2024-05-05

Courage

Courage.

Some of you might remember that newscaster Dan Rather, back in 1986, took to signing off the CBS Evening News by looking into the camera and saying, “Courage.”
“Dan Rather reporting from New York. Courage. Good night.”
He only used that sign off for one week – five days – and it stirred some controversy and puzzlement. “Was Rather advising viewers to grow a backbone? Was he dismayed at the state of affairs?” (Jake Rossen) – telling us to hang in there through such tough times as he had just been reporting on?

As we take up courage as our theme to explore for the month for May, we confront related questions. What, really, is the point of extolling this supposed virtue called “courage”? In the military context, the carrot and stick combination of praise for courageous action and condemnation of cowardly action does, I guess, make for an effective rhetoric for motivating soldiers in battle. But any active duty military personnel who might be among us not withstanding, do we civilians find the twin concepts of courage and cowardice playing much of a role in our day-to-day lives? Do you use those words when you are giving yourself a talking to? Do they show up on job evaluations that you get, or give?

To talk about courage we have to talk about fear – and if we’re going to find a truly meaningful use for the notion of courage it will grow out of how we understand fear. Courage, as every writer on the subject reminds us at the outset, is not an absence of fear. Courage is what we call it when, in a fearful situation, the fear is managed in a particularly skillful or admirable way.

Animals – humans and otherwise – are built to have fear. The main function of fear and anxiety is to act as a signal of danger, threat, or motivational conflict, and to trigger appropriate adaptive responses. Fear is very valuable. We couldn’t survive without fear. We animals need mechanisms that grab our attention and steer us away from danger.

Even those species with highly sophisticated reasoning processes still need systems of fear reaction because they’re quicker and sometimes time is of the essence. You’ve got head – reason – going on in the cerebral cortex and frontal lobe, and you’ve got gut – feelings and intuitions (which are also primarily processes in the brain, but we use "gut" as a metaphor for those brain systems that might feel as though they're based in our guts -- just as we use "heart" as a metaphor for those brain processes that generate and regulate our feelings of loving connection.) If you want reasoning, Head is gonna have to stop and think: maybe jot down some notes, talk it over with others. That’s how we reason. But if you need a snap judgment, Gut is there for you.

Gut doesn’t worry with having to explain itself – often you can’t explain your hunches, your intuitions. Your Gut, operating below the radar of consciousness, checks for the most readily available examples it can find in the brain’s storage. If an alley looks a certain way, you’ll feel uneasy about walking down it because Gut has grabbed a quickly accessible memory of something you saw in a movie in which someone walked down an alley like this and got attacked. Gut can’t even tell the difference between your first-hand experience and some one else’s stories. Gut believes the examples that are most readily at hand.

Head is gonna want to look at the statistics – the odds of this or that outcome. Statistics completely fail to hold Gut’s attention. Gut believes the examples that are most readily at hand. One or two lurid stories suffice for Gut.

On the other hand, animals, humans and otherwise, also have drives that sometimes override fear and self-preservation – which might be called the biological basis of courage, or might simply be called courage itself. Theologian Paul Tillich, in his 1952 book, The Courage to Be, put it this way:
“the balance between fear and courage is well developed in the animal realm. Animals are warned by fear, but under special conditions they disregard their fear and risk pain and annihilation for the sake of those who are a part of their own self-affirmation, e.g., their descendants or their flock.”
I’ll be coming back to Tillich later.

I originally selected a picture of Bert Lahr as the Cowardly Lion from the film, The Wizard of Oz, to be on the cover of today’s Order of Service about Courage. Tracy told me we really couldn’t use that because those images are copyrighted. She directed me to a site of public domain photos. I picked a macaw, and texted LoraKim, who is down in Guyana this week organizing parrot conservation, to tell her we were going to have a macaw on our Order of Service. She texted back:
“They are very brave. They risk their lives for their chicks, though not always.”
I texted back,
“Not to mention how brave it is to show up in public wearing those colors.”
Anyway. That bit about “not always,” is important. Evolution built us to have competing drives. We have drives for self-preservation, and these manifest as fear. We also have competing drives to set aside self-preservation and fear for the sake of our children, or our tribe. That’s evolution’s strategy: give us these competing drives, and let us work out the balance: sometimes risking our life for the sake of the chicks -- and sometimes not.

