2018-04-26

Practices for Paying Attention to Money

Theology of Money, part 3

First, budget. If at your house, there is a precise monthly budget, and you keep track of every dollar spent and what budget category it falls under, then you are doing a wonderful spiritual practice of noticing your life and what it is for. Budgeting is a spiritual practice (SEE HERE). Making a budget and knowing where and when you exceed it really is a deep spiritual practice of paying attention to your life. Awareness of where and when you exceed your budget lines is a spiritual grounding that then allows you to be intentional about deciding what to do about those overruns.

Second, take a hard look at what your spending on yourself does for you. There are three overall categories for where your money goes: saving, giving it away, and everything else is spending. When you’ve been budgeting for a while, tracking your spending, you can begin to see the patterns more clearly. Then the question for each expense: Is this really helping me? What spending is helping you be happy, improving your overall well-being, and what really isn’t? Are you spending more than what’s doing you any good? Maybe your next budget can begin shifting some money out of the spending categories and into one of the two other categories: saving and giving.

It’s amazing how willing human beings are to keep buying stuff that not only isn’t helping them be any happier, but is actually making them unhappy. Studies show that as we become less materialistic, our well-being improves, and that as our well-being improves we become less materialistic. It’s a spiritual practice of health and joy to intentionally assess whether the spending on yourself is helping – and how much of it is harmful habits that are only weighing you down.

In particular, if that spending has been leading to debt, then it’s a double-killer: you carry the burden of the debt and of the materialism. I read that in 2017 the average American has a credit card balance of $6,375 – and that’s up nearly three percent from the year before. Oh, ouch. That’s a spiritual issue because it’s such a weight on the spirit.

Third, give. What’s your money for? It’s for doing good in the world. Take care of yourself – which includes stopping spending on what you don’t need – and give away the rest. Give away more. I like the website givewell.org for rating charities for maximum effectiveness for every dollar you give. Some charities directly help people who are suffering and others work for systemic change so that the systems that create suffering can be reformed. Giving food to the hungry doesn’t address the need to change the system that leaves people hungry. At the same time, supporting systemic change so that eventually everyone will be able to feed themselves doesn’t feed any of the people who are hungry right now. So my suggestion would be dividing your charitable giving evenly between those two categories, 50-50.

Fourth, get used to thinking in terms of percentages of your income. I always like to see non-round numbers being pledged. A pledge of $3,142 and 18 cents tells me that this is a person who thoughtfully determines their pledge as a percentage of income. They know what their adjusted gross income is, they decided what percent of that was what they wanted to give to our congregation, and pledged a percent, rather than picking a round dollar amount.

Once you’re thinking of the allocation of your resources in terms of percents, a good starter guideline is 10-10-80. Save 10 percent. Give away 10 percent. Live on the other 80 percent. 10-10-80. (More on 10-10-80 budgeting HERE.) Certainly at different phases of life, and at different income levels, those percentages need to be different. Maybe you can afford to be giving away 20 percent. Or 50 percent. Don’t be stuck on 10 percent giving if you have open to you the possibilities of giving away much higher percents. There is such amazing joy in that – don’t hold yourself back if you don’t need to.

Or maybe saving 10 percent is too much because your retirement is as set as it needs to be, and you have no debts, and your kids inheritance is already all that it needs to be – any additional wouldn’t really be doing them any favors -- so you’re at a place where saving 10 percent is too much. Don’t be stuck on that 10 percent either. But as a beginning point for being intentional about who you are in the world, what your resources stand for, 10-10-80 is a good starting point. You might adopt 10-10-80 and live into that for a year or so and then see what adjustments would be fulfilling, given your position.

Spirituality is a path – it’s a path of awareness and intentionality, of waking up to ourselves and what we are and what we’re doing instead of being pulled along by unexamined habits and impulses. Spirituality of money recognizes that what we do and are includes what we do and are with our resources.

So tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious cashflow?

