When Seeing Isn’t Believing

Rev. Josh Pawelek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen and blessed be.  

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

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

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

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

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

Taking Your Faith to Work

Rev. Josh Pawelek

water coolerI’m calling this sermon “Taking Your Faith to Work,” though it’s a misleading title because there are so many different understandings of what it means to have faith and what it might mean to take it out into the world to such places as work (paid or volunteer), or the gym, the senior center, the playground, the mall, the soccer field—any place you might interact with other people. Josh and Christine Hawks-Ladds purchased this sermon at our 2013 Goods and Services Auction. After speaking with Josh about it, and then proposing this title, he said it wasn’t really what they’d had in mind.” If I understood Josh correctly, to him having faith suggested having a set of solid theological beliefs—belief in God, belief in certain doctrines about the nature of God, and perhaps a strongly felt mission to convince others of the existence of that God. That is certainly one way to understand faith. Taking that kind of faith to work would imply looking for opportunities to talk to co-workers about your beliefs and to try to persuade them to join you. A better title for that sermon might be “Proclaiming Your Faith at Work” or “Proselytizing in the Work-Place.” For us it might sound like, “Hey, let me tell you about the seven Unitarian Universalist principles.” Which you can do. But this isn’t that sermon.

Josh also mentioned last June’s Supreme Court decision in Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby.[1] The Court decided in favor of the Hobby Lobby owners—the Green family—and the Conestoga Wood Specialties owners—the Hahn family—who petitioned for a faith-based exemption from the Affordable Care Act mandate that corporations pay for employee health insurance that covers contraception. The Greens, who are Evangelical Christians, and the Hahns, who are Mennonites, argued that the mandate forced them to violate their faith by paying for what they believe are abortions caused by certain contraceptives. Later in October I will preach about the slow erosion of reproductive rights in the United States and will likely look more closely at the Hobby Lobby decision. For now, I offer that decision as another possible interpretation of “Taking Your Faith to Work,” in this case by using the courts to impose your faith on your 21,000 employees regardless of the dictates of their faith. A better title for that sermon might be “Explaining Your Boss’s Faith to Your Doctor” or just “Losing Access to Medical Coverage for Scientifically-Proven Methods of Family Planning Because of Your Boss’s Faith.” (If you’re wondering about these titles, I found Los Angeles Times columnist Robin Abcarian’s July 7th analysis of the Hobby Lobby decision very helpful.) This is not that sermon.

“Taking Your Faith to Work” could also refer to the way faith-based activists might speak out along that sometimes murky and sometimes not-so-murky line where a company’s drive to make profits runs afoul of social or environmental justice values. An agri-business sprays pesticides on crops to increase yields, but in doing so it slowly poisons groundwater. An energy company invests in fracking—an economic boon to struggling regional economies—but may be generating any number of negative environmental and health consequences. Mining companies profit by their failure to comply with safety regulations; banks make home loans to families that have no chance of paying them back; fast-food chains, big retailers and some nursing homes derive huge profits by not paying their employees a living wage. People of faith, including Unitarian Universalists, are often moved to engage in public protests or shareholder actions in an effort to curtail corporate behavior that risks the health, safety, and livelihood of their workers and the larger community. That sermon might be called “Prioritizing the Common Good at Work.” This isn’t that sermon.

Many people of faith showed up in support of workers striking for higher wages at a Hartford McDonald's in early September, 2014.

Many people of faith showed up in support of workers striking for higher wages at a Hartford McDonald’s in early September, 2014.

So, what sermon is this? Josh said he feels that being part of a Unitarian Universalist congregation has brought an element of civility and spirituality to his everyday life, including his work life. Being a Unitarian Universalist has reminded him that we are all part of one larger community, that the ancient idea of the commons matters; and because of that we have to treat everyone respectfully; we have to honor the inherent worth and dignity of each person, even if we sense others aren’t honoring our worth, even if we experience others as uncaring, callous, selfish, insensitive. This is hard. We know, at times, we fail mightily. Josh reflected on his maturation as a lawyer, saying he didn’t always have the tools and grounding to deal with difficult people in a civil way. “My emotions got the best of me,” he said.

Given our propensity to fail, Josh asks, “When the slings and arrows of the workplace are being thrown at you, how do you respond as a Unitarian Universalist?” How do you treat others? How do you act? At our best, how ought Unitarian Universalists show up at work (whether paid or volunteer), and I would add at the gym, the senior center, the playground, the mall, the soccer field—any place we interact with other people?  That is this sermon. It’s not about how you articulate Unitarian Universalism to others. It’s not, “Hey, let me tell you about the seven principles of my faith.” “Taking Your Faith to Work,” the way I’m using it, means living, acting, behaving in such a way that your religious values have a beneficial impact on people’s lives. Ultimately this isn’t just about Unitarian Universalists; it’s about any person of faith—Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Wiccan, etc. Faith, in this sense, is a belief, a conviction, an expectation that our deepest values matter and will make a difference if we keep them at the center of everything we do. Faith is also a confidence that as we let our values guide our interactions, others will experience us—and we will experience ourselves—as more grounded, more whole, more fully human.

Earlier I read an excerpt from a talk by columnist David Brooks entitled “Should You Live for Your Résumé … or Your Eulogy?”[2] He says, “The résumé virtues are the ones you put on your résumé, which are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that get mentioned in the eulogy, which are deeper: who are you, in your depth, what is the nature of your relationships, are you bold, loving, dependable, consistent? And most of us, including me, would say that the eulogy virtues are the more important of the virtues. But at least in my case, are they the ones that I think about the most? And the answer is no.”

By the way, the eulogy is the statement we make at a memorial service about the person who has died. It’s the telling of their life—not just the chronology of their life events, but the stories that name what mattered most to them. “He loved us. We knew it because he would always stop what he was doing to spend time with us.” “She was so reliable. If she said she was going to do something, she did it. And if you said you were going to do something, she would hold you to your word.” The eulogy attempts to capture the essence of the person—their beliefs, their convictions, their values—which, in my mind, can very simply be called their faith.

I was drawn to Brooks’ talk for this particular Sunday because he mentions Adam, as in Adam the Biblical first man. Recall that Jews celebrated Rosh Hashanah this week. Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, marks the beginning of the Jewish High Holy Days. In Jewish tradition it celebrates the creation of the world, the creation of Adam and Eve, and the special relationship between God and humanity. In his talk Brooks draws on the 20th-century Orthodox rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s 1965 book, The Lonely Man of Faith,[3]in which he reflects on two distinct characterizations of Adam in the Hebrew book of Genesis. Yes, there are two Adams. I won’t explain this in detail, but suffice it to say that a scholarly or historical critical reading of Genesis reveals the work of multiple authors whose words were compiled over the centuries into one Biblical narrative.[4] The first chapter of Genesis describes the creation of the world differently than the second. The first chapter describes God differently than the second. The first chapter describes Adam differently than the second. Rabbi Soloveitchik used those differences to reflect on what he felt were two, often competing natures in modern human beings.

I haven’t read Lonely Man of Faith, but based on what I’ve read about it, I think I see the distinction Rabbi Soloveitchik was making. Adam 1—the Adam in Genesis 1—is created at the same time as Eve. “So God created humankind in God’s image … male and female God created them.”[5] They are the first humans. God tells them: “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion … over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”[6] Adam 2, the Adam in Genesis 2, is created alone. Eve comes later. There’s no reference to being created in God’s image. God simply forms Adam from the dust of the ground. Nor does God charge him to subdue the earth or to have dominion over every living thing. God puts Adam 2 in the garden to “till it and keep it.”[7] And then God recognizes: “it is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.”[8]

Adam from Dust

What I take from my reading of these Biblical words in modern English is this: Adam 1 at his best is creative, innovative, a builder. Rabbi Soloveitchik called him “Majestic Man.”  David Brooks says Adam I is the worldly, ambitious, external side of our nature. He wants to know how things work. He savors success and accomplishment. He wants to conquer the world.[9]  Brooks links this nature to the current values of the work place and the culture at large. There’s nothing inherently wrong with these values, but there are risks that accompany them. Adam 1 can be dominating—that is his divine charge, after all. He can take relationships for granted, undervaluing them, for he has never experienced what it means to be alone. Adam 1’s pragmatism may outweigh other human values like listening, compassion and empathy. Others may experience him as heartless.

Adam 2 at his best is humble. He’s not here to subdue the earth, but to keep and tend the garden. And because he has known loneliness, he values relationships differently than Adam 1. He takes others more fully into account. He listens. He is compassionate. Rabbi Soloveitchik called him“Covenantal Man.”Brooks says “Adam II is the humble side of our nature. [He] wants not only to do good but to be good, to live in a way internally that honors God, creation and our possibilities….  [He] wants to hear a calling and obey the world.  [He] savors inner consistency and strength. [While] Adam I asks how things work. Adam II asks why we’re here. [Where] Adam I’s motto is ‘success.’ Adam II’s motto is ‘love, redemption and return.’”[10]

I hear in David Brooks’ talk a deep sadness that the eulogy virtues and the values that underlie them are so absent from our dominant culture. He says “We happen to live in a society that favors Adam I, and often neglects Adam II. And the problem is, that turns you into a shrewd animal who treats life as a game, and you become a cold, calculating creature who slips into a sort of mediocrity.”[11] I hear him longing for a different kind of interaction, a different way of treating the other—not just in the work place but everywhere— the gym, the senior center, the playground, the mall, the soccer field, even the battle field. At our best, as Unitarian Universalists, as liberal religious people, as people of faith who covenant around the principle of the inherent worth and dignity of every person, I think we’re in a position to respond well to that longing; to take our faith out to the world—to let the eulogy virtues shine in the midst of a culture that not only shuns them, but desperately needs them.

The ancient Hebrew writer said “God formed man from the dust of the ground.” I don’t know if that’s true, but I try to remember these bodies we inhabit all come from the dust of the ground, and all return in time to the dust of the ground. We are dust. And knowing this truth—coming to terms with it, feeling it deeply, feeling the profound loneliness that can accompany  it—calls us, I believe, to a place of humility. The Latin humus—ground—is also the root word for humility.

