2013-11-30

Five Universal Practices


If you're new to the concept of spiritual practice, I recommend beginning with an activity that is as utterly without a goal or purpose as possible. Remember: it’s about who you are, not about attaining something. Only then, as the poem said, will you "attain the good you will not attain" ("The Envoy of Mr Cogito" HERE). Purpose invites judgment about accomplishment or not. So think about something you do just to be doing it, something you do without thinking about achieving anything, without thinking about whether you're doing it the way you supposedly should be doing it. There's your primary spiritual practice.

Any number of things can be spiritual practices if they are approached with a deliberate intention to get out of our judging mind for a while, and just accept, affirm, and appreciate: yoga, martial arts, social action, charitable giving, cooking, eating, not eating (fasting), quilting, knitting, painting, sculpting, dancing, gardening, long-distance running, hiking in the woods, walking along the beach, playing a musical instrument, singing, listening attentively to music. Any of these might be your primary spiritual practice – your initial doorway in to cultivating nonjudgmental acceptance and having a place of peace.

Whatever your primary spiritual practice is, I want to suggest five supplemental practices that will provide a foundation for it. We might, every one of us, have a different primary practice, and what works for one person might not for another. But these secondary supporting practices are universal. They’re for everyone. They will strengthen and extend your spiritual practice and increase "spiritual fitness."
  • Journal
  • Read
  • Be Silent
  • Go to Group
  • Be Mindful
1. Journaling. 15 minutes a day.

There are many different approaches to journaling. Here's a simple starter plan. Six days a week, “just keep the pen moving.” Write whatever comes to mind for 15 minutes. Then, on the seventh day, list in your journal five things that week that you are grateful for. Noticing is the key to spiritual acceptance, and writing down whatever comes to your mind is helpful for noticing what is alive in you.

2. Studying. 15 minutes a day.

Select worthy texts of “wisdom literature.” The scriptures of any of the world’s religions are wonderful: the Dao De Jing, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Hebrew Bible's book of Psalms. Also worthy would be books like Thomas Moore’s Care of the Soul, or reflections like Thomas Merton's, or poems of Rumi, Hafiz, or Kabir, or writings by St. Francis, Teresa of Avila, Julian of Norwich, Rabindranath Tagore, Gandhi, Pema Chodron, Thich Nhat Hanh.
Any of these will do nicely. Choose works that resonate with you, that will coach you in the ways of wise and loving peace, and commit to study them a few minutes every day. Such study gives us concepts to knock out our concepts. Study of a spiritual text enlists your cognitive capacity to assist your spiritual. We live through our days full of ideas and concepts -- and most of them are connected to some form of judgment, some form of not wanting things to be as they are. Wisdom literature helps give us some concepts that can nudge some of those other concepts a little bit into the background more often.

3. Silence. 15 minutes a day.

I know this is adding up -- and, gosh, aren't we all too busy anyway? Who has time for stuff that has no purpose? If your quest for peace is urgent, you do. If it isn't, you don't.

Find a posture that will allow you to remain still. Bring attention to your breath. When (not if) your thoughts wander, simply notice where they wandered to and return to your breath. This simple practice begins to cultivate awareness of your own thoughts – and helps you get to know the true person you are that is so much more than just your thoughts.

4. Group practice. Monthly is good. Bi-weekly or weekly can be even better.

A group that shares in your primary spiritual practice, whatever it may be, is a great boon for deepening in that practice. If walking on the beach is where you have had the best luck experiencing serenity, get together a beach-walking group -- in addition to having some time to walk alone. If it's cooking, get in a cooking club -- only, be sure it's a cooking club that intentionally approaches cooking in a spiritual way. Just as study helped enlist your cognitive to assist your spiritual, the group experience enlists your social brain on behalf of the spiritual. And that helps invite the spiritual to infuse more of your life. It's so important to know that you're not going it alone!

5. Minduflness. Continuously.

You won't be able to be continuously mindful. Still, try. Resolve to be continuously mindful, and remind yourself of your resolve every time you notice it has waned. Develop the habit of bringing yourself back to the present moment whenever you find that you’re somewhere else. The mind loves to spend its time going back and forth between two places: the past and future. If you let it, your mind will spend all day alternating between dwelling in the past and projecting into the future. Your life, however, is RIGHT NOW. If you're somewhere else -- the past or the future -- you'll miss it. And most of us, most of the time, are somewhere else. As John Lennon sang:
"Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans."
In the children's story, "Stone Soup," a traveler comes to town. He claims to have a magical stone that, when cooked in water, will produce nutritious soup. "But it will be even better if we add a little potato," he says. The traveler proceeds to coax the villagers to add cabbage, onions, carrots, etc.
In the end, the stone didn't really add anything. Or did it? The stone was the starter without which the other ingredients would not have been brought to the pot. That's pretty potent magic.

Like that traveler, I suggested adding five "secondary, supporting" ingredients -- nice additional enhancements. Yet if you'll keep the pot cooking, over time, these "secondary" practices will make the soup. Your primary practice -- the first ingredient -- may turn out to be the stone. Its magic was that it got you started on a path of courage – courageously letting go of the addiction to accomplishing things.

From the standpoint of the world’s usual way of valuing things, it’s "a city of ashes." Yet it is also "the kingdom without limit." Go into that dark realm from which you may yet bring forth the light that matters behind all the glitter that doesn’t. Go because only in this way can you be a "defender of the kingdom without limit and the city of ashes."
"Be faithful. Go."
* * *
This is part 4 of 4 of "Spiritual Practice"
Previous: Part 3: "A Bit More Accident Prone"
Beginning: Part 1: "Courage and Uselessness"

2013-11-28

A Bit More Accident Prone

Waking Up
Many different phrases have been used to express the spiritual capacity – the capacity to:
  • see beyond walls,
  • commune with divine mystery,
  • experience an internal caress,
  • hear our deeper consciousness,
  • experience epiphanies,
  • become awake,
  • usher ourselves into right relationship with life,
  • open our heart to life's blessed mysteries,
  • foster a greater love of self and greater caring for neighbor and earth.
Certain exercises can, over time, enhance spiritual fitness, strengthen the spiritual virtues.

In some ways, spiritual fitness lines up with physical, intellectual, and emotional-social fitness. In other ways, though, spirituality doesn’t fit the model of those other aspects of life. With physical fitness, you need a clear straightforward assessment of where you are, and where you want to be, and what the difference is. With mental skills, you can set as a goal to reach a certain chess rating, or to be able to do the Sunday crossword in under an hour, or to improve your score on one of those computer sites that will run you through a battery of skill-testing games. It’s harder to score emotional-social fitness, but the basic idea but there’s still a basic idea of seeing where you are, seeing where you’d like to be, and recognizing the difference. Spirituality is more a matter of seeing where you are, seeing where you’d like to be, and recognizing the sameness.

So the notion of spiritual fitness has a certain paradoxical quality to it. You’re already perfect – so what’s there to improve? Just this: remembering; acting and living out of a firmer grounding in your inherent perfection; having your judgments while at the same time seeing through the pretense that judgment is very important.

There is a place for judgment, evaluation, good-bad, better-worse -- and there always will be. Judging Mind has important work to do. The problem is that it works overtime. Spirituality is about seeing the appropriate, limited role for judgment -- while also holding in our awareness the wider context within which judgment has its little corner.

The spirit's message isn't that you are special or important. You're not. You're merely perfect – like everyone else.

Embrace Your Demons
The spiritual path, however, unfolds slowly, and in its own way, on its own schedule. If we try to push spirit, spirit will push back, and we'll get nowhere. This is another way that spiritual fitness doesn’t fit the model of physical fitness. You can make your biceps strong by forcing them to do the exercises. The spiritual "muscle" doesn't work that way. You can't make it strong. Love it and accept it in its weakness. Then -- only then -- might it decide to grow strong on its own. Development of the spiritual virtues can't be forced. If it happens, it's an accident. Spiritual practices do, however, make us a bit more accident prone.

