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


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 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.”


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,
  • 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


The Vice of Toxic Masculinity

Here are some virtues:
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.


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


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.”


* * *
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


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.

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


An April Fool's Easter

Foolishness and Salvation, part 1

Sun Apr 1
Yesterday was the full moon. It was the first full moon after the vernal equinox, which makes today the first Sunday after the first full moon of spring, and that means . . . it’s Easter!

Easter brings out a bit of the impish in me. Every Easter, for the last 7 or 8 years, I post on Facebook, early in the morning – the same post every year:
“He is risen! She is risen! They are risen! We are risen! OK, everybody up? Excellent. Now what?”

I mentioned to an Episcopalian priest friend of mine that I do this. He said, “That’s actually pretty good theology.” Clever man.

So my impish streak is particularly delighted that THIS Easter is also April Fool’s day. Easter and April Fool’s day coincide, on average, about once every 30 years, but it’s very irregular. Last time it happened was 62 years ago – 1956 – so in my lifetime, it’s never happened before. I’m so excited.

So let me talk about the Fool, whose day we herewith celebrate – and also about that great jester, Jesus, whom we also celebrate today.

The Fool is a character on Tarot cards that first appeared in early Medieval Europe as a vehicle for fortune telling and gambling. The Tarot, and particularly the Major Arcana represent archetypal images for our western culture and spiritual paths. There are 22 Major Arcana, numbered sequentially, zero through 21, with the Fool being zero.

Sallie Nichols, Jungian psychologist, author of “The Wisdom of the Fool,” writes that,
“Here the Fool is the central character of the Tarot Trumps....To see him dance is to plumb the mystery of all creation, for his essence is all-inclusive and his paradoxes many. He strides forward yet he looks backward, thus connecting the wisdom of the future with the innocence of childhood. His energy is unconscious and undirected, yet it seems to have a purpose of its own. He moves outside space and time. The winds of prophecy and poesy inhabit his spirit. Although he wanders with no fixed abode, he endures intact throughout the ages. His multicolored costume spins a rainbow wheel offering us glimpses of eternity.”
The Fool offers us fresh, often startling perspective – so it’s appropriate that the Fool’s day comes in early spring. April Fool’s Day, Ground Hog's Day, Valentine's Day, Chinese New Year, Mardi Gras, and almost seven weeks later, now Easter are all observances of the coming of spring -- as is the “official” day, the Vernal equinox. This plethora of celebrations of the ending of winter and spring's resurrection of life, and green, and flowers, and hope is appropriate, for, in fact, we don't know when spring will begin. We never know exactly when the freshness of the world will make itself evident to us.

So it's best to be ready. And never miss an opportunity to party.

In the joy of new life, the resurrection of hope from the cold, barren winter, death’s victory is never final. And the Fool is the one who points to new possibilities to break us out of the deadening crust of frozen convention. In Foolish wisdom, we see truth. By turning the world to a different angle, the fool exposes our ridiculousness to us.

For examples, one only need type “The Onion” into one’s search engine. This morning’s headlines from the Fools at “America’s Finest News source” include:
“EPA Rolls Back Emissions Standards To Increase Consumer Choice Over Type Of Apocalyptic Hellscape Earth Will Become”

Funny – and true. Another headline:
“‘I Don’t Fit Into Any Of Corporate America’s Little Boxes,’ Says Single, 18-To-36-Year-Old Hispanic Female With Brand Loyalty To Tom’s, Chobani”

The fool deftly punctures our illusions of uniqueness, or of independence from categories.

The fool shows us foibles, and helps us learn from them – slyly insinuating that we may be taking the wrong approach to a problem.

A husband visits a doctor and says, “It’s my wife, doc. I think she’s losing her hearing.”
“How bad is it?” says the doc. The man doesn’t know. The doctor says, “We have some tests, but first we can get a rough idea. Try this simple test at home. Stand across the room, speak in a normal voice. If she doesn’t hear you take two steps closer. Keep doing that – and come back and tell me how close you had to get before she hears you.”
So the man goes home. He stands on the other side of the living room, and he says “What would you like for dinner?”
Two steps closer.
“What would you like for dinner?”
Another two steps.
Still no answer.
Finally, he’s only three feet away.
“What would you like for dinner?”
The wife says, “The rice and beans will be fine, for the fourth time.”