We are dust

When I speak of taking your UU faith to work, I imagine humility as the central hallmark of that faith. It is utterly difficult to recognize and honor the worth of others without humility. What does that look like? It looks like many things: patience; a willingness to listen; an ethic of inclusion; a practice of breathing first, reacting second; stepping back from difficult situations before making a decision; a sincere desire to learn another’s perspective, to comprehend why others act the way they do; understanding not only what is in one’s own best interest in relation to others, but what is in the best interest of the common good; a refusal to subdue; a refusal to dominate; an impulse towards partnership and collaboration; a compassionate and loving heart;  a willingness to acknowledge mistakes, to apologize for hurtful actions, and to forgive those who’ve been hurtful. David Brooks was right to suggest this kind of faith is missing from the work place and so many places in our nation—not because faithful people don’t exist, but because the résumé values are so overly prioritized.

In the service of a new priority, this is my charge to you: be faithful. Take your faith into the work place. Take it to the office, the factory floor, the board room, the warehouse. Take it to the gym, the senior center, the playground, the mall, the soccer field. Take it to the supermarket, the town hall meeting, the homeless shelter, the night club, your child’s first grade class. Take it to the fundraising dinner, the beach, the board of ed., the graduation party. Take it to the nursing home, the hospital, the prison, the police station, the battlefield. Be faithful. Be like dust, humus. Humble. Be this way, trusting that some day, someone will want to tell the story of your life, because your life made a difference in their life, and they loved you for it.

Amen and blessed be.

 

[1] The text to the decision and the dissenting opinion are at http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/13pdf/13-354_olp1.pdf.

[2] Brooks, David, “Should You Live For Your Résumé . . . or Your Eulogy?” (TED talk, March 2014) at http://www.ted.com/talks/david_brooks_should_you_live_for_your_resume_or_your_eulogy?language=en.

[3] Soloveitchik, Joseph, The Lonely Man of Faith, (Jerusalem: Koren Publishers, 2011). See:

http://www.korenpub.com/EN/products/maggid/maggid/9781613290033.

[4] For an accessible review of the history of Biblical authorship, see Friedman, Richard E., Who Wrote the Bible? (New York: Harper and Rowe Publishers, 1989).

[5] Genesis 1: 27.

[6] Genesis 1: 28b.

[7] Genesis 2:15b.

[8] Genesis 2:18b.

[9] Brooks, David, “Should You Live For Your Résumé . . . or Your Eulogy?” (TED talk, March 2014) at http://www.ted.com/talks/david_brooks_should_you_live_for_your_resume_or_your_eulogy?language=en.

[10] Brooks, David, “Should You Live For Your Résumé . . . or Your Eulogy?” (TED talk, March 2014) at http://www.ted.com/talks/david_brooks_should_you_live_for_your_resume_or_your_eulogy?language=en.

[11] Brooks, David, “Should You Live For Your Résumé . . . or Your Eulogy?” (TED talk, March 2014) at http://www.ted.com/talks/david_brooks_should_you_live_for_your_resume_or_your_eulogy?language=en.

Ring Them Bells!

Rev. Josh Pawelek
End of ChurchIn her 2012 Huffington Post article, “The End of Church,” author and historian of American religion, Diana Butler Bass, says “Something startling is happening in American religion: We are witnessing the end of church or, at the very least, the end of conventional church.”[1] She refers to studies that reveal an increasing disenchantment with organized religion, not just within Roman Catholicism or the aging and typically more liberal mainline Protestant denominations, but also within the more evangelical and conservative denominations such as the Southern Baptist Conference. People are leaving church. She refers to the distinction Americans are increasingly making between being religious—which means being part of an organized religion—and being spiritual—which, in Bass’s terms, means having some kind of visceral experience of faith. People are much less inclined today than just a decade ago to identify themselves as “religious,” and much more inclined to identify themselves as either “spiritual and religious” or “spiritual but not religious.” I notice the famous—to some, infamous—“New Atheist,” Sam Harris, is about to publish a book entitled Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion.[2] New York Times columnist Frank Bruni said Harris’ book caught his eye “because it’s so entirely of this moment, so keenly in touch with the growing number of Americans who are willing to say that they do not find the succor they crave, or a truth that makes sense to them, in organized religion.”[3]

When I hear about trends in declining church membership—especially membership in evangelical churches—I admit I often find the news hard to believe. It seems like just yesterday we were hearing about the rapid growth of Christian Fundamentalism, thousands of new mega churches, and the unprecedented political power of the Religious Right during the presidency of George W Bush. Could all that really be declining? Could a new generation of Americans really be rejecting that kind of religiosity which seemed so prevalent and permanent just a decade ago?

Diana Butler Bass

Diana Butler Bass

Well, there were numerous articles just this week about the Seattle-based, mega church, Mars Hill, being forced to close some of its fifteen branches and lay off 30-40% of its staff due to budget constraints.[4] These articles cite multiple reasons for Mars Hill’s problems, including financial mismanagement, plagiarism, hyper-homophobia, hyper-sexism, and ongoing negative media attention. This seems consistent with Bass’findings about the emerging negative view of churches in general. In the popular mind churches appear increasingly unresponsive to the spiritual and material needs of the world. They seem wrapped up in their own internal affairs, institutional governance, politics, financial challenges; they often seem unethical; they seem stuck in patterns of congregational life and organization that don’t mesh with the life experiences of real people, especially young adults; they seem unfocused, unclear, and adrift when it comes to having a positive impact on the wider community. Of course, in Bass’ view, the rapid emergence of the “spiritual and religious” and the “spiritual but not religious” identities is ultimately positive. She says it “expresses a grassroots desire for new kinds of faith communities, where institutional structures do not inhibit or impede one’s relationship with God or neighbor. Americans are searching for churches—and temples, synagogues, and mosques—that are not caught up in political intrigue, rigid rules and prohibitions, institutional maintenance, unresponsive authorities, and inflexible dogma but instead offer pathways of life-giving spiritual experience, connection, meaning, vocation, and doing justice in the world.”[5]

When I read sentences like that last one I confess I always have the same gut reaction: that’s exactly what Unitarian Universalist congregations are trying to do and, in many cases, have been doing for generations: offering “pathways of life-giving spiritual experience, connection, meaning, vocation, and doing justice in the world.” I don’t think I’m alone in that reaction. I think we UUs have tendency (at least historically) to read articles like Bass’ and then to assume the warnings of decline don’t apply to us because somehow we’re getting it right. I remember hearing the term ‘spiritual but not religious’ for the first time in the late 1990s, and saying to myself, and probably to others, “this bodes well for Unitarian Universalism.” Afterall, we were ‘spiritual but not religious’ long before it came into vogue. We were skeptical of religion long before such skepticism became hip, so much so that we have been known in some quarters as the ‘religion for the non-religious.’ And aren’t we the one place in America where atheists, Humanists and agnostics can gather for worship on Sunday morning and be welcomed and embraced in their theological views? So, we’re not like other churches. Right?

Well, we are certainly distinct from other churches, but the reality is we’re not immune from the wider trends in American religious life. I find myself forced to own up to my earlier naiveté in assuming that the prevalence of the ‘spiritual but not religious’ identity would lead automatically to growth in Unitarian Universalist congregations. It hasn’t. Exhibit A is an article in the summer issue of the Unitarian Universalist World magazine by the Rev. Dr. Terasa Cooley entitled “Into the Beyond.” In it, she points out that “Unitarian Universalist congregations seemed for a while to have bucked these trends, but our U.S. membership has slipped each year since 2008.”[6] In that regard, we’re just like other churches.

Rev. Cooley is the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Program and Strategy Officer. She says her job is to “scare all of us, at least a little bit, because if we don’t pay attention to these trends, we could end up like those near-empty or abandoned churches that are increasingly becoming part of our landscape.”[7] Like Bass, she cites a number of recent studies that give some credence to her warnings. For example, earlier this year the Barna Group, an Evangelical Christian polling firm, found that only 2 out of 10 millennials (adults under 30) feel churchgoing is important.[8] She also cites a 2012 Pew Research Religion and Public Life Project finding that nearly 20% of Americans have no religious affiliation whatsoever.[9]

One of the messages in Rev. Cooley’s article which a few of you found unsettling enough to want to talk to me about it is her discussion of the ways people access and practice Unitarian Universalism beyond the local congregation. She names the reality that there are many people in the wider world who agree with our principles and values, who share our commitments to environmental stewardship, antiracism, and civil rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, who will partner with us on social justice initiatives, and who may even call themselves Unitarian Universalists, but who, for any number of reasons, can’t or won’t attend or join a UU congregation. Do we ignore them since they aren’t going to be part of our congregation? Or do we figure out how to be in relationship with them? Rev. Cooley leans toward relationship, not only for her work as a UUA staff-member, but for us as well. “Creating new ways for people … to connect, serve, and deepen their spirituality with others, with or without a congregation,” she says, “must become a major shift in the UUA’s mission and also in our congregations.”[10]

“How can people connect to Unitarian Universalism and claim a Unitarian Universalist identity without being part of a congregation?” That’s her question. And while I know the UUA isn’t abandoning congregations, it leads me to ask: if participation in American congregations is declining across the board, and if our denominational officials are looking for ways to reach out to people beyond congregations, then what’s a congregation to do?

I was excited when Dorothy Bognar suggested that she and Tom Chung would sing Bob Dylan’s “Ring Them Bells”[11] for us this morning. Dylan wrote this song for his 1989 album “Oh Mercy.” I don’t claim to know what Dylan meant by any of the lyrics in this song, but he clearly isn’t happy with the church. He refers to the bride running backwards—bride being a reference (I assume) to the church as the “bride of Christ.” He refers to the sun “going down upon the sacred cow.” He sings “Oh the shepherd is asleep.” I find it intriguing to compare his discontent with the church to that of the legions of Americans who today say they have no use for organized religion. Remember, although Dylan is Jewish, he became a born-again Christian around 1980. So when he criticizes the church, he’s writing as an insider who seems to care deeply about the church. He finds the church ineffectual in the face of a general moral and social breakdown in society: “Oh the lines are long and the fighting is strong / And they’re breaking down the distance between right and wrong.” He’s upset about what he encounters in the world and he’s critical of a church that seems unresponsive to it. But instead of abandoning the church, instead of throwing up his hands saying, “I have no use for you anymore, I’ll get my spirituality elsewhere,” he’s pleading with the church: Do something! Make a difference! Assert your moral authority! Ring them bells!