* * *
This is part 3 of 3 of "Theology of Money"
See also
Part 1: Erosion of the Nonmarket
Part 2: Market Harms and Market Benefits

2018-04-23

Earth Day Attention

A tale in the Zen tradition has it that a student came to visit a master, a spiritual teacher. Finding the teacher at calligraphy, the student asked, “Please write for me something of great wisdom.”

The teacher’s brush glided over a fresh sheet, writing a single word: “Attention.” The student said, “Is that all?”

The master wrote, “Attention. Attention.” The student, perplexed, said, “That doesn’t seem profound or subtle.”

So the teacher wrote, “Attention. Attention. Attention.” The student paused, unsure, before asking, “What does this word ‘attention’ mean?”

The master replied, “Attention means attention.”

Speaking of calligraphy, some years ago, I was gifted with a lovely wall hanging of Japanese calligraphy. According to the note taped to the back, the translation is: “It is mind that deludes mind, for there is no other mind. O, mind, do not let yourself be misled by mind.”

So there you have it. The spiritual path is simple: attention. But, the mind plays tricks on us.

On this glorious day, celebrating our planet home, we attend. The winter’s beauty of white subsides to spring’s beauty of green, and we feel the salvific power in this reliable rhythm.

Ecospirituality – attention to how our experience of the divine comes through the natural world – connects, and connecting to the sacredness of the earth saves us – saves us from being only half-alive. Attention is what will save the Earth, if it will be saved.

One of the lessons – insights that come on the spiritual path of attention – is that reality is never depressing. Being in denial, being out of touch with reality, pushing it out of consciousness, so that it has to sneak around, come at you from behind, and crawl up your back (for reality eventually finds a way to get through to us), THAT can be a source of depression. Resisting reality is stressful -- reality isn’t. Attention to exactly “what is” cultivates joy. Even if “what is” is pain.

Dear ones, the good news is: you and I are going to die. That’s great news because it means we don’t have to figure out how to live forever – get everything solved, all threats removed, so that we can then relax into our immortality. We don't bear that responsibility. We only have this short time -- a day, a year maybe, or possibly a few decades -- and all we have to do is show up for just this brief time. That's all. Knowing I am blessed with an ironclad exit strategy, knowing the divine takes form only temporarily in the body and set of ego defenses called "Meredith," I am liberated. My task is no more (and no less) than to manifest this transience that I am – to pay attention, for time is short.

Yes, drink in this day: how good the sunlight and warmth feel, how delightful the budding green, how fresh the springtime air. Let not this manifestation of the divine pass unnoticed. Let not creation play to an empty house. Attention!

And attention, also, to the pain and grief: climate change, deforestation, species extinction, lost biodiversity, soil degradation, ocean acidification, air pollution. Hold all that sadness, my friends – for it is the Earth’s pain, and therefore it is yours. Shrink not from it, for our capacity to fully experience sadness is equal to our capacity to fully experience joy is equal to our capacity to fully experience life. In other words, love is love is love is love, as Lin Manuel Miranda put it.

Reality is never depressing, but it does contain much pain and loss. Taking in the sadness is actually the opposite of depression, for depression is disconnecting, while holding the sadness is an act of connecting. Depression is dull while grief is sharp.

Attention. Attention.

Yet the mind plays tricks on us. It retreats from attention, unable to sustain its hold on the exquisite sharpness of life. It slips back into sedative notions.

“It’s futile,” the mind whispers. “You can’t prevent climate change, or deforestation, or any of the threats.” But this is not what the spirit asks. The spirit simply asks for your attention.

“Perhaps technological breakthroughs will solve everything,” the mind muses. News stories this week, for example, touted the discovery of enzymes that eat plastic. So, yes, 1 million plastic bottles are sold each minute, only 14% of them will be recycled, and many of the rest end up in the ocean in huge plastic garbage patches. But these new enzymes can take care of all that.

Maybe.

Maybe we’ll develop economical technology to suck carbon out of the air and sequester it. I might point out that we already have a really economical device for doing that. It’s called a tree, but worldwide, we’re still cutting them down faster than we’re planting them.