Sometimes we think we’re stuck in a situation in which we cannot be heard. But the jokester applies elbow to ribs to remind us that maybe it is we who should be listening better – and that we cannot feel heard except within the context of a conversation in which we ourselves are hearing.

* * *
This is part 1 of "Foolishness and Salvation"
See also
Part 2: Jesus as Wise Fool
Part 3: Foolish UUs


The Workshops of Democracy

Daring Democracy, part 3

It's true that fixing the mechanics of elections would be helpful. It would help us feel more empowered, less fragmented, more hopeful, less isolated and indifferent. But democracy is more than elections. We also need to do the work of opening our hearts to democracy as a way of life. And when I say “we,” I need to acknowledge that y’all (that’s Southern for youse guys) are awesome. Just being here today, and Sunday after Sunday, and at other programs during the week is huge.

At congregations and other voluntary associations across the land, the work is done. Being here regularly helps grow an understanding that we are all in this together, dependent on, and accountable to, one another. It helps foster appreciation of the value of “otherness,” and hospitality to the stranger, those who seem different. It helps us engage creatively with the tensions: the internal tension when we find ourselves doing something not precisely in line with what we’ve said we value – and the external tensions with people whose opinions differ from ours. Engage those tensions, neither hiding them nor hiding from them, but using them to better understand ourselves and our neighbors.

Being here helps us find our voice, know the satisfaction of contributing to positive change, and resist narratives of our own powerlessness. It creates community, knowing that it takes a village to raise a Rosa Parks, and that steady companionship of kindred spirits nourishes the courage we need to speak and act as citizens.

Regular participation in congregational life is not the only way to do the work of opening our hearts to democracy as a way of life, but it is the best way I know.

So I really want to appreciate and invite us to appreciate together what an important thing – what an amazing thing -- it is to decide to be a congregation together, to keep this place going, to stay at the table to hash out differences, to resist the many temptations to take our ball and go home when things get a little hairy, to hang in and let the friction rub us smooth, to discern finally the lovely and delightful in one another and the light shining through our cracks. You’re here and you’re doing that, and that is such a great, hopeful thing – I just gotta say that.

But most Americans aren't here. During any given week, most Americans will not participate in any congregation where people practice and learn the gentle and the rough and tumble arts of being a people. More and more, Americans are either staying home, or they’re attending a mega-church, where they see a good show every week but participate in no decision-making, no dialog, no real encounter with one another. And our country suffers from the decline of heart-habits of democracy.

Fortunately, noncongregational forms of voluntary association may be gaining. Lappe and Eichen describe a growing network of organizations and concerns pushing back, reclaiming the vision that government of the people be for and by the people. Since most of the country isn’t here – that is, they’re not coming to us -- we can go to them. We can participate in and support noncongregational associations building democracy. What we learn here in our congregation about how to be together, how to be a people, are the attitudes and skills those other groups most need.
  • Visit the website of the Democracy Initiative to identify national and local campaigns.
  • The Move to Amend website connects a coalition of organizations and individuals quote “building a vibrant democracy that is genuinely accountable to the people, not corporate interests.”
  • Reclaim Our Democracy is a group based at First Parish UU in Concord, Massachusetts working on the issues of escalating inequality and the corrupting influence of money in politics. Check out their website.
  • Take a look also at Democracy Spring dot org, and
  • Democracy Awakening dot org. More than 500 UUs participated in the launch of Democracy Spring and Democracy Awakening in April 2016.
  • The Electoral Justice Project of the Movement for Black Lives started last November 2017 – they’re doing good building.
  • The League of Women Voters has been toiling for democracy since 1920, and their ongoing work is more vital and important now than ever.
I’ll stop there. That should be enough to get you started.

Lappe and Eichen quote William Hastie, who, they note, was America’s first African American federal appellate judge:
“Democracy is becoming, rather than being. It can easily be lost, but never is fully won. Its essence is eternal struggle.” (Hastie)
It’s not consensus and parades. It’s not easy, quiet, orderly, and safe. It is struggle. It is the fullness of life: connection and meaning, purpose and agency. It is the life of wisdom and love that we can only find and make collectively with others. It is very exciting.

* * *
This is part 3 of 3 of "Daring Democracy"
See also
Part 1: Democracy: Not Quiet and Orderly, But Exciting
Part 2: Democracy: The Spiritual Need

Above text is excerpted and slightly revised from sermon delivered on 2018 Mar 25:


Democracy: The Spiritual Need

Daring Democracy, part 2

We need each other not merely because cooperating helps us get 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.