That’s the sentiment I want to borrow and channel in response to the question, “What’s a congregation to do? When participation in American churches is declining across the board, and as our denominational officials are—rightly, I think—looking for ways to reach people beyond the traditional, local church, what’s a congregation to do? Ring them bells!

Before you start thinking I’ve lost my mind, please know I know, at least in this building, we don’t have bells. So, I don’t mean we should literally ring bells. Furthermore, I realize one could take this plea to “ring them bells” as a call for the church to just make more noise—to keep being ineffectual, but to do it more loudly. That’s not what I mean either. And furthermore, some commentators have argued Dylan’s “Ring Them Bells” is literature in keeping with the ancient Near-Eastern apocalyptic tradition meaning that the bell is ringing out a warning: “Repent! The end of the world is nigh!” And while I do think religions have a role to play in warning about the consequences of human greed, arrogance, hatred and ignorance, especially when it comes to the climate crisis, the church that only rings its bells to warn of impending disaster is offering a very thin slice of what it requires to fully nurture peoples’ spiritual lives.

I think our spiritual lives are assaulted constantly. I know I don’t have to convince those of you gathered here that prominent aspects of our wider culture and economy lead countless people into boredom, anxiety, exhaustion, isolation, desperation. I don’t have to convince those of you gathered here that prominent aspects of our wider culture and economy tunnel our vision, leave us bowling alone,[12] train us to think in sound-bites, offer trivia in place of truth, and speak to us constantly of our fears so that divisions abound and engaging difference becomes taboo. I don’t have to convince you there is a climate crisis. I don’t have to convince you there are food, water and health crises, or a money-in-politics crisis. I don’t have to convince you there is racism, homophobia or sexism, all of it driving people further and further apart. But given all of it, I do want to say this: church matters! That’s the bell I want us to ring. Church matters immensely, and this Unitarian Universalist congregation matters immensely. In the midst of a culture and economy that drive people apart, that obscure any deeper sense of meaning in our lives, that blunt our sense of vocation, that discourage us from organizing for a more just community, churches, if they choose to use it, have incredible power to counter the daily assault on our spiritual lives: to connect us to each other, to help us find meaning, to help us discern our vocation. Churches have the power to bring us together to organize for social and economic justice. And churches have the power to offer us life-giving spiritual experience.[13] Those are the bells I want us to ring. Not just bells of warning, as important as those are. But bells that proclaim a beloved spiritual and religious community exists here, bells that invite us to shape that community as a powerful response to all those forces in the world that would drive us apart.

Churches and denominations may be in decline these days. But there is still a genius to the idea of people gathering faithfully, week after week, united around a set of common principles, giving thanks for the blessings in their lives, caring for one another, teaching their children, hearing the wisdom of their elders, searching together for truth and meaning, and working for a more just, peaceful and loving world. That’s my vision for this church. If that’s religion, then call me religious, and show me where the bell is, ‘cause that’s a noise I want to make!

Bells

Amen and blessed be.

 

[1] Bass, Diana Butler, “The End of Church,” is at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/diana-butler-bass/the-end-of-church_b_1284954.html?ref=religion.

[2] More information about Harris’ new book can be found at his website: http://www.samharris.org/waking-up.

[3] Bruni, Frank, “Between Godliness and Godlessness,” New York Times, September 7, 2014. See: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/31/opinion/sunday/frank-bruni-between-godliness-and-godlessness.html?_r=0.

[4] See the Associated Press report at http://www.thestate.com/2014/09/09/3669748/mars-hill-megachurch-closing-branches.html?sp=/99/132/.

[5] Bass, Diana Butler, “The End of Church,” is at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/diana-butler-bass/the-end-of-church_b_1284954.html?ref=religion.

[6] Cooley, Terasa, “Into the Beyond,” UUWorld (Summer, 2014) pp. 22-27. See: http://www.uuworld.org/ideas/articles/295275.shtml.

[7] Cooley, Terasa, “Into the Beyond,” UUWorld (Summer, 2014) pp. 22-27. See: http://www.uuworld.org/ideas/articles/295275.shtml.

[8] See “Americans Divided on the Importance of Church” at https://www.barna.org/barna-update/culture/661-americans-divided-on-the-importance-of-church#.VBBtXPldWSr.

[9] See “Nones on the Rise” at http://www.pewforum.org/2012/10/09/nones-on-the-rise/.

[10] Cooley, Terasa, “Into the Beyond,” UUWorld (Summer, 2014) pp. 22-27. See: http://www.uuworld.org/ideas/articles/295275.shtml.

[11] Watch Bob Dylan perform “Ring Them Bells” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_-gZooq3Ylc.

[12] This is a reference to Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000).

[13] This list riffs off of language Diana Butler Bass’ uses in “The End of Church” athttp://www.huffingtonpost.com/diana-butler-bass/the-end-of-church_b_1284954.html?ref=religion. She says Americans are looking for “pathways of life-giving spiritual experience, connection, meaning, vocation, and doing justice in the world.”

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.

self-interest

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 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p3Uos2fzIJ0. Also, this Radiolab story, “What’s Left When You’re Right?” incorporates the “Golden Balls” clip and is very entertaining: http://www.radiolab.org/story/whats-left-when-youre-right/.

[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: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-decision-tree/201307/rethinking-the-morality-the-prisoners-dilemma.

[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 http://intuac.com/userport/john/writing/prisdilemma.html.

[10] For the language which names the seven Unitarian Universalist principles as a covenant, see: http://www.uua.org/uuagovernance/bylaws/articleii/6906.shtml.

[11] See the UUS:E covenant at http://uuse.org/ministries/principles-and-mission/#covenant.

 

Living With a Living Tradition

Rev. Josh Pawelek

6 Sources

This summer the Sunday Services Committee and I have been exploring the six sources of the Unitarian Universalist living tradition in our worship services. While our seven principles express our vision for how we want to be together and how we want to be in the world, the six sources are the wells from which we draw our beliefs and deepen our spiritual lives. I’m aware that as I go through my days these sources are all around me, present, available. I find them in the people I meet, the places I visit, the books I read. I encounter them in the land, in our history, in the daily news, in dreams. Sometimes I go to them for insight. Sometimes they sneak up on me, surprise me, awaken me. Part of what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist is to be familiar with how these sources present themselves to us, how they help us form our beliefs, how they deepen or, as I like to say, moisten, our spiritual lives. They live, breathe, pulse, dance. And when taken together, they really do give rise to a living tradition. This morning I want to briefly reflect on each of the six sources and share with you how I’ve encountered them this summer.

Nancy ShafferEarlier I read from Rev. Nancy Shaffer’s book, While Still There is Light, in which she chronicles her experience of living with an aggressive and, ultimately, fatal brain tumor.[1] She explores death and dying, fighting and struggling, acceptance, sorrow, joy, friendship, love and more. Emotionally raw, unrefined, unfinished, it’s not your classic escapist summer reading. In the beginning of the book she describes what she calls a “primary spiritual experience.” As hospital staff were prepping her for surgery to remove the tumor she was overcome with an intense feeling of “being held in love, / the entire tunnel of love / and wondering whether the whole team / felt held in love / and whether we altered the course of neurosurgery / by holding the team and me in love.”[2]

Rev. Shaffer’s “primary spiritual experience” is an example of our first source: “Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces that create and uphold life.” Hers is common enough: in the midst of fear and anxiety she finds comfort and solace, a powerful feeling of being held, of being loved even while lying on the cold, sterile operating room table. Unitarian Universalists most typically report having such experiences in Nature—in response to a majestic mountain-top view, or in the presence of water, or while gazing out at the night sky, or with the fragrance of spring’s first blossoms, or with autumn’s changing leaves, or with the first snowfall. Others report such experiences in response to music, or while singing, reciting poetry, gardening, praying, meditating, dancing, worshipping, exercising, acting for justice, working with children, caring for a loved-one, building—or just being in—community. The list is seemingly endless.

Such experiences vary from person to person. Some don’t report them at all. They are typically fleeting. Like dreams, they are difficult to sustain. They are vague in the sense that they are not creatures of the mind. Rather, they are creatures of the heart, the soul, the spirit. They are feelings, hunches, instincts, intuitions. They are cries of Hallelujah! They don’t necessarily tell us anything concrete about the world. They don’t give us new facts. But somehow they affirm our deepest longings and our strongest sense of what is true. They tell us that we actually do belong here; or we actually are connected to the whole of life; or we actually are part of a reality larger than ourselves; or we actually are justified in being hopeful about the future; or we actually are loved—held in a loving embrace—even if we cannot name what holds us.

During the first week of August I was walking on the beach in Panama City Beach, Florida. I noticed something moving under the Stingrayswaves two or three yards away. It was a stingray swimming—perhaps fluttering—slowly along the ocean floor, its pace matched to mine. Then I saw three more stingrays, all moving along at the same slow speed. I walked with them for about a hundred yards before they changed direction and headed out to sea. I’ve seen stingrays in the ocean before. They certainly aren’t the most beautiful fish. But it was one of those awe-filled moments for me, walking along with these oddly graceful cousins of sharks. I can’t say exactly what it was, but I felt connected and somehow held—part of some reality larger than myself. I felt peace. I felt gratitude. Hallelujah. Amen. Blessed be.

Our second source is “words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with the transforming power of love.” For so many Unitarian Universalists the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s stands out as the quintessential moment of prophetic witness in American history. Many UUs supported and I Have a Dreamparticipated in that movement, including two who were famously murdered by white segregationists: Rev. James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo. Because of this we often look back to that time for prophetic words and deeds to inspire us in our social justice efforts today. While I hope I have shared with you over the years words and deeds of prophetic women and men from a wide range of movements—women’s suffrage, feminism, gay and lesbian civil rights, marriage equality, transgender anti-discrimination, anti-apartheid, anti-slavery and Abolitionism, immigrants’ rights, migrant workers’ rights, the American Indian Movement, the Arab Spring, environmental justice, anti-colonialism, anti-racism and anti-oppression—while I hope I have brought voices from these movements consistently into this pulpit and counseled us not to rely solely for inspiration on the words and deeds of the Civil Rights Movement—I want to remind us that this coming week—August 28th specifically—marks the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom at which Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. This week we ought to let the prophetic words and deeds of the American Civil Rights movement wash over us, nurture us, inspire us and call us back to that enduring vision of a racially and economically just United States of America, call us back to the many ways we can work to make that vision a reality.