We might be about to develop cold fusion: unlimited, nonpolluting energy for everyone forever.

“Oh, mind, do not let yourself be misled by mind.”

Yes, technological development happens, but remember we’ve never been able to predict where the developments will occur. And when a development does occur, we are similarly lousy at predicting its side-effects. We see the solutions offered but not the new problems caused by every new technology.

Attention. Attention. Attention.

Small acts of attention and care – therein is salvation. “To cherish what remains of the Earth and to foster its renewal,” said Wendell Berry, “is our only legitimate hope of survival.”

2018-04-21

Market Harms and Market Benefits

Theology of Money, part 2

In some realms of life, we mix market value (quantifiable in dollar amounts) and nonmarket (nonquantifiable) value. The non-profit sector, the public sector, and the caring professions represent a mix of measurable value – measured by its price and costs – with intangible, immeasurable values. The trend has been toward market thinking becoming increasingly ascendant.

Where Market Values Become Problematic

Take the nonprofit sector – paradigmatically, or what used to be a paradigm -- the hospital. We have seen the rise of the for-profit hospital, replacing the traditional hospital that was nonprofit. The nonprofit sector, of course, was never divorced from market realities. Hospitals always had to meet payroll, buy and maintain a building and equipment. What they didn't pay, however, were profits to shareholders. As market creep moved into healthcare, market logic said that everything was about the money. Market logic carried us from, “the hospital has to bring in money to carry out its mission,” to “therefore people can invest in the hospital's ability to bring in money and reap dividends.” That’s a step we might have done better to resist.

The difference may not be visible on the surface, but a difference there is between:
  • The hospital’s purpose is caring for people and money is a means to that end,
and
  • The hospital’s purpose is to make money, and caring for people is the means to that end.
When it comes to my auto mechanic, I’m OK with a purely market orientation. She fixes my car; I pay her. We’re both getting all that we want and humanly need from that relationship. But something is lost when fixing my body is seen the same way as fixing my car – something about honoring my personhood as an end in itself not a means only.

The nonprofit sector exists because of that human need that certain kinds of relationship have an element of nonmarket immeasurable value mixed in with the market-measurable value. With each shrinkage of the nonprofit sector, we as a people become just a little more cynical, a little more hardened, a little less in awe of the unquantifiable sacredness of ourselves and each other.

Markets Sometimes a Moral Force

A theology of money would also acknowledge the great good of markets, which includes not merely economic good, but moral good. When people buy and sell from each other, they don’t have to fight each other for stuff. Between nations, the rise of markets has reduced the temptation to go to war. That’s a moral good.

In the market, it doesn’t matter if we agree on anything besides price. Your ethnicity, your religion, your crazy political opinions don’t matter. You pay the money, you get the groceries. Through markets, the human species learned at last how to engage cooperatively with people we would otherwise despise. We learned to set aside the differences that divided us and just “do business.”

When the US passed fair housing legislation in the 1960s, that was a triumph of justice through an insistence that market logic prevail. If your house is for sale or rent, you may not refuse it to someone based on race. Market logic, which cares only about whether the asking price can be met, must trump racial prejudice, we said – and that was an important step toward justice.

In some areas, we need still need more market logic, not less. Market logic doesn’t care about whether a construction worker, or an agricultural worker, or any worker, happened to be born north or south of a line some generals and politicians drew in the sand across the southwest desert over 150 years ago. But our immigration policies skew that market logic, and they are wrong to do so.

These are some of the issues to think through in developing a theology of money. Where does money belong? Where it does it not belong? Where does it do well to mix with nonmarket values?

From Theology to Spirituality

And the spirituality of money goes to what you do with yours. If spirituality is about anything, it’s about waking up and paying attention – noticing our own lives, for which the first step is noticing how often we aren’t noticing our own lives. Spirituality is attention, and attention includes attention to money.