Which drive will prevail in a given circumstance is partly determined by prior experience with similar circumstances. If a similar threat has been successfully chased off in the past, we’re more likely to try to face it down. And it’s partly determined by genetic variations. Some people, and some macaws, are born with a little less or a little more inclination toward personal safety – or little less or a little more proclivity to sacrifice for the sake of offspring or tribe. It’s good to have this variability because the world is constantly changing and sometimes a little bit stronger self-preservation is the best way to get your genes passed on, and sometimes a little bit stronger protectiveness of children, or of tribe, is the best way.

Then somewhere along the growth of the evolution tree, the human twig off of the primate branch developed symbolic language, and we started using words to influence that balance between self-preservation – which we became apt to condemn as cowardly – and willingness to endure personal danger -- which we might praise as courageous, though sometimes we condemn it as rash or foolhardy. The Wizard of Oz’s cowardly lion wants the wizard to give him courage because he wants to face challenges that come his way, and also wants to command respect and admiration. He represents, of course, a certain type of human – and humans, through our symbolic language, are such a hyper-social species that we really want respect and admiration. But we also just want to be safe – hence the lion’s conundrum.

But just as our words can egg us on to be courageous, the reality we collectively weave with language can also magnify our fears. On the one hand, for instance, we have language describing the sources of the living tradition we Unitarian Universalists share. One of those sources is: “Words and deeds of prophetic people challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion and the transforming power of love.”

When we talk about the prophets, when we speak of our prophetic mission, or our prophetic voice to the world, we are drawing upon a tradition that goes back to the ancient Hebrew prophets -- figures like Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah, Amos, Hosea. We’re thinking about how these figures spoke as the social critics of their time. Standing outside the structures of power, they called the ruling regime to task for failing to live up to its principles, for breaking the covenant. Sometimes they predicted what the consequences would be for having strayed from the right path. Thus the popular understanding of prophecy as predicting the future is not entirely without basis. But the core of what made them prophets was speaking truth to power, the call for social justice -- not predicting the future. When we Unitarian Universalists today call upon this tradition of prophets, we mean to honor the voices for social justice, those who call us all to courage: the courage to stand up to oppression and harm, the courage to witness to and embody the transforming power of love.

The prophets of old, ventured into predictions of the future, and, yes, they used fear. They warned the people of Israel that their corrupt religion and disregard for the poor would result in destruction of the nation. They called for Israel to repent or face a fearful judgment of wrath. So, usually, it’s not a simple matter of fear versus courage. The prophets used fear of one thing in their effort to evoke courage in facing a different fear: the insecurity that the powerful feared if they allowed there to be justice. Today we speak out against harm to our environment, to our eco-systems, to our climate, to our planet, invoking modern-day predictions of doom and destruction. We do so in the hope of spurring the courage to leave behind the comforts of our high consumption lifestyles.

Once we had symbolic language, we could conjure up imagined scenarios for each other, and the potential disasters grab our attention a lot more than potential benefits. So the balance or tension that evolution built into animals got thrown off in the animal with symbolic language. We talk ourselves into quite the dither of fear. We are awash in scared people earnestly talking others into being scared.

After the 9-11 attacks in 2001, fear of airplanes went up, as you might imagine. Analyzing patterns of car use and airplane travel after 9-11 shows that there was a shift from airplanes to cars that lasted about one year. It took a year for the fear of airplanes to die down, return to normal levels, and in the meantime, people were putting in more miles by car. The thing is, airplane travel is safer. As automobile travel went up, so did traffic fatalities. Gerd Gegerenzer analyzed the numbers, and was able to deduce that the extra car travel in the year after 9-11 killed 1,595 people. That is, the number of Americans killed in car crashes as a direct result of the switch from planes to cars was just shy of 1600. Those were people who would not have died if the ratio of plane travel to car travel had stayed the same as it was the years preceding 9-11. The actual collapse of the twin towers killed less than 3,000 people. The increased fear of airplanes over the next year killed over half again that many.