Even if you do grow stronger in the spiritual virtues, you might not know it. One day maybe you'll notice that it's been a while since you yelled at the other cars in traffic -- or someone will say you're "a peaceful presence" -- or you'll realize you used to worry a lot more about finances. None of these, of course, mean you've "arrived." But they are among the possible signs of a spirit that's been given the affirming space it needs.

I began spiritual practice because I was beset by my various demons. I had been fighting them for years, and was not winning. Apparent victories were temporary, fleeting. The fighting just gave the demons a good work-out and made them stronger. Spiritual practices are ways to stop fighting. If I embrace my demons instead of fighting them, then they aren’t such a problem for me, or for the others in my life.

* * *
This is part 3 of 4 "Spiritual Practice"
Next: Part 4: "Five Universal Pratices"
Previous: Part 2: "Spiritual Quotient"
Beginning: Part 1: "Courage and Uselessness"

2013-11-23

Spiritual Quotient

I am grateful and humbled to have been called – and now installed – as minister. I do, as Zbigniew Herbert's poem says, “look at my clown’s face in the mirror and repeat, I was called, weren’t there better ones than I?” In three and a half months so far of serving Community Unitarian Church, most of you have already had occasion to notice that I am not perfect. But have you noticed that I am? By which I mean to ask: Have you noticed that you are?

For I do believe that more important than all the ways that we supposedly aren’t perfect is the fact that we are. Perfect, yes. Able to simultaneously exhibit contradictory qualities, no. We can’t, for example, at the same time, have both youthful exuberance and the wisdom of many years, though both of those have their advantages. Nor can you be a person who freely speaks her mind while also being carefully diplomatic, avoiding giving offense. Some positive traits contradict other positive traits, so you can’t have them all. Still, perfect you are.

And your perfection is a dynamic, unfolding thing. How would you like it to unfold? I believe people don't come to church to stay the same. We come to be transformed. We come to be intentional about the way our perfection unfolds and develops. We come for community, we come to have friends along the path, and we come hoping that path will help us grow.

Equanimity, peace, acceptance, kindness, patience, humility, a pervasive attitude of gratitude, not being judgmental: call these the spiritual virtues. The spiritual virtues don’t just happen, and they don’t happen just by wanting them to happen, or by hearing words from people who have them, though that does help -- it’s good to have coaches. It takes doing the exercises, the ones that retrain our habitual neural pathways so that everything we do and are looks and feels more like love and less like one or another form of addiction.

PQ. Physical fitness is a long-established idea and ideal – and, we know, it’s good to exercise.

IQ. We have more recently begun to develop a notion of cognitive fitness. IQ tests have been around for only about a century, and we are not as clear as we are with measures of physical fitness just what, if anything, they measure. While some doubts and ambiguities remain, the idea of cognitive fitness is much better developed and supported than it used to be. Certain games and puzzles can help, somewhat, maintain memory, mental flexibility, problem solving, mental speed, and attention. For cognitive fitness, too, it’s good to exercise.

EQ. Then there's emotional fitness -- also called “emotional intelligence”: the ability to detect and identify emotions in self and others, harness emotions to facilitate the task at hand, and understand the language of emotion, including ability to recognize slight differences between similar emotions. Some of us are really good at that -- others, not so much.

Closely related to “emotional intelligence” or fitness is "social intelligence" -- because really resonating with someone, clicking with them, is a matter of knowing your feelings, recognizing theirs, and being able to synchronize with the emotion. Because our skills at managing our feelings and managing our relationships (i.e., managing other people's feelings) are so interrelated, let's treat emotional and social skills together as one thing: emotional-social fitness. With attention to exercising those skills, it’s possible to get better at that, too.

SQ. Finally, there’s what we could call spiritual fitness: “inner wisdom guided by compassion, equanimity, and inner and outer peace.” The spiritually fit have the same ego-defense mechanisms we all have, but the grip of those mechanisms holds them a little more loosely. The spiritually fit are in touch with the suffering of the world, yet also and simultaneously feel joy in that connection. The sorrow and the joy, for them, are not so much two different and opposed moods, but merge into one continuous awareness.

* * *
This is part 2 of 4 of "Spiritual Practice"
Next: Part 3: "A Bit More Accident Prone"
Previous: Part 1: "Courage and Uselessness"

2013-11-22

Courage and Uselessness

The Polish Poet, Zbigniew Herbert (1924 – 1998), served in the Polish resistance movement under Nazi occupation. He faced an utterly hopeless situation. How does one go on when there’s no chance of achieving anything, no way the tiny resistance movement could put a dent in the massive Nazi dominance?

You don’t do it in order to achieve anything, Herbert says. Put out of your mind the idea that you might be doing any good. Resist just because you are called to be a resistor rather than a collaborator. Do it just to be who you are -- until they catch you and kill you, as they surely will.

It’s about being a worthy person, not about getting anything done. It's about the life that leads to death, but also about the death that opens a possibility for genuine and fearless life.

“The Envoy of Mr. Cogito,”
by Zbigniew Herbert

Go where those others went to the dark boundary
for the golden fleece of nothingness your last prize

go upright among those who are on their knees
among those with their backs turned and those toppled in the dust

you were saved not in order to live
you have little time you must give testimony

be courageous when the mind deceives you be courageous
in the final account only this is important

and let your helpless Anger be like the sea
whenever you hear the voice of the insulted and beaten

let your sister Scorn not leave you
for the informers executioners cowards—they will win
they will go to your funeral and with relief will throw a lump of earth
the woodborer will write your smoothed-over biography

and do not forgive truly it is not in your power
to forgive in the name of those betrayed at dawn

beware however of unnecessary pride
keep looking at your clown’s face in the mirror
repeat: I was called—weren’t there better ones than I

beware of dryness of heart love the morning spring
the bird with an unknown name the winter oak

light on a wall the splendour of the sky
they don’t need your warm breath
they are there to say: no one will console you

be vigilant: when the light on the mountains gives the sign—arise and go
as long as blood turns the dark star in your breast

repeat old incantations of humanity fables and legends
because this is how you will attain the good you will not attain
repeat great words repeat them stubbornly
like those crossing the desert who perished in the sand

and they will reward you with what they have at hand
with the whip of laughter with murder on a garbage heap

go because only in this way will you be admitted to the company of cold skulls
to the company of your ancestors: Gilgamesh Hector Roland
the defenders of the kingdom without limit and the city of ashes

Be faithful Go
That spirit of both courage and uselessness we call upon wholeheartedly to enter into spiritual practice.

* * *
This is part 1 of 4 of "Spiritual Practice"
Next: Part 2: "Spiritual Quotient"

2013-11-20

Five Habits of the Heart

We’ve seen for generations now that plugging a democratic constitution into a third-world country with a history of dictatorship is meaningless. Where the people lack the habits of the heart to sustain democratic institutions, a constitution is just empty words on paper. Parker Palmer lists five habits of the heart at the heart of revitalizing democracy and restoring the possibility of meaningful public life.

One: “We must understand that we are all in this together.... We must embrace the simple fact that we are dependent on and accountable to one another, and that includes the stranger, the ‘alien other.’”

Two: “We must develop an appreciation of the value of ‘otherness.’... Hospitality rightly understood…invites ‘otherness’ into our lives to make them more expansive, including forms of otherness that seem utterly alien to our way of life.”

Three: “We must cultivate the ability to hold tension in life-giving ways. Our lives are filled with contradictions – from the gap between our aspirations and our behavior to observations and insights we cannot abide because they run counter to our convictions.... The genius of the human heart lies in its capacity to use these tensions to generate insight, energy, and new life.”

Four: “We must generate a sense of personal voice and agency.... Many of us lack confidence in our own voices and in our power to make a difference.... Yet it remains possible for us, young and old alike, to find our voices learn how to use them, and know the satisfaction that comes from contributing to positive change.”

Five: “We must strengthen our capacity to create community. Without a community, it is nearly impossible to achieve voice: it takes a village to raise a Rosa Parks.... The steady companionship of … kindred spirits can kindle the courage we need to speak and act as citizens.” (Healing the Heart of Democracy 46).

Thank you, Parker Palmer, for those reminders.

These are, of course, the habits of heart that we gather in our congregations to cultivate, week in and week out, 52.18 weeks a year.

We’re all in this together: interdependence is our vital principle, and we teach it to and learn it from each other in everything we do.

Appreciating otherness will always be the challenge that stretches us. We’re proud of who we are, and rightfully. Yet from that ground we examine – sometimes better than others – the ways we might not always be hospitable and inviting to people who aren’t already just like us. We know that’s our work.

Hold in tension the contradictions – such as beauty and joy of life and this precious world and also the grief of loss and pain – this is the business of faith community.

To empower each voice among us is the project of our democratic polity, and to be for each other the steady companionship that feeds our fires – this, too, is what we’re about.

And not just us Unitarian Universalists. Our friends the Methodists, the Episcopalians, the Baptists – the Catholics and the Jews -- the Muslims and Hindus – they, too, are quietly nurturing the habits of heart to help our public keep alive the hope of a beloved community in which we all share, in addition to comforts of our separate tribes. We can do better at modeling the respectful hospitality of listening outside these walls, be more active healers of the brokenheartedness we feel at the loss of meaningful public connection. Dialog with those whose political views are opposed to ours is difficult, but it is the path both of opening ourselves to diverse gifts and of serving needs greater than our own.

Take for example an issue such as abortion – an issue that is now in the public discourse only in the form that has been called the politics of rage – though “rage is simply one of the masks that heartbreak wears.” (Palmer 5-6) Started in the early 1990s, the Public Conversations Project facilitates day-long encounters
“for people who differ on difficult issues like abortion where participants are forbidden from proclaiming their positions on the issue until the last hour of the day. Instead, they are coached in the art of personal storytelling and then invited to share the experiences that gave rise to their beliefs while others simply listen. Hearing each other’s stories, which are often stories of heartbreak, can create an unexpected bond between so-called pro-life and pro-choice people. When two people discover that parallel experiences led them to contrary conclusions, they are more likely to hold their differences respectfully, knowing that they have experienced similar forms of grief. The more you know about another person’s story, the less possible it is to see that person as your enemy.” (5)
If you find it difficult to talk to people with different political opinions, then don’t talk: listen. And not passively, but actively, paraphrasing what you hear to make sure you understand, and asking gentle questions about their personal story.

The first time Unitarian Universalism changed my life with a clearly demarcated turning point, I was in 8th grade. Since then, this faith has changed my life at a few other key junctures – until demarcating turning points came to be replaced with daily companionship along a winding path. This faith calls us always to a greater possibility for human community, a wider hospitality and openness of heart to be healers of our world’s heartbreaking divisiveness.

* * *
This is part 4 of 4 of "Democracy and the Meaning of Lie"
See also
Part 1: Neither Skinner Nor Benedict
Part 2: Balancing Interests vs. Creating Selves
Part 3: Big Problems

2013-11-19

Big Problems

Alone, isolated, we are alienated, powerless.
“A just society is one in which human beings are ‘empowered,’ they are able to use and develop their essentially human capacities. It is a society organized to transcend alienation.” (C.B. MacPherson)
Joining together with others to fashion a community life makes us real.

And we will do it. One way or another, we will do it. If we don’t learn and maintain the democratic arts of hospitality to the stranger, of cherishing the voice that will tell us something we could not have imagined for ourselves, if we don’t have communities that feel safe and also encourage us to be bold enough to relish the challenging voice that stretches us, then we will instead build insular communities dedicated to protection, craving the safety we cannot quite achieve. One way or another we will join together with others to make our lives real. If we don’t do it in democratic community, we’ll do it in totalitarian community.
“Our interdependence as members of the human species requires us to belong – if not to free associations, then to totalistic collectivities.” (Benjamin Barber)
“The genius of totalitarian leadership lies in its profound awareness that human personality cannot tolerate moral isolation. It lies, further, it its knowledge that absolute and relentless power will be acceptable only when it comes to seem the only available form of community and membership.” (Robert Nisbet)
Yes, democracy is the most effective means of organizing consensus among diverse people. Yes, democracy preserves stability, and balances competing interests. But that is to see democracy just as a tool, an instrument. It misses the more fundamental significance of democracy as an end in itself, an ethical ideal. Democracy’s real significance is its larger ethical meaning as a way of life, “a form of moral and spiritual association,” with democratic government as but one of its manifestations.

Of late, things haven’t been looking so good for the public sphere as a form of moral and spiritual association. It’s been 30 years since Alasdair MacIntyre wrote that “this time the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers, they have already been governing us for quite some time.” In those 30 years, it seems things have gotten worse: more polarized, more divisive, less cooperative, less empowering. It’s become harder to see democratic public engagement in the building of our shared world as the meaning of life and the ground upon which life’s meaning is co-created because the public sphere now seems attenuated and shrill, fraught and futile.
“Democracy in America is a series of narrow escapes, and we may be running out of luck....We have fallen under the spell of money, faction, and fear, and the great American experience in creating a different future together ha been subjugated to individual cunning in the pursuit of wealth and power – and to the claims of empire with it ravenous demands and stuporous distractions. A sense of political impotence pervades the country – a mass resignation defined by [the historian Lawrence Goodwyn as ‘believing in the dogma of “democracy” on a superficial public level but not believing it privately.' Hope no longer seems the operative dynamic of America, and without hope we lose the talent and drive to cooperate in the shaping of our destiny.” (Bill Moyers)
Every age has had its problems. Ours include seemingly unending wars abroad, the rising percentage of all wealth held by the top 10 percent, and the top 1 percent, high levels of unemployment, the power of big money and large corporations, the degeneration of our schools, endemic racism in our law enforcement and criminal justice systems, the collapse our infrastructure and, indeed, the collapse of our environment. Meanwhile the general public seems unable to figure out how to stop sliding further and further into powerlessness as privatization sweeps over more and more of what we used to regard as the commons: nursing homes and hospitals, prisons, schools, and other institutions we used to see as appropriately managed by governments and non-profit agencies because they provide public goods and meet public needs. Private military contractors are taking on more functions that used to belong to the public’s army, and private security firms are eclipsing public police forces.

We have big problems, and everywhere is the creeping disempowerment of our ability to collectively address them.
http://www.amazon.com/Healing-Heart-Democracy-Courage-Politics-ebook/dp/B005E8AGL6/
“We suffer from a fragmentation of community that leaves us isolated from one another. We suffer, ironically, from our indifference to those among us who suffer. And we suffer as well from a hopeless sense that our personal and collective destinies are no longer in our hands.” (Parker Palmer, Healing the Heart of Democracy 19)
Saving democracy and saving ourselves requires a renewal of the democratic “habits of the heart” to use the phrase of the early 19th-century insightful observer of the American scene, Alexis de Tocqueville. We’ve seen for generations now that plugging a democratic constitution into a third-world country with a history of dictatorship is meaningless. Where the people lack the habits of the heart to sustain democratic institutions, a constitution is just empty words on paper.

Next: The five most essential "habits of the heart" for democracy.

* * *
This is part 3 of 4 of "Democracy and the Meaning of Life"
See also
Part 1: Neither Skinner Nor Benedict
Part 2: Balancing Interests vs Creating Selves
Part 4: Five Habits of the Heart

2013-11-18

Balancing Interests vs Creating Selves

"Democracy is the name of a way of life of free and enriching communion."
- John Dewey (1859 - 1952)

My choice to pour the energy of my hopes into nurturing faith community is based on my belief that the building of beloved community is always a two-pronged project:
(1) We must build beloved community within congregations; and also
(2) We must re-make our world on that model of care, respect, and connection.
Alasdair MacIntyre (quoted in the previous "Liberal Pulpit" post), whatever else we might think of his thesis, does do a good job of capturing the sense that our public life lacks civility, is disconnected, barbaric -- is unsustaining and unsustainable. The calling to beloved community has been, in recent generations, growing both more urgent and more difficult.

The needs of democracy are the needs of life. As Terry Tempest Williams put it:
"Can we be equitable? Can we be generous? Can we listen with our whole beings, not just our minds, and offer our attention rather than our opinions? And do we have enough resolve in our hearts to act courageously, relentlessly, without giving up –ever – trusting our fellow citizens to join with us in our determined pursuit of a living democracy.”
You may have noticed, we kinda need each other. We need each other to become and to be what we are. Recognizing this, a number of theologians have begun to conceive of hell not as a place, not as an afterlife condition, but as alienation. Hell, they say, is disconnection from the social soil from which we draw essential nutrients. A number of years ago, the Anglican Bishops came out with a position statement saying that Hell was not a state of punishment, but a state of nonbeing.

OK. That’s about right. For in alienation we lose our Being.

Around four hundred years ago, Western political thought began moving toward a conception of individuals which, by 1776, Thomas Jefferson could assert without fear of sounding absurd, were created equal. They had certain inalienable rights. They had interests. You’ve got your interests, and I’ve got mine, and the political problem is that your pursuit of happiness is liable to interfere with mine. To solve that problem, governments, said Jefferson, “are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,” for the purpose of balancing and co-ordinating individual interests.

For Jefferson -- and for John Locke, from whom Jefferson heavily cribbed, and for the thought of the European Enlightenment generally -- these individuals with their interests were simply given. The task for government, then, was to get these atoms of individual interest to curb the urge to kill each other and set aside enough of their interests to be able to cooperate for their own good. The thought we inherit from that era insufficiently attends to how much we need each other not just to cooperate in getting what we want. Oh, no. Our need is much deeper than that.

We need each other in order to become individuals in the first place. Societies make individuals, not the other way around. Shared social life is our fulfillment, not a competing force with which we must bargain a compromise, nor even a tool to employ for our ends. Said John Dewey, in the male-dominated language of his day:
“Individuality cannot be opposed to association. It is through association that man has acquired his individuality and it is through association that he exercises it. The theory which sets the individual over against society, of necessity contradicts itself” (Dewey Papers, qtd in Westbrook 44).
Democracy, then, is not just the means of compromising and balancing out our various interests. It is the means through which we become who we are, the place of our origin, the dialog that creates both us and our interests in the first place.

The problem, then, is not how to get people to set aside interests, but how to form meaningful interests; not how to leave people alone, but how to integrate them with others.

* * *
This is part 2 of 4 of "Democracy and the Meaning of Life"
See also
Part 1: Neither Skinner Nor Benedict
Part 3: Big Problems
Part 4: Five Habits of the Heart

2013-11-16

Neither Skinner Nor Benedict

"Democracy is the name of a way of life of free and enriching communion."
- John Dewey (1859 - 1952)

The first time Unitarian Universalism changed my life with a clearly demarcated turning point, I was in 8th grade. This faith called me toward a greater possibility for human community. My Sunday School teacher one Sunday at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta introduced us to B.F. Skinner. It was 1972, and Skinner’s book, Beyond Freedom and Dignity had just come out.

I admired my RE teacher, and after our class let out, there on the church book table in the social hall was a copy of Skinner’s book for sale. So I asked my parents to buy it for me. I took it home and read it. Then I read his earlier book, Walden Two, describing a utopian community built on behaviorist principles. "Oh, God, yes!" I was totally a true believer. I was a 13-year-old Skinnerian behaviorist. I may have been the only one, ever.

I so wanted us -- people -- to have a clear, neat way for everybody to live together in peace and community.

A building at Twin Oaks commune, Louisa, VA
Four years later, I was 17. I learned about a commune in Virginia that had started up, built on Skinner’s principles – designed to be like Walden Two. I made my plans to go join it as soon as I graduated high school. I never went. It’s a long story, and it involves the arrival of a girlfriend in my life, but I never went.

As I grew older, as often happens, I made my peace with the messiness of life. I no longer expect or hope for a clear, neat simple utopia. I no longer believe in that particular model of greater human community.

But I still long for humans to work out a way to be together in peace and community. I think we all do.

I have chosen to pour the energy of my hopes into nurturing faith community rather than the more total community of a commune.

But as a church is not a commune, neither is it a monastery. I mention the monastery because, as the Roman Empire collapsed, many of the achievements of learning and letters were preserved inside monasteries – particularly Benedictine monasteries based on the Rule of St. Benedict, the 5th-century saint who wrote the rule book for monastic living. Alasdair MacIntyre, in the final paragraph of his 1981 book, After Virtue, conjured the image of monastery walls wherein civility and moral community could be preserved. He spoke of waiting for a new St. Benedict:
"It is always dangerous to draw too precise parallels between one historical period and another; and among the most misleading of such parallels are those which have been drawn between our own age in Europe and North America and the epoch in which the Roman Empire declined into the Dark Ages. None the less certain parallels there are. A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead—often not recognising fully what they were doing—was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If my account of our moral condition is correct [one characterized by moral incoherence and unsettlable moral disputes in the modern world], we ought to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict." (After Virtue 244-5)
St. Benedict of Nursa, 480-543
A new St. Benedict, even a "doubtless very different" one? I don’t think so. I'd say we are waiting neither for Godot, nor for a new St. Benedict. We, as the saying goes, are the people we’ve been waiting for.

And if the faith institution is neither a commune nor a monastery, then it must be a place of sustenance and of learning wherein we are restored and strengthened to bring the arts of hospitality and civility – the virtues which support and are supported by democracy – into the wider world.

* * *
This is part 1 of 4 of "Democracy and the Meaning of Life"
See also
Part 2: Balancing Interests vs. Creating Selves
Part 3: Big Problems
Part 4: Five Habits of the Heart

2013-11-14

The Covenant Story

I’d like to tell you a story: a story about covenant. It’s a story within a story, a story about a story, and you’ll probably find it familiar.

Once upon a time there was a people who shared among themselves a story. No one knew who first told the story, or how the story might have grown or changed as the elders told it among themselves and as parent passed it on to children, generation after generation. It was simply the people’s story. Eventually, parts of the story were brought together between two covers, and the parts between these covers were called, “the book.” The book was then the people’s story, for the people forgot about the other parts. Sometimes, though, new chapters were added.

The people’s story said that once upon a time there was a rain so hard and so long that the whole world was covered in water. And after the water receded and land appeared again, the sky promised the people that it would not do that to them again. And in return, the people promised they would try harder to be good to each other.

This was called the covenant of Noah.

And many generations passed.

The people noticed that when they were willing to set aside their own benefit, the community flourished. One of them said, “It’s like there’s a promise between us and the universe. If we sacrifice, and show we are willing to endure some pain, the universe will make sure that we have land and many descendants, and our community will always flourish.”

Another added, “Not everything always has to make sense. We need to trust that our community will be OK, even when some of us don’t understand it. Remember: it’s about community. It’s not about whether you think everything makes sense to you right away. Sometimes there’s a bigger sense than what we can see, OK? So as a practice in helping us let go of our urge to insist that everything has to make sense to us, a practice of setting aside our ego-defense reasonings and remembering that there’s something bigger and more significant than our individual comfort, let’s make a practice of doing one thing that no one can see any sense of, and that’s uncomfortable. Let’s, um, let’s see, ah, cut off a piece of skin of all the boys.”

And all the people agreed that, indeed, that didn’t make any utilitarian sense, and it was uncomfortable.

This was called the covenant of Abraham.

And many generations passed.

One day the community was troubled. They were having a hard time getting along. One of the elders went up on a mountain to get away from the fighting and try to get in touch with something true that might help people know how to get along.

When he came back down, he said: “We need to promise not to lie, not to steal, not to kill, not to want what our neighbors have, to keep the love we have for our spouses special, to take good care of our parents when they get old, and we need to get together every week not to do any work but just to do some things together that help us remember our promise.”

The people were skeptical, but the elder was insistent.

“If we follow these rules for being good to each other,” the elder said, “this world will be a better place for us.”

“Oh, yeah?” said the people. “Is that what the world told you when you were up on the mountain?”

The elder thought about how he had stood on ground that felt so strong and secure, among the trees and bushes that had seemed so alive with a fiery wisdom, and how, standing there, he had realized that his people really needed the help of some rules. So he said, “Yes. That’s what the world told me.”

It took a while, but eventually the people promised to follow the rules. They didn’t always keep this promise, but when they failed, they felt bad about it, and tried to do better next time.

This was called the covenant of Moses.

And many generations passed.

There came a time when the people were conquered by another people, and they were ruled over by the other people’s king, who was very mean to them. The people yearned to have their own kingdom back.

There was a beloved teacher, a healer of sad hearts, who told the people, “You want to have your own kingdom? I’ll tell you what. The kingdom you yearn for is right here and right here.” The first time he said “right here” his hand moved out and around, indicating the group of his listeners. The second time he said it, he put his hands flat over the middle of his chest.

“The kingdom of peace and love is among you and within you,” he said. “Never mind that mean king. Love one another, and take care of the poor. Here’s the deal: if you truly know this truth, then that’s what will set you free.”

This was called the new covenant.

And one generation passed.

A few years after that teacher died, certain leaders began telling the people that the deal was all about what you believed, and if you believed the right thing then you got to go to heaven. And many generations passed in which, for many of the people, the covenant was no longer about how we are together on this world. It was about doing something called “believing” in order to get a ticket to another world.

Finally, in the 16th century of the common era, some people began to say, “Well, OK, that was worth a try. I mean, this idea that if we all just agree to think alike then we’ll be happy and live in peace -- I can see how that would have some plausibility. It was worth a try. But we’ve tried it for about a millennium and a half now, and it isn’t working out.

"People arrive at beliefs that are different from what other people believe. It’s just what we do. Evidently, we can’t help ourselves. We see things differently. And if we keep trying to say we have to all see things the same way, then we’re going to keep having terrible fights about what way that is. We’re going to find ourselves feeling like we need to burn at the stake people who disagree with us. But to burn a man is not to defend a doctrine. To burn a man is just to burn a man. What’s the point?”

It was right about then that one of the people said: “We need not think alike to love alike.”

He was called a Unitarian. His name was Francis David. And the people called Unitarians began to say, “Let us be a people of covenant, not of creed, for the covenants of our tradition and our history have helped us and have guided us in the ways of connection and care, but they got off track when they got mixed up with this whole, ‘let’s-all-believe-the-same-thing’ idea.

"The people of old had a shared story. You could say that in some sense they believed it, but believing a narrative is different from believing a specific list of beliefs called a creed. So let’s go back to covenant without creed, and let’s appreciate the stories, but let’s have lots of stories. In fact, we’re getting close to the 17th century now; isn’t it about time for someone to invent the novel?”

And so it was. And the Unitarians delighted in the proliferation of stories that helped people open up their moral imaginations, helped readers understand and empathize with others.

From that day unto this, dear children, the Unitarians, and their friends, the Universalists, have lived happily, and also struggled mightily, to live together the life of covenant.

We draw on stories, and poems, and hearts from all over, promising to help each other see the love that surrounds us and sustains us in a vast network of care and support – an interdependent web of covenant.

* * *
This is part 3 of 3 of "The Interdependent Web of Covenant"
Previous: Part 2: "Come, Yet Again, Come"
Beginning: Part 1: "Covenant Not Creed"

[Note: Recent scholarship reveals that Francis David, apparently, never said, "We need not think alike to love alike" -- though numerous UU publications, including the hymnal, Singing the Living Tradition, report that he did. (See UUWORLD ARTICLE HERE.) In any case, this is our story -- even if it isn't strictly our history -- and Francis David represented that sentiment even if he never said exactly those words.]

2013-11-13

Come, Yet Again, Come

Covenant includes an aspirational element. Covenant invites us to aspire to keep the promise in ever deeper, ever more meaningful ways. As the covenant invites us to higher levels of upholding it, it also asks of us to be honest in acknowledging when we have failed it.

No matter how many times we fail to support one another in love, the covenant continues to exist, calling us back to repair the relations damaged, to honor anew what has been dishonored, to recommit to walking together in a relationship made sacred by the promised intention that it be sacred.

Covenant is what the 13th-century Persian Sufi mystic poet, Rumi, was talking about in lines that we have made into one of the hymns (#188) in our hymnal (Singing the Living Tradition).
Come, come, whoever you are
Wonderer, worshiper, lover of leaving
Ours is no caravan of despair,
Come, yet again come.
Come, yet again, come -- for so the power of covenant, of commitment to relationship, calls to us, whoever we are. We are lovers of leaving, called to come back again. Our hymn however has left out part of Rumi’s original poem. Here’s the whole thing:
Come, come, whoever you are.
Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving.
It doesn't matter.
Ours is not a caravan of despair.
Come, even if you have broken your vows a thousand times.
Come, yet again, come, come.
That additional line, “even if you have broken your vows a thousand times,” speaks to the nature of covenant. We fail. We fail in inevitable and daily ways to fully embody, to be fully present to the love that we have promised. Sometimes we even fail in egregious, heartrending ways to be the supportive presence we promised to be. Our heart fails to show up for the presence -- to our family, to our congregation -- to which we committed it. It doesn’t matter, says Rumi. Come, yet again, come. Even if you have broken your vows a thousand times, the vows still stand, broken but strangely unweakened, beckoning, inviting, calling, urging, whispering: return, re-commit, renew the heart’s promise of presence and connection. Come, yet again. Come.

That’s what covenant means.

Every time you say, “OK. I’m coming” – or say again, “All right. I’m here, and I will stay with you” – you re-enter the life of covenant. We abide in the life of covenant only by continually re-entering it.

Every Unitarian Universalist congregation is in covenantal relationship with all other Unitarian Universalist congregations, all thousand or so of them. Our seven principles declare that covenant:
"We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every being;
Justice, equity, and compassion;
Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth;
The free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
Rights of conscience and democracy;
The goal of world community;
Respect for the interdependent web of existence.”
That covenant among our congregations is also one of the ways the individual members of a given congregation express their covenant to each other. We promise together to share a life with one other of affirming and promoting inherent worth and dignity, affirming and promoting respect for the interdependent web.

That’s quite a promise. We do fail at it, of course. And each time we do, we promise to try again, for this is the life of covenant. In a strange and magical way, all those failures are the success of covenant.

One of the other ways popular among Unitarian Universalists for expressing the content of our covenant is the affirmation by Griswold Williams, also in our hymnal:
“Love is the doctrine of this church
The quest of truth is its sacrament,
And service is its prayer.
To dwell together in peace,
To seek knowledge in freedom,
To serve human need,
To the end that all souls shall grow
Into harmony with the divine.
Thus do we covenant with each other and with God.”
That’s our promise: to dwell together in peace, to seek knowledge in freedom, to serve human need. And again, we fail. And again, each time we do, we promise to try again, for thereby is woven the fabric of our shared covenantal life.

There are other ways we might express the content of our covenant. It’s important that we express it, yet at the same time, covenant is ultimately inexpressible. In covenant, we promise more than our words can say. Beyond this or that way of saying it is the promise to, one way or another, keep walking together, howsoever our paths diverge; one way or another, keep reaching out to connect, howsoever we disconnect; one way or another, keep watering the seeds of love in our own and each others’ hearts, howsoever parched they sometimes get. Come, yet again: come.