Individuals do not make society. The truth is, it’s the other way around. Societies make individuals. It is in and through our network of relationships that we are fashioned into the individuals we are.

Shared social life is not a compromise. Nor is it a tool for satisfaction of our a priori interests. Shared social life is our fulfillment.

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. It is the locus of our origin. It is 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. Alone, isolated, we are alienated, powerless – in hell.
“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 – finding therein our belongingness, is what 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. It was Benjamin Barber who said:
“Our interdependence as members of the human species requires us to belong – if not to free associations, then to totalistic collectivities.” (Strong Democracy, 1984, p. 112)
And it was Robert Nisbet who had earlier said:
“The genius of totalitarian leadership lies in its profound awareness that human personality cannot tolerate moral isolation. It lies, further, in its knowledge that absolute and relentless power will be acceptable only when it comes to seem the only available form of community and membership.” (The Quest for Community, 1953, p. 202)
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.

What I’m saying is, Democracy goes deeper than its forms – the mechanics of voting and fair elections.

Certainly, there are things we could do to improve elections. Many of us can rattle off ideas.
Without even touching the issue of campaign finance and the corrupting influence of money in our elections, we could:
  1. Replace the electoral college with direct popular vote
  2. End the disenfranchisement of felons and ex-felons.
  3. Allow on-site, day of voting registration.
  4. Reform voter ID requirements that disproportionately disenfranchise the poor and minorities.
  5. Have election MONTH instead of election DAY, with polls open 24-hours a day for 30 days.
  6. Eliminate gerrymandering. Require that district maps be drawn so as to produce the lowest possible sum of all the district perimeters.
  7. Require that each vote produces a hard-copy paper ballot.
  8. Institute Instant Run-off Voting for every race with more than two candidates so that no one gets elected without a 50%+1 majority.
That’s just off the top of my head (well, pretty much). You might have a few more you could add.

Fixing the mechanics of elections, however, isn’t the same thing as democratic life: the larger ethical meaning of democracy as a way of life, “a form of moral and spiritual association.” Parker Palmer describes the deeper problem:
“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.” (Healing the Heart of Democracy, 2014. p. 19)
Lappe and Eichen argue that democracy is essential. Our human spiritual need is for connection, and for meaning. Meaning comes from a sense of purpose and of agency – that is, empowerment. Thus, democracy, they say, “as it enables us to meet these needs, is the realization of human dignity” They go on to say:
“Humans thrive best when the communities we create enable each of us, not just a privileged few, to experience a sense of power (that is, agency or simply knowing that our voices count), a sense that our lives have meaning beyond our own survival, and that we have satisfying connection with others. Add those together and what do you have? The essence of democracy. . . . Our deepest needs as human beings are met in the very journey for democracy itself.” (Daring Democracy, 2014, p. 162)

NEXT: The Workshops of Democracy

* * *
This is part 2 of 3 of "Daring Democracy"
See also
Part 1: Democracy: Not Quiet and Orderly, But Exciting
Part 3: The Workshops of Democracy

Above text is excerpted and slightly revised from sermon delivered on 2018 Mar 25:


Democracy: Not Quiet and Orderly, but Exciting

Daring Democracy, part 1
“A majority of Americans apparently have come to think of democracy as a matter of consensus and parades, as if it were somehow easy, quiet, orderly, and safe.” (Lewis Lapham, 2016)
Easy, quiet, orderly, and safe. Perhaps that sounds really good – right now. Perhaps after a stressful week, you crave the sanctuary of easy, quiet, orderly, and safe. Sometimes I crave that, too.

But I’m not going to offer easy, quiet, orderly, and safe today. Let me tell you why. You see: there’s another way to turn around anxiety stress. And that is to turn it into excitement.

Democracy isn’t easy, quiet, orderly, or even safe. What it is, is exciting.