Things that spook us include, in no particular order:
tornadoes
internet stalkers
crystal meth
avian flu
genetically modified organisms
contaminated food
contaminated water
contaminated air
climate change
carcinogens
clowns
breast implants
the obesity epidemic
pesticides
the next viral pandemic that will be much worse than the last one,
Ebola
West Nile virus
mad cow disease
flesh-eating diseases
alien invasion (the international kind)
alien invasion (the interplanetary kind)
spiders
road rage
pedophiles lurking in parks and internet chat rooms
spontaneous combustion
Satanic cults
heroin
herpes
hitchhikers
computer hackers
identity thieves
genetically enhanced bioweapons
self-replicating nanotechnology that turns everything into “gray goo”
AI robots that decide humans are unnecessary
weird experiments in physics that could create a black hole destroying the planet
and sharks.

There seems to be an awful lot to be scared of. It is the slogan of our times: “Be afraid. Be very afraid.” At home, children are forbidden from playing alone outdoors, as all generations did before, because their parents are convinced every bush hides a pervert.” As it happens, as Daniel Gardner points out in The Science of Fear: Why We Fear the Things We Shouldn’t – and Put Ourselves in Greater Danger:
“Obesity, diabetes, and the other health problems caused in part by too much time sitting inside are a lot more dangerous than the specters haunting parental imaginations.”
We overestimate the risk from things that make the evening news, and underestimate the risk from things that don’t. Murder, terrorism, airplanes flying into buildings, fire, flood – and sharks – seize our fearful imaginations. Risks like diabetes, asthma, and heart disease – and auto accidents -- are much greater but they’re boring. Maybe it’s time for the word courage to take a bigger place when giving yourself a talking to. As Noam Shpancer says, “Fear is an important consultant, but a lousy boss.”

As you set out to cultivate courage, the first step, I suggest, is to notice that, like the lion in The Wizard of Oz, you’ve always had it. The lion was quite brave in the scenes of taking on the wicked witch – and in the book, though it isn’t in the movie, there’s a scene where Dorothy and the companions encounter creatures that are half-tiger, half-bear, called Kalidahs. The lion initially cowers in fear, but then summons his courage, leaps forward, lets out a mighty roar, and the Kalidahs scatter in fear. Later, the wizard recognizes that people called heros haven’t got any more courage than the lion has, "but they do have one thing you haven’t got: a medal." So the wizard gives the lion a medal to symbolize his courage, and serve as a reminder that though fear may sometimes well up in him, he is courageous.

Following that model, it might be helpful to designate some object or trinket to serve for you like a medal for your conspicuous bravery -- a token reminder and symbol that you are courageous.

As a further way to hold in mind and heart that you are already courageous, call to mind the substantial courage you exhibit in daring to exist. You got a lot of nerve! Showing up, on this planet, morning after morning – there you are. The audacity! This is the courage Paul Tillich elucidated in The Courage to Be. Tillich says:
“The courage to be is the ethical act in which [we] affirm [our] own being in spite of those elements of [our] existence which conflict with [our] essential self-affirmation.”
We saw that term, "self-affirmation," earlier, when I cited Tillich observing that animals, human and otherwise,
“are warned by fear, but under special conditions they disregard their fear and risk pain and annihilation for the sake of those who are a part of their own self-affirmation, e.g., their descendants or their flock.”
To be as the beings we are, to affirm ourselves, is itself the ground of our care of offspring and flock or tribe. To be – to affirm that we are – like Ilsa in Frozen singing “here I stand, and here I stay. Let the storm rage on” -- is an act of courage.

The courage to be, for Tillich, has two aspects. There is the courage to be as a part – the courage to bring your being to participate in a larger being with others. Then there is the courage to be as oneself – a unique individual and an end unto yourself, not a means toward any group goal.

We face anxiety: anxiety about dying and the unpredictability of fate and fortune; moral anxiety about guilt and condemnation, and spiritual anxiety of emptiness and meaninglessness. These anxieties conflict with our self-affirmation, so to affirm who we are in the face of these anxieties, to affirm our being in spite of existential anxiety, that’s the courage to be. We enact this courage in those two ways: by participating in a larger whole that helps sustain our own existence and others, and by individuating as worthy in ourselves – balancing between extremes of too much collectivism and too much individualism.