* * *
This is part 2 of 3 of "Interdependent Web of Covenant"
Next: Part 3: "The Covenant Story"
Beginning: Part 1: "Covenant Not Creed"

2013-11-12

Covenant Not Creed

Everyone should believe in something. I saw that on a t-shirt:
“Everyone should believe in something. I believe I’ll have another beer.”
And while I do, on occasion, believe I’ll have another beer, I wonder about the claim that everyone should believe in something. On the one hand, we can’t help ourselves. We all form beliefs – from beliefs about where we left our car keys, to beliefs about which politicians will best benefit their electorate. We can’t live without beliefs. Problem is, we can’t live very well with them either. Beliefs get us into trouble, because we all need to keep learning, and a belief is like a stopping point in the unfolding of learning. A belief is a mental stuck place in the flow of awareness. We have to have them – but we also need to be ready to replace any of them. Clinging to beliefs gets us into trouble.

In the 16th century, Michael Servetus said the trinity is "a diabolical monster with three heads" and that Jesus Christ "is not the Son of God from eternity" but only temporally -- though it's hard to imagine what practical difference this could possibly make. Servetus was very attached to certain beliefs, and the Syndics of Geneva that sentenced him to be "attached to a stake and burned with your book to ashes" were very attached to opposite beliefs.

Both sides were in a miserable state. It’s miserable to want to burn someone else to death so badly that you get some of your friends together and actually do it, and it’s miserable to be burned. It’s a lose-lose scenario when we get all clingy about our beliefs.

Our way of liberal religion is a different approach. We are a people of covenant, not of creed -- a people of promise, not of beliefs. We are not bound together by what we believe. We are bound together simply by the power of promising to be bound together.

What do Unitarian Universalists believe? We believe that your religion isn’t about what you believe. Religion is about three things. (See sidebar at right, "What Religion Is About")

For some religions, creed – doctrines, beliefs – is a part of how they bring those three functions together so that each can strengthen and support the other two. We respect those religions that employ a creedal strategy. Our point is that, although everybody needs to believe something, there isn’t any one thing that we all have to believe together. For religious community, sharing a creed is optional, and we Unitarian Universalists opt out.

Covenant, however, is not optional. Covenant is essential.

A covenant is a promise – a promise that continues to hold us, no matter how many times we break it. A covenant is not a contract. If one of the parties to a contract breaks the contract, the other party doesn’t have to continue to keep its side of the bargain. A contract is all about the quid pro quo, the tit for tat. A contract says, "I will provide some benefit, good, service, or money to you in exchange for some benefit, good, service or money from you." A covenant is less about what we DO for each other and more about who we ARE together.

Marriage is one example of a covenant. In marriage, two people make a promise to each other that is special in several ways. For one thing, there’s an aspect of the promise that goes beyond what we can see. The promise is partly visible – there are more-or-less objective, agreed upon criteria for keeping the marriage promise – and it is also partly invisible. There’s something that the partners promise each other that is intangible, and if it’s missing, its absence might not be immediately recognized. When a couple promises to be together in love, there is no bright clear line that separates “being together” from “not so much” -- or that separates “love” from “not so much.”

In some strange and magical way, the fact that we don’t always know if we’re keeping the promise, or if the other person is, gives the promise a special power for us. It’s not something you can check off: "Done. OK, what’s next?" The covenantal promise adds meaning to our lives, yet, paradoxically, it does so by being ambiguous. Its meaning is never too clear, but rather creatively – sometimes surprisingly – unfolds.

* * *
This is part 1 of 3 of "Interdependent Web of Covenant"
Next: Part 2: "Come, Yet Again, Come"

2013-11-11

Armistice Day

"Armistice Day
Armistice Day
That's all I really wanted to say."

- Paul Simon

It's Armisice Day
I would have no arms
Eleven eleven, like the first Armistice Day, 1918,
One one one one, we
Won won won won
Yessir, yessir, we won one, won one
How many did we lose?
On the other hand, every birth is a win, isn't it, so we're all right?
On the other other hand, the planet can't handle all those wins?
I would be done with the back and forth of hands
I would have no hands
I would have no arms
I would live in Europe, Asia, America, south and north, Africa, Australia, Antarctica,
     and all the wide deep blacken blue oceans
I would have no Western front
I would name myself Peace Among the Nations
Finally undisappointable,
Hanging over the beleaguered of nations like a happy gracious fog, I would
Penetrate everywhere
I would weigh you down with uplifting serenity
I would double you four times, Woodrow Wilson World War
All ate of you, consumed by love, would have a thousand arms each reaching and
     embracing every dying soldier every wailing mother every broken-legged horse,
     enfolding them in doesn't-change-a-thing compassion
I would have no arms.

2013-11-09

The Trigg Response

How much are we guided by rational principle? As a matter of rational principle, it doesn’t matter if a helpless person is half a pond away or an ocean away. Yet most of us would save a drowning child, when the cost to ourselves is fairly minimal, only if that child is physically right in front of us.

Jason Trigg is an exception. Impressed by the inescapable force of Singer’s argument, which he encountered in philosophy class one day as a student at MIT, Jason Trigg has set out to save as many lives as he can. The way to do that, he calculated, is to make a lot of money and give it away. According to the Washington Post article:
"Jason Trigg went into finance because he is after money — as much as he can earn. The 25-year-old certainly had other career options. An MIT computer science graduate, he could be writing software for the next tech giant. Or he might have gone into academia in computing or applied math or even biology. He could literally be working to cure cancer. Instead, he goes to work each morning for a high-frequency trading firm. It’s a hedge fund on steroids. He writes software that turns a lot of money into even more money. For his labors, he reaps an uptown salary — and over time his earning potential is unbounded. It’s all part of the plan. Why this compulsion? It’s not for fast cars or fancy houses. Trigg makes money just to give it away. His logic is simple: The more he makes, the more good he can do. He’s figured out just how to take measure of his contribution. His outlet of choice is the Against Malaria Foundation, considered one of the world’s most effective charities. It estimates that a $2,500 donation can save one life. A quantitative analyst at Trigg’s hedge fund can earn well more than $100,000 a year. By giving away half of a high finance salary, Trigg says, he can save many more lives than he could on an academic’s salary.” (Dylan Matthews, "Join Wall Street, Save the World." Washington Post, 2013 May 31. ARTICLE HERE)
What do you think of that story? It’s a rare thing, even for an MIT student majoring in a STEM field (science, technology, engineering, mathematics), to have such a moral commitment that is so abstract, so cognitive and principled, as Jason Trigg’s. (In his TED talk, Peter Singer mentions a few other examples of people like Jason. See video below, or CLICK HERE.)

And I’m not sure what to think of a case like that. Is this where his deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet? He’s addressing the world’s need, but if he isn’t also addressing his own needs for human connection, relationship, then his virtue – a virtue that begins as what flows forth from connection – is oddly disconnecting. There's at least a disconnect between the people he's around, day-to-day, and the people toward whom his compassion is directed.

Our cognitive -- our rational and principled -- capacity is essential. We'd be wrecks without that capacity modulating our limbic energy. At the same time, the cognitive, rational, and principled can sometimes get in the way of the emotional awareness that is the source of real connection. (This, I take it, is the basis of David Brooks' complaint about Jason Trigg: SEE HERE.)

My hope for Jason Trigg, altruists like him, and for all of us, is that however far we go with cognitive commitment to good principles, we will also attend to cultivating our awareness of emotional connection – take up the trainings in the ways of heartfelt compassion in relations to people around us, face to face and hand to hand.



Singer's Recommended Websites:

Giving What We Can http://www.givingwhatwecan.org/
80,000 Hours http://80000hours.org/
The Life You Can Save http://www.thelifeyoucansave.org/
Give Well http://www.givewell.org/
Effective Animal Activism http://www.effectiveanimalactivism.org/

* * *
This is part 4 of 4 of "Why Not Evil?"
Previous: Part 3: "Professor Singer Makes a Point"
Beginning: Part 1: "Two Questions"

2013-11-08

Professor Singer Makes a Point

So here’s a question for the intellectually inclined: how far can thinking go in correcting moral disconnection? How much can we THINK our way to being good?