Our third source is “wisdom from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life.” For me this source speaks to a basic yet also radical Unitarian Universalist orientation to the world. That is, we trust we have something to learn from other religions. Other religions are not to be ignored, looked down upon, or feared, but rather respected, honored, and studied. It’s a reminder that any revelation we believe we’ve received is not final, that whatever wisdom we possess is incomplete, that our knowledge is limited. The presence of other faiths is not threatening. That presence challenges us to grow more deeply in our own faith.

On our way back from Panama City Beach we spent a day at Colonial Williamsburg. If you’ve been there you know it’s a living history museum featuring hundreds of colonial era buildings, shops and farms filled with actors in period dress and thousands of tourists, not in period dress. Into this mix, on a near 100? day, strolls a Muslim family. The husband and sons are dressed like all the other tourists, in shorts and t-shirts. The woman—who I assume is the wife and mother in this family—is dressed in a jet-black, full-body hijab. She is completely covered. Only her eyes are exposed. I notice other tourists staring at her. I notice I’m staring at her. Her presence in Colonial Williamsburg is somehow jarring. Given the current tension in the United States over the place of Muslims in society, given the widespread stereotype of Muslims as potential terrorists, given the many, many myths about Islam that hold sway in the popular American mind, I have to assume that at least some of the tourists—and perhaps the actors too—wonder what she is doing there. At least that’s my fear—and it’s based on what I know of the experiences of my Muslim colleagues and acquaintances. People question them all the time. Are they legitimate Americans? Especially here. Williamsburg is one of the cradles of American democracy, and many Americans see Islam as anti-democratic and anti-American. I don’t think my assumption is implausible: that some of the tourists and staff may, at least in their immediate gut reaction, question whether or not this woman belongs here.

Hijab

But I also know there are possibly as many as 10 million Muslim Americans. The Muslims I know, who include African and Caucasian Americans, Middle Easterners and Southeast Asians identify with the nation’s democratic principles; they see Islam as completely compatible with a free society; and they long to be accepted as full members of that society. I also know that devout Muslim women cover themselves. Are there some Muslim women who chaff at this practice? I’m sure there are, but I’ve never met one. What I know from Muslim women who take pride in this practice is that the covering symbolizes modesty and morality, that it is consistent with the teaching of the Koran, and that wearing it in public is a form of spiritual discipline. And knowing all this I find myself admiring this woman in the jet-black, full-body hijab, strolling down the main street of Colonial Williamsburg. And in thinking about her spiritual discipline and, frankly, her courage, I begin to wonder: what is my spiritual discipline? And I recognize that witnessing the spiritual discipline of another faith, far from being threatening, teaches me, makes me think, and challenges me to dig deeper into my own faith.

Our fourth source is “Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbor as ourselves.” I preached about this on July 28th in response to the verdict in the George Zimmerman murder trial. I won’t say more about it now, except to remind us that George Zimmerman’s not-guilty verdict, while understandable from a technical legal standpoint, was disheartening, demoralizing and enraging for many Americans of all races. In response to the verdict I heard and read many people around the country making some reference to the Great Commandment, to loving our neighbors as ourselves. This story led many people to decry the apparent lack of love at the heart of our public encounters, and to hold up George Zimmerman’s treatment of Trayvon Martin, and perhaps Trayvon Martin’s treatment of George Zimmerman, as emblematic of a crisis in our capacity to love one another in the public square. Whether or not you believe such a crisis really exists, I take it as a fundamental truth that opportunities to love our neighbors as ourselves present themselves to us every day. My prayer always is that we may heed the ancient teachings and choose love.

Humanism

The fifth source is “Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit.” I’m going to be teaching a course this fall called “The Humanist-Theist Debate, Then and Now.” So this summer I’ve been studying the relationship between Humanism and Theism primarily in Unitarianism over the past century. Through the course of this study I’ve realized that we define Humanism in far too narrow terms these days. We say things like, “Humanism is another word for Atheism,” and leave it at that. I know I’m guilty of using this theological shorthand. While it’s true that most UUs who identify as Humanists are also Atheists, Humanism is much broader than Atheism. When we talk about Humanism as a source for our living tradition, we are referring to the power of the human mind and the knowledge brought forth through the exercise of reason. We’re referring to the power of the human heart and the wisdom brought forth through acts of courage, compassion and commitment. We’re referring to the power of the scientific method to uncover the truths of our world and the universe. We’re referring to the power of human invention and innovation. We’re referring to the power of values such as freedom, democracy, justice and the human capacity to shape the world in response to these values. Through the course of this study I’ve been feeling more and more called to revisit Humanism, to reclaim it and to present it and live it in all its breadth and depth.

Finally, our sixth source is “spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.” I want to tell you a story from our time in Panama City Beach,“The Pirate Cruise Story.” A pirate cruise is a tourist attraction. The boat is decorated like a pirate ship, though it has a full bar and blasts Jimmy Buffet music over the loudspeakers. There are about 50-60 kids on the boat, along with their parents and some grandparents. The kids do pirate activities like finding treasure, practicing sword-fighting, and firing the ship’s canons at unsuspecting sunbathers on the beach.

(Image Removed)

I had the privilege of sitting behind the captain. He was probably sixty years old, stocky, grizzled, eye-patch, big sword. In between giving the kid orders, he would talk to the adults about the natural features of the area. He was knowledgeable about the surrounding land and water. I couldn’t tell if he was spiritually grounded in a traditional earth-based religion. I thought probably not. But with his knowledge and love for the land and water around Panama City Beach, he struck me as someone who grew up steeped in it, someone who knew something about the sacred circle of life and how to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature. He did not strike me as an environmentalist, mainly because he kept saying things like, “We can’t sail in this channel or the environmental people will be all over me.” He clearly was not a big fan of the environmental people.

Eventually we sailed out into the Gulf of Mexico, just beyond a large jetty. There were a number of tourist boats—much smaller than ours—floating in what looked like a big circle. I noticed people diving off some of the boats into the middle of the circle. Soon it became clear they were swimming with dolphins. Our pirate captain was livid. He sailed our comparatively monstrous ship right into the middle of the circle of smaller boats. He cranked up his PA system and starting speaking to us—but really to everyone in the area—about the new statutes prohibiting this kind of interaction with dolphins. In short, dolphins are to be left alone. If you build relationships with them, especially through feeding them, they become dependent and lose their ability to survive in the wild. It destroys their natural rhythm. He yelled out that the first lawsuits to be filed under these new statutes were about to be heard in court and the defendants were facing steep fines, as much as half a million dollars. Now that was some mighty fine pirating! Argh!

Feeding Dolphins

The reminder for me—the lesson—is how important it is to know and to love the land and the water where you live; to treat the circle of life as sacred—because it is; and to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature. When we love the land and the water, we will fight to protect it, preserve it, sustain it.

Six sources all around us, constantly available. Sometimes we seek them out. Sometimes they sneak up on us, surprise us, awaken us. Six sources helping us form our beliefs and moisten our spiritual lives, reminding us of our values, affirming our deepest longings and our strongest sense of what is true. Six sources living, breathing, pulsing, dancing. Six sources giving rise to a living tradition.

Amen and blessed be.

 


[1] Shaffer, Nancy, While Still There Is Light (Boston: Skinner House, 2013).

[2] Shaffer, While Still There Is Light, p. 4.

Into the Wilderness

Rev. Josh Pawelek.

6-9 water gapI remember a moment, about twenty-five years ago, driving home from college on spring break with my friend Rob. We were heading east on Interstate 80, late in the day, crossing through the Delaware Water Gap where the Delaware River cuts through a ridge in the Appalachian. The sun was setting. Dark shadows lengthened across the thickly forested, low-lying mountains. I’ve been to more remote areas, but at that moment, for whatever reason, it felt pretty remote. I made some remark about the wilderness, how one could disappear into it—into those dark hills. I don’t remember his exact words, but Rob responded that the wilderness around us is connected to the wilderness within us. There’s a relationship. Although I wasn’t sure what to make of his statement at the time, it struck me as important. So I’ve held onto it.

Today I still think Rob is right. The wilderness around us is connected to the wilderness within us. They mirror each other. They speak to each other. The darkness of the mountainside at dusk speaks to darkness in us. The emptiness of the sky overhead speaks to emptiness in us. The fullness of lakes after spring thaws speaks to fullness in us. The lush forest speaks to what is growing and vibrant in us. The vastness of the desert speaks to vastness in us. The raging river speaks to what is raging and uncontainable in us. Perhaps those features of wilderness that excite us, that call to us, that fill us with awe speak to what we find exciting in ourselves, speak to our passions. Perhaps what we fear in the wilderness—what makes us pause, turn back, flee—speaks to what we fear most in ourselves. There’s a relationship.

Lush Forests

Our June ministry theme is wilderness. I love this theme at this time of year as the days grow warm and summer arrives. For me, summer—whether we’re talking about summer the season, or our spiritual summers, which can come in any season—summer is the time for exploring and experimenting, for stretching and growing, for traveling to the borders of our lives—to the edges, the boundaries, the margins, the fringes, the frontiers. Summer is the time for venturing out, for crossing into the unknown, for wandering in the wilderness that lies beyond our well-worn paths.

Perhaps the most familiar use of wilderness as a spiritual concept comes from the Jewish and Christian traditions. Here wilderness is the place where one finds challenges that must be overcome; the place of suffering and misery that must be endured; the place of temptation that must be withstood; the place to which scapegoats, criminals, lepers and all the supposedly unpure people are exiled. Many of you have a basic familiarity with the story from the Hebrew scriptures of the ancient Israelites wandering in the wilderness Sinaiof Sinai for forty years following their exodus from centuries of slavery in Egypt. Many preachers use the Israelite wandering as a metaphor for whatever struggle or challenge we’re facing in our lives. We have to wander in the “wilderness” of that struggle or challenge in order to find ourselves, to prove ourselves, to come of age, to complete our quest. We have to wander in the wilderness in order to grow in some necessary way. We have to wander in the wilderness before we can be whole, before we can come home, before we can come fully into our “Promised Land,” whatever it may be. This is a powerful narrative. It’s a sustaining narrative. Struggling people can endure more easily if they believe their struggle will ultimately end and some good will come of it.

