have already been accumulated in the atmosphere…. [and] now exceeds the highest levels in at least the last million years.”[2]

In the face of this global scientific consensus, on January 21st of this year, 49 United States Senators, as part of an effort to pass a bill authorizing construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, voted against an amendment to the bill that said human activity is a significant contributor to climate change.[3] 49 United States senators proclaimed that the firmly established global scientific consensus is incorrect! A number of them cried foul, saying the amendment was a political stunt. They may be right, but a U.S. Senator’s ability to discern fact from fiction matters when the fate of the planet is at stake. The Senate has the power to shape energy and environmental policy in ways that ensure a sustainable future. It is infuriating every time that strange coalition of hyper-conservative faith, business and political interests drives a large segment of our national leadership to ignore science. In my view such willful ignorance is a sinful evasion of responsibility that demands a fighting response from all people of faith who take science seriously. Two conflicting impulses.

Stan and Sue McMillen inspired my reflections on this topic. They purchased a sermon at last year’s goods and services auction. This is their sermon. Stan suggested a couple of possibilities. First he said, “I have been increasingly concerned that religion continues to divide rather than unite us in justice work.” He’s right. Religious differences drive the culture war, and we need that first impulse—curiosity, openness—to bridge our divides. But then he said “There is another disturbing thread that concerns me: the disparagement of science by religion.” Because that ongoing disparagement will have catastrophic consequences for the planet if allowed to persist without opposition, we also need to cultivate that second impulse, a willingness to fight without apology for a sustainable future.

I’ve been wondering about how one decides which impulse to pursue in any given encounter across culture war lines. I’ve been wondering about how I decide, since I make the decision often, but don’t always stop to think about it—which is why I’m using the word impulse. Here’s my best thinking about when and why to follow either of these impulses.

At the beginning of any encounter with a person of another faith—and I suppose at the beginning of any encounter with any human being—approach them with openness, curiosity, friendliness. Assume common ground exists. Assume the other wants a peaceful, prosperous community, a just and fair society, the best possible future for their children and grandchildren. Assume the other cares about the earth. It won’t always be an accurate assumption, but it is much easier to build a relationship if you begin with the assumption that relationship is possible.

Then look for the common ground. Ask, inquire, explore, listen, learn. Stan expresses a concern that religion continues to divide rather than unite us in justice work. Religion is less likely to divide us if we find our common ground. I have been attending a series of meetings at the Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford to work on passage of a bill of rights for domestic workers—people who work in other peoples’ homes providing health care, childcare, eldercare and cleaning services. Because domestic workers aren’t included in the Fair Labor Relations Act and many other national labor laws, they are easily and often exploited with few if any avenues for legal recourse. Passage of a Domestic Worker’s Bill of Rights would begin to create a more just domestic work place in Connecticut. In the meeting at the Archdiocese there are Catholics, Pentecostals, Lutherans, UCCs, UUs and labor union. It would be so easy to say “No, I won’t work with the Catholic Church.” UUs and Catholics are diametrically opposed on many culture war issues: marriage equality, transgender civil rights, and most recently aid-in-dying for terminally ill patients. These divisions have been present in these meeting. The Catholics keep talking about aid in dying, in part because they’ve all been working together to defeat it. Most of them didn’t realize I’ve been working in support of it. Those who did were genuinely concerned I would feel alienated. The meeting organizer finally asked if I would share my thoughts about it. I did. But I made it clear that I would never want our disagreement on this or any other issue to prevent us from achieving our mutual goal of a more just work conditions for domestic workers. As much as Catholics and UUs have disagreed over the years, we’ve always shared the common ground of economic justice.

Nevertheless, division is sometimes inevitable. There are moments when we can’t find common ground and the impulse to fight or struggle takes over. Before that happens, it’s important to me to make sure I’m fighting for the right reasons. For me, a difference in theology or belief is never a reason to fight. That is, if someone believes in God and I don’t, that’s not worth fighting over. If someone believes the Koran is God’s final revelation and I believe all sacred scriptures are human inventions, that’s not worth fighting over. If someone accepts Jesus Christ as their savior and I find salvation in the natural world, that’s not worth fighting over. Differences in theology, tradition, practice—these are opportunities for the first impulse—curiosity, learning. But when someone else’s beliefs manifest in the world in ways that cause suffering, exploitation, oppression, in ways that destroy and kills, then it’s time to take a stand, to struggle, to organize, to fight.