I was intrigued to see that, while courageous and brave are nearly perfect synonyms, they come from wildly different etymological origins, which, over centuries, converged. “Courage” comes from heart, as the seat of emotions, as in the French word for heart, coeur, the Spanish corazon; Italian cuore. From “heart,” referring to one’s spirit, temperament, or frame of mind, it came to mean valor, or the quality that allows for meeting dangers and troubles without being controlled by fear. So when Dan Rather said, “courage,” he could have said “take heart,” and conveyed about the same idea.

Brave, however, started from the Latin pravus, meaning “crooked, depraved,” became the medieval Latin bravus, meaning “cutthroat, villain” which then evolved to mean “wild, savage.” From there, wild and savage were more and more closely associated with meeting dangers and troubles without being hindered by fear until it meant about the same thing as courageous.

These roots nicely parallel Tillich’s two aspects of courage: the courage to be as a part of collective projects and the courage to be as oneself. "Courage," from heart, as the symbol of love, connects us to others so that we can face dangers for the sake of our joint enterprises. "Bravery," in its origins, points to the strength to affirm your wild, untamed, nonconformist uniqueness.

On the one hand, fear can make me so self-protective I do not hear the call to love, to connect with others, to help them in shared difficulties. On the other hand, fear can make me seek the safety of conformity, going along to get along, not hearing the call to bring forth what I alone can.

Against all fears or anxieties about impending death, the unpredictability of fortune and misfortune, about our feelings of guilt, of having been or possibly being condemned by others, or by oneself, and the spiritual anxiety of emptiness and meaninglessness – against all those fears – the courage to be is the inner voice affirming that you are and what you are. On the ground of that courage we find the courage to face forthrightly all the other fears conjured by Gut or Head.

Meredith Garmon reporting from Des Moines. Courage. Amen.

2024-04-28

Passover Lessons

Exodus, Chapter 12, verses 21–34:
Then Moses called all the elders of Israel and said to them: “Go, select lambs for your families, and slaughter the Passover lamb. Take a bunch of hyssop, dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and touch the lintel and the two doorposts with the blood in the basin. None of you shall go outside the door of your house until morning. For the Lord will pass through to strike down the Egyptians; when he sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, the Lord will pass over that door and will not allow the destroyer to enter your houses to strike you down. You shall observe this rite as a perpetual ordinance for you and your children. When you come to the land that the Lord will give you, as he has promised, you shall keep this observance. And when your children ask you: ‘What do you mean by this observance?’ You shall say: ‘It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, for he passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt, when he struck down the Egyptians but spared our houses.’”

And the people bowed down and worshiped. The Israelites went and did just as the Lord had commanded Moses and Aaron. At midnight the Lord struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the firstborn of the prisoner who was in the dungeon, and all the firstborn of the livestock. Pharaoh arose in the night, he and all his officials and all the Egyptians. And there was a loud cry in Egypt, for there was not a house without someone dead. Then he [Pharaoh] summoned Moses and Aaron in the night and said: “Rise up, go away from my people, both you and the Israelites! Go, worship the Lord, as you said. Take your flocks and your herds, as you said, and be gone. And bring a blessing on me too!”

The Egyptians urged the people to hasten their departure from the land, for they said: “We shall all be dead.” So the people took their dough before it was leavened, with their kneading bowls wrapped up in their cloaks on their shoulders.
The Jewish holy week of Passover began at sundown on Mon Apr 22. The celebration of freedom continues eight days, through the evening of Tue Apr 30. The first two days and the last two days are full-fledged holidays: the middle four days are semi-festive. The first two days commemorate the 10th of the 10 plagues on Egypt. In that final plague, the mystery-beyond-naming killed all the firstborn of Egypt, but passed over the Israelites: hence Passover.

At this, Pharaoh released the Israelites from bondage. They immediately fled. They took their dough before it was leavened. They did not wait for the bread to rise. Pharaoh changed his mind and went chasing after them. A week later came the episode of the parting of the Red Sea, commemorated the last two days of Passover.

