Posts Tagged religion

Thank you, Michael Piazza, for restoring my faith in church.

Dear Michael Piazza,*

Thank you for restoring my faith in church.

Oh, I don’t mean “a church”.  I have great confidence in the congregation I serve, after all, and I know there are other good faith communities out there, too.  And I don’t mean “the church”, in the larger sense of organized religion.  Rather, I mean “church”, as short-hand for “the institution of congregational life”.

You restored my faith in the institution of congregational life when I attended your workshop at the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association’s “Institute” at the beginning of February.  Your title was “Preaching and Worship for the Future Church and the Future of the Church”, and though in the course of our three days together you certainly talked about good preaching and good worship, what came through most clearly was your passion for doing church well.  It was clear that you so dearly want to do congregational life well — and that you sincerely wanted every UU minister in that lecture hall to do like-wise, too — because you believe that congregational life really, really matters.  It was your passion and your heartfelt belief that restored my faith in church.

For anyone following religion news these days, it’s not hard to see and hear a lot of doom and gloom about “the future church and the future of the church”.  Oh, the demographic shifts are real enough, combining the generation-spanning decline in trust of institutions generally with younger generations’ rejection of religion that is judgmental, exclusionary and irrelevant.  And it would certainly be foolish to do church as if credit cards and social media didn’t exist, or with notions of “sacred music” limited to what was written by a few long-dead white men.  But the doom and gloom seem to go beyond noticing that congregations can’t keep pretending it’s the 1950s, to declaring that the congregation as an institution not only has no future but is already on its death-bed.

I can handle the seemingly endless stream of articles with titles such as “Nine Reasons Why People Aren’t Coming To Your Church” or “Seven Ways You’re Repelling Newcomers”; for all that their titles are sensationalistic, the articles themselves do make some valid points.  But I have been disheartened by the apparently exclusive emphasis on other forms of religious group-making, including the earnest promotion of ministry as a vocation that in the future will require either independent wealth or a submission to poverty.  The cynic in me says that we’ve given up trying to find the formula that will magically make congregations perfect, only we did so not by accepting that there are no such things as “magic” or “perfection”, but instead by abandoning the congregation as a viable way of doing religion.

The fact is that it takes hard work for people to actually be in community, particularly religious community.  And when a congregation is doing well, by which I mean when it’s doing community well, then more people will want to be a part of it, which means it will grow, which means it will change, and then it will take more hard work to respond to that change in healthy ways so that the congregation continues to do well as it grows.

Now I’ve spent fifteen years figuring out that simple fact, thanks to my experiences first as a lay church member, then as a seminarian, and now as a minister serving a congregation that really values community and hospitality.  But in the last couple of years, following in particular the publicity around “the rise of the nones”, it increasingly felt like I was being told that I was on a fool’s errand.  I so want to see the congregation I serve thrive and grow and fulfill its considerable potential, but again and again I’ve seen the consultants and the experts gleefully preparing a casket for the idea of church.  (Last year, you may remember, the Alban Institute even shut its doors!)

That’s why I’m thanking you, Michael.  You made it clear to me that what I and my colleagues in parish ministry are doing really does matter.  You made it clear that church really does matter, not because any of us might think we have the right theology or the right music or the right programs, but because congregational life matters.  Church is where we listen to one another and support one another and help one another, where we can respond to the deepest of human needs to know each other and to be known.  The forms and trappings of church may change with the times — and, indeed, they must change — but the core reason for being of the institution of congregational life continues, because our human need for comforting, encouraging, transforming community continues.  Thank you for showing me that I’m not the only one who still believes that.  Thank you for restoring my faith in church.

Yours, in faith and service,

Andrew.

~)<

* Piazza started as a Methodist preacher and then moved to the Metropolitan Community Church when he came out.  In the 1980s, he began serving an MCC congregation in Dallas that was dying.  Literally dying.  It was the height of the AIDS crisis, there was little understanding of what AIDS was or how to treat it, and while gay men were dying across the country, the White House press corps was laughing about it.  Piazza turned that church around, and, as the Cathedral of Hope, it’s now the largest LGBTQ-friendly congregation in the world.  And it’s in Dallas, Texas.

Four years ago, Piazza began serving a United Church of Christ congregation in Atlanta.  It was dying, too, given the age of its members. But in those four years, that congregation has quadrupled in size, and it’s now racially diverse, too.

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The ‘A’ Word

(I preached this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on March 2nd 2014.  The choice of topic was won in last year’s Auction.)

Atheism seems to have been in the news quite a bit recently.

Atheist groups have gone to court, for instance, to try to get monuments featuring secular quotes set up in places such as courthouses where the Ten Commandments are on display.  Then there was the giant digital billboard advert by American Atheists that flashed every ten minutes near Metlife Stadium on Super Bowl Sunday.  Featuring an AA staffer dressed as a priest but with football players’ stripes under his eyes and holding a football, the ad read “A ‘hail Mary’ only works in football. Enjoy the game!”

Then there was the lawsuit by the Freedom from Religion Foundation challenging the right of ministers to use a parsonage, or receive an equivalent housing allowance, without having to pay taxes.  Judge Barbara Crabbe ruled that the parsonage exemption is unconstitutional, resulting in preferential treatment for religious messages because, so she concluded, there are no atheist ministers.  As the Rev. Richard Nugent, Director of the UUA’s Office of Church Staff Finances, put it in an e-mail, “Obviously Judge Crabbe isn’t familiar with Unitarian Universalism”.

Then there are the Sunday Assemblies.  Founded in London by two British stand-up comedians, each Sunday Assembly is a time for atheists to get together for community, music and singing, and an inspiring message.  Sound familiar to, oh, I don’t know, church?  The Sunday Assembly Everywhere network uses a franchise model to start new groups in the bigger cities of the UK and the US, and in the grand old tradition of, well, I guess I can’t say religion, they’ve already experienced their first schism: a group in New York is breaking away to form what they call the “Godless Revival”.  As the Rev. Tom Schade wrote on his blog, The Lively Tradition, “Really, people should talk to Unitarian Universalists before they try to do what we have been trying to do for decades.”

And then there’s Ryan Bell, who recently announced that he would live for a year as an atheist.  He was motivated in part by a friend’s question about what difference it makes to believe in God, and was also inspired by the book A Year of Living Biblically.  He didn’t think his plan would gain so much attention, but maybe that would have been a fair assumption, given that Bell had been a Seventh-Day Adventist Minister.

In fact, starting his “year of living atheistically” on January 1st, he got as far as January 4th before being “let go” from his teaching positions at both Azusa Pacific University and Fuller Theological Seminary.  Bell says that both places were “super nice” and that he’d be welcomed back once he could sign their faith statements again, but as UU Doug Muder wrote on his blog, The Weekly Sift, “From the War on Christmas to the ObamaCare contraception mandate, the media gives a lot of respect to the idea that Christians might be persecuted in America, or at least that their religious freedom might be in danger.  But [if they] really want to know what religious discrimination is like, they should try being atheists.”

Finally, in this quick review of atheists in the news, there are the most recent results of a public opinion poll that organizational consulting firm Gallup has been repeating every couple of decades since 1937.

The poll question is as follows: “If your [political] party nominated a generally well-qualified person for [the office of] President who happened to be [fill-in-the-blank], would you vote for that person?”  There weren’t many categories in 1937 to go in that blank, and the results were about what you might expect.  Back in the thirties, only sixty percent of Americans would vote for a Catholic, only forty-six percent would vote for a Jew, and only thirty-three percent would vote for a woman.  These days, more than ninety percent of Americans say they would vote for Catholic, Jewish or female candidates for the office of President.

But at the bottom of the rankings today?  Only sixty-eight percent of Americans would vote for a gay or lesbian person, only fifty-eight percent would vote for a Muslim, and only fifty-four percent would vote for an atheist.  Now all such numbers have increased since Gallup first added each to its opinion poll, but it still paints a picture of widespread prejudice amongst the American public.