Philosopher Peter Singer famously used thought experiments that illustrate how our moral lives are not so much rooted, as we might imagine them to be, in a rational capacity to apply moral principles. Here’s how Professor Singer explained it:
"To challenge my students to think about the ethics of what we owe to people in need, I ask them to imagine that their route to the university takes them past a shallow pond. One morning, I say to them, you notice a child has fallen in and appears to be drowning. To wade in and pull the child out would be easy but it will mean that you get your clothes wet and muddy, and by the time you go home and change you will have missed your first class. I then ask the students: do you have any obligation to rescue the child? Unanimously, the students say they do. The importance of saving a child so far outweighs the cost of getting one’s clothes muddy and missing a class, that they refuse to consider it any kind of excuse for not saving the child. Does it make a difference, I ask, that there are other people walking past the pond who would equally be able to rescue the child but are not doing so? No, the students reply, the fact that others are not doing what they ought to do is no reason why I should not do what I ought to do. Once we are all clear about our obligations to rescue the drowning child in front of us, I ask: would it make any difference if the child were far away, in another country perhaps, but similarly in danger of death, and equally within your means to save, at no great cost – and absolutely no danger – to yourself? Virtually all agree that distance and nationality make no moral difference to the situation. I then point out that we are all in that situation of the person passing the shallow pond: we can all save lives of people, both children and adults, who would otherwise die, and we can do so at a very small cost to us: the cost of a new CD, a shirt or a night out at a restaurant or concert, can mean the difference between life and death to more than one person somewhere in the world – and overseas aid agencies like Oxfam overcome the problem of acting at a distance. At this point the students raise various practical difficulties. Can we be sure that our donation will really get to the people who need it? Doesn’t most aid get swallowed up in administrative costs, or waste, or downright corruption? Isn’t the real problem the growing world population, and is there any point in saving lives until the problem has been solved? These questions can all be answered: but I also point out that even if a substantial proportion of our donations were wasted, the cost to us of making the donation is so small, compared to the benefits that it provides when it, or some of it, does get through to those who need our help, that we would still be saving lives at a small cost to ourselves – even if aid organizations were much less efficient than they actually are. I am always struck by how few students challenge the underlying ethics of the idea that we ought to save the lives of strangers when we can do so at relatively little cost to ourselves." (FULL ARTICLE HERE)
As a matter of rational principle, it doesn’t matter if the helpless person is half a pond away or an ocean away. If it’s evil to neglect to save a dying child when we could, and when the cost to ourselves is fairly minimal, then it is evil wherever that child may be, right?

But rational principle doesn’t actually get us to act to save others, much, does it? If we don't have the social emotions triggered by concrete humans nearby, moral principles don't carry a whole lot of weight.

Except for a few people like Jason Trigg.

Next: Jason Trigg?

* * *
This is part 3 of 4 of "Why Not Evil?"
Next: Part 4: "The Trigg Response"
Previous: Part 2: "The Dark Side"
Beginning: Part 1: "Two Questions"

2013-11-06

The Dark Side

We Unitarian Universalists have no canon (nor, as far as I know, do we have any cannons -- at least not functional ones). That is, we do not particularly privilege the 66 books of the Protestant Bible among sources of spiritual insight and wisdom. We recognize no authoritative list of scripture. We can't even stick with one hymnal for 20 years without needing a supplement.

Our canonlessness, more than our creedlessness, distinguishes Unitarian Universalists from the other traditions that flow from the Protestant Reformation. A number of other denominations also declare themselves noncreedal -- e.g., Baptists, Disciples of Christ, and Churches of Christ. But UUs are distinct among the heirs of the Reformation -- and, indeed, among the heirs of Abraham -- in abjuring canon.

This is not because we think we are all so intrinsically good that we can get along without the authority of a canon. Rather, just the opposite. We UUs know that political and personal self-serving agendas and a propensity to be self-deceived are never very far from the human heart -- including the hearts of those who establish canons. Our refusal to limit ourselves to a canon is not because Unitarian Universalists have a high opinion of human nature. Rather, we don't have a high enough opinion of human nature to trust anyone to limit our scripture to one unchangeable canon.

We are well aware that it's "dark in there" inside the human heart. In particular, we know that the heart is dark when it is closed. Therefore, our calling is to open our hearts to all the light of the world -- including all the wisdom writing of the world.

We become capable of harming or neglecting others for our own material gain when we do not connect in empathy with them. Empathetic connection, the thing that steers us from evil, is rooted in social emotions. From those roots in our emotions sprout moral principles. As is almost always the case, rational thought comes along after the fact, and its job is to codify and systematize what our emotions have already told us.

For almost all of us, the moral principles never get very far from the social emotions in which they are grounded. They are grounded in emotions that express to others in largely involuntary, hard-to-fake ways our social commitment and cooperative intent. The blush of embarrassment signals recognition of a breech in our relationship trust or expectation, and signals our apologetic readiness to repair the relationship. Smiles come in a wide variety of forms, but humans are pretty good at recognizing a sincere smile, and that type of smile is an all-purpose signal of cooperative intent. Laughter, and teasing, and a small spontaneous touch, as well as the involuntary displays we make when we are experiencing love, compassion, and awe connect us with others in the profoundest ways which humans can be connected.

That connection is our greatest good, and the means by which we are good.

Evolution wired us with social emotions and involuntary displays of them because it needed us to not have to think about it. The great and careful observer Charles Darwin over 150 years ago, noticed that “social or maternal instincts” – the impulse to care –
“are performed too instantaneously for reflection, or for pleasure or pain to be felt at the time.”
From those roots in our gut impulses for connection, we can and do form moral principles: reminders to ourselves not to lie, cheat, or steal, and to recognize obligations to help.

We aren’t more evil than we are because we were so powerfully built to be social animals caring about each other.

We aren’t less evil than we are, though, because:

(1) Our in-group desires for connection, acceptance, and respect sometimes lead us to disregard or abuse people in out-groups. This is where cognitive principles can guide us toward greater good. In those realms beyond the reach of built-in emotional response, the intellect's moral precepts are truly helpful.

We also aren’t less evil than we are because:

(2) We aren’t always skillful at staying in touch with the built-in roots of caring. Sometimes we need a little training in paying attention to those feelings and how to better satisfy them. After all, most of the subjects in the study of spending $20 reported beforehand that they believed that spending the money on themselves would make them happier.

We can get out of touch with, or never learn to be in touch with, the social emotions of connection that actually improve our happiness and well-being. Sometimes institutions deliberately undertake to train it out of us. For example, the army had to learn how to train out of soldiers their predisposition to care enough about other people not to shoot them. In the years after World War II, army colonel Slam Marshal interviewed hundreds of allied soldiers who fought in Europe and the Pacific.
“His interviews yielded an astonishing finding: Only 15 percent of World War II riflemen had fired at the enemy during combat. Often soldiers refused to fire at the enemy with superior officers barking commands nearby and bullets zipping past their heads.” (Dacher Keltner)
The army saw this as a problem, and they redirected their training in ways that obscured the connection between shooting and killing humans. Soldiers spent more time practicing shooting at nonhuman targets – trees, hills, cars, huts.
“The effects were dramatic. According to army estimates, 90 percent of soldiers in the Vietnam War fired at their enemies.” (52)
Besides such intentional training, our experiences, in myriad, less systematic ways can train out of us our connection to our social emotions. The dark side of the human heart is this capacity to be out of touch with itself and therefore out of touch with others.

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This is part 2 of 4 of "Why Not Evil?"
Next: Part 3: "Professor Singer Makes a Point"
Previous: Part 1: "Two Questions"

2013-11-05

Two Questions

Two questions:

1. Why aren’t we more evil than we are?

And:

2.Why aren’t we less evil than we are?

