Reinventing the Sacred

In his 2008 book Reinventing the Sacred, complexity theorist Stuart A. Kauffman tells an apocryphal story of the invention of the tractor. Portable engines had been invented for the purpose of powering farm machinery in the early 1800s. The question by mid-century was how to embed an engine directly into the machinery. No reasonably-sized chassis could bear the weight of the engine. Eventually an engineer working on the problem suggested using the sturdy, rigid engine block itself as the chassis.[1] This solution led to the invention of the tractor. This story illustrates Kauffman’s principle of “emergence,” which describes how every new thing—new molecules, species, technologies, economies, cultures—comes into the universe for the first time—not at the very beginning, but as a part of a continuing creative process inherent in the universe. This principle is so compelling to Kauffman that he proposes we call it God. Hence the title of his book, Reinventing the Sacred.

It would never have occurred to me to read this book, but luckily for me, when Fred and Phil Sawyer purchased a sermon at last year’s goods and services auction, Fred assigned it. “Luckily.” As I remember it, Fred handed it to me saying something like, “I got nothing out of it; I’m not a biologist; maybe you can tell us why this matters.” I remember thinking, “I’m not a biologist either!” But I’m always up for a challenge. And reading this book was a challenge.  Much of the science is dense and beyond my comprehension. But I know enough to understand the significance Kauffman attaches to the science. And what he says does matter—not because he has found God, but because his science reveals a mysterious, creative dimension at the heart of the universe—one that can inform us in a profound way what it means to be human. Ready?

I think it’s fair to say the average human isn’t typically aware of a mysterious, creative dimension at the heart of the universe. We might catch fleeting glimpses of it in the midst of worship, or in the presence of beautiful art or nature. If we desire a more sustained experience of it we need to work at it. It requires a prayer life, a devotional life, a meditational life. It requires regular practices that connect mind, body and spirit to each other and to the world. But that’s not what the book is about. Kauffman contends we need a new scientific worldview. In fact, the reason we aren’t typically aware of the mysterious, creative dimension at the heart of the universe is because the reigning scientific worldview, reductionism, blocks such awareness.  

“Reductionism,” says Kauffman, “is the view that society is to be explained in terms of people, people in terms of organs, organs by cells, cells by biochemistry, biochemistry by chemistry, and chemistry by physics…. It is the view that in the end, all of reality is nothing but whatever is ‘down there’ at the … base of physics….”[2] What’s down there? Atoms and subatomic particles like pions, muons, guons and the Higgs boson. A string theorist would say there are vibrating strings down there.

Presumably, there are laws governing the behavior of these microcosmic entities, just as there are laws governing the behavior of planets and stars. If we can articulate these laws, if we can know what each minute entity will do in any given situation, then theoretically it is possible to know everything that will happen. This is reductionism’s goal. We’ve succumbed to the Galilean spell. Kauffman says “since Galileo rolled balls down incline planes and showed that the distance traveled varied with the square of the time elapsed, we scientists have believed that the universe and all in it are governed by natural laws…. Under this spell we have believed reductionism for over 350 years.”[3] The spell is seductive. If we can find the natural laws governing the physical world, then we can know everything that will happen in physics. Kauffman says knowing a natural law means we can pre-state what is going to happen. If we can pre-state everything that will happen in physics, then we can pre-state everything that will happen in chemistry and on up the chain: biochemistry, cells, organs, people, societies.[4] With such knowledge we can unlock every secret in the universe.

But Kauffman also reminds us of a shadowy truth at the heart of reductionism: “The more we comprehend the universe, the more pointless it seems.”[5] That is, physics only tells us what happens. It only tells us facts. There’s no meaning or purpose embedded in the interaction of subatomic particles. If everything—including consciousness—can be reduced to particles colliding, then at the heart of reality there is no meaning or purpose. There is no agency. Nothing utterly new emerges, and there is certainly no God. It’s all utterly pointless.

Kaffman resists this conclusion. He is convinced we aren’t just particles colliding. We have agency. There is meaning and purpose. These things didn’t exist at the beginning of the universe; they have emerged into the universe over time and they cannot be reduced to physics. Kauffman proposes to break the Galilean spell. He makes this proposal based primarily on his understanding of a concept in the theory of evolution called preadaptation. What is preadaptation? Any biological organism has features that are more or less adapted to its environment and enable it to survive and reproduce. But what happens if the environment changes—becomes colder or warmer, wetter or dryer—and the organism’s survival needs change? The study of evolution reveals that in such situations, some of the organism’s features may take on new functions that have no relationship to their original functions. Scientists call this preadaptation.

This is why Kauffman tells the tractor story. The engine block’s original function is to support the components of the engine. But some engineer imagined the engine block could also be used as the tractor’s chassis. The engine block wasn’t designed to be a chassis, but as needs changed, it emerged as a chassis. It was preadapted to function as a chassis even though it wasn’t designed to function as a chassis. Kauffman also talks about screwdrivers, which were designed to turn screws. “But how many other novel uses can the screwdriver be put to? It can be used to open a can of paint … to scrape putty from a frozen window … to defend yourself against an assailant … as an object of art … as a paperweight … to carve your initials on a fine tabletop, spear a fish, crack a coconut, chop down a tree using a rock to hammer if you are on an isolated island making a hut.”[6] When we use a screwdriver for any purpose other than turning screws, we can say it is preadapted for these other functions.

That’s the principle. Returning to actual biology, Kauffman talks about how the three bones in the fish jaw were preadapted to evolve into the bones of the middle ear in mammals. He talks about how ancient fish lungs evolved by preadaptation into the swim bladder. There are countless examples of preadaptation in nature. It is one of the primary mechanisms by which novelty emerges into the universe. And whenever something new emerges into the universe, it also changes its environment, putting survival pressure on other organisms, thus creating opportunities for emergence to continue in endless cycles. Emergence does not violate the laws of physics, but there is also no physical law that fully governs it either. Kauffman says there can be no such law because “we have not the faintest idea of what all possible [environmental changes] might be … and no way to list all possible … environments with respect to all … features of organisms. How would we even get started on creating such a list? Thus we cannot [pre-state] the …  preadaptations that will come to exist in the biosphere.”[7]

Remember the mysterious, creative dimension at the heart of the universe? Here it is. Reductionism can’t explain it because reductionism requires laws. Emergence is a partially lawless phenomenon.

Kauffman calls this mysterious, creative dimension at the heart of the universe God. Throughout the book he is clear he can’t accept the idea of an all-powerful, transcendent, Creator God. But he also can’t accept reductionism’s pointless universe. He believes he has found a third way, a scientifically describable creativity inherent in the universe which, because no natural law governs it completely, is also eternally mysterious. Isn’t God a good name for it? This is how he reinvents the sacred. But there’s no reinvention here. Most theologians would call his theology pantheism, the idea that God is synonymous with the natural world. If the natural world is inherently creative, partially lawless and unknowably mysterious, then God is creative, partially lawless and unknowably mysterious. Pantheism comes in many forms and is quite ancient. I’m a pantheist. Many Unitarian Universalists profess some form of pantheism, even if they don’t use the word.

I’m not blown away by his theologizing, but I’ve loved contemplating what it means to be human in this inherently creative, partially lawless, unknowably mysterious universe. Every time Kauffman illustrates how some biological process, or the human mind, or the biosphere, or the economy or human culture cannot be reduced to physics, cannot be contained within the boundaries of natural law; or how some change in biology, the economy or culture cannot be pre-stated—his science reveals an infinite space all around us and in which virtually anything can happen. He calls it the adjacent possible. Every possible preadaptation, every path to something new exists there, and everything that emerges new into the universe emerges there. This doesn’t mean that every new thing that can happen will happen, but something new will happen. In a sense we are constantly entering a sliver of the adjacent possible.

As an example, he notes “that the early Earth … had only a small diversity of organic molecules, perhaps a hundred or a thousand different compounds. Today there are trillions of different organic compounds spread among the roughly 100 million living species. The biosphere has exploded into its chemically adjacent possible. We will find similar explosions in economics, human history and elsewhere…. The creativity in the universe is tied to the explosions into the adjacent possible.”[8] Every new chemical compound, cell or organism, every new use for a screwdriver, the inner ear, the swim bladder, the automobile, the airplane, the emergence of  smell, sight, hearing, taste, touch through evolution—even every new thought—

brings us into the adjacent possible. And every time something new comes into the world, a new adjacent possible comes into existence. Endless creativity.

I invited Molly Vigeant to compose a poem in response to the prompt: “is the human mind like a computer?” She wrote: my mind connects / each neuron / like a cable to a memory / that means something to me, / my cables connect / finding results to your questions, / to my questions / but i do not display the results / you see my mind / does not work like that laptop …. I gave her this prompt when I was reading Kauffman’s chapter on the human mind. He asks whether or not the human mind is like a computer. He and Molly agree. Our minds do not work like laptops. Computers are algorithmic. They use algorithms to make complex calculations. Humans use algorithms—long division is an example—but is the human mind algorithmic like a computer? For an algorithm to work, there must be boundaries. There must be what Kauffman calls a pre-stated problem space. The algorithm finds a solution within the boundaries of the problem space. Once the problem space is pre-stated, there are many solutions that can be found within the space, but not beyond it. There is no adjacent possible for computers. Laws set limits. The human mind, however, knows no such limits. Molly almost begs us, “Please / don’t call me a computer /when I compose rhymes, call it the power / of a human mind.” Kauffman says, “the human mind, like a ghost ship, keeps slipping free of its computational moorings to sail where it will. It does so because it is nonalgorithmic. This freedom is part of the creativity of the universe.”[9]

Yes! The human imagination crosses boundaries into the adjacent possible all the time: in dreams, in creative endeavor, while under pressure, in the throes of passion, in problem-solving, in prayer, in meditation, while doing yoga, dancing, running, day-dreaming, free and easy wandering. I’m mindful of our opening words from Howard Thurman: “The movement of the Spirit of God in the hearts of [people] often … causes them to anticipate a spirit which is yet in the making.”[10] Any time we’re struggling and realize we need to live differently, the adjacent possible beckons. Any time we encounter difficulty, hurt, tragedy and need to adapt to new circumstances, the adjacent possible beckons. Any time we’ve become weighted down by habit or addiction and need to reinvent ourselves, the adjacent possible beckons. But it cannot be pre-stated. There is no way to know ahead of time what the mind will imagine, what answers will emerge. We’ll know once we’ve found our way there.

This is what it means to be human. We live in a partially lawless universe, not knowing what the future may bring. In this sense we are surrounded by mystery, which can be terrifying. But we are also surrounded by infinite pathways, infinite promise. The adjacent possible is always accessible. Knowing this, trusting this, believing this, let us not fear mystery but rather embrace it. Let us live in consort with the creative heart of the universe. Knowing the adjacent possible is there, may we find inspiration to meet the challenges of our lives. Knowing the adjacent possible is there, may we be hopeful people.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Kauffman, Stuart A., Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason, and Religion (New York: Basic Books, 2008) pp. 151-2. Kauffman says this “is how tractors are made,” but he doesn’t cite any sources. A quick google search informs me that “in 1892, John Froelich invented and built the first gasoline/petrol-powered tractor in Clayton County, Iowa, USA. A Van Duzen single-cylinder gasoline engine was mounted on a Robinson engine chassis, which could be controlled and propelled by Froelich’s gear box.” See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tractor.

[2] Kauffman, Reinventing the Sacred, pp. 10-11.

[3] Kauffman, Reinventing the Sacred, p. 131.

[4] Kauffman refers to the early 19th-century French scientist, Simon Pierre LaPlace, saying that “the entire universe and all the events within it, from particles colliding to nations at war, could be understood as nothing but the motion of a very large number of particles.” Kauffman, Reinventing the Sacred, pp. 14.

[5] Kauffman, Reinventing the Sacred, pp. 18.

[6] Kauffman, Reinventing the Sacred, p. 188.

[7] Kauffman, Reinventing the Sacred, p. 132-3.

[8] Kauffman, Reinventing the Sacred, p. 64.

[9] Kauffman, Reinventing the Sacred, p. 188.

[10] Thurman, Howard, Footprints of a Dream: The Story of the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples (Harper, 1959).

 

Telling it With a Sigh . . . .