This is not history. Scholars put the setting at about 1300 BCE, but historically, it never happened. But that is not the point – because it’s not about ancient Israelites. It’s about you -- and us -- and about freedom – yours and ours -- right here and now. It is a narrative metaphor for us, as it has been to peoples through millennia.

"Bring out the festal bread and sing songs of freedom." Celebrate and reflect on the blessing of freedom. In parts of the world, full-scale slavery is still going on. If you're here today – or listening online -- then chances are that you are not enslaved in that full-scale way and never have been. Even so, I would guess that there has been a metaphorical land of Egypt in your past in which you were bound and from which you now are free.

"Bring out the festal bread, and sing songs of freedom." Yet freedom is the half-won blessing. Modern pharaohs live unchallenged. Chains still there are to break, metal or subtle-made. Resentments, small or large, bind us. A further Exodus awaits us still. And further truth, bright as a burning bush, cries to become known. We (we who are not under an unrelenting grind of oppression, nor consumed wholly with mere survival) stand somewhere in the middle between full-scale slavery and full-scale liberation. We have broken out of some fetters – but other fetters, or perhaps reconstituted versions of the old ones, have clamped onto us.

The next step in the work of freedom lies before us. So bring out the festal bread and sing songs of freedom.

Did you hear about the guy who was addicted to brake fluid? He said he could stop any time he wanted....

We all have our addictions. Whether it’s full-blown alcoholism or drug addiction or something we think of as milder, the key feature of addiction is that disconnect between what we want ourselves to do and what we’re able to actually do.

Passover is a time for celebrating the blessings of our freedom and also reflecting on what greater liberation would be. Pharaoh has many forms of bondage – addictions to video games or shopping or work. We can be addicted to anger or to blaming judgment.

What Pharaoh holds you in bondage in Egypt? Freedom is ever the half-won blessing. Its unfinished work lies before us. As they say in the recovery community: you can be consumed by your addiction -- or you can be recovering. Recovering – but never recovered.

It is rare indeed for a human to attain complete freedom. New chains appear. Old chains return. And their constraints are often so comfortable, for a while. It’s no easy thing to commit to a path of freedom, of liberation.

Here are four questions:
  1. Can you make a decisive break with a big part of your past?
  2. Can you endure the sacrifices this will mean?
  3. What about the effects this will have on others?
  4. Are there others who can go with you on this journey, who can walk with you on the path to liberation?
The Passover story is a narrative for wrestling with each of these questions. As I said, it’s about you.

First, can you make the decisive break? This is the "not waiting for the bread to rise" part. Even under the worst of conditions, there is some leavening in the loaf. What, give that up? Our addictions and our judgmentalism offer us creature comforts that are like a nice, hot yeasty loaf. What harm could it do to let one more batch of dough rise? Is it really necessary for the sake of freedom that we make do with the blandest unsalted crackers?

Sometimes, yes. It is. At some point we have to say: no more delays, no more putting it off. That’s going to mean something that was in the pipeline has to be abandoned. The bread won’t have a chance to rise. Is that a reason to stay in bondage?

It’s those little rationalizations that keep us stuck, isn’t it? Can you make the decisive break?

Second question: can you endure the sacrifices? Unleavened bread is nothing compared to hardships and trials on the path to freedom. It’s scary out there. The status quo has fierce armies to enforce its way. Days after leaving Egypt, the Israelites see Pharaoh’s army advancing on them. They cry out to Moses – Exodus, chapter 14:
“Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, ‘Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.”
Powerful resources are arrayed against you to enforce the old way. And you don’t have the resources you need to support the new way. A few weeks after leaving Egypt, the people moan again to Moses – Exodus, chapter 16:
“If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”
The path to freedom is risky and uncertain. Can you endure the sacrifices?

Third question: what about the effects this will have on others? Are you just being selfish thinking about your own freedom? In the Passover story, the Israelite quest for freedom involves an enormous slaughter of Egyptians.