Why do we harm and neglect others for our own gain – and, given that we do, why don’t we do it more? When I say “gain” in this context, I mean, material gain, the things money can buy, the stuff that economists measure, that economic activity is made of. I mean the sort of “interests” you have that your lawyer could help you protect. We pretty much know that this sort of "gain" really isn’t what's important. Connecting with others in relationships of care is our true good, the source both of being good and of being happy.

Yes, we do need a little bit of money, a basic minimum of material welfare. Conditions of absolute deprivation do affect quality of life.
“For those in the middle classes and above, however, the association between money and happiness is weak or nonexistent. Researchers have now asked millions of people the simple question: 'How satisfied are you with your life right now?' It is not personal wealth, the strength of the stock market, inflation, or fluctuations in interest rates that cause the ebb and flow in our personal well-being. This same literature reveals time and time again that what makes us happy is the quality of our romantic bonds, the health of our families, the time we spend with good friends, the connections we feel to communities.” (Dacher Keltner 13)
The Reverend Nadia Bolz-Weber
We pretty much know this. We might not, however, be aware of recent studies confirming how far this goes. Sonja Lyubomirsky’s research has found that engaging in five acts of kindness a week – donating blood, buying a friend a sundae, giving money to someone in need – elevates personal well-being in lasting ways. Other studies find that spending twenty dollars on someone else, or giving it to charity, leads to greater boosts in happiness than spending that money on oneself. We are built to be good – to seek empathetic connections with others through which we manifest kindness and come into joy.

We also have a dark side. I want to be clear about this. Sometimes people think that Unitarian Universalists believe that human nature is all sunny and golden. For instance, let me tell you a story about where I encountered that impression of Unitarian Unviersalists.

I went to the Festival of Homiletics. A year and a half ago, I was there. The Festival of Homiletics is an annual thing, and in 2012 May, it was in Atlanta. My parents live in the Atlanta area, so I drove up from Florida, got in a visit with the parents, and went to the Festival of Homiletics. (“Homiletics” is an SAT vocabulary level 98 word. I didn’t know what it meant either until I went to seminary. Homiletics is “the study and practice of preaching; the branch of theology that deals with sermons and homilies.”) The Festival draws over 1200 pastors a year, almost all of them from mainline Protestant denominations. The year I went, there were eight Unitarian Universalist ministers, including myself. For four-and-a-half days we heard preaching, and talks about preaching.

One of the talks I heard was from the Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber – a Lutheran minister in what is called the “emergent church” movement. She was young, and hip, and tattooed and pierced. She was not wearing a clerical collar, but a colorful, flowing, layered top and blue jeans. "This is cool," I thought. "I mean, this stretches my conception of a Lutheran minister."

She told us about her path to ministry. She said that as a young adult she’d been a hard-drinking ne'er-do-well. Then she cleaned up and went looking for a spiritual home. She tried out the Unitarian Universalist Church, where, she said, they don’t see how deeply flawed we are. "It's dark in there," she said tapping her chest over her heart. She shook her head and quipped:
"Unitarians are so cute. They have this high, high view of human goodness. It's like they never read the paper."
Now wait a minute.

In fact, Unitarian Universalists read the papers more than average. We know what’s going on out there, and we know people aren’t always filled with kindness and compassion. We have a pretty clear sense of human capacity for evil. Just ask a typical UU how much she trusts the board of Monsanto to do what's best for their workers, their consumers, or the planet. While some of us do sympathize with that particular corporation, it's very common among us to see evil, even in places where other people might not. Moreover, we typically are not shy in opining about wrong-doing.

We don't doubt the human capacity to harm others for our own "gain." But why do we do it as much as we do? And what keeps us from doing it even more?

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This is Part 1 of 4 of "Why Not Evil?"
Next: Part 2: "The Dark Side"


2013-11-04

Let It Be a Dance

I didn’t expect that the topic, “Wicked,” would take me into these issues about the ways we conceive our relation to other animals, but it turns out that this is a central point of Greg Maguire’s novel, Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. In the world of the novel, many animals talk and think as abstractly as any human could, and do research, and lecture classrooms of human students. At school, the green-skinned Elphaba’s mentor is professor Dillamond, a talking goat.

Yet the Wizard of Oz, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, is on a campaign to oppress the animals, to return them all to an unthinking state in servitude to the desires and whims of the humans and more human-like inhabitants of Oz (Munchkins, Winkies, Gillikans, etc.) Elphaba earns the enmity of the wizard, and his campaign against her is what brands her as a wicked witch. She earns his enmity by taking up the cause of all animals, and working for the liberation of all beings.

In 14 years of dialog with my spouse, the veterinarian and minister LoraKim Joyner, on the subject of humans and nonhumans, I have seen my conception of the gap decidedly narrow. Some of that narrowing has come from learning more about the amazing capabilities for problem-solving and self-awareness exhibited by apes, monkeys, dolphins, magpies. All the vertebrates, really, are more complex and adaptable than I had tended to imagine. But much of the narrowing of the gap has come from the other direction: from the mounting evidence of how little we humans are actually governed by the rationality that we imagine separates us from nonhumans. Yes, I’ve been impressed to learn how rational various other species are. I’ve been even more impressed to learn more about how irrational humans are.
"We know that people can be induced to buy more cans of soup if you put a “Limit: 12 per customer” sign on the display. We know that if you ask people what movie they want to see next week, they’re likely to mention a classy art film. But, if you ask them what movie they want to see tonight, they’re more likely to mention a mindless blockbuster." (David Brooks, "The Nudge Debate")
Even more radical than that, ever since Benjamin Libet’s experiments in the mid-1980s, we have known that the motor signal is headed to the muscle several milliseconds before we become conscious of it. We are already begun in the action before the apparatus of conscious decision-making comes on line. For most of day-to-day life, consciousness isn’t deciding what to do – it’s coming along after the fact and making up a story about how what we’re doing, yeah, that’s what we meant to do. All day long, it’s going: "I meant to do that. Oh, yeah, I meant to do that, too." But the meaning-to-do-it trails the beginning of doing it.

We so love to believe that we are rational – we’re so committed to the story we make up of how we meant to do what we’re doing. We’re afraid of irrationality, and, to some extent, have projected the irrationality we don’t like about ourselves upon other animals, creating that line of separation.

Yes, certainly, there are lots of things humans can do that no other animal can. There are lots of things bats can do that no other animal can. There are lots of things that dolphins can do that no other animal can. Indeed, there are things cockroaches can do that no other animal can do. The trap is to think our distinguishing qualities -- more so than the distinguishing qualities of other species -- make us, somehow, "better," or "preferable from the universe’s viewpoint," or "a greater achievement of evolution."

I belong to all of these concentric categories: "middleclass, postindustrial, educated, white guy," "human," "primate," "mammal," "warm-blooded," "vertebrate," "animal." In my quest for self-understanding, I have come to see that it's a mistake to pick out just one of those categories, "human," and put all the emphasis on understanding that category. "What does it mean to be human?" is no more a compelling question than, "What does it mean to be primate?" Or, "What does it mean to be animal?" Or, in the other direction, "What does it mean to be in the socioeconomic class that I'm in?" Self-understanding is a project of appreciating what I have in common with the other beings in all those categories. It is less a matter of knowing what separates humans from other animals and more a matter of understanding what all us animals share.

Everything that is wonderful and everything that is wicked is in every ape heart. And almost everything that is wonderful and wicked -- and a few more things we don't know how to categorize -- is in every mammal heart. Wholeness becomes possible when we don’t separate out the parts we don't like and exile a part of ourselves, but when we let our parts join in a dance with each other. Through the good times and the bad times, too – both our good parts and our bad parts, too: let it be a dance.

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This is part 4 of 4 of "Wicked."
Previous: Part 3: "Moral Judgment and Some Lessons of Evolution"
Beginning: Part 1: "Wonderful Wizards and Wicked Witches"