But if we’re being honest about the Biblical record, that’s not entirely what God had in mind. The wilderness time was a punishment. God had done great things for the Israelites in Egypt, but they still don’t believe God can bring them into Canaan, the “Promised Land.” They don’t believe it because spies they’ve sent into Canaan come back saying, essentially, “We’ll never defeat the Canaanites. They’re bigger than us.” In the Book of Numbers, Chapter 13, verse 32, the spies say “all the people we saw are of great size…. And to ourselves we seemed like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.”[1]

Upon hearing this report, the people start complaining—the latest in a long string of complaints. They say it would have been better to die in Egypt. They wonder if they should give up and go back to Egypt. This lack of faith angers God. It’s the last straw. God wants to disinherit them and strike them down with a plague immediately. After a long negotiation with Moses, God forgives them, but says, nevertheless, “none of the people who have seen my glory and the signs that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have tested me these ten times and have not obeyed my voice, shall see the land that I swore to give to their ancestors; none of those who despised me shall see it.”[2] Their children will enter the Promised Land, but for the complaint-ridden exodus generation: “Your dead bodies shall fall in this very wilderness.”[3] They are consigned to the wilderness not to discover faith anew, but because they lack it. It’s a punishment. And it’s for the remainder of their lives.

Jesus: The Temptation by Rosetta Jallow

Jesus: The Temptation by Rosetta Jallow

In the Christian scriptures Jesus goes into the wilderness after his baptism. [4] He fasts for forty days and then, in the midst of his hunger, Satan appears and tempts or tests Jesus. Jesus resists temptation. He passes the test. Satan departs. Here again we have this narrative of struggle in the wilderness—in this case a story of encountering and overcoming evil. Again, this kind of narrative is powerful and sustaining. We all have our wilderness struggles. Stories of overcoming obstacles and returning home, returning to friends and family, returning to a life renewed speak to and inspire us in the midst of our pain and suffering. Some of the best sermons ever preached locate the congregation in some wilderness, fortify them for the struggle, the test, the temptation—whatever it is—and then, from the mountaintop, paint with words that stunning picture of a land flowing with milk and honey, a promised land, a home at long last, a home we will reach if we can endure just a little bit longer.

 

That’s not the sermon I’m preaching this morning.

Twenty-five years ago my friend Rob said “the wilderness around us is connected to the wilderness within us.” My concern is that the “Promised Land” narrative—as powerful, sustaining and inspirational as it is—is often too black and white, too either/or. It doesn’t allow us to fully value wilderness as a spiritual asset. It makes wilderness a place of suffering and trial, a place of punishment, a place where evil lives, but not a place that might offer its own wisdom, its own sacred power, its own sustaining wells. We move through it, always trying to overcome it and leave it behind. We privilege civilization; we abandon wilderness. And in so doing, I say we abandon something in ourselves. I’m convinced that something matters deeply.

Jon D. Levenson

Jon D. Levenson

Back to the Hebrew scriptures. Jon D. Levenson is a professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard Divinity School. In his 1985 book, Sinai & Zion, he points out that scholars are unable to locate the site of Mount Sinai with any certainty. Mount Sinai is the place in the wilderness where Moses talks to God, where he receives the Ten Commandments, where God’s covenant with Israel is articulated. One can argue it is the most significant site in early Jewish tradition. It’s the place where the Sacred speaks. The inability to locate it, says Levenson, is not simply a failure of “the modern science of topography. Rather, there is a mysterious extraterrestrial quality to the mountain…. [It] seems to exist in a no man’s land…. ‘The mountain of God’…. is out of the domain of Egypt and out of the domain of the Midianites, [in] an area associated, by contrast, with the impenetrable regions of the arid wilderness, where the authority of the state cannot reach. YHWH’s self-disclosure takes place in remote parts rather than within the established and settled cult of the city. Even his mode of manifestation reflects the uncontrollable and unpredictable character of the wilderness rather than the decorum one associates with a long-established, urban religion, rooted in familiar traditions…. The deity is like his worshippers: mobile, rootless and unpredictable. ‘I shall be where I shall be’—nothing more definite can be said. This is a God who is free, unconfined by the boundaries that man erects.”[5]

Our spiritual lives may, on one hand, involve the familiar, the known—rituals, practices, prayers, meditations, worship, activism, service, gardening, the singing of comforting hymns, the dancing of familiar dances, being in community with people we know and love. We need these things in our lives. We need them to feel rooted, planted, grounded. But we also know that any repeated practice, any too familiar pathway, any rote repetition of words or principles, any unexamined theology can become stifling if it’s all we do. It starts to box us in, lull us to sleep, generate in us laziness, apathy, boredom. Thus, on the other hand, our spiritual lives also need access to wilderness—not because we lack a site for our encounter with evil, not because we’ve been consigned there for complaining too much, not because we’re on some hero quest in search of dragons to slay. We need access to wilderness because we are part of it and it is part of us. Its dark mountainsides can speak to us of our own darkness in a way civilization can’t. Its empty skies teach us of our own emptiness. Its full lakes after spring thaws inform us of our own fullness. Its rivers know our rage. Its deserts know our vastness. Its oceans know our depths. Its forests know our lushness. We need access to wilderness because it offers raw, unbridled truth—a truth not always easy to encounter, but with its guidance we can live with a kind of immediacy and presence civilization only dreams of—the immediacy and presence we so often notice in the way wild things live. Civilization as we know it is only the tiniest blip on the screen of human existence. Wilderness, not civilization, is the norm for that existence; and thus wilderness, not civilization, is our heritage, our birthright. Wilderness is our home as much as any Promised Land we may inhabit, either now or in the future.

We need opportunities to search for our sources of faith at the foot of holy, mysterious mountains rising out of remote landscapes beyond all established jurisdictions. We need encounters with the unknown, the unpredictable, the uncontrollable. We need wind rushing against our backs. We need experiences for which there are no words. Such encounters have the power to jolt us out of our settled, habitual ways of thinking, being and doing. Such experiences have the power to set our spirits free. Such encounters have the power to change us. I loved this quote from Vancouver School of Theology student, Emma Pavey, from a paper she delivered this past weekend. She said “we are ambivalent toward wilderness: it represents lostness, wandering, chaos and isolation, but also grants ‘thin’ moments of transformation.”[6]

So how to get there? Scholars don’t know the location of Mount Sinai. But maybe that’s ok. Rob said the wilderness around us is connected to the wilderness within us. Perhaps the Sacred that lives and speaks freely and truthfully out beyond the bounds of all established jurisdictions also lives and speaks in the wilderness places in us—in our darkness, our vastness, our rage, our emptiness, our fullness. But how do we access that wilderness? Like the wilderness around us, the wilderness within us can also be inscrutable, unknowable, beyond words. So often it exists beneath our awareness, in our unconscious depths, in our dreams, in our intuitions and hunches. We know portions of the landscape, but so much lies beyond knowing.

Emptiness

Earlier I read Meg Barnhouse’s meditation, “Going to an Inner Party.” I suggest she offers here one route into our inner wilderness. She says, “I love the flickering things that bump along the edges of mainstream consciousness. These glimpses of an inner wisdom flash like fish in a creek, and if I can grab one by the tail I feel like I have a treasure.”[7] She’s saying our unconscious puts words and ideas together without thought, as if by accident, or perhaps by accident. She’s learned to pay attention to these accidents. She’s learned to receive them as pearls of wisdom, and as sources of joy. The meaning isn’t always clear. There’s lots of interpretation involved. She finds it mostly amusing. But something deep within is speaking. And she’s listening. And it’s giving her a chance to look at the world differently, to make new connections she wouldn’t have made otherwise. That’s what wilderness does for us. Her meditation reminds me of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s comments in his 1844 essay, “The Poet” about the effect poetry has on us. In response to “tropes, fables, oracles and all poetic forms,” he wrote, we get “a new sense, and [find] within [our] world another world, or nests of worlds.”[8]

worlds within worlds

We get back to our wilderness by listening to the flickering things that bump along the edges of consciousness. We get back to our wilderness by noting our dreams, by following our intuition, trusting our gut, letting ourselves feel deeply all our joys and sorrows. We get back to our wilderness by allowing ourselves moments of spontaneity and unpredictability. We get back to our wilderness by living, as best we can, like wild things, like children: immediate, unbridled, alert, raw, honest. It’s my faith that as we get back to our wilderness we’ll discover that the things we hold sacred live and speak there too.

Rob Laurens

Rob Laurens

My friend Rob once wrote a song called “The Blue of the Road.” It’s a song about driving, perhaps on I-80, heading east through the Appalachians, as the sun begins to set. In that song he says, “there in that wild blue ride the insights of your life, that wisdom unlooked for, the solution to the gnawing ache in your heart, and the laughing simplicity of effortless release, letting go. Like the answer to a prayer, the matter of course toward what is still right and true in your life…. When all is chaotic, when the days of your life are as dry autumn leaves scattered across the main streets of your home town. Get back to these great arteries, these long edges of grace that cut through the wilderness, these wonderful highways that put you at one with yourself and the last seeds of your American dream, and reopen your heart, and cause you to remember what you’ve always known: this great frontier has been with you all along.”[9]

 

Amen and blessed be.

Blue of the Road



[1] Numbers 13: 32, 33b. (New Revised Standard Version)

[2] Numbers 14: 22-23. (New Revised Standard Version)

[3] Numbers 14: 29a. (New Revised Standard Version)

[4] Matthew 4:1-11. Luke 4:1-13. Mark 1:9-13.

[5] Levenson, Jon D., Sinai & Zion: An Entry Into the Jewish Bible (New York: HarperCollins, 1985) pp. 21-22.

[6] See the abstract to Emma Pavey’s paper, “Wilderness and the Secular Age,” delivered at the Canadian Evangelical Theological Association’s Annual Meeting on June 2, 2013 at http://www.academia.edu/2626584/Wilderness_and_the_secular_age_-_abstract.