The rituals -- the paschal lamb, the unleavened bread, the consecration of the firstborn -- probably predate the story and the story probably took shape around pre-existing rituals. The rituals account for the story more than the story accounts for the rituals. It is impossible to know, writes the scholar Carol Meyers,
“how much of the narrative draws upon authentic experience and how much of it developed over time in relation to existing customs.”
Whatever it’s source, we have this problematic story. Meyers continues:
“The intentional destruction of innocent life in God’s slaying of the firstborn has long troubled readers of this narrative. What kind of deity was it, whose deed could benefit one group at such expense of others? Already in the early postbiblical period, rabbinic commentators sought ways to rationalize such a horrific act.”
The Israelites path to freedom came at the cost of this tragic slaughter of Egyptian firstborns. Is it worth it? What is the cost to others of your freedom? Should the Israelites feel responsible for this tragedy to the Egyptians?

It’s true that liberation leads to compassion. The chains that hold you back, more than anything, limit your ability to be present and caring to others. But might it not be better to try to work with the chains you’ve got, dragging them with you though they hamper and slow you?

Put yourself in the Israelites’ position. You hear that a plague is coming, and to protect yourself, you put lamb’s blood on your doorway. Should you also be protecting your neighbors?

Pharaoh got the same warning you did. In fact, he got 9 previous warnings in the form of the first nine plagues: Water was turned to blood, there was a plague of frogs, then one of lice, then flies, then livestock pestilence, a plague of boils, of hail, of locusts, and of darkness. He got the warnings, but he hardened his heart. Actually, Exodus says repeatedly that God hardened Pharoah’s heart – so is it Pharoah’s fault?

Let’s say you did tell your Egyptian neighbors to put lamb’s blood on their doorway, and they just wouldn’t do it. Now they’ve lost their child, and their grief is overwhelming. “There was not a house without someone dead.” Exodus says. What kind of God would do that? What kind of world would do that?

Our world contains such enormous grief, it is more than you or I can fix. Your path to freedom occurs in the context of others' pain and loss, but your freedom is not the cause of their loss.

Perhaps the Israelites’ hearts went out to their neighbors. Maybe they asked, how can we help? They were told to just leave – which happened to be what they’d always wanted. If there is a path to liberation for you – going back to school, quitting your job, changing the way you eat, changing your daily routine to include journaling, study, and meditation – and you hesitate because of the effect this might have on the people around you – you might just ask them. They might tell you, as the Egyptians told the Hebrews, just go. Do it.

What about the effects your liberation would have on others? A story about an activist I’ll call Gloria illustrates one way this question can play out. I met Gloria a number of years ago, back in the aughts. Gloria worked for good, for policy changes that would increase fairness and reduce suffering. Gloria had anger that took her straight to blaming and condemnation. "Those people in that other party are evil, corrupt, willfully blind," she said. "Some of that party’s supporters are simply dupes – who are duped by the evil and corrupt others." Her anger and judgmentalism were her bondage. It was hard for her to give that up, to be free of those chains, because she saw them as integral to helping the people she wanted to help. So there’s that question: how would your liberation affect those you care about? Sometimes we stay in the chains because we think we need them to be of service.

Gloria was venting with me one day, and I remembered: it is often the case that anger outward is a projection of anger inward, that negative self-judgments manifest as negative other-judgments. As the saying goes: When I point the finger at someone else, there are three pointing back at me. Gloria said, "Those people have no respect for other people." So I asked, "Have there been times when you didn’t respect others as much as you wish you had?"

Yes, there had indeed been times. Personal stories of regret and shame began pouring out. We’d made the shift from other-blame to self-blame – a step, maybe, but not a final destination. The path ahead, to self-forgiveness and self-compassion and thence to compassionate understanding of others, including one’s political opponents, would not be easy. That liberating path would make Gloria a more effective activist – and certainly one who enjoys life more.

She assumed she needed her chains of anger and judgment to serve the causes she cares about. The truth is that freeing ourselves allows us to more lovingly and more effectively care about others.

Fourth question: Are there others who can go with you on this journey, who can walk with you on the path to liberation? Here, too, is a lesson of the Passover story: Not one Hebrew ever walked out of Egypt alone. Nor could any have survived the wilderness alone. Freedom is a collective enterprise. We need each other to be free. Yes, there is necessary work only you can do. You, individually, have to decide it can’t wait any longer, can’t wait for whatever batch of dough you’re in the middle of to rise. You, individually, must choose the uncomfortable path.