NEXT: Practices for Paying Attention to Money

* * *
This is part 2 of 3 of "Theology of Money"
See also
Part 1: Erosion of the Nonmarket
Part 3: Practices for Paying Attentioin to Money

2018-04-15

The Vice of Toxic Masculinity

Here are some virtues:
courage/fortitude
assertiveness
health/vitality
fairmindedness
temperance/moderation
wisdom/sagacity
prudence
learning
creativity
generosity
compassion
empathy
friendliness
cooperativeness
truthfulness
integrity
trust
trustworthiness/reliability
commitment
reverence
humility
patience
confidence
determination
resilience
Others might make somewhat different lists. (A longer list is HERE, though it leaves off prudence, health/vitality, empathy, and resilience.) Some things to notice about virtues:

They are individual goods -- that is, they make the lives of those who exemplify them better.

They are also social goods -- they make society better, and it is a task of a society to cultivate and encourage the virtues among its members.

Many of the virtues themselves represent a balance, a "middle way" between opposing vices. Temperance/moderation is the general virtue of steering between extremes, but several of the virtues represent a middle way between specific opposite vices. Courage, for instance, is a balance between paying no attention at all to appropriate fear (thus being reckless) and being wholly governed by fears.

Other virtues are susceptible to being taken to an extreme and becoming a vice. In these cases, the virtue needs counterbalancing from another virtue. Too much humility can make confidence difficult (and vice-versa). Same for patience and assertiveness.

Not all good qualities are virtues. Attractiveness, I think, is a good to the individual, but it isn't a virtue and isn't the sort of thing that society needs to think about how to encourage.

Virtue is nonpartisan. William Bennett's 1993 Book of Virtues briefly made it seem as if virtue was the exclusive province of conservatives -- and right-wing support for Donald Trump in 2016 has (also temporarily, I presume) made it seem that conservatives have abandoned concern with virtue. In fact, any influence between one's political leanings and which virtues to regard as most important is slight. Talking and thinking about virtue is how a society collectively works out and expresses its hopes for its children, and the virtues I've listed are recognized across the political spectrum.

Virtue and Gender

The virtues on my list constitute good qualities for both women and men, and most of them are as prevalent (or scarce) among one gender as among the other. Possible exceptions -- virtues that, perhaps, are not equally prevalent -- include empathy, which might be, on average, better developed in women, and assertiveness and confidence, which might be, on average, better developed in men. It's unclear whether there's any biological basis for this difference or whether it is wholly a product of differential socialization. In any case, empathy is nevertheless a virtue for men, even if often more developed in women, and assertiveness and confidence are nevertheless virtues for women, even if often more developed in men.

Unfortunately, popular ideas of "masculine" and "feminine" have fostered the idea that the virtues appropriate for boys and for girls are different. The West has a long history of promoting different virtues to boys than to girls: "virility" for boys, "chastity" for girls, for instance (neither of which is on my list). This has been a problem. The advance of gender equality will require a broad commitment to raising our boys and girls alike to strive to hold themselves to standards of virtue that are not sex-specific.

This does not, of course, mean that we deny or ignore gender differences. Testosterone, we know, makes a difference. Raising or lowering anybody’s testosterone level, male or female, has affects on mood and on what gets attention and doesn't. Testosterone also seems to increase preoccupation with one’s status. Studies, however, “refute the preconception that testosterone causes aggressive, egocentric, and risky behavior.” Testosterone “can encourage fair behaviors if this serves to ensure one's own status.” (Science Daily, 2009 Dec 9)

Toxic masculinity, then, is not the fault of testosterone. It's the fault of an ideology of masculinity that encourages boys to be domineering. Domination is not a virtue, but, in fact, a vice, and the measure of the toxicity of any concept of masculinity is the extent to which it encourages dominating behavior.

Dominance undermines and counteracts virtue. I am convinced that, indeed, dominance is the one evil at the root of all social ills. The rise of agriculture 12,000 years ago gave rise to a dominant class and put us all in service to whatever was hierarchically above us. Women are to serve men, the poor are to serve the rich, people of color are to serve whites, and the Earth and all its nonhuman species are to serve humans. (I write of this in more detail in two posts HERE and HERE.)