Chaplain Emma Peterson

Emma Peterson In my work as a hospital chaplain, I am seeking to hear the stories of the patients and families I encounter. “Tell me the story of your life,” I ask. And my asking often comes in the midst of remarkable upheaval, in the moments where life as they knew it is suddenly so very different from what they hoped for, expected. I arrive in the unsettling, the reconsidering, the knitting back together. I meet people in the minutes just after the breaking, and long before the healing really begins. “Tell me the story of your life,” I say and wait for what comes. At first, there is usually a look of surprise. Eyes widen a bit, and lips purse as if to catch any words that may pass without permission. But there is always an answer. It begins slowly, a drawling “well,” but there is almost always a response that the person I am listening to has considered before.

          Because that’s how humans are. We are constantly working to make sense of the pathways of our lives. We are seeking the aerial view of the map we always believed we were following. We are aching to see the whole picture, as if it would clarify where we came from and where we are going. My life began like this, we say, and then it looked like this, and then it looked a little different, and now I am here. Usually, the people I encounter attempt to conclude their narratives with an air of confidence- an assurance that they were always meant to wind up exactly where they are. Or, they make an attempt at explaining why their life doesn’t look the way they had always hoped. “I turned left here, when I should have turned right.” “I took this job, pursued this love, moved far away or found my way back home.” I did this, and this, and now I am here. See? It all makes sense, and I was at the helm the whole time, for good or for ill.
          Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” is arguably the most iconic poem in America. David Orr’s recent examination of the work and its impact on Western popular culture ranks it as a poem cherished in both academic and informal circles. It has been utilized in thousands of advertisements, appropriated onto countless novels and literary collections. It can be quoted without reference to its original source and recognized immediately by almost any audience. Americans love this poem. It speaks to the way we value personal choice, independence, and control over the worlds we exist in. “And that has made all the difference,” we explain over and over- to ourselves, to each other. Its refrain reassures us in moments when we fear we are losing touch with our personal compass. “I took the one less traveled by,” we proclaim proudly as we attempt to explain the mess of pathways, the lack of straight lines, the utter disaster that was our journey from A to B. I got myself here on purpose, we say, trying to convince ourselves all the while.
          But Western popular culture is guilty of a massive mis-reading of Frost’s most loved poem. We have made famous our misconception, popularized it in such a way that Frost’s intent has become far removed from what we want his words to mean. And, as I think is typical of so many stubborn American assertions, we are oblivious to the fact that Frost is actually confessing a deep anxiety of the human spirit. That is, a recognition that our paths are unknown to us until we begin to travel them.”Though as for that, the passing there/had worn them really about the same.” It all looks the same until we turn left or right, until we discover what is coming up around the next bend. We do not create the paths that lay before us, nor do we always dictate which direction we are going in. Frost is shaking his head at our insistence on explaining away our lives, on claiming ownership and control. Frost is opening a vulnerable cavity of awareness, recognizing a lack of actual choice while admitting he will still try to explain it all as his own doing years in the future.
          Neither Frost nor myself are making a claim that we never actually make our own choices. Of course we do. But a self-centric world view, an insistence that we can always, no matter what, determine where we end up, is painfully flawed. Such a view ignores all of the other forces that exist around us all the time. These “forces” I am referring to are both concrete and obvious, our families, our jobs, our personal obligations and the day to day monotony of survival. But I think it’s much, much more vast than that- I want to push beyond the lens of human consciousness, towards a possibility that there may exist forces in this incredible, miracle universe in which we exist. That these forces may actually have a rhythm, an awareness, an intention to them. And that maybe, we, tiny specks that we are, might not be the ones in charge here. We certainly try to appear in charge. Building up our systems and our rules, stomping our feet and proclaiming skywards that we are running the show here! And the world spins endlessly on in response. And This world continues on, storming, growing, dying, erupting. The world and the universe that cradles it was here eons before we ever were, will be here long after, and I’m not really sure if the entire universe sees your personal life plan as congruent to the big picture. Maybe something bigger than you has a better plan for your life, and it intends to get you there- no matter how desperately you aim in the other direction. And so look out, theres a curve ahead, and you may want to ride it instead of fighting it.
          Here’s something about those curves we face. They come, with their swooping, break-neck speed, and they leave whatever came before them behind.  One path always leaves another untravelled. And the loss there is real, and significant in the narratives of our lives. If you are uncertain where the meaning lies, look for the loss. Seek out the grief, and work to understand how its presence has informed your identity. “Sorry I could not travel both/and be one traveller.” In the past decade, I have imagined countless possible lives I could lead. But there is always, really, only room for one. How many people could I have become by now, if only I could seek out all paths, or settle down once I felt I had found my way home. Life doesn’t work that way. And there our traveller stands, on the precipice of possibility, knowing that whatever way he goes, he will lose the other way entirely. He expresses a brief hope to return again and seek the other path. “Yet knowing how way leads on to way,/I doubted if I should ever come back.” In that there is grieved recognition of a life not lived, and another lived instead.
          Just like so many of the patients I encounter, I too have learned how to tell my story. My words are practiced to sound that while I accept a small degree of mystery, I more or less knew my direction from the start. But this is all just well rehearsed nonsense. I don’t know how I wound up where I am, and the only thing I can point to to explain it all is this feeling that has swelled from my heart from the moment I realized that I was not the center of the universe. (Imagine that!) This feeling can only be called faith, a certainty in some divine presence that I know exists, even if I can’t even begin to qualify it. This love, this deep love that feels truly knitted into my very person, has kept me moving ever forward, and it has doubled back to find me each time I declared I was going to ignore it because I had other things to do. If destiny is real, then destiny hurts. But I have come to realize that ignoring the persistent whisper in my heart, the whisper that demands I follow what I have come to understand as my personal call, hurts far more than answering it, loudly, and with praise.
          I was raised in the bosom of small-town Methodist community. The theology of the faith that raised me was conservative, straight forward and simple. Christ, born of Father God and Mary, came here to save humanity. We took communion with homemade bread and warm grape juice, laid the baby Jesus in our manger on Christmas Eve, and covered the cross during Holy Week. I grew up spending Sunday’s being embraced by the bony, warm dry hands of little old ladies. My pastors were men who commanded authority, and who didn’t appreciate the questions I asked as I got older.
          I think I was about ten when I began to feel the persistent tug of cognitive dissonance. One Sunday, our minister preached a sermon about his certainty that Jesus Christ was “the way, the truth, and the light.” Proclaiming Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior was the only path to salvation. At the time, I had a friend Ming June whose parents owned the Chinese take out place on Main Street. She lived in a huge victorian home with a bevy of Chinese men and women who were here to work in the restaurant. In their sparse living room was a massive Buddhist alter, a smiling statue of the one who is awake in the center. Sweet incense burned around the Buddha all day long, orange peels dried at his feet, and small scraps of paper bearing prayers rested in his palms. Ming’s family alter was a sacred space, I knew it to be true, and the thought of her burning in hell for following the wrong prophet both broke my heart and awoke in me an anger that eventually led me away from the Methodist church and Christianity entirely. This burgeoning anger, this swelling of dissent carried with it a strong undercurrent of grief and loss. I ached to hear true gospel. I was coming into myself, developing an in your face liberal and queered identity, and I all I wanted was for someone to tell me God made me as I was, loved me every day, and recognized me even when I couldn’t recognize myself.
          This period of angst lasted an entire decade. I learned to ignore God, in no small part because I already believed God was ignoring me. I felt safely removed from the longing simmering in my heart. But then when I was 21, on a trip to Texas I visited a psychic, a veritable prophet, sitting in her sweltering trailer in July. She was all of four foot five, skin like leather left in the sun, and a voice only achieved when someone is very, very dedicated to chain smoking. She held my hands in hers, and spoke to me with a measured urgency unlike anything I’d heard before. “Ask me a question, dear child,” she implored me, and I did. I asked her what I was going to be when I grew up. My anxiety surrounding the mystery of what was to come next was growing inside me, and I had come to her in hopes of direction. “I don’t know,” she relied, her voice scraping gravel. “But I can tell you this, you are going to work for God.” She shook me up, this tiny psychic angel, and then she sent me on my way. I pushed her out of my mind for seven months, until on one late January afternoon I sat down and resolved to apply to seminary. I wanted answers about God. I wanted to know why I couldn’t hear “blessed assurance” without dissolving into tears. I wanted to know why people in my life, those who knew me and knew me not at all were always telling me to become a pastor. I determined I would answer these questions by hitting the books, and one year later found myself at Yale.
I read the entire Bible, and only found more to reject. I wanted to return to Christ, and while I loved the puzzle of the trinity, I just couldn’t conceive of Jesus beyond a revolutionary and a prophet. This broke my heart, and I spiraled again into grief and loss.
          But then I met Elizabeth Price, a CPE supervisor delighted by my reluctance to name the divine presence I felt always. She accepted me into the ten week chaplaincy program, and it was there I discovered the holy ground I had so long been seeking. In the hospital, where the world comes when it is breaking, the divine was everywhere. I encountered God in each patient I met, mixed in with the starkest possible representations of the human experience. And this stumbling upon what what I believed to be God calling me to chaplain ministry meant I needed to get to work. Gradually, a combination of dear friends and small miracles led me to the Unitarian Universalist Association of New Haven. And there, on that first Sunday morning, was a proclamation of the gospel I had been longing to hear. There it was! It was justice, and mystery, and radical inclusion all at once. I was home, finally, finally. God had found a way and I was home.
          I am not going off the deep end here. Please do not misunderstand this sermon as a spin of the relentlessly damaging adage “everything happens for a reason.” I do not believe everything happens for a reason. But I do believe there is so much more to this world than we, tiny fallible humans can ever hope to understand. I want to believe God, spirit, heavenly creator, knows me intimately and has intentions for what I (and you, too) will do in this world. All I can say is this- I would not be a Unitarian Universalist, I would not be a hospital chaplain, I would not spend every day swelled to capacity for love of the divine if something, something unfathomable and way, way bigger than me didn’t exist.
          In the photo series “Humans of New York” there was a picture taken of a middle-aged woman leaning against an iron fence in some small city neighborhood. The corresponding quote read, “I have this theory. Are you ready for it? So we are on earth for a finite amount of time. And time is a manmade perception. And we perceive time passing through change- seasons, aging, things like that. So to expand our time on earth, we must incite as much change in our lives as possible.” What a remarkable way to cope with the unexpected. And she’s right, at least in terms of how I think of my own life. My strongest memories, my strongest sense of how I have become who I am becoming, are directly connected to transition, to new life, to moving past something and growing in to something new. And most of this change comes with a period of pain, of grief, of reluctance to move beyond the familiar and the comfortable. But after all of that, after I truly put to rest what is no longer mine, there is new and better life. There is a sense of “this is where I am supposed to be.” I never would have gotten anywhere near where I am now if I had been in charge.
          I am telling this with a sigh. But I am no longer making claim that my own choice about left here or right there made all the difference in this strange and incredible life I’m blessed to live. The narrative of my life contains so much more than my own choices. Perhaps I am “giving it up to God.” Perhaps I am choosing to waylay personal responsibility in favor of divine mystery, for the pull of the unexpected, for the chance to see what happens next if I listen for the thread woven so tightly throughout my heart. If it were truly up to me, I likely wouldn’t of sent off that application to seminary in the wee hours of some January morning. I wouldn’t have chosen to witness so much death, so much loss, so much remarkable grace. But here I am. Best to let that be what it is, best to become whatever I am supposed to become.
          And maybe there are signs, sometimes, showing up how we can live in this unbelievable world. In the late afternoon, I am walking the dog around a man made pond. The earth around me is heavily landscaped, displaying appealing beauty with its perfect angles and intentional curves and straight lines. The day is cool and clear, breezy. A monarch butterfly flits past me, filling up my vision with a flash of orange and black, beating wings. She appears so suddenly that I catch my breath, and pause to take note of her arrival. She is lovely, and so bright against the endless blue sky. She circles my body, once, twice, before allowing the wind to carry her on. The breeze is strong, but she rides it like a kite. Her weightlessness has become her strength, and she has surrendered herself to the journey ahead. She will withstand the wind, and it will become a part of her,  taking her where she needs to go.