Turning stressful anxiety into invigorating excitement is often as simple as just saying so. There’s a study about that; let me tell you about it. Professor Alison Brooks put volunteers into various nerve-racking situations including: singing karaoke in front of strangers; public speaking; doing ‘IQ-test’ arithmetic problems under time pressure. But before each activity, they spoke out loud a single sentence to themselves:
“I feel anxious,”
“I feel calm,” or
“I feel excited.”
Those who said “I feel calm,” got no effect at all, either on performance or self-confidence. Those who said, “I feel anxious” did worse. Both their self-confidence and their performance was lower. Those who said, “I feel excited,” “not only felt more self-confident but also performed better, objectively measured, at all the tasks — singing, public speaking, even arithmetic. Saying “I am excited” switches the mindset from threat to opportunity – which “increases dopamine activity, which focuses your attention and sharpens you mentally.” (Robertson 2017)

So let our sanctuary – a sanctuary which, per our vision statement, we hope to make a “sanctuary without walls” – be a place of excitement – a respite from stressful threat and a gathering ground for life and verve and challenge, not sleepy complacency. In that spirit, let us engage this exciting prospect: democracy.

In their book, Daring Democracy, which is one of two Unitarian Universalist Common Reads this year – a book for all UUs to read and talk about together -- Frances Moore Lappe and Adam Eichen, expose and document an “anti-democracy” movement, funded by big money, that co-opts democratic ideals and leaves so many in the US feeling lonely and powerless. The Anti-Democracy ideology narrows the freedoms of democracy to consumption – the freedom to shop.

As Unitarian Universalists, we affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Yet the current degraded state of democracy undermines worth and dignity.

As Unitarian Universalists, we affirm and promote the right of conscience and the use of democratic process. Yet we find our political institutions denying rights of conscience and limiting access to democratic process.

As Unitarian Universalists, we affirm and promote respect for the interdependent web of all existence. Yet the structures of government seem to mock our sacred interconnectedness.

"Democracy,” said John Dewey, “is the name of a way of life of free and enriching communion." 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 now 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.

Let’s look briefly at the historical development of our ideas of individual and society. The ways that past conceptions met some needs and neglected others will show us what all the needs are.

For the Medievals, nobility -- as in “exalted moral character, dignity, and admirable excellence” -- was the same thing as nobility -- as in “inherited wealth and power”. Thus feudalism was profoundly, fundamentally, and vastly unequal. It sustained itself as long as it did because it was clear about where everyone belonged, where everyone fit in. The miseries of serfdom were bearable – or, at any rate, were borne – because they were aspects of a clear and coherent moral order of things.

With the slow rise of the mercantile classes, Western political thought began moving toward a modern conception of individuals. By 1776, Thomas Jefferson, implementing the political theory John Locke’s Treatises of Government had expressed 100 years before, grounded the colonies’ claim to independence in an assertion that individuals were all created equal. They had inalienable rights. They had interests that counted.

On this new conception, 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. The government’s task was to get these atoms of individual interest to curb the urge to kill each other and set aside enough of their short-term interests to be able to cooperate for their own greater long-term interest.

This John Locke theory of the individual, and thus of the role of government, gave us equality, at least in principle, at least for white male property owners, but it left us without belongingness, ripe for alienation. It failed to see how deeply our need for each other goes.

NEXT: How deeply our need for each other goes.

* * *
This is part 1 of 3 of "Daring Democracy"
See also
Part 2: Democracy: The Spiritual Need
Part 3: The Workshops of Democracy

Above text is excerpted and slightly revised from sermon delivered on 2018 Mar 25:


We Don't Have to Choose

On Being Animal, part 3

The rise of grain-based agriculture made taxation systems functional on a large scale, which allowed for centralized power. Thus were born the relations of domination that have become so familiar in so many ways. Jared Diamond (noted in the previous post) called this "the worst mistake in human history." Chellis Glendinning describes it this way:
“The small-scale, nomadic life that had endured through more than a million years and thirty-five thousand generations was irreparably altered. The human relationship with the natural world was gradually changed from one of respect for and participation in its elliptical wholeness to one of detachment, management, control, and finally domination. The social, cultural, and ecological foundations that had previously served the development of a healthy primal matrix were undermined, and the human psyche came to develop and maintain itself in a state of chronic traumatic stress.” (My Name is Chellis and I'm in Recovery from Western Civilization, 1994)
The dominance mentality gave us slavery and colonization and continues to give us large-scale oppression. The agricultural revolution created 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 nonhuman animals are to serve human animals.

I think – I hope – that we human animals are beginning to figure a way out of the dominance orientation that came over us 12,000 years ago. I hope we can keep the agriculture and cities and civilization while also providing more contact with nature and ending the dominance that agriculture and civilization made possible. Whether the problem is racism, sexism, homophobia, or speciesism, its all really one problem: hierarchies of dominance through which we commit the fundamental immorality Immanuel Kant called treating others as a means only and not as ends in themselves.