The task of replacing domination with compassion and empathy – and with the virtues generally -- will not be easy. Domination, vicious as it is, has persisted because in some sense it has "worked": it has allowed individuals, particularly males, to get ahead. We are up against entrenched toxic masculinity: deep patterns that train boys to be dominant. Misogyny, homophobia, sexual assault, and domestic violence are all about establishing and expressing dominance. The bullying and aggression that men learned as boys, and that plays out in adulthood in misogynist impositions, is the product of a notion of masculinity that is truly toxic.

Showing feeling connects us with ourselves and others, and thereby facilitates virtue development, but toxic masculinity stifles emotional expression as incompatible with domination. Boys taught to dominate become emotionally stunted men: damaged people inflicting damage on others.

In the history of the West, male concern with status manifested as an interest in "honor." Honor is perhaps too old-fashioned to be revived as a significant influence on culture today, but its opposite, shame, is as powerful as ever. Rape culture will end when men -- much closer to universally than at present -- understand sexual aggression as shameful.

Whether the influence of boys' testosterone is channeled into aggression and dominance or into, say, fighting for social justice, is up to us. A society that expects and rewards its boys to be strong in pro-social ways, that won’t tolerate sexual aggression, can get what it expects.

As one writer about masculinity suggested: we don’t want to be sheep, but that doesn’t mean we have to be wolves. We can be the sheepdog – protecting those who cannot protect themselves. Maybe sheepdog isn’t the best metaphor – it seems to retain hierarchy – but the point is that we don’t have to diminish characteristically male energy. We do need to channel it in virtuous directions and stop rewarding the vice of domination.

Western culture has been lousy at teaching boys what to do with the energies and interests that testosterone nudges upward. The #MeToo movement is helping dismantle the structures that for so long have rewarded aggressive dominance. That’s a very positive development for the prospects of happier, healthier, more complete men.

2018-04-14

Erosion of the Nonmarket

Theology of Money, part 1

Mary Oliver wrote:
“I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”
What will you do with your life? That is, how will we deploy the resources you have: resources of talent and interest, drive and motivation, knowledge and skill, social connection and influence, time and availability, and – here we come to it – money.

The first task of a suitable spirituality of money – a theology of money -- is getting clear on where it belongs and where it doesn’t, and why. So let’s start by reflecting on that: what are the realms of money and market, and what aren’t. And then I’ll talk about the money part – and how this, too, is how we manifest who we are.

The marketplace is all about keeping score – and money is how we keep score. Our most precious relationships are not marketplace relations, and aren’t about keeping score. The relationships of family and of dear friendship do require a sense of reciprocity. The relationship isn’t working if one side is doing all the giving and the other is doing all the taking. We just need to see that the other person cares about us – are ready to do for us what they can.

I once called it "inexact scorekeeping," and stressed how the inexactness was important, but in fact the inexactness is SO important to these relationships that it’s misleading to call it "scorekeeping" at all. Call it inexact reciprocity. The attempt to measure it, to make sure it’s equally balanced, or, if not, to have a measure of its imbalance, is deadly to these relationships of love: families, friends, and lovers. In this sphere of life, it is essential that value not be measured. When value is measured, we measure it with money: that’s what money is: our system for measuring relative values of things.

Imagine what that would be like: assigning measured value to everything friends or spouses do for each other and the end of the week, say, tallying it all up to determine who was indebted to whom and by how much. At that point, the market would have overrun the precious nonmarket sphere. We do want to feel some sense of reciprocity, but it must be inexact, for the value of what we do and are for each other in these relationships is, literally, immeasurable.