[7] Barnhouse, Meg. “Goning to an Inner Party,” The Rock of Ages at the Taj Mahal (Boston: Skinner House, 1999) p. 63.

[8] Emerson, Ralph Waldo, “The Poet,” quoted in Robert D. Richardson, Jr., Emerson: The Mind on Fire (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995) p. 374.

[9] Rob Laurens, “The Blue of the Road,”appears on his 1999 album, “The Honey on the Mountain.” See http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/roblaurens.

A Life Redeemed

 

 

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Bottles

“What happens when we recycle bottles and cans?” asks Kathleen Mctigue in her meditation.[1] “They are transformed; they are made into something else. Though it may seem a homely analogy for something as lofty as our souls,” she continues, “that’s exactly what we’re after. In our inconsistent and often clumsy ways, we’re aiming for transformation. Each time we take ourselves in hand and change our direction, ask forgiveness and start anew, we reaffirm our belief that we are redeemable.”

redeemed bottles

Our April ministry theme is redemption. The spiritual questions I’m introducing into our congregational life this morning are “What redeems you?” and “What redeems us?” I suspect for many of us the answers to these questions do not flow easily off our tongues. There may be some stumbling blocks. Redemption is one of those haunting religious words for Unitarian Universalists. Its history leaves an odd—even unpleasant—taste in our mouth. What is that taste?

pointing fingerBroadly speaking, when the minister suggests that we are somehow in need of redemption, even if we call it something else like change or transformation, there’s always the possibility—the risk—that the congregation will hear it as an allegation that there’s something wrong with us, that we’re somehow broken and need fixing, that we’re fallen and need salvation, that we’re estranged and need reconciliation. This contradicts an oft-stated assumption at the heart of our spirituality, that each of us—all people—possess inherent worth and dignity just as we are; that our spiritual lives are not about becoming someone or something else—better, fixed, perfect, saved—but rather becoming more fully who we already are. As we just sang, “Return to who you are, return to what you are, return to where you are, born and reborn again.”[2] It’s not that we think we’re perfect as we are. We know we’re not. But we are who we are, and if we understand the quest for redemption as an attempt to reach some idealized spiritual standard, it will likely distract us from that central spiritual task of learning to accept and embrace who we are.

That’s one potential stumbling block. We typically encounter another when we consider a particular way (not the only way, but a particular way) Christians (not all Christians, but some) have interpreted and used the suffering and death of Jesus as a model for what Crucifixion iconit means to live a spiritual life. In short—and please understand I am speaking very generally about a highly nuanced conversation that has been going on for nearly 2000 years—humanity’s sinfulness is so great that there is nothing anyone can do to fully redeem themselves. There is no price any human can pay to bring themselves into right relationship with God. We are stuck where we are. But we aren’t without hope because God has the power to redeem humanity. To exercise this power, God takes a human form, lives a human life, and suffers a violent human death. In so doing, God pays the price for human sinfulness. God’s suffering and death redeem humanity. Some Christians argue that this redemption only works if one professes faith in it. Others, like our Universalist (and some Unitarian) forebears, felt that Jesus’ suffering and death redeem all people regardless of belief.

There’s no doubt in my mind that this understanding of redemption will be a stumbling block for many of us if our goal is to reclaim Walesa communionredemption as a useful spiritual concept. For so many of us, myself included, it’s just unbelievable. And, to be sure, there are many Christians who wrestle with this unbelievability as well. But I want to be very careful not to disparage the beliefs of others. That’s not my intent. While I may find it unbelievable, I also recognize this particular belief has provided immense comfort and inspired incredible strength and resilience to millions upon millions of people throughout history. For people who’ve lived—and who live—under the yoke of social, political and economic injustice, the idea that God would take human form and experience human suffering—the idea that God’s story is the story of a victim succumbing to but then overcoming violence and oppression—has profound resonance. In the midst of suffering, the idea that “God paid the ultimate price for my redemption” is a source of great hope and courage. For those who have nothing else, such faith is everything. It literally saves lives. Far be it from me to argue it is incorrect simply because I don’t believe it.

Having said that, it is also true that this scheme of redemption is at times applied in a way I find highly abusive and I have no misgivings about naming it and confronting it when I encounter it—the same way I would name and confront religiously motivated terrorism, honor killings, sexism or homophobia. It’s the idea that because Jesus suffered on the cross, one’s suffering at the hands of others is somehow warranted, that one’s suffering at the hands of others is itself redemptive because it mirrors Jesus’ suffering. Slaves sacred violencewere at times told to endure their suffering at the hands of their masters because it was Christ-like and they would be rewarded in Heaven. Battered women are at times told to endure their suffering at the hands of their abusers just as Jesus endured his. This is not OK, not a path to redemption. I agree with the cliché that “whatever doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” I understand suffering is part of the human condition. I have witnessed people suffer through disease, grief, even the violence of oppression and emerge from it stronger, wiser, more compassionate, more loving. This is part of the beauty of the human spirit. But I object to the notion that the violence anyone suffers at the hands of others is inherently redemptive and we should just accept it, or that God—and this is the implication—wants some people to suffer at the hands of others because it’s good for their souls. In my view, this is an abuse of Christianity for the purpose of justifying violence whether in the home or on some more grand scale. It is an attempt at misdirection, an attempt to make violence invisible by calling it something else, rather than exposing it for what it is: a diminishing of the human spirit. Or, in more traditional language, evil.

So, there are stumbling blocks in our encounter with redemption. If you’re wary about a sermon entitled “A Life Redeemed,” there are any number of reasons why your wariness makes sense. Nevertheless, I find spiritual potency and power in this word. I believe it can help us think differently about those places where we’re stuck. It can, in Rev. McTigue’s words, help us “loosen the pinching in our hearts and live with more wonder, serenity, kindness and wisdom.”[3] It may can us deepen our spiritual lives. What redeems you? What redeems us?

As I seek to answer these questions for myself, it feels important to name that whether I experience myself as redeemed or not, my gut tells me there are no cosmic consequences. This isn’t about the eternal status of my soul, Heaven and Hell, divine punishment or reward. I have this life to live in this world as best as I can. If I’m going to experience redemption, it’s going to be in this life in this world, not in some other life in some other world. It’s going to be “this-worldly” redemption. As Rev. McTigue says, this “isn’t about saving us, but instead shaping us, and it’s the most certain redemption available in this sweet world.”[4]

earth

I like this idea of shaping as a metaphor for this-worldly redemption. Imagine you’re a sculptor and your life is the sculpture. Each day you mold, form and fashion your sculpture, you shape your life, and in the evening you review your work. Some evenings you like what you’ve created. The sculpture captures exactly what you envision for your life. But even so, you recognize the next day may bring new experiences, new insights, new feelings, and thus the work of shaping continues. Of course, some evenings you review your Sculptorwork and realize you haven’t gotten it right. You’re close, but not quite there. Or you’re way off the mark. The way you’ve lived, the decisions you’ve made, the way you’ve treated others, the way you’ve presented yourself to the world—none of it aligns with your vision for yourself. You want to do better, not because you fear divine punishment, but because you feel in your heart you can do better. So, the next day you start to reshape your sculpture: new angles, new edges, new interplay of light and shadow, a different expression, a different posture. This opportunity to make changes, to try again, to reshape your life, is the path to “this-worldly redemption.” Rev. McTigue says, “Each time we take ourselves in hand and change our direction, ask forgiveness and start anew, we reaffirm our belief that we are redeemable.”[5] Each day we have the opportunity to exchange the life we needed to live yesterday for the life we need to live today.

Do we pay a price for this-worldly redemption? Sometimes. If the shaping of our lives today includes recognizing and acknowledging we were wrong yesterday, admitting we hurt someone yesterday, admitting we had a role to play in the breakdown of a relationship yesterday, then yes, one could argue we pay a price. One could argue that offering a heartfelt apology is the price we pay for forgiveness, and sometimes we don’t experience redemption until we’ve been forgiven. This works for me, nut I’m not convinced “paying a price” is a helpful way to think about this-worldly redemption. It reminds me of European elites in the Middle Ages purchasing indulgences to erase sinful behavior and thereby get into Heaven. It reminds me of wealthy corporations going to court, losing, paying a hefty fine—because they can—and then going back to business as usual. Paying a price doesn’t always guarantee a transformed life. Sometimes paying a price is a way of avoiding the work that redeems us. I prefer to imagine a sculptor shaping and reshaping their work, day in and day out. Not everyone can pay; but certainly we each have some capacity to shape and sculpt our lives.

Sculptors

Let me flip this around for a moment. If we each have this capacity; if we can be redeemed by the work of our own hands, what happens if we don’t pursue it? What happens if days and weeks and years go by and the sculptor hasn’t touched the sculpture, hasn’t even looked at it? You’ve brought nothing new to your work for a long time—no new ideas, no new feelings, no new experiences. You wake depressionup and the last thing you want to do is the work of shaping a life. Your muse isn’t singing. At best you’re going through the motions of a life. You don’t feel creative. You lack desire. You’re stuck. Perhaps we call this depression, perhaps melancholy, sadness, despair, a funk, a rut; maybe it’s boredom. Maybe it’s genuine confusion about your direction in life. Maybe it’s fear you won’t succeed. Maybe it’s that generalized anxiety about the future so many people report these days. Whatever form it takes, this condition is real and common. Sometimes it emerges in response to a genuine crisis in one’s life: the death of a loved-one, the loss of work, the experience of violence or betrayal. Sometimes it emerges in response to the ways life can overwhelm us—too many obligations, too many hours at work, too many details, too many conflicts, too little self-care. Sometimes it’s culturally induced, as in those situations where certain cultural norms—norms for beauty, body-type, success, wealth, happiness, sexuality, family, mental health—seem unattainable. When we can’t reach them we feel diminished, unworthy, imperfect, unsavable and broken, even when we know such norms are arbitrary, unfair, manipulative and often racist, classist, sexist and homophobic.