All in all, for the average atheist in this nation, and certainly here in the South, it’s simply advisable not to mention the ‘A’ word when it comes to talking about one’s beliefs.

There are, of course, places — even religious places — where atheists are welcome to make themselves at home.  There are, for example, Unitarian Universalist congregations.  Many years ago I heard of a memorial service for a man who had been a life-long Unitarian.  Someone who was not a UU was at that service to honor his friend, but knowing something of our history in rejecting the doctrine of the Trinity, he said he knew that Unitarians believe in one god.  A woman, who was a UU, immediately chimed in: “You mean,” she called out, “believe in at most one god.”  More generally, UU congregations have long aspired to welcome everyone who would want to be part of such communities, with the only real condition being that anyone who wants to be here must be willing to help keep it welcoming for anyone else who wants to be here, too.

Now surveys of individual Unitarian Universalists have shown that about a fifth of all UUs would identify themselves as atheists.  Since atheism and other identifying terms are usually undefined on such surveys, there’s quite a bit of overlap with UUs who also identify as humanist, agnostic or Earth-centered, and perhaps even as Buddhist or pagan, too.  Still, it’s safe to say that the majority of UUs are not theistic in a traditional sense, though there’s plenty of theological diversity within and beyond that.  And it is, of course, our aspiration to be a safe place for that diversity: the radical good news of Unitarian Universalism, after all, is that we can be different people with different beliefs but still be part of one beloved community.

Amongst those who believe that such community is impossible — and perhaps even undesirable — are the so-called “New Atheists”.

Starting in 2004 with a book by Sam Harris entitled The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason, and then continuing with books such as The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins and God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens, the New Atheists emerged in response to events from coordinated efforts to teach creationism in school science classes to the hijackings of planes by terrorists on September 11th 2001.  Rather than taking a persuasive approach, however, the New Atheists launched a full frontal assault on religion in general, arguing that humanity would be better off if religion — all religion — simply went away.  This may not be anything that, in its content, is particularly new; its roots, for instance, go back to eighteenth century Scottish philosopher David Hume and his argument that the only real miracle in religion is that people would believe in the miracles claimed by religion.  In their style, on the other hand, the New Atheists greatly ramped up the intensity and the volume of their explicitly confrontational rhetoric.

Consider, for example, this paragraph from The End of Faith by Sam Harris.  (Words emphasized in italics are his.)

With each passing year, do our religious beliefs conserve more of the data of human experience?  If religion addresses a genuine sphere of understanding and human necessity, then it should be susceptible to progress; its doctrines should become more useful, rather than less. Progress in religion, as in other fields [such as astronomy and medicine], would have to be a matter of present inquiry, not the mere reiteration of past doctrine.  Whatever is true now should be discoverable now, and describable in terms that are not an outright affront to the rest of the world.  By this measure, the entire project of religion seems perfectly backward.  It cannot survive the changes that have come over us — culturally, technologically, and even ethically.  Otherwise, there are few reasons to believe that we will survive it.

Now there is some truth in Harris’ words when it comes to the necessity of religion being susceptible to progress.  One of the primary reasons why I am a Unitarian Universalist, for instance, is that ours is a religion that is not only open to developments in the scientific understanding of our world, but actively embraces the insights of cosmology, evolutionary biology and neuroscience.  And I know for a fact that plenty of my Christian colleagues in seminary were just as interested in cultural, technological and particularly ethical progress, even when that meant calling into question certain parts of the scriptures they held dear.

But to the New Atheists, religion is a singular structure that never allows for progress, and is instead based entirely on ideas about the world that last seemed sensible in the Iron Age.  And when that is assumed, then there are no differences between, say, Christian fundamentalists and Quakers, or between Islamic terrorists and the followers of the Dalai Lama.  In fact, as far as the New Atheists are concerned, those who claim to be religious moderates are particularly bad, because they allow religious extremists to continue to exist.

Sam Harris, for example, doesn’t acknowledge the existence of religious progressives (and doesn’t mention Unitarian Universalists), and what he claims to be a continuum of people of faith he actually describes as just a dichotomy between, on the one hand, those who, in his words, “draw solace and inspiration from a specific spiritual tradition, and yet remain fully committed to tolerance and diversity” and, on the other hand, those who, in his words, “would burn the earth to cinders if it would put an end to heresy.”  In his book (figuratively and literally), if you’re not a religious extremist, then you’re a religious moderate, and you’re only a moderate because you failed to be an extremist.

Here’s what Harris has to say about, as he puts it, “the ‘myth’ of moderation in religion”.

While moderation in religion may seem a reasonable position to stake out, in light of all that we have (and have not) learned about the universe, it offers no bulwark against religious extremism and religious violence.  From the perspective of those seeking to live by the letter of the texts, the religious moderate is nothing more than a failed fundamentalist.  […]

The problem that religious moderation poses for all of us is that it does not permit anything very critical to be said about religious literalism.  We cannot say that fundamentalists are crazy, because they are merely practicing their freedom of belief; we cannot even say that they are mistaken in religious terms, because their knowledge of scripture is generally unrivaled.  All we can say, as religious moderates, is that we don’t like the personal and social costs that a full embrace of scripture imposes on us.  This is not a new form of faith, or even a new species of scriptural [interpretation]; it is simply a capitulation to a variety of all-too-human interests that have nothing, in principle, to do with God.  Religious moderation is the product of secular knowledge and scriptural ignorance — and it has no bona fides, in religious terms, to put it on a par with fundamentalism. […]

By failing to live by the letter of the texts, while tolerating the irrationality of those who do, religious moderates betray faith and reason equally.  Unless the core dogmas of faith are called into question — i.e., that we know there is a God, and that we know what he wants from us — religious moderation will do nothing to lead us out of the wilderness.

You know, I wish that Sam had told us how he really feels.

First, there is no such singular structure as religion, no such one-dimensional phenomenon as faith.  That’s a straw man and Harris and Dawkins only get away with implying it thanks to popular ignorance.  It doesn’t help that the mainstream media — including our local Daily Press — likes to report on marriage equality or reproductive rights as if every person claiming to be religious is necessarily opposed to them.  Such sloppy reporting needs to be held accountable for its mis-representation of religion, as do Harris and the other New Atheists.

And, as you’ve heard me say before, neither religion nor faith are merely about belief.  They are also about behavior and belonging.  It’s not surprising that the atheist Sunday Assemblies are turning out to look a lot like churches, when it’s belonging and behavior that matter more than belief (or, for that matter, non-belief).  Whether or not we are permitted (and permitted by whom, I don’t know) to criticize others’ harmful beliefs — and whether doing so would change them — is irrelevant anyway, since it’s not someone’s belief but their behavior that actually affects other people.

Even when it comes to that belief, it’s certainly not the case that faith is all about believing things that are at odds with, as Harris puts it, “the last two thousand years of human thought ([such as] democratic politics, scientific advancement on every front, concern for human rights, an end to cultural and geographical isolation, etc.).”  Satirist Ambrose Bierce, in his “reference” book, The Devil’s Dictionary, drew on that caricature of faith by defining it as “Belief without evidence in what is told by one who speaks without knowledge, of things without parallel.”

Now Bierce may have had in mind the Christian Testament’s Letter to the Hebrews, which defines faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  But even with such a biblical definition, that doesn’t rule out, for instance, faith in humanity, faith in the progress of the human endeavor, faith that we can overcome our differences and bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice and bring the Beloved Community into being.

But is it true that religious moderates, to use Harris’ terminology, are failing to challenge, and are thereby enabling, religious extremists?  Well, no, it’s not true.

Consider, for instance, the response of moderates to that form of extremism that is justifying homophobic discrimination in terms of “religious freedom”.  That’s a desperate attempt to hang onto heterosexism (as well as the sexism that’s hidden within it) by those who can see the writing on the wall, and that by itself shows that the moderates are disabling the extremists, not enabling them.  Of course, organizations like Focus on the Family are still kicking, and can mobilize their members across the country to lobby in favor of the anti-LGBTQ legislation that has been making its way through legislatures in Arizona and Kansas and a dozen other states.  But they’re not getting away with it.