The boundaries between the market and nonmarket spheres of life are not fixed and not always mutually exclusive. I don’t know where the best place to draw the line between what’s for sale and what isn’t might be, but your theology of money, your spirituality of money, would include reflective consideration of what just shouldn’t be for sale. Possible examples:
  • $90 a night will buy you a prison-cell upgrade in Santa Ana, California and some other cities. These cities decided to offer nonviolent offenders the chance to pay for a clean, quiet jail cell separated from any non-paying customers – I mean, prisoners – who might disturb them. (See this NYTimes article.) Should we be selling that?
  • A mere $8 – in Minneapolis, San Diego, Houston, Seattle, and a few other cities -- will now get you access to the carpool lane while driving solo. The rates vary according to traffic. We have toll roads, you might argue. And this is essentially a “toll lane,” so why not? Maybe because the point of HOV lanes is to encourage civic-minded conservation rather than -- just the opposite -- to further privilege wealth?
  • $8,000 dollars will get you the services of an Indian surrogate mother. Should women’s bodies be for sale? Is there an alternative?
  • For a quarter-million dollars the government of South Africa will let you buy the right to shoot an endangered black rhino. They’re not doing this just because they need the money. In fact, the money doesn’t go to the government. This is actually a plan to protect the species. By allowing ranchers to sell the rights to kill a black rhino for $250,000, they are giving the ranchers an incentive to protect the endangered species. Whatever we might think of whether this is a necessary evil, even if necessary, it does seem evil.
  • Under the EB-5 visa program created in 1990, foreigners who invest $500,000 and create at least 10 full-time jobs in an area of high unemployment – and who don’t have any outstanding warrants or a criminal record – will be granted permanent residency. Essentially, we put the right to immigrate to the US for sale for $500,000. Should that be for sale?
  • You can get $10,000 from selling the space on your forehead. A woman in Utah was paid $10,000 by an online casino to install a permanent tattoo of the casino’s Web address on her forehead. Temporary tattoos bring less.
  • You can get $7,500 for serving as a human guinea pig in a drug-safety trial for a pharmaceutical company.
  • You can get up to $1,000 a day as a mercenary soldier, fighting in Somalia or Afghanistan for a private military contractor. Soldiers, certainly, should get paid – but should they be doing it for the pay so much so that they’ll fight for a country that isn’t their own?
  • You can get $15 to $20 an hour for standing in line overnight on Capitol Hill. Lobbyists pay line-standing companies, who hire homeless people and others to hold a place for a lobbyist who wants to attend a congressional hearing. It’s OK to hold a place in line for a friend, but something’s gone wrong when we’re just hiring people to stand in line for us. ("Linestanding.com" claims it "has been a leader in the Congressional line standing business since 1985," and produces "high quality line standing services for Congressional hearings or other events.")
  • One underachieving Dallas school is trying to encourage reading. They’re paying second-graders $2 per book read.
  • For $1,500 and up, per year, you can get your doctor’s cellphone number. Some offer cellphone access and same-day appointments for patients willing to pay annual fees ranging from $1,500 to $25,000. I respect my doctor’s right, and need, to not be at my beck and call 24/7, but I want her to be sleeping, or playing with her kids, or, heck, even getting in a round of golf. I don’t want her to be unavailable to me just so she can be available, instead, to a wealthier patient.
  • For $10.50, companies in Europe can buy the right to emit a metric ton of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

What is the legitimate place and role of money in these areas?

* * *
This is part 1 of 3 of "Theology of Money"
See also
Part 2: Market Harms and Market Benefits
Part 3: Practices for Paying Attention to Money

2018-04-13

Foolish UUs!

Foolishness and Salvation, part 3

St. Paul, I think, took a wrong turn when he cast Christianity as fundamentally about what one believed. For us Unitarian Universalists, as well as for followers of Judaism and Eastern religions the question is not, "What shall we believe?" but, "How shall we live? Who shall we live with in community? And, those moments we’ve had of mystery and wonder, glimpses of eternal goodness, transcendent oneness, what shall we make of those? How can the power of such radically nonsensical flashes be integrated with our daily life?" Those are our questions.

The answer isn’t one that can be spoken or written down but must be lived out. So we come here, come together once a week to light some candles, share of ourselves, sing some songs, hear and consider a sermon, center ourselves on what is important, worship in the sense of worth-shape, give shape to what has deepest worth in our lives.