I’ve preached about such moments many times. I am mindful that I typically frame fights between people of faith—whether over gay rights or global warming—as fights ultimately between religious liberalism and religious fundamentalism. I name fundamentalism as the problem. Well, I’ve had an evolution in my thinking, and I want to name it now, even though I haven’t fully worked through its meaning. When we fight for something we believe in—really fight, really struggle—we actually take on characteristics of the fundamentalists we oppose. We appear to them as they appear to us: unbending, unyielding, uncompromising—at least that’s the risk. I’m not a religious fundamentalist, but I’ll own that I’m a marriage equality fundamentalist. I’ll own that I’m a reproductive choice fundamentalist, an economic justice fundamentalist, a Black Lives Matter fundamentalist, a path-to-citizenship- for-undocumented immigrants-fundamentalist, an end-the-war-on-drugs fundamentalist. And I’m a climate-change-is-real-and-caused-by-humans-and-must-be-addressed-now-with-the-largest- mobilization-of-people-and-resources-the-world-has-ever-seen” fundamentalist. I’m owning my fundamentalisms. And I know when I move to that place of utter conviction it has the potential to silence conversation, to alienate people who might not completely agree with me, to damage relationships, to poison otherwise common ground. It can keep the culture war going. Thus I know I must pause at times to critique my fundamentalisms, to assure myself that the rationale behind them is still solid, to assure myself that they are and I am still spiritually and theologically grounded. When I move to that place of utter conviction, I better have solid evidence. 

South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham said something about this back on January 21st when the Senate took that vote on climate change. He voted for the amendment saying he’s now comfortable with climate science. But then he said something that at first seemed silly, but the more I think about it, it’s not. He said, “I think that people on my side”—meaning conservatives—“are really reluctant to embrace how much human activity is causing climate change because our friends on the other side”—meaning liberals—“have made it a religion.”[4]

It’s an interesting use of the word religion. He doesn’t mean religion in the liberal sense where we’re on a journey and our credo is always changing. He means something unchanging. He means fundamentalism. He’s saying “I experience you liberals as Climate Change fundamentalists.” He’s asking for compromise. He’s trying to respond to the first impulse. He’s looking for common ground. But fundamentalism of any sort isn’t interested in common ground. It’s interested in prevailing. And given what climate science is saying, given the great global disruption the models are forecasting, we’re long past time for compromise. Graham is right: those of us who take the science seriously have made it a “religion.” And we need to prevail.

The philosopher of religion Loyal Rue once wrote, “The most profound insight in the history of humankind is that we should seek to live in accord with reality. Indeed, living in harmony with reality may be accepted as a formal definition of wisdom. If we live at odds with reality (foolishly), then we will be doomed, but if we live in right relationship with reality (wisely), then we shall be saved. Humans everywhere, and at all times, have had at least a tacit understanding of this fundamental principle.”[5] I take science seriously, because it is our best guide to understanding reality—not the only guide, to be sure, but the best. And when I say we are justified in fighting against unnecessary suffering, exploitation, oppression, and the destruction of the earth, I understand each of these things as failures of right relationship to reality. I am hopeful that in any sojourn we may take into “fundamentalism,” it is for the sake of restoring right relationship to reality, it is the path of wisdom, and it will save us.

Amen and Blessed Be.

[1] “The 97% Consensus on Global Warming” at Skeptical Science: https://www.skepticalscience.com/global-warming-scientific-consensus-advanced.htm.

[2] Dasgupta, P., Ramanathan, V., Raven, P., Sanchez Sorondo, M., et al, “Climate Change and the Common Good: A Statement Of the Problem And the Demand For Transformative Solutions,” published April 29, 2015 by the Pontifical Academies of Science and Social Science. See: http://www.casinapioiv.va/content/dam/accademia/pdf/protect/climate_change_common_good.pdf.

[3]  Kollipara, Puneet and Malakoff, David, “For the first time in years, the U.S. Senate voted on climate change. Did anybody win?” Science Insider, January 29, 2015.See: http://news.sciencemag.org/climate/2015/01/first-time-years-u-s-senate-voted-climate-change-did-anybody-win.

[4] Kollipara, Puneet and Malakoff, David, “For the first time in years, the U.S. Senate voted on climate change. Did anybody win?” Science Insider, January 29, 2015.See: http://news.sciencemag.org/climate/2015/01/first-time-years-u-s-senate-voted-climate-change-did-anybody-win. Also see: http://www.eenews.net/stories/1060012413.

[5] This quote is taken from Loyal Rue’s Religion is Not About God: How Spiritual Traditions Nurture our Biological Nature and What to Expect When They Fail (Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2005). It appeared in Dowd, Michael, “The Evolutionary Significance of Religion: Multi-Level Selection,” Metanexus, February 10, 2012. See: http://metanexus.net/blog/evolutionary-significance-religion-multi-level-selection?utm_source=2012.02.28&utm_campaign=2012.02.28&utm_medium=email.