There’s an organization called Faithful America, for example, which describes itself as “a fast-growing online community dedicated to reclaiming Christianity from the religious right and putting faith into action for social justice.  Our members,” they explain, “are sick of sitting by quietly while Jesus’ message of good news is hijacked to serve a hateful political agenda, so we’re organizing the faithful to take on [religious] extremists and renew the church’s prophetic role in building a more free and just society.”

And they’re not the only ones doing this.  Just a few days ago, progressive evangelical Jim Wallis wrote an article entitled “To Young Christians Speaking Out Against Anti-Gay Discrimination: Thank You”.  He was referring specifically writers like Jonathan Merritt and Kirsten Powers, who each criticized the supposedly Christian arguments being used to justify legal discrimination and questioned whether that “discrimination would also be applied to other less than ‘biblical’ marriages,” as the religious right might see them, “or if just gays and lesbians were being singled out.”

So is there an alternative to New Atheism that might allow us to consider the actual problems of religions in the real world without all the rancor and bitterness?  Well, yes, there is.

Alain de Botton calls it “Atheism 2.0”.  That was the title of his TED talk a couple of years ago, in which he talked about what atheism could learn from the world’s religions as a framework for human connection to one another, to our world, to ourselves, to time, to truth, to meaning, and so on.  That’s the behaving and belonging piece that he sees as very valuable in religion, even if, as he makes clear right from the start, he rejects the beliefs.  But for him, the basic premise of atheism — that there’s no God, singular, or gods, plural — is the “very, very beginning” of the story, not its end.  (De Botton, by the way, was one of the influences in Ryan Bell’s decision to live for a year as an atheist.)

Perhaps more well-known is Chris Stedman, the author of Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious.  In this largely autobiographical book, Stedman describes how he became a “born again” Christian as a youth — not because he believed but because he wanted to believe, and even more because he wanted the parts of religion that Alain de Botton says are the helpful parts, particularly the parts about justice.  Only not long after converting, Stedman realized he was gay.

He tried to figure it out, and, when that didn’t help, he tried to pray himself straight, but that didn’t work, either.  He considered suicide, but couldn’t go through with it.  Finally he came out, first to his mother, and then to a sympathetic minister, and he credits them with saving his life.  But within a few years, between the widespread homophobia he saw in too many churches and his own experiences of senseless violence and destruction, he became an atheist.

But Stedman didn’t give up on religion.  Today he advocates for the necessity of atheists and the religious working together to bridge their differences and find ways to understand one another.  Noting that the word “interfaith” is “imperfect, clunky and can feel exclusive to many non-religious people”, he nonetheless argues that atheists should participate in interfaith work.  He explains why this matters as follows.

Dialogue isn’t meaningless — the humanization of the ‘other’ elicited by an act of intentional encounter with difference leads to real change.  Engaging in interfaith coalition-building efforts requires a certain level of vulnerability and humility; to be understood, we must all work to understand.  To understand our privileges, our pasts, our prejudices, and what we each bring to the table in order to strengthen ourselves as a community and as a country, we must be willing to challenge the beliefs we have about those who seem different — and the result is often life-changing for all parties involved.  Everyone I’ve met who has taken part in interfaith dialogue has walked away challenged, with a renewed sense of personal agency and a feeling of shared responsibility to bring about a more pluralistic world.

So here’s my question.  Whose take on atheism is likely to help change public attitudes about the ‘A’ word, to change those poll numbers and someday allow an atheist president to be elected?  Should we follow Sam Harris, by throwing the baby out with the bathwater, vandalizing the bathroom, burning down the house, and bombing the neighborhood?  Or is it Chris Stedman, who sees many shared values and concerns amongst atheists and believers alike, and would have them work together to make the world a better place for all of us?

Then there’s the fact that if we take Harris seriously in his complaint that moderates are not doing enough to stand up to the extremists, then moderate atheists (and non-theists within Unitarian Universalism) are justified in standing up to the extremism of the New Atheists, including Harris himself!

As Sophia Lyon Fahs put it,

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

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

I think it’s pretty obvious which it would be better to choose.

So may it be.

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One Planet Indivisible

(I preached this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on February 16th 2014.)

Reading: from Dancing with the Sacred: Evolution, Ecology and God by Karl Peters

I first met Karl Peters at the Summer 2000 conference of the Institute on Religion in an Age of Science.  That was the first time I went, whereas Karl and his wife Marj Davis had been stalwarts of the Institute for many years.  When they weren’t at the Star Island conferences, Karl was Professor of Religion at Rollins College in Florida and Marj was a minister with the United Church of Christ in northern Connecticut.  As it turned out, not long after I moved to Connecticut the following year, Karl was retiring, and we both met again at the Unitarian Society of Hartford.  We quickly found that we had much in common, and that what he called naturalistic theism was a whole lot like what I called pantheism.  So when Karl published Dancing with the Sacred: Evolution, Ecology and God, it gave us lots to talk about!

This reading, then, is excerpted from chapter nine of Dancing with the Sacred, entitled “Our Natural Family”.

I’m trying to change my mind about the way I look at the natural world and its creatures. […] It’s not easy to do this when I find a wasp in my basement or when a cockroach scurries away from the light I’ve just turned on as I enter a room.  Yet, I think it’s important for all of us to see ourselves interconnected with other creatures and the Earth — as members of the same natural family.

One reason it’s important is to help resolve the problem […] of moral motivation in a global village that includes the entire Earth and its inhabitants.  Many have recognized that we often know what is right but we don’t do it. [… T]echnology has given us the power to affect the lives of other species and the entire ecosystems of our planet in ways that are unprecedented.  Many scientists are concerned that our burgeoning population is challenging the carrying capacity of the Earth.  Others point out that [it’s the use] of automobiles and some other technologies [that] is threatening our atmosphere with greenhouse gases.  We are putting future generations of humans and other species in a crisis that we are just beginning to discern. […]

There are many things that must be done to help us change our ways of living to insure that life and civilization will continue and flourish in a sustainable manner.  New energy efficient technologies, many already invented, must be placed in the market.  Producers and consumers need economic incentives to create an environmentally responsible economy.  Politicians need to exercise courageous leadership in passing regulations that can guide [our] living in ways that promote our own well-being and that of our planet.  [And especially important, n]ew ways of understanding ourselves in our world must be cultivated to help our minds change so that we will live more in harmony with other creatures on our planet.”

Sermon: “One Planet Indivisible”

I took a somewhat indirect route to my decision to go to seminary.

When I went to my second Star Island conference in 2001, I met someone who worked for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford.  Jeanie was (and still is) Environmental Justice Coordinator for the Archdiocese, and hearing that I was interested in matters of religion and the environment, she mentioned an event being planned for that Fall by an organization called the Interreligious Eco-Justice Network.  Founded to “empower[…] and inspir[e] religious communities in Connecticut to be faithful stewards of the Earth”, it wasn’t just interreligious in name, either: the lead organizers at the time included an American Baptist minister and a Jewish Renewal rabbi.

The event itself was called “A Sacred Trust: a Forum on Religion and the Environment” and featured speakers from many faith traditions, including Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  Timed to take place near the saint’s day of Francis of Assisi in early October 2001, it was overshadowed, of course, by recent events.  September 11th definitely called for a religious response, but the main portion of the forum was still devoted to looking at human stewardship of the Earth from a variety of religious perspectives.

Now the forum was held at Hartford Seminary, which was just a few blocks down the road from where I was living, and while I was there I looked to see what else they were doing, just out of curiosity.  I didn’t know what to expect because I never thought I’d actually be standing in such a place, much less that I might enroll in seminary.  But then, only a few months before that I’d joined a congregation, so there went fifteen years of certainty in my life!