So if the question is, "should we worry about nonhuman animals when there are so many human animals suffering?" the answer is: "worry about nonhuman animals" means striving to dismantle the domination paradigm -- and dismantling that paradigm is also the only way to alleviate human suffering. As long as we think it's OK to subjugate any being, then our brains are primed to think its OK to subjugate humans. Conversely, if we learn concern and respect for other species, we will be less able to allow oppression of humans.

A study published 2018 Jan in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology assessed how speciesist respondents were. A sample item would ask, for instance, how strongly they agreed or disagreed with the statement, “humans have the right to use animals however they want to.” Follow-up questionnaires established that the attitudes were stable. Participants were then measured for biases based on ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation. The researchers wrote:
“We found significant positive correlations of speciesism with racism, sexism, and homophobia.”
The study also included further tests that suggested speciesism, racism, sexism, and homophobia all have the same psychological roots in
“a tendency to embrace hierarchy and rationalize existing social orders.”
There appears to be, wrote the researchers,
“a common component of generalized prejudice that drives different types of specific prejudicial attitudes.” (Caviola et al., “The Moral Standing of Animals: Towards a Psychology of Speciesism.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2018. Qtd in Brandon Keim, "What Racism, Sexism and a Belief in Human Superiority Have in Common," Anthropocene, 2018 Feb 21)
The task before us is not to choose whether race oppression, class oppression, gender oppression, species oppression, or oppression of our environment is really the biggest problem. They all come from the same acceptance of domination. The task before us is to replace domination with compassion, with concern and respect. Becoming more compassionate people in any area helps us become more compassionate people in all areas.

I do regard the suffering of human animals as more important than the suffering of nonhuman animals. If I had to choose between getting a human child or a pig out of a tiny crate into which they’d been stuffed, of course I’d choose the human child. I'd choose freeing the human over freeing 50 pigs. But we don’t have to choose. We don't have to choose.

Caring about any suffering improves our capacity to care about all suffering. I believe that truly dismantling racism will entail a shift in thinking and that shift will also increase the number of vegetarians – because kindness begets kindness. And from the other direction, attention to animal cruelty facilitates attention to cruelties to humans, whether based on race, gender, class, or LGBTQ status -- because care for the well-being of the other – whether the other is another species or another human – engenders more care for the well-being of all others. "Love is love is love is love."

It doesn’t come all at once. Your door in to the path of compassion might be race issues or climate change issues or species extinction issues or factory farm atrocities. But all the doors eventually lead to the same place: the replacing of all relations of dominance with relations of respect, concern, care, and compassion.

Here at Community Unitarian Universalist Congregation, our mission -- the reason for our existence as a congregation -- is, in part, to foster compassion and understanding. We gather for that purpose: to help each other be ever more compassionate and understanding. This congregation -- every member, friend, and visitor who walks through our door -- helps foster my compassion and understanding. I hope these words have helped foster yours.

* * *
This is part 3 of 3 of "On Being Animal"
See also
Part 1: Our Animal Condition
Part 2: The Greatest Cruelty on the Planet and the Worst Mistake in History

Text has been adapted from this sermon:


The Greatest Cruelty on the Planet and the Worst Mistake in History

On Being Animal, part 2

Closer contact with, and awareness of, the animal in me -- "the soft animal of [my] body, lov[ing] what it loves" -- engenders a greater respect for my fellow beings who, with me, share the burdens and the glories of "the mammal condition," "the warm-blooded condition," or "the vertebrate condition." Heightened self-awareness leads to greater respect for my fellow vertebrates, and greater respect for my fellow vertebrates heightens my self-awareness.

Where will deepened awareness of our animality take us? There is an emerging theology of nature that seeks to honor wildness as sacred – to connects in wonder to the aliveness of the world, from the enchantment of birdsong to the marvel of the moon. To consciously cultivate self-awareness of animality is to become more present, to become more attuned to the nuances of the unexpected.

Inner tensions and cognitive dissonance characterize much of human relationships to other species. We treasure wildlife, yet almost all of us, me included, find it really hard to stop the sort of spending habits that we know are causing a wave of extinctions. Many of us are outraged by abuses of dogs and cats, yet we eat food that comes from an industry that keeps equally sensitive and intelligent animals crowded in atrocious confinement. The meat industry, in the US alone, each year, slaughters 35 million cows, 105 million pigs, and almost 9 billion chickens.