Since it is in our relationships that we find who and what we are in the vast web of reality, we come here to live by a covenant for how we relate to each other. Within our relationships as Unitarian Universalists, we can come to spiritual depth and wisdom and find the grace to walk on this planet fruitfully rather than destructively. We mutually agree to strive for authenticity and honesty together amidst mutual respect and care. We share not a belief, but an attitude, a faith that life is good, that justice is attainable, that caring redeems us, and that joy is one another’s company.

A family member of mine, an Uncle, told me once that he had visited his local Unitarian church a couple times and found it, he said, “empty and devoid of anything to grasp.” Well, OK. Think of us as the zero – the number of the Fool card.

The zero, as a concept – a nothing, symbolized as an empty circle devoid of contents – came rather late to Western civilization. Did you ever notice: Roman numerals have no zero? Sallie Nichols reflects on the zero in her study Jung and Tarot: An Archetypal Journey.
“The concept of zero, unknown in the ancient (western) world, did not appear in Europe until the twelfth century.”
The first people with zero were apparently the Mayans, whose mathematicians discovered or invented the zero for their elaborate calendar system, around the year 350 CE. Independently, zero was discovered/invented in India around the year 500. From India, it reached Baghdad in the 8th century and was incorporated into Arabic numerals. It got to Europe, finally, through the Moorish conquest of Spain.

The discovery/invention of this apparent ‘nothing’ enlarged (humanity’s) thinking in important ways. It created the decimal system. It made computers possible. It concretized the astounding paradox that ‘nothing’ is really something, and that this nothing occupies space and contains power. It’s appropriate that zero is the number assigned to the Fool. “Like the empty, worthless zero, the fool’s magic can turn one into a million" (Nichols). How absurd is that?

In terms of creed or doctrine, Unitarian Universalism is a zero. Unitarian Universalism has no beliefs. But each of us has beliefs. We all believe something. Whatever you believe, our way of living in community, our rituals and shared practices of worship, our covenant, augments your convictions, increasing whatever positive number you bring by powers of ten. Therein, our foolishness. Therein, our salvation – our freedom from doctrine that would bind and constrict.

It’s a hard job, being a fool, seeing what others don’t. How do we tell what is just plain foolish, and what is a foolish way to wisdom? Which folly is worth persisting in until it becomes wisdom? As Unitarian Universalist minister James Ishmael Ford says,
“The line between being fully present and one’s self, and being narcissistic and dangerous to others is as thin as the line between an in breath and an out breath. A bellows, indeed.”
Here, I think we find some of the wisdom in being fools together. As Reverend Ford says,
“Fools together. Here, in our coming together, we find how we are, and what it means. When we rub up shoulder to shoulder with others wisdom emerges as a magical third. Here, in this company, we see what our behaviors mean. Here as we crowd up together in our holy company of Fools, we find the alchemical process that burns dross and reveals gold. Here, as we foolishly pursue our individual depth among others, we discover our relationships and our obligations and the possibilities of intimacy and action. All this flows out of the trickster-like quality of our foolish way, that is both the last and the magical zero.”
Coming together provides us with a check on the darker, less wise aspects of foolishness.

Then, again, returning to the jester fool can also help us puncture the pretensions of our foolishness. The joking, laughing fool can depict our most exalted in another light. In our laughter we may recognize that the most exalted is at the same time the most profane.

Jehovah was chatting with the other Gods about where to go for vacation.
Zeus said, "Try Earth. Some nice beaches. In the mountains, good skiing.
Jehovah demures, “Mmm. I don’t know.”
Zeus says, “What?”
Jehovah says, “Well, I went there a couple thousand years ago. Got this little Jewish girl pregnant, and they’re still talking about it.”

Amen.

* * *
This is part 3 of 3 of "Foolishness and Salvation"
See also
Part 1: An April Fool's Easter
Part 2: Jesus as Wise Fool

2018-04-09

Jesus as Wise Fool

Foolishness and Salvation, part 2

The fool, however, is not just a jester – and isn’t always aiming just for laugh, however insightful the laugh might be.