One of the courses caught my eye.  It was a course on Environmental Ethics, and it sounded interesting not only academically — given that I’d never taken such a class before — but because I was genuinely curious about what was needed to really address the environmental problems that I was hearing so much about.  It is, as Karl Peters put it in Dancing with the Sacred, a matter of “moral motivation in a global village that includes the entire Earth and its inhabitants” and so I thought a course on Environmental Ethics would help me understand that.

Another draw was that this was the first course being taught at Hartford Seminary by its new president, Heidi Hadsell, who had a distinguished career as an academic, interfaith and international ethicist.  So I signed up, paid my non-enrolled registration fee and attended my first seminary class in early 2002.

One of the themes that quickly emerged was mentioned by Karl Peters in the reading: “Many have recognized that we often know what is right but we don’t do it.”  Prof. Hadsell referred to a paper she’d written a few years before (“Environmental Ethics and Health/Wholeness,” Bulletin Vol. 24 No. 3/4, The Council of Societies for the Study of Religion, September/November 1995) when attending an American Academy of Religion conference on the topic of human health and wholeness.  Asked to speak to the relationship between her specialty and the conference theme, she looked at the effects of environmental problems on human health, not so much in terms of what those are — damage to the ozone layer, for instance, resulting in an increased incidence of skin cancer — but from the question of why we are, in her words, “fouling our [own] nest to [such] an unprecedented extent[… that] our habits turn back around and bite us”.  Hadsell writes,

I can understand, though I may not agree with, those who insist that the snail darter or […] the spotted owl have value only in relation to human well-being and human abilities to survive reasonably well in places like the northwest […].  But when the matter becomes human health itself directly, not in future generations but now, and not the survival of what to many are exotic species of plants and animals [but of ourselves], why don’t we react?

This, as I said, is a question to which I’ve wanted an answer, too.  It’s a large part of why I even started going to a Unitarian Universalist congregation in the first place.  That’s because, after a few years of getting on the mailing lists of what seemed like just about every environmental group in the country, I had no shortage of return address labels.  I also had no shortage of environmental problems and emerging crises without much that I could really do about any of them.  I needed help dealing with it all if I wasn’t going to end up severely depressed.

To illustrate this, in the very first sermon I gave at the Unitarian Society of Hartford, a few months after I started at Hartford Seminary, I related the story of a “Doonesbury” comic strip that had been printed some previous Earth Day.  In that particular cartoon, Mike Doonesbury is complaining by telephone to his friend Zonker that he can’t spend his every moment trying to figure out the environmental consequences of his actions.  “If I consider the impact of everything I do, I’ll never get out of bed!  I’ll just lie there all day, lights off, heat off, munching organically grown celery!”  And in the final panel of the strip, we see that this is, of course, precisely what Zonker is doing.

Before I come back to Prof. Hadsell’s paper on this subject, I want to explain why I bring it up this morning.

Today we are participating in the 2014 National Preach-In on Climate Change.  This is something that Interfaith Power and Light has organized for a few years now, coordinating thousands of clergy and lay leaders across the country over a weekend in February to offer religious responses to the global problem of climate change.  We’re participating in it this year because we’ve also been participating in the Thirty Days of Love, and one of the purposes of the Preach-In is to share our love of the world that is our planetary home.  At the same time, my sermon theme for the month is Stewardship, and our “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part” is the cornerstone of all Unitarian Universalist efforts to practice good stewardship of the Earth, including for this congregation to earn the designation of Green Sanctuary.

Now many sermons that are part of the Preach-In, whether they took place on Friday evening or sometime yesterday or are being given this Sunday morning, will include a litany of facts about climate change.  In fact, in their Preach-In Kit, Interfaith Power and Light provides an information sheet entitled “The Facts about Climate Change”.  It reads, “Here are the latest findings from the 2013 assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and by the United States Global Change Research Program.  This is why we must act now.”  And then it lists a number of facts and provides further information about each:

  • Climate change is unequivocal and primarily human-induced.
  • Extreme weather is underway.
  • Sea ice is disappearing and seas are rising.
  • Crop and livestock production is increasingly challenged.
  • Threats to human health will increase.
  • Warming will continue to increase.
  • Delays will make a big difference.

The fact sheet even includes web addresses for various “Global Warming Reports and Resources” where you can get more information.

Here’s what I’m wondering, though.  Is the problem, really, that we don’t have enough information?

The first Earth Day was in 1970.  The Kyoto Protocol was figured out in the late nineties.  Most mainstream media outlets now recognize the legitimate science of climate change, and are even taking steps to actively reject the pseudo-science that has been peddled by Exxon and the Koch brothers and the American Legislative Exchange Council.  Global climate change is part of our cultural vocabulary, and Unitarian Universalists in particular understand the validity of the 99.5% scientific consensus.  (The other 0.5% comes, and this should be no surprise, from scientists paid to speak for private, corporate interests.)  We even know the difference between climate and weather.  The problem in our society is not a lack of information.  The problem in our society is a lack of motivation.

And that brings us back to Heidi Hadsell’s question about why our apathy in the face of environmental problems.  Answering her own question, in fact, Hadsell offers a number of reasons why we’re not acting.

First, there’s the plain, old-fashioned concept of denial.  “Far from being unknown,” Hadsell explains, “the environmental problems, including those that affect human health directly, are so evident and so vast and complex.  The reason that we are not doing much about the environment is that the problems are so bad that we can’t or won’t allow ourselves to look them squarely in the face.”

That’s why information about climate change is only helpful up to a point.  Anybody who knows enough to be concerned isn’t going to be convinced any further by having more data.  If anything, litanies of facts about climate change and other environmental issues and the myriad ways that humans are damaging the Earth just get really depressing, really fast.

Second on Hadsell’s list is individualism.  “We may intuit the problem,” she writes, “but we lack the moral and political language to get our heads around them.  Our language is tied to rights and freedoms as individually construed; we can only cope when things are tied to the ways we are used to thinking of ourselves as autonomous individuals.”

There are, of course, things we can do as individuals that do add up to make at least something of a difference, particularly if we have other reasons for taking those actions.  For instance, I have a single-cup coffee maker.  I like it, and I think it’s more energy efficient than a regular multiple-cup machine.  But I’ve realized I’ve been drinking a lot more coffee since my daughter was born — and I moved from decaf to regular, too — and all those little plastic cups with a single-serving of coffee in them add up to a lot of waste in the landfill.  So rather than buying boxes of the cups, I switched to bags of coffee instead, using a reusable cup that I empty and refill as needed.  That’s somewhat less convenient but it’s also cheaper per cup of coffee, and the only waste (other than the bag the coffee comes in) is the used coffee grounds rather than a non-reusable and probably non-recyclable cup.  The more people who did that, the less waste there’d be in our landfills, not to mention whatever waste is generated in making those cups in the first place.  But the fact is that we’re not going to solve our biggest problems by tackling them as if they were simply bigger versions of smaller individual problems, and that takes us to Hadsell’s third reason: materialism.

“Another explanation, and one that we cannot discard,” she writes, “is that in the end most people don’t care.  They like what they have and would rather have what they have — and by that I mean the stuff they have — than protect the environment, or protect their own or the public’s health.”  There’s even a term for this syndrome, though it hasn’t made it into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, yet.  The condition known as “affluenza” was, in fact, used by criminal defense lawyers last year to argue that their teenage client’s drunk driving, and the subsequent crash that killed four people, was a result of his privileged upbringing by parents who never set limits on his behavior.

Hadsell goes on to list: group egoism, as in the “Tragedy of the Commons” where the people in a group all assume they won’t be the ones impacted by the results of their decisions affecting that group; structural relationships, where political and economic forces determine many of our choices for us; lack of resources, namely the intellectual, material or organizational resources to bring about change;
and finally collectivism, whether that’s excuses such as corporations being too big to fail and governments being too bureaucratic to change anything, or the selfish short-sightedness of the human race as a whole that is so collectively irrational that it might be considered a form of death wish.