From Radical Transcendence to Radical Immanence

Rev. Josh Pawelek

uuse chaliceBecause I’m in the middle of teaching our Building Your Own Theology class and inviting the participants to look deeply into themselves and their experiences in an effort to name what they believe; and because I am moved and inspired by what they are saying in class; and also because it’s been a hard few months here at UUS:E and I am looking for my own sources of grounding, comfort, solace, and peace; and also because our ministry theme for April is transcendence; and finally because it’s just plain fun for me—for all these reasons I’ve decided to share with you this morning my current thoughts on God—how I believe.

There’s a story floating through the sermons of many ministers—it’s often attributed to the late Rev. Forrest Church, though I’m not sure it’s original to him—in which the parishioner says to the minister,” I try and I try and I try, but I find I just don’t believe in God.” The minister responds, “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in. I probably don’t believe in that God either.” It’s possible some ministers tell this story as a way of saying “I know, there are many versions of God out there—jealous, angry, punitive gods; capricious, whimsical, unpredictable gods; callous, arrogant, selfish gods; homophobic, sexist, racist gods; imperialistic, nationalistic, violent war gods—but I know who God really is, and after I’m done listening to you tell me about the god you don’t believe in, I’m going to tell you about a god you can believe in.” To be clear, that’s not my intention here. I don’t move through the world harboring the secret conviction that the God I believe in is somehow right when all those other Gods are wrong. I don’t come to a sermon like this with the assumption that if you just open your heart to what I have to say, you’ll get it, you’ll see the light, you’ll believe.

However, there is a religious impulse in humanity: a longing to connect and commune with a reality larger than ourselves; a yearning to serve, to help, to heal, to be good; a drive to imagine, to conceive, to create, to shape, to build; an instinct to worship, to praise, to offer thanks; a hunger for a better world—a more fair, just, peaceful, loving and sustainable world. Human beings express and act on this religious impulse in countless ways, through the construction over time of countless religions, theologies, spiritualties, rituals, practices, holidays, festivals, folkways, and self-help regimens— a vast, beautiful, sometimes tragic, sometimes horrendous, always multifaceted testament to humanity’s longing to encounter the Holy. When I speak to you about God in my life, I am not attempting to extract the one true belief out of the whole and then proclaim, “Here it is!” When I speak to you about God in my life, I’m simply adding one more, small voice to the vast, beautiful, sometimes tragic, sometimes horrendous landscape of human religion. I hope not that you will believe as I believe, but that you will be inspired to respond to the religious impulse that moves you and thus make your contribution to that vast, beautiful, sometimes tragic, sometimes horrendous human religious whole.

Our April ministry theme is transcendence, a term often given as a quality of God. Transcendence hangs out with its close friends otherworldly, supernatural, ultimate, boundless, sublime, infinite, absolute, eternal. In his Handbook of Theological Terms[1] Van Harvey says transcendence “has been used to designate any ideal or thing or being that ‘stands over against’…. It conveys ‘otherness.’” God “is said to transcend the world in the sense that his being is not identical with or his power not exhausted by the [earthly realm].” “When this idea of transcendence has been radicalized … it has led to the view that [God] is ‘wholly other’ and, therefore, unknowable.”[2]

Radical transcendence. Sit with that for a moment. A radically transcendent God exists ‘over and above’ the world, over and above humanity. A radically transcendent God lives somewhere else. A radically transcendent God is distant, separate, detached, beyond, unreachable, unknowable, inscrutable, wholly other. I read earlier from the introduction to the twentieth-century, Neo-Reformed—sometimes called Neo-Orthodox—Swiss theologian, Karl Barth’s The Epistle to the Romans. Commenting on the Apostle Paul Barth says “However great and important a man Paul may have been, the essential theme of his mission is not within him but above him—unapproachably distant and unutterably strange.” Barth often used the Latin term deus absconditus, the hidden God.

There are religious people of all sorts who are quite comfortable with a radically transcendent God. I’m mindful of a quote, also attributed to the late Rev. Forrest Church: “The power which I cannot explain or know or name I call God. God is not God’s name. God is my name for the mystery that looms within and arches beyond the limits of my being.” We might call this a liberal version of deus absconditus. I find it enormously and refreshingly sane and wise to locate God in mystery, to believe in a God we cannot explain or know or name. Such belief requires us to admit our own limits; to acknowledge we don’t know everything; to find peace in the darkness; to accept that we cannot control every outcome; to accept that we must, at times, let go, that we must, at times, surrender. This is humility. At its best a wholly other God leads us to humility in our interactions with others and with the world.

The problem is, I’m not sure most gods like being radically transcendent. It seems difficult for them to remain distant and unknowable, shrouded in mystery. It’s hard for them. All too often transcendent gods leave their otherworldly home and visit earth; they descend; they come down to play, provoke, punish—to send plagues and swarms of locusts, to cause droughts and floods. One of my favorite stories of a radically transcendent God who makes himself known is the Hebrew Book of Job, a somewhat unique piece of Jewish wisdom literature from which we read earlier. Job was a righteous man—God-fearing, obedient. Satan wagers with God that he can induce Job to curse God. God accepts the wager, and Satan proceeds to destroy Job’s life, ruining his livelihood, killing off his family members and livestock, afflicting his body with horrible diseases. Job never curses God, but when he wonders why he’s been made to suffer so horribly, God becomes angry and sarcastic saying, essentially, “You didn’t make the world. I made the world. I can do whatever I want, it’s not your place to question, and you wouldn’t understand anyways.” One of the enduring critiques of transcendent gods is that they do whatever they want, that they’re capricious and arbitrary, that they mis-use and abuse their power without feeling a need to justify their actions—at least without justification we mere mortals would understand. They don’t stay radically transcendent. They descend.

But perhaps the problem doesn’t lie so much with the gods themselves, as with the people who speak for them. Many people don’t find an unknowable, radically transcendent god all that helpful or interesting. They’re uncomfortable with theological silence, uncomfortable with mystery, often because they need a God who can help them achieve certain social or political goals on earth. They want a transcendent god with all the power and the glory, but not the radical version. They want a knowable God who, more than anything, instills fear.

My mind wanders to Jonathan Edwards’ infamous 1741 Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God sermon, which became the model for American hell-fire and brimstone preaching: “There is nothing that keeps wicked Men at any one Moment, out of Hell, but the meer Pleasure of GOD. By the meer Pleasure of God, I mean his sovereign Pleasure, his arbitrary Will, restrained by no Obligation, hinder’d by no manner of Difficulty.”[3] (I think this sermon should have been called God in the Hands of an Angry Preacher!). There’s often a political dimension to this kind of knowable, transcendent God—he’s a king, an autocrat, a dictator, a tyrant. He rules from the top of a hierarchy. People who promote such a God on earth often occupy parallel social and political positions—or would like to—and they favor this kind of God precisely because his power, anger and arbitrariness engender fear not only to keep a populace from rebelling, but also to motivate sufficient numbers of followers to commit violence in God’s name.

I’m aware there are ten thousand other versions of knowable transcendent God, many of them quite friendly, but knowing how easy it is for transcendent God to be coopted into the service of selfish human aims, I’ve tended in my life to seek God not in some otherworldly place, not in some higher realm, but right here, among us, around us, within us, infused in the dark, brown earth, thawing with the lake ice as winter turns to spring, sinking into to early April mud, tunneling with the earth worms, falling warmly with early April rain, rolling and crashing with the great ocean waves, rising and setting with the sun and the moon, coursing through our bodies, pulsing with our blood, beating with our hearts, breathing with our lungs.

I’ve longed for God to be nearby, close, present, immediate—like a friend, a parent, a grandparent, a spouse, a lover—a wise counselor when my way is unclear, a source of inspiration when my well runs dry, a muse for my creativity, a provider of comfort and solace when life is hard, a bringer of peace in the midst of chaos—a still, small voice, speaking from that place within me where I know my truth, where my conviction resides, where my voice is strong.

I’ve longed for a God not beyond knowing, not unapproachable, not in Heaven, not on Olympus, not in the underworld, but right here in meaningful human interaction: the helping hand, the smile, the caring gesture, the thoughtful gift, the offered prayer, the full embrace, deep listening, meaningful conversation, the good night kiss, “I love you,” “thank you,” “I miss you,” “I’m sorry,” “What can I do?”

I’ve longed for God not ‘wholly other’ but wholly familiar: in the music, the rhythm, the harmonies, the hymns, the silence spaces between the notes, the beat that goes on and on; and in the holy quiet, in the ritual words, in the heartfelt sharing, in the chalice flame.

I’ve longed for God not to punish and judge and condemn, but to urge us in all manner of ways to build the beloved community, to welcome, to include, to be curious and adaptable, to apologize and forgive, to work for a more just human society, to work for a more sustainable earth, to work on behalf of the generations to come , to love, to love, to love.

I’ve longed not for a transcendent God, but an immanent God. In his Handbook of Theological Terms Van Harvey says “Immanence is the technical term used to denote the nearness or presence or indwelling of God in the creation. It is usually contrasted with Transcendence.”[4] Often God is both transcendent and immanent, so I don’t want you to draw too fine a distinction. The point I am making is very personal: Transcendent God, the God of Heaven, the God of the Whirlwind, the Creator of the Universe, the Almighty, the Strict Father—none of that has ever appealed to me. It may be because I don’t feel strongly about the afterlife. I’m not longing to see God after I die. I’m longing to live the best life I can live now, and thus I long for an immanent God—God here and now.

Those of you who’ve been listening closely to me over the years know that as much as I tell you I long for immanent God, I never say I know God is real, mainly because I can’t prove it. And I rarely say I believe in God, mainly because so many people confuse what they believe to be true with what they know to be true, and I don’t want to do that. Remember: we know something is true when we have some way of proving it. We believe something is true when it’s really important to us and we have no way of proving it. When someone says I believe X about God, what I hear them saying is “I really want X to be true,” or “I long for X to be true.” Belief isn’t knowledge. It’s longing. It’s wanting. It’s desire. I long for immanent God to be real, and I’ve learned through experience that the best way to satiate that longing is to live “as if” immanent God were real; to live as if every inch of the earth is sacred and matters; to live as if every human being is sacred and matters, every creature, every drop of water, every stone, every blade of grass is sacred and matters. Live as if it were so. You won’t prove anything God, but that’s not what matters. Living well, living the best life we can live here and now matters.

A final thought about immanence. Van Harvey’s Handbook of Theological Terms mentioned radical transcendence, but not radical immanence. If radical transcendence is the extreme otherness of God, radical immanence must be the extreme sameness of God. My mind wandered, again, this time to the passage from Daniel Quinn’s The Holy which we read earlier. The main character Tim is sitting in the dessert, perhaps sleeping. He wakes up to discover what he first imagines is “an alien creature towering over him—a visitor from the stars, bristling with silver spikes and armored in glossy green.” Soon “he saw that the creature meant him no harm—accepted him as an equal, seemed to enfold him in its own aura of vibrant power and dignity, as if to say, ‘It’s all right. I see you too are alive. No more is required. We are comrades.”[5] Eventually Tim and the reader realize the visitor is a cactus and Tim is somehow able to see—for a brief moment— into its essence, the “vibrant, sublime energy emanating from within.” Eventually he runs up a hill so he can peer down into the valley and behold the same energy coursing through the entire landscape: “Every leaf of every tree was radiant, lustrous—incandescent with power that was unmistakably divine.”[6] This passage struck me as a description of radical immanence.

I’ve never had an experience like that, though I know people who have. And I have certainly had those kinds of spiritual experiences—sometimes in nature, sometimes in response to music, sometimes in the midst of prayer—when I feel utterly related, when I feel at one with all there is. Such experiences are short-lived, fleeting, but they offer powerful opportunities to sense, to intuit, to grasp one’s connectedness to the whole of life; opportunities to sense, to intuit, to grasp the reality of our interdependence with the whole of life. Extreme sameness. Radical immanence. Is it God? I don’t know. But I promise you I will strive to live as if it were so.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Harvey, Van A., A Handbook of Theological Terms (New York; Touchstone, 1992).

[2] Harvey, Van A., A Handbook of Theological Terms (New York; Touchstone, 1992) pp. 242-243.

[3] Edwards, Jonathan, Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God, 1741. Read the text at http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1053&context=etas.

[4] Harvey, Van A., A Handbook of Theological Terms (New York; Touchstone, 1992), p. 127.

[5] Quinn, Daniel, The Holy (New York: Context Books, 2002) p. 378.

[6] Quinn, Daniel, The Holy (New York: Context Books, 2002) p. 379.

Joy Will Come: A Christmas Story

By Rev. Josh Pawelek and the UUS:E Youth Group, With Poems by Molly Vigeant

Part 1

“I don’t want to have a tree this year,” said Mom. “I just don’t.”

And that was the end of it. No more discussion. “No whining, no moaning, no complaining. Please respect my wishes,” she said, her voice shaking slightly around the edges.

Emily and Emry understood. They’d just learned that their dad’s tour of duty had been extended. Four more months in Afghanistan. They still didn’t know why, though they knew it had happened to other families over the years. The bottom line was Dad would not be home for Christmas.

Emry had burst into tears when mom shared the news. When Emily tried to comfort him he yelled at her and ran down the hall to his room, slamming the door behind him. Then he did something that made him feel even worse. He smashed his prized possession, a fully in-tact turtle shell—sun-bleached white—which he had found in a pond two years ago on a camping trip with Dad. He smashed it into so many tiny pieces he’d never be able to glue it back together.

Emily stared at Mom. Mom stared back with that “don’t stare at me” look on her face.

“I’m sorry honey. Not this year. I can’t do it. Don’t worry. Santa won’t forget you. You’ll get your presents. But I can’t do Christmas without your father. I’m just not there. I don’t have the energy.” Then she started to cry. “I’m sorry honey.”

Emily felt a knot forming in her stomach. She walked down the hall to Emry’s room and knocked gently on the door.

“Go away,” said Emry angrily.

“Alright, fine,” said Emily, matching his tone.

Emily left the house. It was cold. She could see her breath. She walked, heading more or less over to her friend Jocelyn’s house. She liked to walk when she felt sad. Walking helped clear her mind. It made her feel a little more balanced. She told herself she didn’t really care if there were no tree. She knew it took a lot of effort and, at least in their family, getting the tree was something Dad did. He made it fun. If Mom didn’t want to do it this year, it was understandable.

But the tree was the least of her worries. Four more months in a war zone. Anything could happen in four months. And Dad had already had some close calls. Two actually. Mom hadn’t told Emry, but she had confided in Emily. Dad’s camp had been shelled twice—once in July, once just a month ago in late October. All she wanted was for Dad to make it home safely. She wasn’t sure she could endure four more months of worrying. In addition to the knot in her stomach, she felt a lump in her throat. She was glad to be alone for a little while.

Girl Walking

Poem  “Four Months”

Four months,

121 days

without you

I guess I’ll be strong

Even if it feels wrong.

I guess I’ll take care of everyone else

Just like you,

For you

Because it’s all I can do

With Christmas alone.

Not even a tree

To make it feel like home

 Part II

One week before Christmas Mom was still serious about no tree and no decorations. “If we put up a tree, it will just make us more sad that Dad isn’t here,” she’d told Emry fourteen times already. Emily didn’t see it that way—she thought a tree would make them happier. But she had stopped trying to convince Mom otherwise. She was missing Dad, and she was anxious. They all were. So, she also didn’t have the energy to argue about a Christmas tree. She was resigned to having a very non-traditional holiday season.

“Maybe Mom’s right,” she said one day after school, while she was watching Emry before Mom came home from work.

“She isn’t right. She’s dead wrong,” said Emry.

“Try to see it her way,” said Emily, but she knew she didn’t sound very convincing.  Emry looked like he was about to cry. Sometimes it made Emily mad when Emry cried, but today she felt really sorry for him. She wanted to do something for him, like pick him up and cuddle him, the way she used to when he was younger, but he was a little big for that now.

Then suddenly Emry’s look changed. Some new idea was percolating around in his head.“Maybe we should pray,” he said, matter-of-factly.

“What?”

“Pray.”

“Pray?”

“Yes, pray.”

“Why?”

“Because.”

“Because why?”

“Because it might work.”

“Work what?”

“Well, it might make Christmas work . . . for us.”

“Ummm, OK,” said Emily. “I suppose it couldn’t hurt. Let’s pray.”

They were silent for a moment. Emily looked at Emry. Emry looked at Emily.

“Well? Go,” Emry finally said to his sister.

“Go? Go what?”

prayer  “Pray”

“I thought you were gonna do it. I don’t know how? What should I say?”

“I don’t know, you’re the teenager.”

Emily was stumped for a moment.

“You mean like ‘Now I lay me down to sleep?’”

“No, that’s a bed-time prayer. That’s not what I had in mind.”

“Well, that’s the only prayer I know. I don’t know any afternoon prayers. And I don’t know any Christmas prayers. I don’t even know who I’m praying to.”

“How about God?”

Emily thought about this for a moment. She was a pretty hardcore atheist. Helping her brother had its limits. “Emry, I don’t know if I can do that.”

“It’s easy, just say, ‘Dear God’ and then ask for what you want.”

“I’m pretty sure that won’t work.”

“It works for me. That’s how we got turkey on Thanksgiving.”

“You prayed for turkey on Thanksgiving?”

“Yep. It was good, too. Didn’t ya think?”

“But we were already going to have turkey.”

“That’s because I prayed for it last July.”

“Oh. Hmm. Did you pray for candy on Halloween?”

“That’s a great idea. I shoulda thought of that.”

“But you got all sorts of candy on Halloween without praying for it.”

“But I coulda got more. Mr. Henderson probably would’ve been less stingy.”

“I’m really not sure that’s how prayer is supposed to work.”

“Sure it is.”

“Ok, well,” said Emily, changing her tone, “I pray for all the leaves to fall off the trees.”

“They already did,” said Emry, smiling.

“Well, then I pray for all the leaves to be raked up.”

“We raked ‘em all last week.”

“Yeah, I guess that was a pretty good prayer I just said, wasn’t it?” She smiled. Emry started to giggle. He hadn’t giggled in so long.

“I pray for the pine trees to stay green all winter long!” He shouted out with joy!

“Nice,” said Emily. “That’s a good one. I pray for the ponds to freeze.”

“They’re already frozen!” shouted Emry with pure glee!

“That’s the power of prayer!” proclaimed Emily.

prayer “I pray to hear Christmas music on the radio,” laughed Emry.

“Cheesy Christmas music!” shouted Emily.

“I pray to see cheesy Christmas lights and plastic Santas all over the neighborhood.” “And ridiculous       plastic reindeers!”

“And ridiculous plastic snowmen with snow-globe bellies.”

“Ask and you shall receive,” laughed Emily.

“I pray for a Christmas Tree,” smiled Emry.

Emily was silent. She didn’t want his hopes to be dashed, but she didn’t feel very confident that a tree would be coming, no matter how hard they prayed. But she decided to continue with the game. “I pray for a tree too,” she said.

“I pray to keep feeling like I feel right now, full of joy,” Said Emry.

“Now that’s the best prayer I’ve heard yet,” said Emily.

“You have any more?” asked Emry.

“Yeah, I pray for Dad to be safe.”

“That’s a really good prayer. You know what else I pray for?” said Emry.

“What?”

“I pray for Mom to be happy for the holidays.”

“Me too.”

Mom came home soon after that. “What are you guys doing?”

“Praying,” said Emry.

“Oh, how’s that workin’ for ya?”

“Pretty good, actually,” smiled Emry.

“I’m gonna go for a walk,” said Emily. Before she left she gave Emry a big hug.

prayer

Poem, “One Week Before Christmas”

 

One week before Christmas
And still no tree
Only the memory
Of where it used to be

One week before Christmas
Without my dad
But I don’t feel alone
Or scared
Or sad

I miss my father,
But we’re family too
And you’ve got to do
What you’ve got to do,
Please just know
I love you so

 Part III

I bet you already know how this story ends. Emry’s prayer worked. You saw that coming, right? They did get a Christmas tree. You see, Emry was a very talented artist. So, he painted a tree with water colors. A big one. And on Christmas Eve he tacked it to the wall in the living room near where their real Christmas tree usually went. He winked at his sister and said, under his breath, “that’s the power of prayer.” Emily winked back.

Mom loved it. It broke her heart in a good way. It made her smile, a real genuine mom smile—and she had a great smile. Emry could tell she loved the tree because he hadn’t seen her smile like that since before the night they learned Dad wouldn’t be coming home for Christmas.

On Christmas Eve they were scheduled to Skype with Dad at 10:00 PM. It was great to see him and talk to him. The connection was good that night. It was already Christmas Day in Afghanistan, and Dad was looking forward to a wonderful turkey dinner in a few hours.

“I think I prayed for that too,” whispered Emry to Emily. She nudged him in the ribs. They took the laptop over to Emry’s tree so Dad could see it. “That’s really great, Emry,” said Dad. “You’re an awesome artist. Don’t let Mom rip it down. Santa still needs to know where to put your presents…. Huh, what’s that light in the front yard?”

“What do you mean?” said Mom. It didn’t make any sense because the laptop wasn’t facing the window, so Dad couldn’t actually see the front yard. But, sure enough, there was a pale, red light shining through the window. Mom, Emily and Emry went to see what it was. Wouldn’t you know it? It was a Christmas tree. A real one. Someone, or someones, under the cover of darkness, had decorated the big pine tree in front of the house with hundreds of lights from bottom to top—red, green, blue, white. It was beautiful.

Tree

And then they heard singing. They went to the front door and out onto the porch. Standing in front of the tree seemed to be every neighbor and friend they had—Jocelyn was there; Mr. Henderson was there—singing at the top of their lungs, “Silent Night, Holy Night.” Something beautiful was breaking through the sadness each of them carried in their hearts. The best word to name that something beautiful is joy.

***

“Merry Christmas. I love you guys,” said Dad when it was time to hang up.

“We love you too Daddy,” said Emry.

“Keep writing your poems Em.”

“I will Daddy.”

“Stay safe,” said Mom.

“I will. Good night.”

***

 There are many things in our lives that will make us sad. Sadness is inescapable. And when it comes, it can be disruptive; it can be debilitating. It can lead us to not want to do what we might normally do. The message of this story is not that you shouldn’t be sad. There are times, when it is really important to be sad. The message of this story is that even when we are sad, if we stay open to the world, to family and friends, to hope, to whatever it is we long for, whatever it is we yearn for—if we stay open—moments of joy will come. Maybe they’ll feel like miracles. Maybe they’ll feel like the answers to prayers. And maybe not. But joy will come. Stay open friends. Joy will come.

girl outside

Poem, “Joy Can Be Found”

 

Joy can be found
on the worst days,
in the waks of huricanes
and earthquakes,
and when you make a mistake
it’s okay,
everyone makes mistakes
no matter the kind
someday,
some way,
you’ll be just fine.
i demand,
command,
that you look to the blue skies,
hiding behind the gray clouds,
there’s joy in this world,
everywhere,
and it’s deep down in every soul,
and you,
you are alive,
you have survived
everything this far,
even if some memories have left scars.
You are worth everything to someone
and I hope to yourself.
Joy is here.
in every laugh,
every smile,
every blue sky
and ray of sunshine,
even the ones hiding behind clouds.
please,
stay strong.
life goes on.

Humanism’s Breaking Heart

Rev. Josh Pawelek

HumanismHumanism isn’t declining in our era because it is dry and cold. And it isn’t declining because it doesn’t make room for God. Humanism is declining in our era because in practice it often fails to make room for actual humans. Continue reading at HartfordFAVS…. 

What If? Reflections on the Great Commandment and the Death of Trayvon Martin

Rev. Joshua M. Pawelek

 

The Great CommandmentThis summer we’re exploring the six sources of the Unitarian Universalist living tradition in worship. It’s my task this morning to reflect on the fourth source: “Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves.” As I said earlier, this is a direct reference to what Christians call the Great Commandment: Love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength; and love your neighbor as yourself.  Both admonitions—love God and love neighbor—were central to the religion and culture of ancient Israel. We find them in the Torah, in the books of Exodus, Deuteronomy and Leviticus.  Jesus combined them into one, enduring statement which appears in each of the synoptic gospels—Mathew, Mark and Luke. Today we attribute the Great Commandment to Jesus, though it likely wasn’t original to him. It’s quite possible his teachers taught him to express the essence of Judaism in this form. Either way, the Great Commandment was central to his ministry and lies at the heart of Christianity.

When I first offered to preach on the Great Commandment as a source of the Unitarian Universalist living tradition I wasn’t sure what I would say. And although it’s often the case that I don’t know what I will say about a topic two or three months ahead of time—or even a few days ahead of time—one of the reasons I wasn’t sure in this case is because the Great Commandment—known as the Golden Rule in secular society— is so simple, so obvious, so common, so central to the religion, spirituality, morality and culture of the United States, so central to the way we introduce children to moral and ethical reasoning in the United States that it sometimes feels like everything that can be said about it has been said about it; that there’s nothing left to say, no way to break new ground, nothing innovative to do with it that hasn’t already been done.

Trayvon Martin

George ZimmermanAnd then, Saturday evening, July 13th, the jury in the George Zimmerman murder trial handed down its verdict: not guilty. The jury found George Zimmerman not guilty of murdering Trayvon Martin, the unarmed, Black youth he shot to death on February 26th, 2012. Not guilty, despite the fact that he started the chain of events that included Martin fighting back and that ended tragically in Martin’s death. Not guilty, despite the fact that a 911 operator asked him to stay in his car. Stepping back from the trial and reflecting just on the shooting that ended Trayvon Martin’s life, it strikes me that despite how simple, how obvious, how common, how central the Great Commandment is to the moral and ethical foundations of our society, it is still so hard to make real in the world. It is still so hard, for so many reasons, to approach strangers with love in our hearts. 2500 years after the ancient Hebrew prophets and priests first introduced these ideas—“You shall not oppress the alien”[1]—2000 years after Jesus articulated the Great Commandment, it is still so hard to live.

Too often fear, anger, resentment or greed motivate us. Too often we—and by “we” I mean everyone, all Americans—make assumptions, we profile, we misread, mistrust, miscommunicate and things go downhill from there. Too often love seems distant, unreliable, elusive and impractical. Too often a loving response seems like sign of weakness. Maybe it’s obvious, but it needs to be said again and again and again: Love what is sacred to you. Love it with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, with all your strength. If it’s God, love God. If it’s the Earth, love the Earth. If it’s the Human Spirit, love the Human Spirit. If it’s the Interdependent Web of All Existence, love the Interdependent Web of All Existence. If it’s your family, love your family. And love your neighbor as yourself.

7-28 Love Thy Neighbor

In the wake of Trayvon Martin’s death, and now again in the aftermath of the trial, many commentators have speculated on how the outcome might have been different if some critical aspect of the case were different. I call this the What If game. For example, “What if Trayvon Martin were White?” Or, “What if George Zimmerman were Black?” Or, as President Obama asked in his reflections on the verdict on July 19, “What if Trayvon Martin had been carrying a gun?” These what if questions are intended to help us look at the case from a different perspective, to call attention to inconsistencies and double-standards, or to uncover racism and discrimination. They ask us to contemplate scenarios that didn’t happen so that we can gain clarity about the complexities of what did happen.

I’d like to ask some What If questions this morning. They are questions that help me explain what I would expect to see happen differently if the Great Commandment were operating in the moment before George Zimmerman first encountered Trayvon Martin. As I ask these questions, it will sound like I’m talking about George Zimmerman, and on one level I am, as he was the one who started the train of events that resulted in Trayvon Martin’s death. But please understand that I’m not only talking about George Zimmerman. As many commentators have said, we are all responsible for this tragedy because as a nation we allow the profiling of young Black and Brown men to continue. We are all responsible for this tragedy because as a nation we continue to value the lives of young Black and Brown people less than the lives of young White people. We are all responsible for this tragedy because as a nation we continue to look away from institutional and systemic racism and other forms of oppression rather than face them directly. So I’m raising these questions for all of us.

What if?

It’s really hard to love your neighbor as yourself when the sight of your neighbor strikes fear and suspicion into your heart because you believe the prevalent stereotypes about their particular racial group. Well, what if George Zimmerman were antiracist? That is, what if his world-view and values were antiracist? Instead of jumping to the conclusion that a young Black man in a hoodie posed a threat to the neighborhood, what if Mr. Zimmerman recognized that his own gut reaction was a product of widespread racist stereotypes about young men of color? What if he knew that when he has such a gut reaction (which many people of all racial identities admit to having), it is unfair of him to act on it because in truth he has no idea who this person is, what his intentions are, whether or not he lives in the neighborhood, who his parents are, where he goes to school, etc? What if, in that moment when he first saw Mr. Martin, Mr. Zimmerman recognized his own capacity for racial stereotyping ,was shocked at his own thoughts, and said to himself I need to work on that?

What if Mr. Zimmerman knew that when a young Black man dons a hoodie, when he struts and swaggers slowly down the street, when he speaks with bravado in urban youth slang,  and even when he tries to look and act menacing, he is doing so because it’s the only way he knows how to feel powerful in a society that constantly informs him he is powerless, that he will never have power and that his life doesn’t matter? What if Mr. Zimmerman understood that this young Black man—whether he knows it or not—dresses and acts the way he does because he is actually resisting the dominant culture which tells him he ought to dress and act more like a White person, but then simultaneously tells him that he can never be White, that he can never enjoy the full privileges of White society, that he will always be a second class citizen?

What if, instead of calling the police, Mr. Zimmerman knew that young Black men fall victim to police racial profiling far too often, and that even an initially innocuous encounter with police can result in far worse consequences for young Black men than for young White men? What if Mr. Zimmerman was outraged about the mass incarceration of young People of Color in the United States and recognized that the last thing he wanted to do was mobilize public resources and taxpayer dollars to involve yet another young Black man in the criminal justice system, especially when all he was doing was walking slowly down the street?

Antiracist and Proud

What if Mr. Zimmerman knew even a small portion of the way racism in the United States of America still weighs heavily on the lives of People of Color? What if he knew something about the race-based educational achievement gap, race-based disparities in health care access and outcomes, the race-based wealth gap, the Supreme Court’s recent decision to gut the Voting Rights Act, and widespread attempts to disenfranchise People of Color though new voter ID laws? What if he knew something of the legacy of slavery, Jim and Jane Crow, lynching and the racist way in which the GI Bill created segregated White suburbs after World War II? What if knew, whether this kid knows it or not, that racism weighs heavily on his life and, if anything, he needs support, understanding and acceptance, not suspicion and hostility?

Cesar and Delores

What if Mr. Zimmerman was deeply in touch with the Hispanic side of his own racial and cultural identity and heritage and understood that Hispanic people also face racism in the United States? What if he understood that the same forces that conspire to oppress Blacks have and do conspire to oppress Hispanics? What if he knew that the racial profiling of Black people also happens to people who look Hispanic—not just in Sheriff Joe Arpaio Maricopa County around Phoenix, Arizona, but all over the country? What if he understood that young Hispanic men like himself are also far more likely than their White peers to be profiled, arrested, falsely accused, given harsher sentences, incarcerated, denied a job, asked to show ID, prevented from voting, followed in stores, and on and on? What if George Zimmerman understood that when right wing pundits and Tea Party conservatives say they want to “take back the nation,” they mean they want to take it back not only from people who look like Trayvon Martin, but also from people who look like George Zimmerman?

SB 1070 protest

What if George Zimmerman knew that American Hispanics had their own civil rights movement modeled in part on the successes of the Black civil rights movement? What if he knew the history of the United Farm Workers? What if Cesar Chavez and Delores Huerta were his personal heroes? What if he identified with the current struggle for immigrants’ rights? What if he identified with the Dreamers?

Cesar and Delores

What if George Zimmerman had looked at Trayvon Martin through an antiracist lens and saw not a threat but someone with whom he could identify, someone with whom he could be with in solidarity? Someone he could call brother and really mean it?

It’s hard to love your neighbor as yourself when you assume your neighbor has no voice worth hearing, no contribution worth making, no value to society. Well, what if George Zimmerman were a community organizer? That is, instead of volunteering for a neighborhood watch and carrying a gun, what if Mr. Zimmerman were working as a community organizer, trying to make his community more welcoming, more accepting, more inclusive, more fair, more just, more loving and more peaceful? What if his primary assumption was that everyone belongs, everyone can contribute, everyone has value? What if Mr. Zimmerman had approached Mr. Martin with an outstretched hand and a clip board? Imagine:

Community Organizer

“Hi, my name’s George, can I talk to you for a minute? I want to ask you a question.” ( Who knows how Trayvon might have responded. He might not want anything to do with this community organizer, but let’s imagine George as persistent.)

“Just one quick question: Are you registered to vote?”

“No, man, I don’t vote.”

“Really? Why not?”

“I don’t know.”

“Are you old enough, are you 18?”

“No, man, 17.”

“So, you’ll be 18, which means you’ll be able to vote in the mid-term elections. And you’ll be able to vote in the next presidential election. Doesn’t that matter to you?”

“I don’t know, man.”

“Listen, we’re organizing a meeting at the church down the street. It’s tomorrow night. We’re talking about voting. You know it’s possible there’s gonna be an attempt to make it harder for people to vote in Florida, especially for People of Color.”

[Silence]

“Do you know the Supreme Court just gutted the Voting Rights Act? Do you know there are movements all across the country to make it harder for People of Color and poor people and the elderly to vote? You don’t want that to happen here do you? I don’t. Why don’t you come to our meeting? There’s a lot you could do. Or at least let me sign you up to get updates. Do you have email?”

And if all else fails, George might say, “Hey, do you want to earn $25? I have 300 fliers I need to post around the neighborhood. I’ll pay you $25 to post them. What do ya say?”

Maybe Trayvon Martin wouldn’t have been interested. But I’m asking a serious question. Do we approach teens with suspicion and hostility? Or do we approach them with a sense of hope, with the belief that they matter, with the trust that they can actually understand their social and political context and work to make it better, with the assumption that they can be powerful, that they can contribute to the building of a more just and peaceful society?

Finally, it’s hard to love your neighbor as yourself if you don’t have genuine faith. What if George Zimmerman were a person of deep and abiding faith? What if he were the kind of person who, upon waking in the morning, reminds himself of some version of the Great Commandment, reminds himself to love what is sacred to him? If it’s God, love God. If it’s the Earth, love the Earth. If it’s the Human Spirit, love the Human Spirit. If it’s the Interdependent Web of All Existence, love the Interdependent Web of All Existence. If it’s your family, love your family. And, love your neighbor as yourself.

What if George Zimmerman, when he first saw Trayvon Martin, when he first felt that feeling of fear, anger, suspicion or whatever it was he felt when he saw a young African American man in a hoodie, sauntering slowly through the neighborhood, what if he heeded the wisdom of the Great Commandment? What if he had replaced that feeling of fear with a feeling of profound love for whatever he holds most sacred in his life? And what if, in response to that feeling, he then knew—in his heart, in his mind, in his soul—with every fiber of his being—that this young man is a neighbor—possibly an actual neighbor, but I mean a neighbor in the larger spiritual sense, as in all people are my neighbors, all people are worthy of my love, all people matter.

What if? We saw what happened when hostility and suspicion led the way. I’m putting my faith in love.

Amen and Blessed Be.


[1] Leviticus 19:33.

I Tremble for My Country (Rev. Pawelek’s Comments on the Trial of George Zimmerman)

Trayvon MartinI’m not a big fan of laying blame. I think it’s divisive. But I’m going to do it anyways. I blame White America for a racist history and racist present that make it OK in 2013 to kill a young black man even when the police tell you to back off. I blame White America for a racist history and a racist present that make it possible for us to claim to value and live by—and even love—the Biblical Ten Commandments but simultaneously figure out ways to legally violate “Thou Shalt Not Kill” when it comes to the lives of young black men. I blame White America for not caring enough about the lives of young black men. And if I’m being honest, there is a part of me, like Jefferson, that reels from my own ambivalent complicity in this ugly, vile, racist system. Continue reading at HartfordFAVS….

 

Really . . . What’s Real?

The Rev. Joshua M. Pawelek

Earlier I read an excerpt from Nick Bostrum’s 2003 article, “Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?”[1] To be clear, he does not prove we are living in a simulation (had he proved it, I suspect we’d all be aware of it by now and waiting to meet our maker— or, umm, programmer). What he proves is that it is rational to think we are living in a computer simulation. Or, in the very least, he proves one can argue it is rational to think we are living in a simulation.