Again, this experience is real and common. But it’s not destiny. The more I engage in ministry, the more I am convinced we each have a calling. We each have natural gifts. We each have something about which we are passionate—something that lights us up and energizes us, something that makes us come alive. Yes, it is very easy in our culture to grow distant from it. Yes, it is very easy to become alienated from it. But the self that lives in response to a sense of calling, in response to passion—that is our true self. That is the self we encounter in that internal place where our conviction resides, where our voice is strong, where we know our truth. This is who we really are. In those times when we grow distant from this self, it’s as if we’ve actually become someone else—someone we never intended to be. We’ve somehow allowed ourselves to be shaped by forces larger than ourselves into a life we never chose for ourselves. Perhaps we’ve been spiritually kidnapped or hijacked. No matter how we name it, in response to such alienation the work of redemption is the work of returning to our true self, the work of accepting and embracing who we really are, the work of pursuing our calling, the work of exchanging the sculptor who refuses to sculpt for one who welcomes each day as an opportunity to shape a life. In all those moments when we come back to our true self, we experience a life redeemed.

Sculptor

If this begins to answer the question, “What redeems you?”—and I hope it does—I also don’t want to lose the question, “What redeems us?” That is, what redeems us collectively? I raise this question because I believe there is much more to this-worldly redemption than the work of redeeming our individual lives. This is not a new message from this pulpit. We live in proximity to infuriating, entrenched and devastating social and economic injustices. We live in proximity to crushing poverty. We live in proximity to urban and suburban violence, domestic violence, gang violence and, despite Connecticut’s new gun laws, I think it’s fair to say we still live with the Helppotential for mass shootings. We live in a time of war. We live suddenly again this week with the renewed threat of nuclear conflict. We live with the specter of environmental collapse. We live with all those false division between people, divisions of race, class, religion, sexuality, politics and on and on. And we live in the midst of immense suffering—not the kind that occurs naturally and inevitably in the course of human living, but the kind human beings visit upon each other, sometimes with calculated, malicious intent; sometimes simply by refusing to see it, by looking away, by calling it something else. All of this may have longstanding historical roots. All of this may have the shine or the stink of inevitability and intractability. All of this may point to some apparently fatal flaw in human nature. But none of it—none of it!—is right. None of it is acceptable. None of it is destiny. Unless we give up. But friends, giving up runs counter to the human spirit. Those who give up and accept the reality of oppression are either those who’ve been spiritually kidnapped or spiritually hijacked by greed, power or fear; or those who’ve accepted the lie that their suffering will be rewarded in some other life.

What redeems us in us in light of the reality of injustice and oppression are our collective efforts to subvert and transform them. What redeems us are our collective words and deeds that help shape a more just society. What redeems us are our collective attempts to build the beloved community.

beloved community

Amen and Blessed Be.



[1] McTigue, Kathleen, “Backside Redemption,” Shine and Shadow: Meditations (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2011) pp. 42-44.

[2] Carlebach, Shlomo, “Return Again,” Singing the Journey (Boston: UUA, 2005) #1011.

[3] McTigue, Shine and Shadow, p. 44.

[4] Ibid., p. 44.

[5] Ibid., p. 43.

Easter Homily: The Rhythm of Life is a Powerful Beat

The Rev. Josh Pawelek

“Would you harbor me? Would I harbor you?”[1] 

Underground Railroad patch

I like this song on Easter morning. It reminds us we live in a world where far too many people, for far too many reasons need safe harbor, need of sanctuary, shelter, safety; need caring, love and compassion, comfort and solace, respite and rest. It reminds us we live in a world where far too many people, for far too many reasons, need real help, need choices, opportunity, access, a “seat at the table,” a voice; need freedom, liberation, justice, peace. But the song doesn’t just point to needs. That’s easy enough. It also seeks to inspire in us a certain commitment. It asks everyone—those singing and those listening: will you, will I, will we be people who harbor those in need? Will you, will I, will we be people who take the side of the oppressed, who take the side of the incarcerated, of immigrants without papers, families without homes, workers without work, children in failing schools, women who’ve been battered, victims of violence, people whose land has been stolen, people struggling with addiction, people living with mental illness, people living with HIV/AIDS, and certainly people who still experience the pain of discrimination and second class citizenship because their committed, loving relationships are not recognized in law.

UUSe at the Marriage Equality Rally


Would you harbor me? Would I harbor you? As much as any of us might want to answer this question with a resounding, “Yes,” it’s not easy. There are always risks. If I take the side of the persecuted, the oppressed, the victims of violence, isn’t it possible the same forces threatening their lives might seek to threaten mine? When the Roman guards were leading Jesus to his execution, when the mob had gathered to jeer at their scapegoat on his way to Golgotha to be crucified, his disciples were nowhere to be found. Just one day earlier Peter had said to Jesus, “I will lay down my life for you.”[2] And yet on the day of the crucifixion—Good Friday—Peter three times denies knowing Jesus. Risks always accompany taking the side of persecuted people. Peter wasn’t willing to take them.

Underground railroad

I’m becoming more and more convinced that the whole point of the Easter story is to expose the violence people do to people—to name it, to reveal it, to show how entire communities can resort to it, as if it will somehow solve their problems. Virtually everyone in the story sanctions the murder of Jesus in some way. Only the three women—the three Mary’s—who gather at the foot of the cross are willing to be with Jesus in his suffering.

If I’m correct that the point of the story is to definitively and unwaveringly reveal the reality of violence in human communities, then the story’s message is that violence is wrong, that violence, persecution and oppression redeem nothing. The story asks its hearers and readers to consider the question, which side are you on? Would you harbor me? Would I harbor you?

Golgotha

Jesus is crucified. The next day is the Sabbath, the day of rest. On the third day the women return to the tomb where Jesus has been laid. They discover the stone rolled away, the tomb empty, and with slight variations depending on which version one reads, they hear the news that Jesus has risen from death: the Easter miracle.

Sunrise

I think most of you know that while I view Jesus’ execution as a largely settled historical fact—there are multiple reports of it in the Jewish and Roman historical records—I view the resurrection as metaphor—a potent and multi-layered symbol. For me, the value of this symbol begins with its unmistakable affirmation that the Sacred—however we understand the Sacred—is fundamentally opposed to and will always seek to overcome violence in human communities. In the face of violence, injustice and death, the Sacred affirms life. It encourages us not to succumb to fear as Peter did, but in the very least to sit faithfully by the side of those who are suffering, to call for water to moisten their parched throats; and when the opportunity presents itself to say, “Yes, I do know this person who is being persecuted. This person is visible to me and this persecution is wrong.” It makes available to us sources of love far more powerful than any violence any persecutor can bring to bear.”

The value of this symbol lies in its power to remind us in the deepest places of our being that though violence, persecution, oppression and injustice may at times seem overwhelming, may at times seem to have prevailed; and though the many ways in which we suffer as human beings—physical illness, mental illness, depression, loss, grief, broken dreams, broken relationships, personal failures—may at times seem insurmountable, there is nevertheless a rhythm of life and its beat is powerful; its beat never stops; its beat keeps coming around and around. Days keep dawning. Waves keep crashing. Tides keep pulling. Hearts keep beating. Lungs keep breathing. Love keeps coming. That’s the rhythm and it has the power to help us overcome; to bring us back to our true selves, back to our most authentic selves, back to life.

Sunrise

 Even after the longest winters of our lives, spring arrives—that’s the rhythm! Stones roll away. Prophets proclaim good news. Wounds heal. Communities come together, find their purpose, start to organize, build life anew. Birds, once again, sing at the break of day. Buds, once again, appear on branches. Grass, once again, grows high and green. Hope, once again, rises in our hearts. If we can attune ourselves to the rhythm of life, if we can catch its pulse and start to sing, dance, create along with its ancient, powerful, undying beat that began in the heart of that one, tiny seed,[3] then we too can come back to life refreshed, rejuvenated, resurrected, filled with joy, filled with passion, filled with new-found courage to meet our challenges, to bear witness to suffering and violence, to struggle for justice, to pursue our dreams. If we can catch its pulse and start to sing, dance and create along with its ancient beat then we too can rest securely in the knowledge and the faith that our pain and grief will subside in time and that beloved community is possible, a more just society is possible, a healthy planet is possible; that we are justified in being hopeful people and that, in the end, love prevails. Love prevails. Love prevails.

Sunrise dance

Oh yes: the rhythm of life is an awesome and powerful beat. On this Easter morning, as spring finally arrives all around us, may we feel its pulse. May we start to dance. May we add our joyful noise to its undying song.

Amen and blessed be.



[1] This refers to Ysaye Maria Barnwell’s Sweet Honey in the Rock piece, “Would You Harbor Me?” See: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i0XBXJjoXJ4. To purchase this song, find the “Sacred Ground” album at http://www.sweethoney.com/discography.php.

[2] Luke 13:37b.

[3] Earlier in this service we read Carol Martignacco’s The Everything Seed. For more info see: http://www.amazon.com/The-Everything-Seed-Story-Beginnings/dp/1582461619.

“Dealing With Our Spiritual Stuff” or “Reclaiming our Liberal Inheritance”

The Rev. Joshua Mason Pawelek

 

Come As You Are

“There’s a river flowin’ in my soul”—words from Alabama civil rights attorney, state judge, play-write, songwriter, and community-builder Rose Sanders, also known as Faya Ora Rose Touré.[1] “There’s a river flowin’ in my soul and it’s tellin’ me that I’m somebody.”[2]

Faya Ora Rose ToureI am somebody. You are somebody. I matter. You matter. I don’t know for sure what Touré had in mind when she wrote “There’s a River Flowin’ in My Soul,” but given her long and distinguished career as a civil rights attorney and activist, her dedication to the black community in Alabama, across the nation and even globally, her focus on reforming educational systems to address the race-based achievement gap, I’m guessing she wrote this song originally to inspire young black people in her community who were experiencing the impacts of institutional racism and generational poverty, and hearing messages from the larger culture, over and over again, that they don’t matter, that they are nobody—which of course is a lie. The song is meant to dispel a lie. It is meant to speak truth to a larger power—what some might call a demonic power—that keeps telling the pernicious and often deadly lie that some people matter and some people don’t.