People of good will have different opinions about this, different strategies for dealing with the cognitive dissonance. The view I have come to is that the slaughtering is not the problem. Putting them out of the unremitting misery and pain to which factory farms consign these animals for all or most of their lives is the kindest thing we do for them. It’s not that they die that is the issue. We all die. It’s the life that matters. What those numbers mean to me is that every year the US meat industry is bringing 35 million more cows, 105 million more pigs, 9 billion more chickens into lives of constant agony.

We know enough about cow and pig and chicken physiology to know that what is going on in them parallels what goes on in humans under conditions of great pain and stress. The conditions at factory farms constitute the biggest, harshest, most painful ongoing cruelty on the planet. The intensity of the suffering and the vast, vast scale of it can bring me to weep – when I’m not pushing it out of my mind.

My concern with the life rather than the death has a parallel in Unitarian theology and history. Four hundred years ago, Unitarians turned away from the prevailing European emphasis on Jesus’ death as the atonement for our sins. Sixteenth-century Unitarian theologian Faustus Socinus settled among our early Polish churches. His extensive works laid out a theology that told us, look to Jesus’ life, what he did, what he taught. It is the quality of his living that needs our attention, not his death.

For the factory farmed animals today, I believe, it is the quality of their lives that needs our attention, not the fact of their death. For me, then, deciding to be vegetarian has been a path toward greater self-awareness. When I no longer had to push certain knowledge out of my mind just in order to have lunch, then I was just a little bit more available to love and respect the creatures of my world. When my food choices no longer supported the harshest ongoing cruelty on the planet, then I was a tiny bit better able to respect and honor my whole self -- including the parts of me that are just like them: the pain receptors; the adrenaline, fear, and stress; the creature comforts, if they could get them -- they all work in me as they do in them.

Thus I was better able to be present to all the animal that I am.

Should we worry about nonhuman animals when there are so many human animals suffering – when human trafficking, starvation, oppression calls for our attention? I believe there is just one evil: call it dominance. Call it the social disease of hierarchy. Let's look at some human history to see how this came about.

Our forebears for 95 percent of human history were hunter-gatherers. I don't want to romanticize these ancestors: hunter-gatherer life was often difficult, and sometimes violent as tribes went to war against each other. As for their basic arrangements of governance, though, it was not such a bad deal. Hunter-gatherers had leaders, but those leaders had to be in a caring and accountable relationship with those they led.

Then, about 12,000 years ago, that changed. The rise of agriculture was a package deal that included domestication of such animals as the cow and the pig and some others, along with the cultivation of crops, most importantly grains: wheat, barley, rice, and maize. Only with the rise of agriculture did the centralized state become possible. Only grain crops have a set annual harvest time and are “visible, divisible, assessable, storable, transportable, and ‘rationable’.” (James C. Scott, qtd in John Lanchester, "How Civilization Started," New Yorker, 2017 Sep 18) Thus reliance on grains made a workable taxation system possible. “The taxman can come, assess the fields, set a level of tax, then come back and make sure he’s got his share of the harvest.”

That’s what led to the birth of the state: “complex societies with hierarchies, division of labor, specialist jobs (soldier, priest, servant, administrator), and an √©lite presiding over them.” (New Yorker)

This system required huge amounts of manual labor, which was often forced. With agriculture came the first slavery. Agriculture allowed support of large standing armies, transforming war from feuds between clans into mass slaughter. Jared Diamond called the Neolithic Revolution “the worst mistake in human history.”

NEXT: We don't have to choose which oppression/injustice to pay attention to. They ALL come from the dominance mindset.
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This is part 2 of 3 of "On Being Animal"
See also
Part 1: Our Animal Condition
Part 3: We Don't Have to Choose

Text has been adapted from this sermon:


Our Animal Condition

On Being Animal, part 1

What does it mean that we are human?

We’ve been asking what it means to be human for millennia. But lately we’ve been learning that a better question to investigate, if we want to understand ourselves, might be: what does it mean that we are animal?

Poets, philosophers, and scientists have long explored “the human condition.” What about the mammal condition? The warm-blooded condition? The vertebrate condition? It's a worthy and important question, What are the distinctive attributes of our species? But to understand what it means to be the sort of being that we are requires equal attention to other questions: What are the distinctive attributes of our genus? What are the distinctive attributes of our order? Of our class? Of our phylum?