Simulation

One can also argue that while it might be rational to think we are living in a computer simulation, it might not be rational to preach about it. And if the minister decides to preach about it anyways, it would be rational to think it might be one of his less useful sermons. Of course, this is the same challenge I accept every year when I put a sermon up for bid at the UUS:E goods and services auction. As most of you know, every year our beloved Fred Sawyer wins a sermon at the auction and challenges me to preach on a topic or question residing at that murky yet evocative crossroads where science, philosophy and theology meet. “Are you living in a computer simulation?” is no exception.

The Truman Show

I’m not sure, in the end, that answering this question is all that useful. But the fact that some scientists, philosophers and theologians take this question seriously; the fact that there are scientists proposing experimental means to answer the question (even if they’re doing it partly for fun); and the fact that this idea that reality is not the same as what our senses perceive shows up again and again in literature and cinema—in everything from the Bible to Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Whoto The Matrix films to The Truman Show—tells us something about human nature which I suspect is meaningful. [And whether or not it is, it is certainly rational to the come to the auction next Saturday evening, February 9th, from 5:30 to 9:00. It’s great fun. It’s an important fundraiser for the congregation. As always, a sermon or two will be up for bid.]

Horton Hears a Who

Imagine today isn’t February 3, 2013. We think it is, and everything we’ve ever been taught tells us that it is. But imagine today is actually a day far in the future. And imagine that some future society—Bostrum calls them “posthuman”—has developed powerful computers that can run programs that simulate human evolution. Bostrum calls them “ancestor simulations.” They would be so fine-grained that the people in them would have consciousness and would not realize they are living in a virtual reality.[2] Again, Bostrum wants to show it is rational to think we live in such a simulation. To do this he says at least one of three propositions must be true.

First proposition (what I call the gloom and doom proposition): “The human species is very likely to go extinct before reaching a “posthuman” stage.” If this proposition is true, if human beings will become extinct before developing this level of computing power, then we cannot be living in a computer simulation, and today must be February 3, 2013.

Second proposition (what I call the ethical proposition): “Any posthuman civilization is extremely unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of their evolutionary history.” Imagine that human beings do not become extinct and successfully develop the capacity to run very fine-grained ancestor simulations. Then imagine that, despite having such capacity, they refuse to do it. Why? Doesn’t it seem logical that if it could be done, it would be done? We already run computer simulations for all sorts of things. We track the paths hurricanes; we train astronauts. Simulations are part of every industry that uses computers. We even have computers that simulate computers. If we could simulate human evolution, we could learn so much about ourselves. We wouldn’t do it for moral reasons. An advanced human society would, we hope, have an advanced morality and would recognize that in creating virtual yet conscious people, it would also be consigning them to a life of potentially great suffering. An accurate simulation would include genocides, wars, holocausts, slavery, nuclear explosions, terrorism, racism, anti-Semitism, gun violence, poverty, famine, starvation, disease and so on. It would be sadistic, morally objectionable and highly unethical to create virtual people who would have to experience these things. Hence, it would be prohibited, even illegal. If that’s true—if every advanced society with this level of computing power prohibits ancestor simulations—then we cannot be living in a simulation. Today must be February 3, 2013.

Third proposition (what I call the what’s really real? proposition): “We are almost certainly living in a computer simulation.” That is, if the first proposition is false—human beings don’t become extinct; and if the second proposition is false—advanced societies don’t establish prohibitions against running ancestor simulations—then we are almost certainly living in such a simulation. Today is likely not February 3, 2013.

To understand why this might make sense, consider that Bostrum assumes it would not be just one society that develops this computing power. There would be multiple advanced societies, all of them running multiple simulations at once. And furthermore, at some point in the course of any such simulation the virtual people in it would themselves develop the computing power to run their own ancestor simulations. As Bostrum puts it, “we would have to suspect that the posthumans running our simulation are themselves simulated beings; and their creators, in turn, may also be simulated beings.” It could go on indefinitely.

Simulated Simulators

Michael Rundle, Technology Editor for the Huffington Post, UK, summed up the argument in an article this past December: “any civilization which could evolve to a ‘post-human’ stage would almost certainly learn to run simulations on the scale of a universe. And…given the size of reality—billions of worlds, around billions of suns—it is fairly likely that if this is possible, it has already happened. And if it has? Well, then the statistical likelihood is that we’re located somewhere in that chain of simulations within simulations. The alternative—that we’re the first civilization in the first universe—is virtually (no pun intended) absurd.”[3]

My gut response to all this? I think it’s absurd (no pun needed). It can’t be true. It doesn’t feel right. Something’s missing. It’s too circular. It’s a trick. But I don’t have a rational counter argument. Is it just that I’m so used to thinking I’m an original human in the original universe, that I’m deeply and irrationally attached to this assumption? After all, I’ve never been invited to seriously think otherwise until now. If we assume humans will not become extinct and will one day have the computing power to run ancestor simulations; and if we assume that advanced societies would not prohibit such simulations, then on what basis can we argue we are not now living in a simulation? We wouldn’t know it if we were. It doesn’t feel rational, but it certainly looks rational on paper.

Simulated Cosmic RaysOne rational response to Bostrum is to look for actual evidence. In a recent paper entitled “Constraints on the Universe as a Numerical Simulation”[4] German physicist Silas R. Beane and colleagues discuss how one might approach this problem. He says in any computer simulation there are “observable consequences” of that simulation. There are certain constraints or limits on the laws of physics within any simulation and they leave a signature. The signatures are very slight, but they ought to be observable within the simulation if one knows how and where to look. So they suggest that we begin with the assumption that our universe is a simulation and then ask: What known phenomena are there in the universe that mirror the kinds of observable consequences we would expect to find? Beane names the Greisen-Zatsepin-Kuzmin—GZK—cut off, the outer limit of the energy in cosmic ray particles. What accounts for this cut off? Why does this limit exist? He proposes this limit could be an observable consequence of a computer simulation. I haven’t had time to figure out whether he and his colleagues are just doing this for fun in their spare time or if this is their main research area. Either way, their paper, like Bostrum’s, has a wide popular following. The suggestion that what is real is not the same as what we perceive is a potent one.

Fred was interested in what Bostrum’s theory might say about God and ethics.  It says a lot. Some of you may already be making theological connections. Bostrum said, “it is possible to draw… loose analogies with religious conceptions of the world…. The posthumans running a simulation are like gods in relation to the people inhabiting the simulation: the posthumans created the world we see; they are of superior intelligence; they are “omnipotent” in the sense that they can interfere in the workings of our world even in ways that violate its physical laws; and they are “omniscient” in the sense that they can monitor everything that happens.” This makes sense. If we are living in a computer simulation, it is fair to say that the programmer plays a similar if not the same role in our lives that many feel the God of the Bible plays. Even the idea of resurrection is plausible in a computer simulation. If the programmers don’t like that someone ‘important’ has died, they can just re-insert the file back into the simulation. Or think about incarnation—the divine taking human form. A programmer could place a file of themself into the simulation and walk among us virtual folk, speaking to us of the errors of our ways. To us it would look like incarnation—spirit-becoming-flesh. The programmer would experience it as flesh-becoming-data. But do you see what I’m getting at? This question—“Are you living in a computer simulation?”—is not a new question. It uses modern concepts. It wears the clothing of science. But it’s actually an ancient question, an ancient thought process. Because we can’t explain our origins, we conclude there must be a Creator who exists in another realm.[5]Whether God or programmer, the net effect is the same. We live at the mercy of an all-powerful entity.

Zeus

And whether we’re talking about an all-powerful God or programmer, the problem of evil and suffering remains. This is also an ancient human question, the question of theodicy: How do we explain evil and suffering if God is all-powerful? What about genocides, wars, holocausts and slavery? Why does an all-powerful God allow these things to happen? Why? There’s no good answer. Some will contend God’s purposes are inscrutable and should not be questioned, but that’s never been acceptable to me. So what justification would some future computer programmer have in creating people who feel pain in so many ways, who are exquisitely conscious of their own suffering and that of others; people who are fragile, flawed and know they must, some day, die. It seems sadistic. It makes sense that an advanced society with an advanced morality would prohibit it.

Except that if it turns out we are living in a simulation, I wouldn’t want it to be turned off. I wouldn’t want life just to end in the blink of an eye, without a chance to say goodbye to the people I love, just like I don’t want life to end any other way—though I know it must. Computer simulation or not, I still recognize in me, in you, and in so many of earth’s creatures a fierce and beautiful will to live. No matter what’s real, we’re here and these are our lives. Whether it’s 2013 or some future day, we’re here and these are our lives. And even if our lives are illusions, they feel real. As far as we know, they’re the only lives we have. The point of living has never been to avoid evil and suffering, but rather, when it happens, to respond to it as best we can: to find our sources of resilience, to remain hopeful, to bring love to bear. Regardless of what’s really real, I can find no excuse to live our lives as if they have no consequence.

In case you’re wondering, I don’t believe it. I don’t believe in an all-powerful God or an all-powerful programmer. I believe today is February 3, 2013; our bodies are real flesh and blood bodies; and we are among the first people in this universe. That’s what I believe, but I also an open to and curious about any opportunity to connect with a reality greater than or in some way beyond this one. I recall those words of the Apostle Paul, his reminder to the Corinthians to “Look not at what can be seen, but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, what cannot be seen is eternal.”[6] I recall those words of the Sufi poet, Hafez, speaking to the Beloved Presence: “Veil yourself with every enchantment and yet I shall feel you…. You are the breathing of the world.”[7] I’m reminded that from time to time we catch glimpses of something else—some other world, some other realm. Maybe we don’t see it with our eyes—we feel it, we imagine it, we dream it. Maybe it comes to us in our quiet, peaceful moments— our mountain top moments, our walking-at-low-tide-moments—moments when we lean back from our daily lives and suddenly realize we’ve become available to something else—or something else has become available to us. Maybe it comes to us in our moments of great celebration or exertion—moments when we’ve danced, sung, run, whirled or stretched our bodies so far beyond their normal positions that somehow we’ve become available to something else—or something else has become available to us. Reality is not always the same as what our senses tell us.

So many religions, folkways and spiritual practices; so many prophets, gurus, teachers, poets, guides and spiritual leaders; so many scriptures, myths, stories and dreams hint at the existence of something else: some Heaven, some Olympus, Elysium, Valhalla, Zion, Sheol, Shangri-La, Shambhala, Svarga Loka, Nirvana, some celestial sphere, some great oneness, some kingdom coming. But our glimpses are always fleeting. We may never know what’s really real. Given this, what seems most rational to me is staying open and curious. And what really matters is not whether a proposition is ultimately true or false, but whether it keeps us resilient in a hurting world, keeps us hopeful, and keeps love overflowing in our hearts.

Curiosity

Amen. Blessed be.


 


[1] Bostrum, Nick, “Are You Living in a Computer Simulation? “Philosophical Quarterly(2003) Vol. 53, No. 211, pp. 243?255. (First version: 2001). For a detailed exploration of the various debates sparked by Bostrum’s article, go to http://www.simulation-argument.com/.

[2] Bostrum argues that, though it is controversial, a common assumption in the philosophy of mind known as “substrate independence” suggests that computers should be capable of consciousness. He writes: “It is not an essential property of consciousness that it is implemented on carbon?based biological neural networks inside a cranium: silicon?based processors inside a computer could in principle do the trick as well.”

[5] I recommend Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s description of ‘The Cosmological Argument’ for the existence of God in 36 Arguments For the Existence of God (New York: Pantheon Books, 2010) p. 348. In my view this is possibly the most common and most ancient argument for the existence of God. Goldstein convincingly dismantles it.

[6] Second Corinthians 4:18.

[7] Shams Ud-Dun Mohammed Hafiz, “Beloved Presence,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #607.

How Do We Know? or Spiritual Discernment in the Information Age

The Rev. Joshua Mason Pawelek

[Video Here]

“Light shine in. Luminate our inward view. Help us to see with clarity.”[1] I offer these words as a way to begin exploring our January ministry theme, discernment. When we discern, we attempt to “see with clarity.”