Happy stuff, eh?

I know many of you watch The Daily Show and so some of you here probable saw last week’s interview with Elizabeth Kolbert, author of The Sixth Extinction, a new book about the massive reduction in the diversity of life on Earth that is going on right now thanks to, well, us.  Jon Stewart did his best to make the interview something other than a seven-minute bummer, but in trying to wrap it up he started to say, “On a hopeful note…” but then caught himself and asked, “Was there a hopeful note?”  Kolbert had to admit that, no, there wasn’t.

Thankfully, Hadsell’s paper doesn’t end by talking about the possible death wish of the human race.  And since she is someone who studies religion and was presenting her paper to others who study religion, she continued by looking at the role of religion in addressing these reasons for failing to act.

Religion needs to be active in helping to shape humanity’s social world, for instance, making meaning in ways that help us to see ourselves as part of the natural world rather than in ways that pretend we’re better than and can somehow exist independent of the natural world.  Religion offers the ministries of “preaching and teaching, marshaling the evidence,” as Hadsell puts it, “and giving [people] the context in which to let it all sink in.  One hopes that this role of the church will chip away at the defense of denial so prevalent, at least in this society.”

Then there’s the core capacity of the religious imagination to lift up a vision of something other than “an endless extrapolation of the present”, a vision of, say, the Beloved Community where people live in relationships of mutuality and justice with one another and in relationships of sustainability and respect with the Earth.  And in practical terms, religion can offer the physical resource of space for talking about these matters, the social resource of a community with which to talk about them, and the organizational resource of committees and coalitions and networks to make plans and put them into action.

We’ve been doing all of these here, of course, from the work of L— and our Green Sanctuary Committee to the course that B— is currently teaching on the “new cosmology”, a religious perspective on creation that R— and the late Jack Dougher have promoted here, too.

Moreover, Hadsell notes religion’s ability to provide “a language which carries moral sensibilities significant to human health and environmental survival[, encompassing m]oral values such as regard for the other, the insistence that meaning is not the possession of things, a sense of history which extends beyond the boundaries of national identity, and a language which provides motivation for courage and the commitment of all kinds of personal and institutional resources we may not even know we have.”

This, I think, is the key.  If we’re going to bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice, we need moral motivation in terms of moral sensibilities and moral values.  It’s no accident that the tens of thousands of people, perhaps a hundred thousand people, who gathered in Raleigh, North Carolina a week ago did so under the banner of a Mass Moral March.  Reporter Jaimie Fuller, in an article in The Washington Post, explained that a large part of the success of that movement is the central role of “morality as a way to fight for progressive issues, and a way of challenging the Christian Right’s use of religion”.  In his speech that day, the Reverend Dr. William J. Barber II, president of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP, certainly made it clear that this is not about political parties or partisan ideologies but about right and wrong.

Now if all this talk about moral this, that and the other is triggering nightmarish flashbacks to being caught in a childhood transgression by an overly strict nun at some parochial school — even if that wasn’t actually your childhood — consider what Jay Michaelson, who writes about spirituality, Judaism, sexuality and law, has to say not just about morality but about sin.

[T]he grammar of sin — [only] without its vocabulary — is [in fact] alive and well in progressive religious circles.  Consider how progressives respond when we learn that someone we know is racist, or sexist.  If you’re like me and every other progressive I know, you probably recoil in disgust.  That moral disgust — which neuroscientists tell us activates the same parts of the brain as physical disgust — is […] the quintessential reaction of a purity violation.

This is from a recent article of Michaelson’s entitled “Climate Change Is a Sin — Here’s How to Repent For It”.  He explains what he means by this as follows.

Climate change is a sin, but it’s a special kind of sin.  It’s not a personal failure but a societal one.  We sin collectively (interestingly, in Jewish liturgy, almost all confessionals are in the first-person plural), and if we are to repent, we must repent collectively.  That means re-engaging with the people we can’t stand — including people who talk about “sin” — and finding ways to communicate with them, rather than preach to the already converted.

This, really, is our challenge.  This, I think, is the real point of the National Preach-In on Climate Change.  It’s certainly not to “preach to the already converted.”  Rather, it’s to figure out how we can work in moral coalitions just like Rev. Barber’s Forward Together Movement.  As Michaelson puts it,

Climate change is a collective sin, and it requires collective repentance: alliances with the evangelical-led “creation care” movement, recasting the issue in public moral terms rather than the language of progressive cul-de-sacs, and a de-partisanization of moral good and evil.  It is not enough to be the change you want to see in the world.  You also have to fight for it.

So, since I don’t like ending a sermon in which I’ve described a big problem without giving you something you can do about it, here’s something you can do about it.

Outside the Sanctuary, we have a table set up where you can fill out postcards to our Senators, Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, asking them to support the Environmental Protection Agency’s Carbon Pollution Standards for new and existing power plants.  These postcards have been provided by Interfaith Power and Light, and we printed extras to hopefully have enough.  They read, “I believe we have a moral obligation to future generations to leave them a planet that is not polluted or damaged by climate change.  We all need to do our part as stewards of Creation.”  Please fill out a postcard with your name and address to one Senator, or fill out one to each, and we’ll mail them all in together,* along with tens and perhaps hundreds of thousands of postcards from Preach-Ins in congregations all over the country this weekend.

These postcards are one way we can raise our collective voice to not only be the change we want to see in the world, but to fight for it.  This is the work to which we are called, the work of realizing the Beloved Community, the work of co-creating a sustainable future for human society and for all life on Earth.

So may it be.

* We mailed a total of eighty-eight postcards to the Senators!

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Letter to the Editor, February 18th 2014

(UPDATE: This was published in the letters section of the February 23rd issue.)

To the Editor, Daily Press:

Sunday’s article about Judge Wright Allen once again affirms the old canard that scripture and church doctrine are opposed to any form of marriage but that between one man and one woman.

But this isn’t just a duck, but a fish, too.

Individual religious beliefs may motivate how we act as individuals — as was the case for myself and twenty-three other people of faith when we gathered at the Newport News Circuit Court on Valentine’s Day to witness for marriage equality — but it’s a red herring to imply that religion should determine how our society should act.

Wright Allen is a judge of the law, which in the United States is defined not by the Bible but by the Constitution.

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To Create a Dynamic Community the Celebrates Life and Searches for Truths

(I delivered this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on November 17th 2013.)

The mission of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula is to create a dynamic community that celebrates life and searches for truths.

Many of you know that before I went into ministry I had a career in science.  I trace this back to my childhood, when I first found a fascination with machinery.  Well, to be precise, it came from a children’s television show that was set in an antiques store and featured a cast of toys who came to life after hours.  The toy mice were typically the troublemakers in every episode, and in one they tricked the other toys into thinking they had a machine that made cookies.  The mice emptied small sacks of flour and sugar and other ingredients into one end of the machine, and a nice round cookie came rolling out of the other end.  It turned out that the mice were just taking the one cookie and bringing it around the back of the machine and sending it rolling out the front again, and soon enough the other toys figured out that it was all a trick.  But I liked cookies, at least the ones my mother baked, and I thought to myself that it must be possible to build a machine that really took flour and sugar and other ingredients and actually make cookies.  It was just a matter of figuring out how to build such a machine.

A couple of years later I was introduced to chemistry, and that seemed even better.  For one thing, I think I’d realized by then that you could simply buy cookies that were made by machines, and that took away of the challenge.  But chemistry!  You could take this little glass tube of something blue and heat it up over a flame and it would turn white.  And then, you could add a little water, and what had been this white ashy stuff would turn a brilliant blue again.  It was like magic!  The possibilities seemed endless for transforming substances into one another, for making things that would change color or burn with bright flames or give off strange smells.  I wanted to find out more, to find out what could be done in a chemistry laboratory.  When my parents gave me a chemistry set that Christmas, I asked about using a storage shed at the back of our garden to do experiments.  They agreed, perhaps wanting to encourage this budding interest of mine, perhaps thinking that at least I’d be outdoors.

Some time in high school, though, we were introduced to organic chemistry, and some of the attraction wore off.  We were expected to learn about these techniques for bringing about certain reactions, but the catalysts that were used and whether something actually worked or not, well, it all just seemed so random.  In the mean-time, I’d been learning about physics, about laws and forces and particles and space and time.  Chemistry, we’d been taught, was a consequence of physics, so physics was more fundamental, and it opened up whole new vistas of imagination.  I had started reading science fiction, too, and the mere chance it might be possible to travel faster than light, to explore other star systems, well, I wanted to find out everything I could about what really makes the Universe tick.

I think I took that about as far as I could.  In graduate school I worked with a professor who developed an alternative formulation of quantum mechanics, and though I helped him flesh out some of his ideas a little further, I was reaching the limits of what I was able to do with the mathematics.  It wasn’t much consolation that other professors working on the bleeding edge of physics were saying things like how five new fields of mathematics would have to be invented just to capture some of the concepts then being proposed.

After graduate school, I was fortunate to have research work that paid me enough to maintain a frugal lifestyle, but I was at something of a loss for a few years.  I did some teaching, which I enjoyed, but otherwise found myself back where I started, figuring out how to make machines that did particular things.  Not make cookies, I’m sad to say.  No, I was building microscopes that could look at biological processes in living cells.  The professors for whom I worked got their funding on the basis of the potential applications for diagnosing certain diseases, for understanding the mechanisms of such diseases, and perhaps even for therapeutic treatments in some cases.  So having been to the frontiers of our understanding of reality, so to speak, I now found myself drawn to finding ways to help people, even if only indirectly by figuring out new tools and techniques that others could use in their research of better diagnostics and treatments.

Though some have wondered how I moved from physics to ministry, I don’t see it as such a big leap when I look back at it.  Ministry is considered a helping profession, and it gives me a great deal of satisfaction to accompany someone as they try to figure out what’s going on in their lives, to help them find creative, compassionate ways to respond to the struggles that they face.  And when it comes to religion, to understanding what it means to be human and how we can be our best with one another, well, the challenges and the possibilities are even greater than they are in science.  Though my career, my vocation, my calling has changed, I’m still searching for the same truths.

The mission of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula is to create a dynamic community that celebrates life

July 19th will be one of the most important days of each year for the rest of my life.  It was the day last year on which my daughter was born, and so July 19th will always be for me, first and foremost, Olivia’s birthday.  I shall never forget her first cries as she was delivered; I held tight to Allison’s hand and the world stood still in that moment.  Someone took a picture of the three of us; I don’t remember who — it doesn’t really matter — but I’ll treasure that picture forever.  Many hours later, after a long day in the hospital, busier than any we had known before, and having shared our happy news with family and friends, we were finally able to sleep, filled with joy for this precious gift of a child in our lives.

Unfortunately July 20th woke us with decidedly unhappy news.  We noticed that some of our friends had posted on Facebook their reassurances that they were okay, and we wondered what had happened that might have caused them to not be okay.  Turning on the news, we learned that a man had opened fire at a movie theater in Colorado, killing a dozen people and wounding dozens more.  And our hearts sank when we recognized the theater, not far from where we had lived in Aurora just a few years ago, and where we had ourselves watched movies.  A couple of our friends had even planned to go to the movie showing where the shooting had happened, but thankfully decided in the end to go to a different movie theater.

It was hard to wrap our minds around both the great joy of Olivia’s birth and the great sorrow of so many pointless deaths in Aurora.  There was, of course, very little we could do about the latter, other than to reach out to our friends in Colorado, to say that we were thinking about them, that we were with them in their grief.  As for here in Newport News, we had a baby to look after, we had to get ready to go home, and we had to take the plunge into our new lives as parents.  Through it all we were reminded of what really matters in life, something that is both precious and all too brief.  We were filled with gratitude to the doctors and nurses who looked after both Allison and Olivia, to our parents for all of their love and support, and to the members of this congregation who helped us in so many ways both before and after Olivia was born.  And we found ourselves filled with hope, hope for Olivia’s future, hope for all of us, hope that even in the midst of tragic events we would always be able to find the courage to celebrate life.  For how do we truly respond to tragedies — from the man-made evil of the Boston Marathon bombing to the natural devastation of Typhoon Haiyan — if not from a place of celebrating life?

That’s a big part of what being here is all about, of course.  Joy and sorrow, reasons to celebrate and reasons to grieve, life gives them to us together.  Often we can’t do much about that, so it’s what we do with it that makes all the difference.  And it can be a really big difference.

Three years ago, for example, a few of us decided that we wanted to start observing Transgender Day of Remembrance here at the Fellowship.  I can say without reservation that it is one of the hardest things we do.  The main element in it is the reading of names, the names of people who were transgender or did not conform to gender stereotypes and who were killed by others out of fear and hatred.  Hearing what happened to each person, many of whom were not just violently killed but cruelly mutilated as well, your faith in humanity is called into question.  Reading aloud what happened… well, it’s hard to do that.  And yet we’re doing it again this afternoon, the third year we’ve observed Transgender Day of Remembrance, refusing to give in to the sorrow, to the shame of what some people are willing to do to others.  We do it, paradoxically, as a celebration of life, accepting the sorrow but standing resolutely against the fear and the hatred, lifting the small lights of faith that beckon us all onward into a world where all of us can be fully human, fully realized and, most importantly, fully loved.

The mission of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula is to create a dynamic community

When I first went to seminary, I took courses part-time while I continued to work in my research job full-time.  I spent five years, in fact, doing a third of the coursework I’d ultimately complete, and at the end of that time, when I was about to move from Connecticut to Colorado in order to complete my studies, I gave a farewell sermon at the Unitarian Society of Hartford, thanking them for their support and encouragement, describing some of what I’d learned, and sharing some of my hopes and plans.

Something I noted was that, in at least eight out of the ten courses I’d taken, I’d come to address the meaning of community, the importance of religious community, not just in courses on congregational studies but in courses on topics from environmental ethics to the letters of Paul to the Corinthians.  I’ve since realized, though, that this was more than just an academic interest to me.

When I was a child, about the time I started to get interested in science, I got my sister and the boy next door together to organize the other children on our street into our naïve idea of a gang.  Our base was the shed at the back of my parent’s garden that I was using as a chemistry laboratory, and perhaps a wise observer might have guessed I was destined for church work when our main activity was holding committee meetings.

A few years later my school bought its first computers, and a another student and I thought it’d be a good idea to learn more about how to use them, so we organized a computer club to teach ourselves what we thought we needed to know.  In high school I started a science society, to bring in local speakers to talk to us about topics that added a real-world dimension to what we were learning in classes.  Or, in the case of yours truly, to give a talk about time-travel.  At university I joined a host of student organizations on topics from physics and astronomy to music appreciation and learning to sing Russian folk songs.  Perhaps you can see something of a pattern emerging here.

Things changed when I came to the United States. I didn’t participate in many official clubs or societies in graduate school, but I found a fairly close-knit group of friends amongst the mathematicians, who for whatever reason were much more sociable than my fellow physicists.  And, thanks to my girlfriend at the time, I went up to New York a couple of times a week to sing in a large college choir.  It wasn’t until I was living in San Diego that I really found myself part of an organized community again.  At first that was with a group of students and university alumni who met for dinner each week to talk about science fiction and go to the movies.  And then it was when I organized the Pantheists of Southern California, bringing together for meals and talks and hikes a variety of people who saw divinity in the Universe and sacredness in Nature.  And when I moved back to the East Coast — and having finally heard about Unitarian Universalism after nearly a decade of living in this country, which was way too long not to have heard about Unitarian Universalism — one of the first things I did was join the Unitarian Society of Hartford.

So looking back, it’s really not surprising that in all those seminary courses, I found some way to bring the course material to bear on the subject of community.  I wanted to find out what community means; I wanted to find out what makes a community tick; I clearly wanted to be part of a community, no matter my age, occupation or place in the world.  I’m still figuring it out, of course.  Being here at the Fellowship for three-plus years has been eye-opening, that’s for sure.  And in a good way!  You may not realize what a gift it truly is to be immersed in such a great community as thrives here.  I know I’m blessed to be a part of it.

The mission of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula is to create a dynamic community that celebrates life and searches for truths.

In the last month I preached three sermons that all had the word “church” in their titles.  I’d intended for the first two to be a pair — though I hadn’t realized that it would lead to a bidding war at the auction over who would get to select a topic for one of my future sermons!  But the third sermon turned out to be a part three, so I’ve been referring to them, when people ask about being able to read them and share them with others, as the “church” trilogy.

In planning for this service, I realized I didn’t want to do what would essentially be part four of the “church” trilogy.  Yes, our mission is important, and it’s something that we all need to keep in mind as the true owner of this Fellowship.  Our “bottom line” as a congregation truly is, as Dan Hotchkiss asserts, the degree to which our mission is being achieved.  Yes, I want you all to read the UUFP Planning Committee’s report, and to re-read it if you’ve done it before.  It’s on the website, and the Planning Committee wants to know what you think, too, with a survey that is going out to everyone this week; please do take the time to respond.  And yes, how we achieve our mission and realize our vision and implement a strategic plan for doing both hinges critically on leadership and on leadership development and on the willingness of every member and friend of this beloved community to engage, at some level, with the life and ministry of this congregation.  But I’ve come to the conclusion that I won’t convince anyone of any of that by preaching a part four of the “church” trilogy.  If you think you might be convinced by reading those three sermons, great, I can tell you how you can do that, but this morning I thought I’d try a different approach.

So I told you about myself, about some of my own personal history when it comes to searching for truths in science and religion, when it comes to celebrating life in both joy and sadness, and when it comes to the pursuit of a dynamic community where I could belong.  But I know I’m not the only one with such narratives, with similar stories about growing up and finding friends and discovering what really matters in life.  And that is why we are here.  It’s why our mission to create a dynamic community that celebrates life and searches for truths is the true owner of this congregation, because it reflects what has brought us here and who we already are.

Let me finish with this request.  I want to hear your stories.  I want to hear your stories about your searching for truths and your celebrations of life and your need for a dynamic community where you belong.  So send me an e-mail.  Write me an old-fashioned letter.  Post something on your blog and give me the link.  Invite me for coffee at Starbucks or Aroma’s.  I want to hear your stories, and for that matter I want you to share them with one another, too.  Because our mission and everything that comes with it reflects what has brought us here and who we already are, so your stories matter.  And it’s in the telling of them that we’ll create a dynamic community that celebrates life and searches for truths.

So may it be.

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How to Disagree

(I delivered this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on August 18th 2013.)

People’s Parable: “The Argument Clinic” by Monty Python

Aria: “Let the Goodness In” by Tret Fure

Sermon: “How to Disagree”

I’d like to begin my sermon with a very quick show of hands.  Please raise your hand if you’ve ever disagreed with somebody else.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to any of us that we have all experienced disagreements in our lives.  Many of them were mild differences of opinion that didn’t really matter.  Some of them led to arguments that hurt feelings and changed relationships, at least for a while.  And a few of them led to greater conflicts that — in the absence of any other way forward — ended relationships.

I’ve been thinking about the subject of “how to disagree” for a while now.  It’s relevant to all of our personal lives, of course, but it’s particularly relevant in the context of a religious community such as ours that makes the breathtakingly stunning — and thoroughly counter-cultural — claim that in spite of differences in belief and differences in opinion we can nonetheless be in community with one another.  After all, we don’t have to pay for a session at an argument clinic to find somebody who’s going to disagree with us on something.  When it does happen, though, it’d be nice to think there was something constructive we could do instead of sinking to the lowest level of flinging “Yes, it is.” and “No, it isn’t.” back and forth, even though that’s apparently the approach to national governance that Congress thinks is best.

We can, of course, try to avoid disagreement altogether, and it’s actually not too hard to do that these days.  After all, whatever your position on almost any issue, you can choose to tune into the radio and television stations that seem to endorse similar positions.  And you can do that even more effectively on-line, frequenting those websites and blogs and following those people on Facebook and Twitter whose ideas and values match your own.

It’s natural, of course, to be most comfortable around people with worldviews and opinions that are similar to our own, but it’s not healthy — intellectually, emotionally, spiritually — to be entirely surrounded by people who agree with us.  It’s to live in a fantasyland that drifts further and further away from reality, floating off in an ideological bubble that will inevitably burst with severe if not devastating consequences for those inside it.  It feels good to be safe and secure in that bubble, right up until the moment when reality intrudes and we realize that our safety and security were only illusions.  No matter how good it feels to be Emperor, none of us wants to realize, in the end, that we actually have no clothes.

So I’m convinced that, given our Unitarian Universalist declaration of our commitments to diversity and pluralism, we have an obligation to do better ourselves, and to take what we learn here and help the wider world do better, too.  After all, knowing how to disagree is essential for the healthy functioning of a congregation.  Knowing how to disagree means that we understand that the democratic process does not mean that we’ll agree all the time but rather hinges on our willingness to remain in loving covenant no matter our disagreements.  Those holding minority opinions have the right to be heard expressing those opinions, for example, but once a decision has been made, they also have the right to be just as much valued members of the community as they were before.

And that’s important not only for the health of the people within these walls, but for how we relate to — and hope to make a difference in — the world beyond our walls.  As a warning against the temptations of trivial disagreements, for instance, Unitarian Universalist minister Dick Gilbert relates the traditional anecdote that “while [the] revolution was raging in St. Petersburg in 1917, a convocation of the Russian Orthodox Church was in session a few blocks away, engaged in bitter debate over what color vestments their priests should wear.”  That’s a pretty egregious example, but there are a few similar stories from Unitarian Universalist history, too.

So I’ve collected a few guidelines for how to disagree.  Just to be clear, I’m not talking about social justice issues, where it’s definitely not acceptable to merely agree to disagree with people promoting homophobia or restrictions on women’s reproductive rights or environmental exploitation.  Rather, I’m talking about the majority of disagreements that most of us encounter here or at home or at work as we go about our daily lives.  And my emphasis will be on staying in relationship with one another in spite of our differences.

Now my default position here comes from the claim that, as human beings, our identities are defined by our relationships.  I don’t just mean our ‘intimate’ relationships, of course, or family relationships, but also varying degrees of friendship, from the people with whom we work and serve and volunteer to the people we encounter at the supermarket or the gas station or the airport.  Thanks to the Universalist side of our tradition, I take as an article of faith that it is possible to be in ‘right’ relationship with anyone.  But there does appear to be an exception, and, since I continually try to come to terms with the fact that I am limited and mortal, I’ve had to accept that that’s okay.

Here’s why there’s an exception — or perhaps it’d be better to call it an escape clause.

Researchers at Baruch College in New York recently published a study in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships that showed that “not only is ignoring obnoxious people more effective at silencing them than actually speaking to them or engaging them in discussion, it’s healthier and less mentally draining on you as well.”  As one reporter titled her article about the research, “Ostracism worthwhile when dealing with jerks”.  To quickly summarize the results, the participants in the study were each asked to either interact with or ignore another person for a few minutes and then perform a task requiring mental effort.  If the other person was likeable and engaging, the participants who interacted did better at the task.  But if the other person was rude and offensive, the participants who used the silent treatment did better.

Now this study really just quantifies something we already knew: being around good people makes us better, while being around jerks makes us worse.  Still, it has some implications for us.  First, yes, removing ourselves from interactions with obnoxious people is a tool of self-preservation.  Second, we need to be aware of when we’re becoming rude and offensive ourselves, or we’ll deserve the silent treatment, too.  But third, and this is where Universalist faith re-asserts itself in the face of our human limits and frailties, we must leave space for the person who used to be obnoxious.  It may not be possible to always be in right relationship, but we can remain open to trying, to the possibility of being in right relationship.  After all, sometimes we’re the ones being jerks, and we should always be able to hope that, once we snap out of it and shape up, there’ll be a place for us in community again.

I know there’ve been plenty of times in my life when I’ve been the rude and offensive person.  Looking back I usually realize it was because I was under stress or grieving or, less acceptably, because I was tired or hungry.  In most cases I was able to apologize afterwards and right relationship was restored.  Recognizing my own failings, I try to be more understanding when it’s the other person who seems obnoxious, silently offering them compassion for whatever trials they might be encountering in their own life.  It might not improve their behavior toward me, but it helps prevent the deterioration of my behavior toward them.  As author — and creator of Peter Pan — J. M. Barrie put it, “Never ascribe to an opponent motives meaner than your own.”

Another piece of wise advice comes to us from psychologist, author and dating coach Mark Mason.  At the top of his list of “Six Toxic Relationship Habits Most People Think Are Normal” is keeping a scorecard of the other person’s past mistakes for the sole purpose of dredging them up as ammunition in the current disagreement.  (Related to that is the use of words like “always” and “never” to make sweeping generalizations about the other person’s misbehavior.)  The scorecard is toxic because each person ends up spending more time reopening old wounds to prove that they are less wrong than in finding the right answer to the current situation.  Rather, says Mason, unless there’s clearly some recurring problem, each issue should be dealt with on its own terms.

While it’s important to avoid making disagreements personal, such as in terms of the other person’s past and unrelated actions, sometimes it’s important to acknowledge, at least to yourself, that a disagreement is personal, at least in that it really has nothing to do with what the disagreement is supposedly about.  You’ve heard — or at least heard of — the cliché, usually in the context of break-ups, “It’s not you; it’s me.”  Well, no, sometimes it really is them.  It’s not helpful to point that out, of course.  But when another person has an unexpectedly strong disagreement or a difference of opinion that just seems to come out of nowhere or a piece of what seems like overly critical feedback, it may simply be best to listen to them, to reassure them that you’ve heard what they had to say, and to move on.  If it helps, you can say to yourself the mantra that I’ve heard Unitarian Universalist minister and Mountain Desert District Executive Nancy Bowen claim as an alternative meaning of “WTF”: Wasn’t that fascinating!

Another piece of wisdom I gained from Nancy is the importance of asking if the object of the disagreement is worth it.  Is your goal in disagreeing worth what it will cost?  Or in Nancy’s words, “Is this a ditch I’m willing to die in?”  And that’s a great question because it forces you to actually identify your goal, to figure out what you’re trying to achieve by disagreeing.

After all, when my wife and I are at the supermarket and talking about buying some ice-cream, we may disagree about what flavor to buy.  But if I want chocolate and she wants strawberry, it’s not a relationship disaster.  Perhaps there’s a “buy one, get one free” deal that would let us each get our preferred flavor without spending a lot.  Or perhaps we could just make do with Neapolitan.  There doesn’t have to be a winner-take-all argument over which flavor of ice-cream is better, something that is entirely subjective anyway, and the only purpose of our disagreeing is to express personal preferences that can readily be satisfied.

Sometimes when we stop and think about why we’re disagreeing, we realize it’s really about not much more than, well, which flavor of ice-cream we prefer.  About ten years ago, I was in an on-going argument with my boss — who was the professor of the research group I was in — about the experiments I was doing.  I was having the hardest time showing him that I was actually getting the results he was expecting, and it was stressing me out to the point that I developed my first bout of sinusitis and would break out into uncontrollable coughing whenever I saw him coming.  After redoing the experiments, and rebuilding the equipment, again and again, for weeks and then months, I finally realized that it came down to the colors I was using to plot my data.  He preferred a different color scale and he couldn’t see what I saw in the one I usually used.  Well, that was easy to resolve.  What’s more, once I’d used his preferred colors to show him my results, he was fine with me publishing them using my preferred colors.

Knowing what it is we’re trying to achieve — and being honest about it with ourselves — makes all the difference.  Judith Martin, who is better known as Miss Manners, recently answered a letter from someone who was trying to get to a train but was stuck on the stairs behind someone who, as it turned out, was texting.  It was raining and it was rush hour, so the traveler asked if the texter would mind finishing at the bottom of the stairs.  Now the texter was holding up a lot of people who were also getting wet, so the traveler was surprised when the texter got angry and responded rudely.  Miss Manners answered the letter by first taking the traveler to task for wrapping the incident in selfless virtue.  After all, the problem for the traveler wasn’t really that someone else was texting, perhaps even for very important reasons, or that other people were getting wet.  The problem for the traveler was that the traveler couldn’t get past.  Being honest about that, Miss Manners pointed out, would have led to the traveler simply saying something like “I’m sorry, but can I get by?” rather than committing the first “rudeness” of the situation by criticizing the texter’s actions.  (This is actually one of the central lessons of Non-Violent or Compassionate Communication, something that two UUFP members are teaching us about this Fall.)

So, to recap: know your purpose in disagreeing; recognize when it’s not about you; avoid making disagreements personal; deal with each issue on its own terms; assume the other person means as at least as well as you do; walk away from obnoxious behavior, but allow for that behavior to change; and, beware the temptations of the trivial, because you might miss the revolution.

These are, of course, guidelines, not rules.  Human relationships being what they are, there are no simple, technical solutions.  And whatever anybody says, it’s always easier said than done.  All of us — you; me; even, I’d be prepared to bet, Miss Manners — have to work at it.  But it’s worth it, because here’s the thing about disagreement: it’s going to happen.  For a congregation or any other community to be healthy does not mean that there are no disagreements.  In fact, nearly the opposite is true: if there are never any disagreements, then that’s reflective of decadence, apathy and lack of purpose, which indicates only a worthless form of health.  Rather, a community that is dynamic, vibrant and mission-centered will encounter disagreements amongst reasonable, well-meaning and honest people, and the health of that community is measured by how well those disagreements are held, in love, by the community as a whole.

Two hundred years ago, this was part of the message of the great Universalist preacher Hosea Ballou.  Riding on horseback between churches to preach the good news of universal salvation, Ballou drew out the implications of his theology for what it means for how we treat one another in life.  “If we agree in love,” he said, “there is no disagreement that can do us any injury.”  It’s love, and what we love, that holds together a community, a congregation, a church, love that transcends differences of belief and differences of opinion, love that holds us together no matter our disagreements over the color of our vestments or our choices of vocabulary.  But Ballou went on: “if we do not [agree in love], no other agreement can do us any good.”  In other words, love matters most and everything else, if it is not in service to love, is for naught.

So here’s my final guideline for how to disagree.  Ask yourself what you love, and what the person with whom you are disagreeing loves.  Look at how that love holds you, both of you, in the space of disagreement.  Think about what you have in common, the values you share, and the goals to which you are working together.  Remember that no matter what, for this brief moment in time, might appear to be keeping you apart, you are held in love.

So may it be.

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The Spirituality of “Powers of Ten”

Changing the World @ the UUFP

For all that is our life! by Rev. Andrew Clive Millard

The rainstorm and the river are my brothers;
The heron and the otter are my friends;
And we are all connected to each other
In a circle, in a hoop that never ends.
— from “Colors of the Wind”, lyrics by Stephen Schwartz

As a young child, I used to come home from school and watch the television programs that the BBC put together specifically for school-age children.  There’d be a couple of Hanna-Barbera cartoons, but also in the mix were programs about art and creative projects, or solving puzzles, or making a difference by helping other people.  There was even a ten-minute news show, talking about current events in a positive and child-friendly way.

While I don’t remember many specifics of the programs I watched, there’s one I remember very clearly.  It was a short movie that, starting…

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