Our animality is more important than our humanity. By that I mean: the parts of ourselves that we have in common with other species tells us more about what we are than the thin sliver of our genome that distinguishes homo sapiens from its near relatives.

Research has been closing the perceived gap between human animals and other animals -- and that gap has been closing from both directions. We've learned a lot in the last fifty years about primates, mammals, birds, reptiles, and all vertebrates. So far we've found that the most unequivocal test of self-consciousness has been passed by humans, chimps, bonobos, orangutans, gorillas, rhesus macaques, bottlenose dolphins, orca whales, elephants, and European magpies. But all vertebrates, at least, think, solve problems, learn, and feel. They all experience fear and gladness, anxiety and comfort. Mammals and birds are particularly complex and nuanced in the ways that they exhibit these qualities, but all animals want to live, and to flourish. It's worth looking into these findings and what we've been learning about a great many animals. I shall focus today, however, not on how we've closed the gap by learning more about nonhuman animals, but how we've closed the gap by learning more about human animals.

In particular, we now know: intentions don’t cause our action. Brain processes outside of your control or awareness already decided what you were going to do BEFORE the conscious intention formed. You think you do things because you meant to. Actually, that feeling of “meaning to” is an after-the-fact illusion. Neural signals for motion precede the conscious awareness of intention to move by 300 to 500 milliseconds (.3 to .5 seconds).

Why do our brains create this illusion of conscious intentional control? The brain’s decision-making circuitry, unconscious and out of your control as it is, does learn and change from experience and in order to do that, it needs to distinguish between actions that are “mine” and those that just happen. That feeling of conscious intent you have is just your brain putting an “I did that” stamp on its memory of an episode – so that it can learn from its experience.

We can no longer plausibly claim, “We humans are in control of ourselves while nonhuman animals are machinelike bundles of conditioned responses.” Either they are not machines, or, if they are, so are we.

Michael Gazzaniga’s split-brain experiments further confirm that the story we tell ourselves about who we are and what we are doing is an after-the-fact fabrication. The right brain can process input and arrive at decisions that we carry out – but only the left brain has language centers. When Gazzaniga flashed the word "walk" to just the right hemisphere, many subjects stood and walked away. When asked why they were getting up, subjects had no problem giving a reason. "I’m going to get a Coke," they might say. Our inner interpreter module is good at making up explanations, but not at knowing it has done so.

My language centers and neocortex notice my behavior, and they make up a story about this character named “Meredith” who is heroic, yet with certain endearing foibles. At each moment of the day this “Meredith” can be found deliberately and intentionally acting. Whatever it is he’s doing is a reasonable part of his pursuit of reasonable purposes. This is an after-the-fact story. The behavior came first, we now know. My story about myself as intentional, purposeful, and rational is fabricated later to rationalize that behavior. Yet my brain makes it seem to me that everything I did was just what I “meant” to do. That’s the delusion we live in.

Knowing about the ways we are fooled, and how our fundamental animal nature is at work, can help us begin to befriend our animality, our selves. We were made, as a number of species have been, to walk the savannas and woodlands of this wild earth. It is where deep parts of ourselves find their greatest comfort and ease.

Today, many of us, like me, find ourselves sitting indoors in front of a computer for hours at a time. If I am in touch with all of myself, then I feel those other parts biding their time, quietly yearning for their element.

David Abram writes of “becoming more deeply human by acknowledging, affirming, and growing into our animality.”

Mary Oliver tells us we find our truest place in and through the sounds – and sights and smell and feel – of animals and the wild: “You do not have to be good,” she says. “You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”

I do not disparage the fine things my neocortex can do, nor the level of detail of envisioning the future that my more developed forebrain can do, nor the wonders of abstract and symbolic language produced and comprehended by my human versions of Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas. These functions are great. But, a couple things about that:

Number 1, these features that are more developed in a human brain are only a small part of who I am.

Number 2, great as they are, those functions cause problems – aside from the delusion of intentional control. The forebrain that envisions the future is prone to obsessive worrying about that future. Recalling and reconnecting with our animality can help with that anxiety. It can bring us what Wendell Berry called the "peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief."

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This is part 1 of 3 of "On Being Animal"
See also
Part 2: The Greatest Cruelty on the Planet and the Worst Mistake in History
Part 3: We Don't Have to Choose

Text has been adapted from this sermon: