For Gravity’s Sake

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Did you feel it? I didn’t either.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Greene, Brian, “The Detection of Gravitational Waves Was a Scientific Breakthrough, but What’s Next?” Smithsonian Magazine, April, 2016. See:

[2] Brian Greene Explains the Discovery of Gravitational Waves:

[3] In addition to Brian Green’s article in Smithsonian Magazine, see also MacDonald, Fiona, “It’s Official: Gravitational Waves Have Been Detected, Einstein Was Right,” Science Alert, Feb. 11, 2016,; and Krauss, Lawrence, “Finding Beauty in the Darkness,” New York Times, Feb. 11th, 2016,

[4] Pawelek, Josh, “I Am Lush Land and Rugged Rock,” a sermon preached to the Unitarian Universalist Society: East, March 20, 2016:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[21] Short, Gary, “Teaching Poetry to 3rd Graders.” See:

Dispatches from the Culture War, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen and Blessed Be.

[1] “The 97% Consensus on Global Warming” at Skeptical Science:

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

[3]  Kollipara, Puneet and Malakoff, David, “For the first time in years, the U.S. Senate voted on climate change. Did anybody win?” Science Insider, January 29, 2015.See:

[4] Kollipara, Puneet and Malakoff, David, “For the first time in years, the U.S. Senate voted on climate change. Did anybody win?” Science Insider, January 29, 2015.See: Also see:

[5] This quote is taken from Loyal Rue’s Religion is Not About God: How Spiritual Traditions Nurture our Biological Nature and What to Expect When They Fail (Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2005). It appeared in Dowd, Michael, “The Evolutionary Significance of Religion: Multi-Level Selection,” Metanexus, February 10, 2012. See:


The Prisoner’s Dilemma: We’re All in This Together

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Prisoner's DilemmaTwo members of a criminal gang are arrested and imprisoned. Each prisoner is in solitary confinement with no means of speaking to or exchanging messages with the other. The police admit they don’t have enough evidence to convict the pair on the principle charge. They plan to sentence both to a year in prison on a lesser charge. Simultaneously, the police offer each prisoner a Faustian bargain. If he testifies against his partner, he will go free while the partner will get three years in prison on the main charge. Oh, yes, there’s a catch. If both prisoners testify against each other, both will be sentenced to two years in jail.

The prisoners are given little time to think this over, but in no case may either learn what the other has decided until he has irrevocably made his decision. Each is informed that the other prisoner is being offered the same deal. Each prisoner is concerned only with his own welfare, the minimizing of his own prison sentence.

The prisoners can reason as follows: “Suppose I testify and the other prisoner doesn’t. Then I get off scot-free (rather than spending a year in jail). Suppose I testify and the other prisoner does too. Then I get two years (rather than three). Either way I’m better off turning state’s evidence. Testifying takes a year off my sentence, no matter what the other guy does.”

The trouble is, the other prisoner can and will come to the very same conclusion. If both parties are rational, both will testify and both will get two years in jail. If only they had both refused to testify, they would have got just a year each![1]

Game Theory

This is the classic formulation of the “prisoner’s dilemma,” first articulated in the early 1950s by mathematician Albert Tucker. He was developing the work of mathematicians Merrill Flood and Melvin Dresher who created—some say discovered—this game. They were developing the work of mathematician John Nash. All of them were working in the new field of game theory, originated largely by mathematician John Von Neumann. And all of them, including Von Neumann, worked in the early 1950s for the RAND Corporation, an organization founded after World War II to provide research and analysis for the US military. According to Von Neumann biographer, William Poundstone, “in the public mind, RAND is best known for ‘thinking about the unthinkable,’ about the waging and consequences of nuclear war.”[2] Game theory was one resource RAND scientists brought to bear in their efforts to determine US nuclear strategy. According to Poundstone, “no example of a prisoner’s dilemma has been more popular, both in technical articles and in the popular press, than a nuclear arms rivalry. This is so much the case that the term ‘prisoner’s dilemma’ is sometimes taken to be part of the jargon of nuclear strategy, along with ‘mutual assured destruction.’”[3]

Having said that, I’m not going to talk about the Cold War or nuclear strategy. This sermon was purchased by our beloved Fred Sawyer at last year’s goods and services auction. Fred said, quite clearly, “I don’t want to hear about nuclear weapons or the Cold War. What I want to know is whether or not the prisoner’s dilemma tells us anything useful about morality.” I’m grateful to Fred because the prisoner’s dilemma does say something useful about morality, and I’d much rather explore that than give a history of its use in predicting Cold War Soviet behavior. I’ll first explain the prisoner’s dilemma and what it tells us about morality. Then I’ll reflect on Unitarian Universalist moral impulses in light of the prisoner’s dilemma.