The word fool derives from the Latin follis, a pair of bellows, a windbag. “A silly or stupid person; a person who lacks judgment or sense,” says my Random House Unabridged as the first definition of “fool.” So, in addition, to the wisdom we can discern through laughter, there is a second approach to wisdom through sheer, unfunny folly.

In his life, Jesus played the role of the fool in this sense of appearing to lack judgment. His went around Galilee telling people the kingdom of God was like a mustard weed. What an absurd thing to say. Jesus’s audience would have been familiar with the prophet Ezekiel – who spoke of the Lord taking a twig from the lofty heights of the mighty cedar and planting it in Israel where it would shelter beasts and birds, a symbol of the glorious restoration of Kind David’s realm. Jesus’s audience would also have been familiar with the prophet Daniel – who spoke of that tree reaching to heaven and extend to the ends of the earth. And this Galilean vagrant turns the mighty cedar of Lebanon into a lousy mustard weed?

A fool is one who doesn't know what everybody knows. The fool knows nothing. His knowledge is a zero – like the number on his Tarot card. A fool can look at things that nobody else can see because they think they already know what's there.

The Commonwealth of God, said Jesus, isn't what you think: the fulfillment of the prophecies of Ezekiel and Daniel that looks just like any other kingdom you ever saw only bigger and mightier. No, it's like this silly weed that you, in your cultured despair, so readily despise. It is made up of the people you call weeds, and it grows from the smallest seed of genuine love, or genuine hope, or genuine vision.

Jesus says, "the last shall be first" (Matt 20:16). What crazy talk is that? "Blessed are the poor," he says (Luke 6:20). What nonsense! "Blessed are you when people revile you" (Matt 5:11). Huh? This is clearly a guy who doesn’t know what everybody knows.

When someone asks Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” he answers, “Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor.” (Luke 18:22). What kinds of fools does he take us for? Sell everything and give away the money? We'd have nothing. How could we live? That's crazy!

I probably won't be selling all that I own and giving away the proceeds. But when I read that passage in Luke -- also, emphatically, included in Mark and Matthew -- I do get, for just an instant, a flash of how liberating that would be.

The poet William Blake says, "If a man would persist in his folly, he would become wise." Or if a woman persists in her folly, she becomes wise. If you and I persist in our foolishness, we may well become wise. By persisting in the foolish message that the insignificant weeds are the really the most significant of all, that the last shall be first, that there is blessing in poverty, not in wealth, the wisdom begins to emerge.

How foolish it is of us, this congregation, to come together and call ourselves a faith community, to meet on Sunday mornings. We foolish Unitarian Universalists! We have no creed, no shared beliefs, not even a canon, such as the 39 books of the Hebrew Bible, or the 27 books of the New Testament, the Quran, or any set of sutras, scriptures, or texts that we are united in making central. How can that be a religion? What utter foolishness.

Church is for getting together with others of like mind, and sharing a substantive doctrine. But we Unitarian Universalists come together to be a community of diversity. Community of diversity? What an outlandish notion – an outrage to good sense.

Still we persist in our folly. We don’t know what everyone else knows – that the point of a religion is to have definite, graspable beliefs to convey. And, since the point of a congregation is to be the body of those who share the one true doctrine, then diversity of beliefs could only mean admitting false ones.

We Unitarian Universalists are so foolish as to say that religion is not about beliefs. That’s why I argue that we are not agnostic, and that we misunderstand our own religiousness when we say we are. “I’m agnostic,” is the answer only if the question is “What do you believe about God?” Or, “What do you believe about the soul, in particular, its prospects for an afterlife?” But we’re there with our silly jester’s cap and wand saying, “But that’s not the question.” The next card in the Major Arcana – the magician, or the wizard, or the shaman – represents the character who knows the answer. The fool is the one who keeps changing the question.

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This is part 2 of 3 of "Foolishness and Salvation"
See also
Part 1: An April Fool's Easter
Part 3: Foolish UUs!