I love this theme for kickin’ off the new year. It can take us beyond the standard new year’s resolutions which—not always, but often—emerge out of guilt, anxiety, self-nagging: I will lose weight. I will be more open-minded. I will exercise more regularly. I will drink less. I will finally write that novel I’ve been aching to write but keep putting off. I will make an effort to connect more with family and friends. I will unplug. These kinds of resolutions are important. They play a role in our efforts at self-improvement. They help us set personal goals. None of them is easy. But so often we make them in an attempt to fix something we imagine is wrong with us. So often they come from a negative-leaning self-appraisal. And so often that negativity comes from outside of us. That is, it reflects societal values—or what we assume are societal values—what can be quite shallow values—and it has very little to do with what we really want for ourselves. Again, there’s a place for such resolutions in our lives, but I think we can and ought to go further and deeper as the year begins. Exploring discernment as a central feature of our spiritual lives moves us away from making resolutions to fix something about ourselves that may or may not need fixing, and moves us towards discovering what is true for us, what really matters in our lives, and what kinds of living will bring meaning and fulfillment. I like how Kathleen McTigue put it in our opening words: “The new year can be new ground for the seeds of our dreams.”[2]

So, what do I mean by discernment? To begin, I commend to you Jerry Lusa’s essay in our January newsletter (which is also at uuse.org[3]). Jerry writes, “Discernment is about finding the essence of things.” Discernment is about “going past the mere perception of something and making detailed judgments about [it]. It is the ability to judge well.”  He includes a quote from Anne Hill, a California-based neo-pagan writer, publisher, teacher, musician and blogger. She says discernment is “the ability to tell truth from fiction, to know when we have lost our center and how to find it again.”[4]

One could argue—and Jerry’s essay hints at this—that we practice discernment all day long in every context imaginable. Much of our discerning is about our daily routines and feels more or less inconsequential. We discern what we shall eat for breakfast. We discern whether we should take an alternate route in heavy traffic. We discern whether we shall read or watch television before we go to bed. Meaningful living and a life of the spirit aren’t necessarily tied to this level of “everyday” discernment, though certainly one could also argue from a Buddhist, or perhaps a Taoist, perspective that the more mindful we are about even the most mundane aspects of our day, the more meaningful our living will be.

So whether we’re seeking clarity about the mundane or the transcendent, the common or the extraordinary, the secular or the sacred, discernment becomes relevant to our spiritual lives—in fact, it becomes an essential and intimate feature of our spiritual lives—when we pursue it as an intentional process—a thought process, a contemplative process, a process of reasoning, reflecting or ruminating; a process of assessing or analyzing; a process of deliberating, of musing, of praying, of feeling, of intuiting—any process that we use intentionally to bring some sense of order and meaning to our lives; to help us distinguish between truth and falsehood; to help us distinguish between what matters most and what matters least; to help us distinguish between what is coming from within and what is coming from without. It’s any process we use intentionally to guide us to our center—or to guide us back to our center if we’ve lost it; to guide us to our own voice—or to guide us back to our own voice if it has grown silent; to guide us to our most authentic self—or back to that self if we’ve somehow grown distant from it; or to guide us to some reality greater than ourselves that we experience as sacred, holy, life-affirming, life-giving, saving, salving, healing, sustaining. In short, spiritual discernment is an intentional process that leads us deeper into ourselves or out beyond ourselves. “Light shine in. Luminate our inward view. Help us to see with clarity.”

And once we arrive there, once we’ve gained clarity, once we have truth, once we have our authentic self or that reality greater than self, then we have the capacity, the grounding, the confidence, the nerve, the will to make good decisions, to judge well, to select wisely, to act with integrity, to move forward on our path, to plant the seeds of our dreams.

It sounds so easy, doesn’t it?

It’s not easy. I think what I’m describing as discernment is very difficult. Even with great intentionality, great focus, great discipline, the line between truth and falsehood is not always clear. The line between what matters most and what matters least is not always clear. Our most authentic self is not always clear. And certainly the nature of some life-giving, sustaining reality greater than ourselves is not always clear. Light shines in but doesn’t always luminate.

This week I’ve been imagining our capacity for discernment as a continuum. On one end of the continuum discernment begins, and there are reasons it is difficult to begin. On the other end … it ends. Discernment meets its limit—we can only gain so much clarity. I want to say a few words about each end of the continuum.

At the beginning we have a situation about which we need clarity. We have raw data, information, thoughts, sensations, joys and sorrows, problems to solve, dilemmas to manage, decisions to make, conflicts to resolve. Discernment begins as we pause, as we lean back, as we enter into that intentional process of thinking, contemplating, reflecting, musing or praying in order to gain clarity about the situation. And, keep in mind, we’re not simply thinking about the situation. We’re thinking beneath the situation; we’re looking for our truth in relation to it, our sense of what matters, our voice, our center, and at times we’re looking for our relationship to a life-giving, life-affirming reality beyond ourselves. But note: the act of pausing to think about a situation, let alone beneath a situation, is difficult in its own right. I’m pretty sure it’s not a natural human tendency. It’s a skill we develop. It takes practice. How often do we admonish our children and grandchildren to “think before you act?” How many times as children did we hear that advice? And ignore it? Pausing, leaning back, taking a breath—for the sake of discernment—is not a natural human tendency.

But there’s more to the difficulty in this information age. The world has changed remarkably in the last decade. When we lean back from a situation today, we are more and more likely to find ourselves leaning into a mighty river of information. When we lean back from a situation today, we are less and less able to pause and  reflect on a situation because the space—mental or otherwise—in which we had hoped to do our reflecting is filling up with more and more information. We are firmly ensconced in the information age. Things move and change so quickly that whenever we pause to discern, we risk falling behind—at least that’s how it feels, and the feeling is potent.

And then one of our devices beeps. Our pop-tune ring-tones interrupt. Even with our phones on ‘vibrate,’ it’s still an interruption. We have to see who’s calling, or texting; who’s pushing what new message.

And of course, sometimes we mean to pause for discernment, but instead we check out our Facebook page. Ohh, my friend (who is not an actual friend) posted an article with an interesting headline at Huffington Post. I’ll check it out. Hmm. Not so interesting, but there’s another author I know. They link to her blog. I’ll check it out. Hmm. This is funny. And wise. Might work for a sermon. Think I’ll tweet it. Oh, a colleague just tweeted the link to a sermon video. I’ll check it out. Uh, this is great, but I don’t have time to watch the whole thing. Wait, Colbert said what? I have to check it out. Hilarious. Ooh, a new video from one of my favorite bands. Gotta check it out. Very cool. I have to share this. Quick, back to Facebook. And so it goes.

Within the span of a decade the number of ways for people to communicate, connect, network, conduct business, report, offer opinion, advertise, sell, barter, share ideas, books, music, movies and inventions has exploded—perhaps not beyond measure but certainly beyond our wildest Y2K imaginings. Information now comes at us constantly. Constantly. We live in a message-saturated society with the potential for hundreds, if not thousands of voices to enter our consciousness every day from all corners. I suspect we’ve all developed unconscious filters to help us ignore most of it; but even still, the flow of information is staggering.

Don’t misconstrue my intent. I am not complaining. I’m not lamenting. I’m not pining away for some lost pre-internet golden age where there were three corporate TV networks, rotary phones, and newspapers printed on actual paper. (Remember Newsweek?) I’m not interested in going back. I’m not one of those clergy who talks about how much we’ve lost in this information age—how terrible it is that we interact as much online as we do in person, how we’ve lost some bit of our soul because of it. We have lost something. No question. But I feel strongly that as long as we can manage ourselves rather than the information managing us, then we’ve gained far more than we’ve lost. I like all the new tools. I’m not an early adopter, but I adopt. I feel very much at home working with email, websites, Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, I-tunes, and I’m moving towards e-books. I like figuring out how to use the tools to best express and promote our liberal religious message. But I’m also aware that in an information-soaked, data-infused, message-saturated, device-permeated culture, spiritual discernment becomes all the more difficult: discerning the line between truth and fiction, discerning what matters most, discerning one’s voice, discerning one’s authentic self becomes all the more difficult because there is so much information. How do we know which information is accurate? How do we know which information is relevant? How do we know which information will guide us in a healthy, productive, life-giving direction? Where on earth is clarity?

The answer, at least for me this morning, strangely, lies at the other end of the continuum where our capacity for discernment ends. Earlier I read Tracey Smith’s poem “It and Co.” For me this poem as a provocative yet oddly comforting statement about the limits of our capacity to discern. I take “It” to be a reality larger than ourselves—reality in an ultimate sense—God, Goddess, Gaia, the earth, the universe, the cosmos. The “Co.”—the company—is us, humans. We are curious.  We are curious about It. We are trying—we’ve been trying for millennia—to discern the essence of It, but the light we shine never reaches far enough. We never gain clarity. “Is It us,” Smith asks, “or what contains us?” And then: “It is elegant / But coy. It avoids the blunt ends / Of our fingers as we point. We / Have gone looking for It everywhere: / In Bibles and bandwidth, / …. Still It resists the matter of false vs. real …. / It is like some novels: / Vast and unreadable.”[5]

She’s got us out at the far reaches of the universe, the limits of our perception, the end of the continuum. She’s got us at the door to the Holy of Holies, but we can’t peer in. She’s got us at the entrance to the mountaintop cave, but we can’t peer out. In traditional religious language, we can’t gaze upon the face of God. There’s no more clarity to gain no matter how much light we shine in. This ultimate reality is “vast and unreadable.” It “avoids the blunt end of our fingers as we point.” It rests behind an unpiercable veil. It is, in the end, utterly mysterious. And knowing this is important. Because here is a space that will never fill up with information.

Here we can pause, lean back, breathe. And while we can’t name what we’re leaning on, here we also aren’t caught in a river of constant data. Here we aren’t drowning in a sea of new facts and opinions. Here we can discern. We can’t discern It with a capital I. But we can move beyond the beginning of the continuum where information is flowing relentlessly. We can look closely at the situations of our lives. We can gain clarity. We can’t discern ultimate reality, but in the space it provides we can certainly discern our truth, our own voice, our most authentic self, and the things that matter beyond ourselves.

And we don’t have to go to the far reaches of the universe to enter this space.  There are hints of this everywhere: in the dark of winter; in the cry of a newborn baby; at the mountain peak; in the lover’s embrace; in the watery depths; in the nonviolent resistor’s courage; in crashing waves and tidal pools; in the wild abandon of children in summer (acting before they think); in those old stone fences running through New England woods; in the farmer rising before dawn; in crocuses breaking through the still frozen March ground; in elders sharing their stories and their wisdom by the light of a blazing fire. In all of it some mystery abides just below the surface constantly calling to us, constantly beckoning—some vast and unreadable essence, some beautiful and compelling but obscure essence, some take-your-breath-away, put-goose-bumps-on-your-fore-arms, send-chills-up-and-down-your-spine essence, some holy hallelujah cry just below the surface. And yes, the second we try to name it, the second we point our blunt fingers at it, the second we shine too bright a light, it slips away. But it keeps calling.

Some will find this confounding. I don’t. I find it comforting. There is something deeply comforting for me in the constant presence of a mystery constantly calling out to us, constantly presenting itself to us, constantly inviting us to seek, to search, to discern, even if it remains elusive. Its presence makes us curious. Mystery makes us curious. One of the most central and endearing human qualities is curiosity. If the presence of a vast and unreadable mystery inspires curiosity in us, then it invites us to be human. It invites us to discern. It invites us to plant the seeds of our dreams. Consider this: the absence of mystery doesn’t offer such invitations. Curiosity is a lot more challenging in the absence of mystery. I prefer the mystery. I know it may never be revealed, but there’s a lot we can clarify along the way. Thus, may we continue to seek. May we continue to discern.

Amen and blessed be. And Happy New Year!



[1] Kimball, Richard S., “Winds Be Still,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) # 83.

[2] McTigue, Kathleen, “New Year’s Day,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #544.

[3] Navigate to http://uuse.org/topics/monthly-ministry-theme/ and scroll down to “January Ministry Theme: Discernment” (posted 12/31/2012).

[4] Anne Hill, The Baby and the Bathwater (Bodega Bay, CA: Serpentine Music, 2012).