Two words game theorists use to describe what’s happening in a prisoner’s dilemma, and which also help us discern the moral implications of the game’s results, are cooperate and defect. There are two players. They each face a choice: to work together—cooperate—or to work against each other—defect. A player cooperates when they make the decision that best supports the other player. A player defects when they make the decision that least supports the other player. There are four possible outcomes: both players choose to cooperate; both choose to defect; one chooses to cooperate and the other defects; or the other chooses to cooperate and the one defects. There are consequences for each choice, and each player bases their choice on what they think will best serve their interests. In the classic formulation of the prisoner’s dilemma, a player cooperates when they choose not to testify against the other player. A player defects when they choose to testify. In essence, do you sustain your relationship or break it?

This classic formulation is one of many ways to imagine the prisoner’s dilemma. In fact, there are unlimited formulations, both hypothetical and real. Earlier we watched a clip from the British game show, “Golden Balls.”[4] Although this isn’t a true prisoner’s dilemma because the players negotiate before choosing, the game follows the basic prisoner’s dilemma model. There’s a £100,000 jackpot. The players can choose to split it—cooperation—or to steal it—defection. If they both choose to cooperate, they split the money. If one chooses to defect and the other chooses to cooperate, the defector gets all the money. If they both choose to defect, neither gets the money. Do you cooperate or defect?

Game theorists are not necessarily looking for the most moral way to play. They’re looking to see how players understand their self-interest in relation to the other player. They assume players who attempt to maximize their self-interest are behaving rationally. This is, of course, a somewhat loaded assumption, but stay with it for now and I’ll name some objections to it later. For now, since morality has to do with how we treat others—how kind, compassionate, sensitive and fair we are towards others; how generous we are in balancing our needs with the needs of others—we can make a general claim that the most moral way to play the game is to cooperate—to make the choice that best supports the other player. The problem with behaving morally is that if you cooperate but the other player defects, you receive the harshest penalty, often referred to as the “sucker payoff.” The more moral choice always comes with a degree of vulnerability and, at least in the context of the game, it can appear to be the less rational choice. On its face, defection is more selfish—or at least self-interested. While I hesitate to call it the immoral choice (whistle blowers exposing corruption are often defectors), we can make the general claim that it is the less moral way to play in relation to the other player: it sacrifices the other player for the sake of personal gain. If the point is to maximize self-interest, the less moral choice appears to be the more rational choice.


This is especially true if you only play the game once. If you only have one opportunity to cooperate or defect, it is always statistically more advantageous—and thus more rational—to defect.  Poundstone calls it common sense.”[5] If your partner cooperates and you defect, you go free. If your partner defects, you’re much better off having defected as well. So it’s best to defect. There’s a paradox here. Mutual cooperation is a better outcome for both players than mutual defection. But to arrive at that better outcome, both must independently choose to act against their own best self-interest. We might say both must behave less rationally. It appears the more moral choice is not the more rational choice. The mathematicians who created/discovered the prisoner’s dilemma had always hoped there was some way to resolve this paradox. In 1992 Poundstone wrote that “Flood and Dresher now believe that the prisoner’s dilemma will never be “solved,” and nearly all game theorists agree with them. The prisoner’s dilemma remains a negative result—a demonstration of what’s wrong with theory, and indeed, what’s wrong with the world.”[6] It reveals the egoism at the heart of human nature.

But there’s a lot to object to here. What if I know the other player? What if I trust they’d never testify against me? What if we had a pact? What if my own moral code won’t let me testify against them? What about the fact that cooperation among criminals isn’t necessarily moral?[7] What about people who act against their self-interest—people who, for example, vote for candidates who favor policies that hurt them economically?  What about the fact that people don’t always behave rationally, or that rationality does not necessarily equate to following self-interest, or that rationality in the absence of emotion, compassion, love, etc., may not be the most reliable guide to effective decision-making? All these factors can and do come into play in a real-life prisoner dilemmas, but there’s no good way to account for them theoretically if you only play the game once. However, it turns out that when we play the game repeatedly, players can introduce a variety of strategies that do account for some of these factors. For example, if you play with the same person over time, unless they play completely randomly, you can get to know how they play; you can start to anticipate what they’re going to do and adjust your play in response. It’s more like a real relationship: the players share a history. Or, if your moral code prevents you from defecting, you can play a strategy of only cooperating. You’ll end up in jail, but you’ll have a clean conscience. Or, if you want to play as a pure egoist and defect every time, that’s a viable strategy, in part because it exploits the kindness of others, but over time others stop trusting you and you spend more time in jail.