This sermon is about our spiritual inheritance as Unitarian Universalist and more generally as liberal religious people. Touré’s song, though I assume not written explicitly for us, certainly speaks to and affirms the foundation of our spiritual inheritance, our principleHell-fire and brimstone of the “inherent worth and dignity of every person;” the notion—which we receive from both the Universalist and Unitarian sides of our heritage—that everyone matters, no one is left behind, all are welcome, all are worthy of love, all are saved—no exceptions. Two hundred years ago, in its various liberal Christian forms, this was a radical, liberating and loving message in an American religious landscape that was quite grim and fearful, filled with warnings of God’s judgment and wrath, filled with images of eternal suffering amidst hellfire and brimstone. Today, though we don’t typically express it in its traditional Christian forms, this message of inherent human worth and dignity, which we have extended to include all life—the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part—remains a radical, liberating and loving message in a global religious landscape that on one side features a variety of divisive fundamentalisms preaching a variety of eternal damnations and even on occasion inciting followers to commit acts of sacred violence; and on the other side features growing pockets of people who, for a variety of reasons, could care less about religion, viewing it as outdated, hypocritical, insular, irrelevant and, often, abusive.

I’m grateful to Faya Ora Rose Touré for her song. There’s a river flowin’ in my soul, and in your soul. I am somebody. You are somebody. I matter. You matter. This is one way of expressing our spiritual inheritance. This is one way of expressing a radical, liberating, loving message to a hurting, fearful, violent, apathetic 21st century global community. However….

Did you know that was coming? If you’ve been paying attention to me over the years, you know, at about this point in the sermon, it’s time for however or but or still or yet or except that or on the other hand. This morning is no exception.

We chose inheritance as this month’s ministry theme for a number of reasons. Most importantly, we chose it to remind ourselves it is critical, from time to time, to reflect on the gifts of those who came before us, those upon whose shoulders we rest, the legacies our spiritual forebears bequeath to us, the principles that reside at the heart of our religious heritage. It’s important to know where we’ve come from. Such knowledge helps us know who we are today, helps us confront the challenges we face today, helps us imagine and plan for our future.

We also chose inheritance because we kick off our annual appeal this month. We’re going to be asking each of us to make the most generous financial gift possible to this congregation, not only to support its day-to-day, week-to-week functioning, but so that it can keep its promises, fulfill its mission, and continue to thrive. We remind ourselves that those of us here today inherit this congregation from those who came before, from those who’ve given so generously over the years of their time, energy, talent and money to establish and grow this beacon of liberal religion here on beautiful Elm Hill in Manchester’s northeast corner, near the Vernon line, east of the Connecticut River. When you give a financial gift to UUS:E you are helping to ensure that future generations will inherit this congregation, embrace its mission, continue its traditions, and keep the beacon burning brightly.

DisputesHowever, don’t we hear stories about disputes over inheritance tearing families apart? One sibling gets a greater share of the estate than the others and legal wrangling ensues. I don’t know how often this happens. I’ve definitely seen it happen. It’s sad and often inexplicable when it happens, though I’m also mindful that conflict in families is normal. It only becomes a problem when it isn’t managed well. My guess is most disputes over inheritance happen in families that have a history of not managing conflict well. We might say they have stuff to work out—“stuff” being the polite way of saying it. They need to deal with their stuff. And when we say this, we’re not ultimately talking about material or money. We’re talking about the quality of their relationships. Strong relationships—trusting, respectful, supportive, loving relationships—can withstand virtually any conflict.

I want to suggest that Unitarian Universalists and liberal religious people in general have a dispute over our inheritance and we need to deal with our spiritual stuff. It’s not a dispute over money—though certainly there are individual congregations who are conflicted about money. I don’t know a congregation that doesn’t have some level of tension with regard to money. It’s normal and it’s not what I’m talking about. I think Unitarian Universalists experience a very deep though largely unspoken and even unrecognized conflict over what to do with our spiritual inheritance—how to use it, how to spend it, what it’s for, what it even means to be liberal religious people in this hurting, fearful, violent, apathetic, 21st-century global community. We all receive the inheritance, but what do we do with it?

As a way of understanding this conflict, consider this question: Why do you come to services on Sunday mornings—at this church or any church, or any religious organization? I’ll give you two options for answers. First, you come to get your spiritual needs met. You come in search of community, personal connections, comfort, solace, peace, beauty, a place to breathe, to heal, to learn, to grow, to gain insight, to get religious education for your children and yourself, to be reminded there’s a river flowin’ in your soul tellin’ you you’re somebody. You come for your spiritual inheritance, that message that you have worth and dignity, that you matter.

Or, second, you come because you see suffering and injustice in the world. You’re looking for a spiritual home that will direct you back out into the world as an agent of healing and transformation, a builder of community, a justice-maker, a peace-bringer. You don’t come to receive your spiritual inheritance for your own sake. You come because you want to take that message out to the world and make it real in the world, for everyone, and for the world.

It may not seem like it at first glance, but these two responses are in conflict. They don’t have to be. They shouldn’t be. But they tend to be. I think both sides of this conflict are important, both have a role to play in congregational life. But I contend if we don’t understand how they relate to each other, how they interact with each other—if we favor one over the other—we squander our spiritual inheritance.

Earlier I read to you from the 20th-century Unitarian theologian, James Luther Adams. Adams was fond of asking his parishioners, James Luther Adamsstudents and readers, “What is the essence of liberalism?” His answer? Liberalism is filled with tension and ambiguity. It is “divided against itself.”[3] He siad this in the 1930s, 40s and 50s, but we experience the same internal division today. I don’t know this for a fact, but I speculate that after World War II, Adams observed the birth of the baby boom generation, the beginnings of white and wealth flight from American cities, the rise of a new consumption-based American economy, the emergence of suburbs, and the corresponding founding of new, largely wealthy congregations far away from the urban, sometimes poor, sometimes ethnic neighborhoods where they had previously been located. These new, suburban congregations of the post-war era were designed primarily to provide ministry to and meet the spiritual needs of their own members. This is a general rule—there are many exceptions, especially during the civil rights movement—but post-war suburban congregations were insular and internally focused: focused on healing the spiritual hurts of their own members; focused on developing their own institutional programs; focused on maintaining their endowments for some future they couldn’t actually name; focused on their own children’s religious education; and not focused, except in a very distant way—usually through charitable giving and mission trips—on the world beyond; not focused on social and economic justice; not focused on prophetic and transformational ministries and partnerships in the larger community; and definitely not focused on earth-based and eco-justice ministries.

Suburbs

Adams witnessed this pattern and he was angry. He said: “The faith of a church or of a nation is an adequate faith only when it inspires and enables people to give of their time and energy to shape the various institutions—social, economic and political—of the common life. A faith in the commanding, sustaining, transforming reality is one that tries to shape history.”[4] Remember, he’s a liberal. When he talks about faith, he’s talking about liberal faith. When he writes about the church, he’s writing about the liberal church. How should the liberal church shape history? It should liberate people “from tyranny, provincialism, and arbitrariness and thus contribute to the meaningful fulfillment of human existence.”[5] “Any other faith,” he said, “is thoroughly undependable; it is also, in the end, impotent. It is not a faith that molds history. It is a faith that enables history to crush humanity. Its ministry prepares people to adjust to the crushing by focusing on, and salving, the personal experiences of hurt.”[6] What were those post-war suburban churches doing? They were meeting the needs of their members, salving their personal experiences of hurt. They were not shaping history through acts of liberation. They were retreating from history. That’s the conflict. That’s the tension. Do you come to get your needs met, or do you come to shape history? That’s our spiritual stuff. If we’re not crystal clear about it, we squander our spiritual inheritance. Why do we come to church?

I love James Luther Adams. For me a foundational aspect of the liberal religious identity is being part of movements to liberate people from injustice and oppression as well as movements to sustain the earth. But as much as I love Adams, his critique of the church is not entirely fair. He’s not being completely honest about the realities of congregational life then or now. The inner conflict he describes is real. ut the question isn’t which side is more important. The question is how do the two sides work together?

Welcome

The church has to meet the spiritual needs of its members. The world does take a toll on us—even the most privileged among us. Life weighs us down from time to time. We come with hurts, wounds, loss and pain. We need the message that there’s a river flowin’ in our soul and it’s tellin’ us we’re somebody, that we’re loved, that we matter—no exceptions.

Come As You Are

We absolutely need to hear that—and we deserve to hear it. Because it’s true. And because it’s our spiritual inheritance. Shame on us if we don’t avail ourselves of it. But if that’s all we do—if we remain internally-focused—if church is only about meeting our own needs—then Adams is correct: our faith is inadequate, self-serving and oblivious; as he says, it’s “a form of assistance to the powers of evil in public life.”[7]

Spiritual bankruptcy

On the other hand, let’s imagine we pay no attention to our own spiritual needs. Let’s imagine a church that sends its people out to liberate the world, yet those people are themselves hurting, wounded, thirsty, dry, exhausted. They can’t speak from a place of spiritual depth because their church does not nurture their spirits. They aren’t centered or grounded because they have no place to breath, to reflect, to be still, to pray. They feel no joy because they have no place to sing and dance. They feel alone because they have no place to connect. They’re in no condition to shape history. They are in no condition to liberate anyone because they have failed to liberate themselves.

Liberation

But if we come to church to get our spiritual needs met—to breath, meditate and pray, to sing and dance, to encounter beauty, to learn, grow and stretch, to reconnect, to be rejuvenated, to be inspired—so that we may then go out beyond these walls and shape history for the sake of liberation, for the sake of spreading the good news of the inherent worth and dignity of every person, to proclaim to all people “there’s a river flowin’ in your soul and it’s tellin’ you you’re somebody,” then we’re not only receiving our spiritual inheritance, we’re using it as it was intended.

Liberation

It is about us; and it is about the world. We need to sustain and strengthen this congregation precisely so that it can meet our spiritual needs, precisely so that we can participate in acts of liberation. In this way, we reclaim, again and again, our liberal religious spiritual inheritance.

Amen and blessed be.



[1] See biographical information for Faya Ora Rose Touré at http://www.answers.com/topic/faya-ora-rose-tour.

[2] Sanders, Rose, “There’s a River Flowin’ in My Soul,” Singing the Journey (Boston: UUA, 2005) #1007.

[3] Adams, James Luther, “Guiding Principles for a Free Faith” in Stackhouse, Max, ed., On Being Human Religiously (Boston: UUA, 1976) p. 5.

[4] Ibid. p. 18.

[5] Ibid., p. 5.

[6] Ibid., p. 18.

[7] Ibid., p. 18.

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.