[5] Smith, Tracy K., “It  & Co.”  Life on Mars (Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2011) p. 17.

Let Us Not Turn Away: Some Reflections on Justice General Assembly

Rachel Naomi Remen says “There is in life a suffering so unspeakable, a vulnerability so extreme that it goes far beyond words, beyond explanations and even beyond healing. In the face of such suffering all we can do is bear witness so no one need suffer alone.”[1] This statement, for me, begins to name the heart of what it means to be a religious witness. When someone is suffering, let us in the very least not turn away, not move on to the next agenda item, not think of the next thing we need to say. When someone is suffering, let us stay present to their pain; let us keep our focus on what has happened to them. When someone is suffering, let us stay with them, sit by their side, listen to their story, support them, encourage them. When we act as religious witnesses, we make suffering visible so that it cannot be ignored, denied or downplayed by anyone. When we act as religious witnesses we say to those who suffer, “you do not have to endure this alone.” When someone is suffering, in the very least, let us not turn away.

Our ministry theme for July is witness. We selected this theme in part as a way to reflect further on the actions of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Justice General Assembly[2] or “Justice GA” in Phoenix last month. I will do that, but I first want to speak more generally about what it means to be a religious witness, and in particular what it means to be a liberal religious witness. Witness can and has for some of us become one of those haunting theological words we associate with traditional or conservative religion. When a preacher asks, “Can I get a witness?” we know they want someone to testify about how God is making a difference in their life, how God is making their life better in some way, how God is great.

Liberal religious people in general, and Unitarian Universalists in particular don’t bear witness that way. This is a basic theological difference between liberal and conservative religious understandings of the Sacred. In a conservative religious context, if the preacher asks, “Can I get a witness?” and someone starts testifying about God’s greatness, everyone says “Amen!” “Hallelujah.” Everyone has, more or less, the same concept of God. But liberal religion allows for and encourages doubt, skepticism, questioning and wondering. If the liberal religious preacher were to ask, “Can I get a witness?” and someone were to start testifying about God’s greatness, you might hear “Amen, Hallelujah!” but it’s not likely.  You’d be more likely to hear someone ask (maybe at coffee hour), “What do you mean by God?”  We’d start debating the existence of God and there’d be as many opinions in the room as there are people. We don’t just join the amen chorus. We don’t all have the same concept of God. We don’t all believe in God.  We’re comfortable acknowledging we don’t really know. We ask questions.  We express doubt.

Having said that, I don’t want to sell us theologically short. While liberal religious people don’t typically bear witness to the traditional, conservative idea of God, there are many ways we experience the sacredness of life and many things to which we ascribe sacred meaning or ultimate worth: Human Beings, Family, Community, Learning, Growth, Evolution, Nature, Earth, Cosmos, Ancestors, Spirit, Breath and, for some, Gods and Goddesses. All of this works in our lives. All of this impacts our lives in positive ways. All of this is great. This is what our worship and our congregational life is all about. We do testify. All the time. We do bear witness. All the time. We just do it differently.  We use different language. “Can I get a witness?” doesn’t roll off our tongues the way it does in more conservative churches; but that doesn’t mean the Sacred is absent from our lives. It’s quite the opposite.

That’s the bedrock definition of what it means to be a religious witness—proclaiming the power of the Sacred in one’s life. But where liberal religious people are more comfortable using the word witness is in our response to suffering, especially suffering created by social, political, economic, or environmental injustices.  At the Justice GA in Phoenix the language of witness was pervasive. To bear witness was the reason we went to Phoenix. Reminder: the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) holds its General Assembly every June in a different city. We don’t typically get as deeply involved in local or state issues during GA as we did in Phoenix, but Phoenix was different.

I preached about the difference in June;[3] I’ll explain it briefly for those who missed it. In April, 2010 Arizona became the first state in a string of states to pass a harsh, anti-immigration statute, known as SB1070. It gave local and state police unprecedented—and mostly unconstitutional— powers to enforce federal immigration law. It essentially made racial profiling legal (though its supporters deny this). When Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed SB1070, civil and migrant rights organizations in Arizona called for a boycott
of the state. At that point, the UUA had to make a decision about whether to go ahead with our GA scheduled to take place in Phoenix in June, 2012. It was a hard decision, but in the end we decided to go to Phoenix, primarily because the civil and migrant rights organizations that were calling for the boycott invited us to come. “But don’t come and conduct business is usual,” they said. “If  you’re going to come, come and bear witness to the suffering of Latino and migrant communities in Arizona. Come, bear witness against an inhumane, unjust law. Come, bear witness against abusive, unjust county prisons. Come, bear witness against a blatantly racist sheriff’s department. Come, but don’t turn away from the suffering and injustice taking place in Phoenix. Come, bear witness.

Phoenix is in Maricopa County, whose Sheriff Joe Arpaio is one of the most ruthless anti-immigrant law enforcement officers in the country, proudly identifying himself as “America’s toughest Sheriff.”[4] County residents, especially in the Latino and migrant communities, have complained bitterly about conditions in his jails for decades, especially his infamous Tent City Jail on Durango Street, where prisoners are confined to army surplus canvass tents. The Sheriff himself has measured the temperature in those tents at over 140 degrees on hot days. Those are good days to deny water to prisoners. In 1997 Amnesty International issued a report citing a long list of human rights abuses and condemning the practices at many of the Maricopa County prisons.[5] This past May, the US Department of Justice filed suit against Sheriff Arpaio and the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, alleging that it discriminates against Latinos, uses excessive force, runs its jail unconstitutionally and has taken illegal action to silence critics.[6]

At the Justice GA we heard from a woman named Isabel Chairez from the Neighborhood Defense Committee (Comites de Defensa del Barrio) of Tonatierra, an indigenous peoples’ cultural organization dedicated to community ecology and self-determination.[7] Tonatierra was one of the organizations with whom we partnered to create Justice GA. Ms. Chairez told her story of being incarcerated at Estrella, Sheriff Arpaio’s jail for women next to Tent City. She said: “Last year, for working to feed my family, I was arrested at my home and my 3-year-old daughter witnessed the police handcuffing me and taking me away. I suffered the horrible conditions at Estrella … where I spent 3 long miserable months. At the time, I was 4 months pregnant and I did not receive adequate care and treatment. We were only fed twice a day … in the morning and late afternoon …. I ate what was given to us; even then I only gained 4 pounds by the time I was six months pregnant.

“I witnessed many ugly things inside that jail. The guards yelled at the women that didn’t speak or understand English. Verbal abuse happened all the time…. In December of 2011, women sued the county for this mistreatment…. One of the hardest things for me was that I was not allowed to walk around when I started feeling uncomfortable with my pregnancy. I was confined to the bed just like all the other women.

“One of my biggest concerns with the arrests, detention, and deportation is how parents are treated like criminals in front of their children. Think of all the children that are being separated from their mothers. My daughter is traumatized from seeing me arrested and taken away. Every time there is a knock on the door, she runs and holds on to me saying ‘Is it the police? I don’t want them to take you away.’”[8]

Rachel Naomi Remen tells us: “There is in life a suffering so unspeakable, a vulnerability so extreme that it goes far beyond words, beyond explanations and even beyond healing. In the face of such suffering all we can do is bear witness so no one need suffer alone.” On Saturday evening, June 23rd, more than 2000 Justice GA attendees boarded busses that took them to the front gates of Sheriff Arpaio’s Tent City Jail. It was a peaceful witness. We did not attempt to block jail access. We did not engage in civil disobedience. We did not confront the Sheriff or his deputies. We did not confront the small band of counter-protestors—a few of them carrying guns—expressing support for the Sheriff.  We held candles. We chanted. We sang. Our leaders and our partners spoke about the human rights abuses and suffering taking place inside Tent City. They spoke about the culture of fear and cruelty the Sheriff’s Department has established in the county. They spoke about the backwardness and injustice of SB1070. They spoke about the need for comprehensive national immigration reform that upholds the worth and dignity of all people.[9]  This was our witness. More than 2,000 UUs—most of them wearing yellow “Standing on the Side of Love” t-shirts—doing our part to draw national and global attention to suffering and injustice, lending our collective voice and power to our partners in Phoenix, doing our part to “make what is invisible, visible …. what is deniable, undeniable ….  what is unseen, seen.”[10] That night on Durango St. there was no place else in the world I would rather have been. That night I was deeply proud to be a Unitarian Universalist and inspired to be part of movement to end mass incarceration and deportation; to build a more just and loving society.

The next day there was a man on the sidewalk outside the convention center with a sign that read “UUs: What Have You Done?” which I took to mean your presence here in Phoenix has changed nothing. You have accomplished nothing. On one hand he’s right. Justice GA did not end mass incarceration and deportation.  It did not shut down Tent City. It did not arrest Arpaio. We left Phoenix much the way we found it, and many communities there still live in fear of the sheriff’s department. Some have asked what good a nonviolent witness does in the face of this kind of power. Don’t we need to take more extreme Measures?

That’s a conversation worth having, but I see three things that happened at Justice GA that the man with the sign didn’t see. First, the historically, racially white Unitarian Universalist congregations in Arizona, and the historically, racially white Unitarian Universalist Association built solid, lasting, accountable, relationships with people of color civil rights and migrant rights organizations on the ground in Arizona: Puente Human Rights Movement, National Day Laborers Organizing Network, Mi Familia Vota, Arizona Worker Rights Center; Arizona Advocacy Network, National Council of La Raza, Somos Arizona, Tonatierra, Tierra y Libertad Organization and more.[11] None of these organizations can achieve its vision of a more just and loving society alone. Relationships are essential. Relationships are the essence of successful movements. This kind of relationship-based participation in a national, multicultural, multilingual, multiracial and antiracist movement for social justice is new for Unitarian Universalists. It marks a level of growth in our faith we could barely imagine a decade ago. Justice GA is over, but the truth is we haven’t left Arizona. We are still there through the power of our relationships. The justice movement our partners started is now stronger.

Second, the man with the sign does not understand that 4,000 UUs came to Phoenix and realized that the kinds of injustices that exist there could happen anywhere. It’s called Arizonafication.  4,000 UUs, myself included, left Phoenix determined to build partnerships and coalitions in our own states, determined to halt Arizonafication in our own states, determined to bear witness to suffering and injustice in our own states. The movement for a more just and loving United States of America just grew stronger.

Finally, the man with the sign missed this: Our yellow t-shirts say “Standing on the Side of Love.” It’s not rhetoric. It’s not a cheap platitude. We really mean it. And while I’m sure Sheriff Arpaio and his deputies, and the counter-protestors with guns, and Governor Jan Brewer are capable of great love—loving their families and friends, loving their jobs, their mission, their state, their country—it is not a loving act to tear a mother from her child in the middle of the night. It is not a loving act to put a prisoner in a tent in the desert where the temperature rises to 140 degrees and then deny that prisoner water. It is not a loving act to confine a pregnant woman to a cot when she needs to walk. It is not a loving act to terrorize whole communities who want nothing more than to live in peace.  It is not a loving act to take pride in one’s ability to conduct racial profiling. It is not a loving heart that enjoys mass incarceration and deportation, even if it is legal. When we bear witness to all these atrocities and we say we are standing on the side of love, we mean it. Love matters. A loving heart matters. A loving community matters. A loving nation matters. If you ask me, maybe not now, maybe not next year, but some day, love wins. I believe it. What did we do in Phoenix? We did not turn away. We bore witness to love. It made all the difference.

Amen and Blessed be.



[1] Remen, Rachel Naomi, “Bearing Witness,” My Grandfather’s Blessings (New York: Riverhead Books, 2000) p. 105.

[2] For footage and text from the UUA’s Justice General Assembly, see: http://www.uua.org/ga/2012/index.shtml.

[8] Ms. Chairez’ testimony at Justice GA is at: http://www.uua.org/ga/2012/business/200226.shtml.

[9] Video footage and the fully text of the speeches at the Tent City witness are at: http://www.uua.org/immigration/re/ga/200252.shtml

[10] This language comes from a litany called “Why We Witness,” which was art of the Saturday evening worship at Justice GA, prior to the Tent City Witness. See: http://www.uua.org/ga/2012/worship/200328.shtml.

[11] The list of our Justice GA partners is at: http://www.uua.org/ga/2012/185401.shtml