There’s a strategy known as Tit for Tat that tends to produce the best overall results in competition with other strategies—that is, over time, it yields the least amount of prison time. Tit for Tat is known for being nice. It always begins with cooperation. That is, it starts the game by trusting that the other player will cooperate. It gives the other player the benefit of the doubt and risks being vulnerable. From there it simply copies what the other player does. If the other player defects, Tit for Tat defects on the next round—a punishment.  If the other player cooperates, Tit for Tat cooperates on the next round—a reward. It’s a punishment and reward strategy, but it always begins with cooperation, and it is by and the large the most successful strategy. This was the conclusion of mathematician Robert Axelrod after extensive research in the 1970s and 80s.[8] Even though it is always in our immediate self-interest to defect, if we’re playing repeatedly—which is more akin to real life—we maximize our self-interest by cooperating. The ethicist John Robinson says, “Alexrod and others … have [successfully shown] how cooperation arises from self-interest, and is a stable strategy in many contexts. They have discovered a reason to be good, an evolutionary explanation for morality that works even though, underneath it all, people are egoists.”[9]

This can be tested even further by having multiple groups of players playing simultaneously and rotating around to each other. Not only does Tit for Tat continue to perform well, but even a small group of Tit for Tat players in the midst of a larger group of more egoistic players can move the whole group towards adopting their strategy and thus orient the whole group—the whole society—towards cooperation. This conclusion affirms that wisdom from the late cultural anthropologist, Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” It also suggests, again, that the more moral choice to cooperate ultimately serves our self-interest better than the less moral choice to defect.

One PlanetThis conclusion certainly resonates with Unitarian Universalist moral impulses—and perhaps the moral impulses at the heart of many religions—although Tit for Tat is not language I would use to describe those moral impulses. Our morality begins in and grows out of relationships. Ours is a covenantal religion. We’re all in this together. As Unitarian Universalists we covenant to affirm and promote seven principles.[10] And as a congregation we have crafted a unique covenant to guide our interactions with one another.[11] We come here to be part of a community. We recognize at a deep level that we benefit from being part of a community, that in community we find grounding to counter all those trends in the larger world that drive people apart, that erode social bonds, that thrive on and exploit our isolation. We know our principles are hard to make real in the world, and even harder to make real in the absence of community. Thus, our first move is cooperation. We’re all in this together.

But it’s not our moral impulse to play a Tit for Tat strategy. It’s not our impulse to defect as soon as the other player defects. It’s not our impulse to punish. Our moral impulse is to sustain relationships, to continue cooperating with the defector, to continue articulating a message—through word and deed—that those who participate in our community, and indeed all those with whom we come into contact, have inherent worth and dignity, are part of the same interdependent web, are deserving of our love and care, deserving of the benefit of the doubt. Our UUS:E covenant even says that if we fail to uphold it we will strive for forgiveness. In the terms of the game, we strive to meet defection with cooperation, again and again and again.

Can this impulse be exploited? Yes.. This impulse would likely land us in prison frequently. Should we tolerate ongoing behaviors that weaken our community? No, of course not. There are times when any faith community needs to draw lines, set boundaries, defect. But we have faith in the power of community. We have faith in the power of relationship. We’re all in this together. And it’s good to know what the data say: over time, self-interest is best attained through cooperation. What’s good for the whole is ultimately good for the individuals who make up the whole. And that’s how we strive to play.

Amen and blessed be.


[1] Poundstone, William, Prisoner’s Dilemma: John Von Neumann, Game Theory, and the Puzzle of the Bomb (New York: Anchor Books, 1992), pp. 118-119.

[2] Poundstone, Prisoner’s Dilemma, p. 90.

[3] Poundstone, Prisoner’s Dilemma, p. 129.

[4] See the clip at Also, this Radiolab story, “What’s Left When You’re Right?” incorporates the “Golden Balls” clip and is very entertaining:

[5] Poundstone, Prisoner’s Dilemma, p. 121.

[6] Poundstone, Prisoner’s Dilemma, p. 123.

[7] Hayden Ben, “Rethinking the Morality of the Prisoner’s Dilemma,” in “The Decision Tree,” Psychology Today, July 28th, 2013. See:

[8] Poundstone, Prisoner’s Dilemma, pp. 236-248. For more information, see Axelrod, Robert The Evolution of Cooperation (New York: Basic Books, 1984).

[9] Robinson, John, “The Moral Prisoner’s Dilemma” is at

[10] For the language which names the seven Unitarian Universalist principles as a covenant, see:

[11] See the UUS:E covenant at