Once you do, though, you don’t have to face it alone. There is other necessary work only we can do -- together. That’s what a liberal faith community is for: "liberal," as in "liberty," as in "freedom." Liberal faith community offers support – maybe some guidance, maybe some insight, maybe some affirmation and encouragement – as we wander in wilderness trying together to make our way to the freedom that is our birthright.

You aren't responsible for everything -- sometimes you have to let go and let others manage on their own -- but we are responsible for care and connection to one another.

Walking a labyrinth might be way you can bodily enact and reflect upon your path to and of freedom. Some years ago I was asked to lead a labyrinth walk for about 50 people in rehab to recover from substance abuse. These were people wrestling with demons that I can only imagine. Somehow, summoning courage that they wouldn’t have known they had, they made a break with their past lives, a sudden and dramatic exit from the comforts of slavery to their addiction. They now faced the slow part – the rest of their lives, really – the wilderness to traverse, a new life of freedom to build. We gathered by the outdoor labyrinth.

A labyrinth is not a maze; it has only one path. Its lesson is let go of your need to control, trust the path, keep going. One foot in front of the other. You must go into your center – wind your way in. You must find what is there. And: you cannot stay there. You must return out to the world, bringing the true self you have found. As the Gospel of Thomas says:
“If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you.
If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”
This was a group that knew a lot about what will destroy them.

Freedom is our half-won blessing. The first half is straightforward and negative (in a good way): no slavery, no masters or overlords, no chains. The second half is paradoxical. We arrive at liberation by accepting the constraints of discipline, by surrendering. By letting go and giving up, we gain. The first half involves being able to do what you want. But then you can become enslaved to your own impulsive wants. So the second half involves liberating the true self from the bondage of the desiring self.

The labyrinth is an exercise in freeing the true self by accepting the dictates of a prescribed path. When you walk a labyrinth, you wind around and around and end up at the center. Then take the path in reverse to go back out. Both journeys, the in and the out, are circuitous and terribly inefficient. The labyrinth’s lesson is that path and destination are intertwined, they define each other. The destination isn’t the destination unless it is reached by the needful path. Like Hebrews in the wilderness, you go around and around – often winding further from your destination rather than closer.

I instructed the group to notice the rhythm of their breathing, and synchronize their steps with their breaths. It helps the mind quiet, so the path can take over. Then I stood by the entrance with my watch, and sent them in one at a time, at five-second intervals. The first ones in reached the center, hung out there a while, and started back while others were still heading in. This, too, is a lesson: we encounter people who are heading in an opposite direction from us, who we could bump heads with, who might seem to be heading in a wrong direction, but there is only one path. We go in and we go out, and if you are in a going-out phase and pass by someone in a going-in phase, rest assured your positions will soon be reversed. Practice the gentle grace of letting others by. And notice that, doing this, you may have to take one step off your path. Others can knock you off your path, but never very far, and you can step back on.

Afterwards we retreated to an indoors space to debrief about the experience. I heard from them how they valued the experience, how they took to its lessons – though some acknowledged they had been skeptical and dubious. Some spoke of how, yes, their need to control had to be tamed, and how good that felt. They spoke of how the path was not always clear – the layer of leaves has gotten thick – but they let themselves trust the person in front of them, and how good it felt to trust and follow – to not be alone on this path. We all have our addictions. And we’re sometimes judgmental of others, of ourselves.

Before us is a path of freedom from those constraints. It may take some discerning to see it. Once you do: Take it. Go. You are not alone. There are others on the path waiting for you join them. Go. Don’t wait for the bread to rise.

2024-04-21

Earth Day

The first Earth Day was 1970 April 22 -- 54 years ago. The Earth that we were trying to preserve on that first Earth Day, we failed to preserve. Our planet today is not the Earth of two generations ago. Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels hovered around 275 ppm for all of human history up until 200 years ago. On the first Earth Day in 1970, C02 had reaced 325 ppm but back then most of us were blithely, blissfully oblivious to what rising C02 would mean. In 1988, we reached the 350 ppm safety-line. At 350 ppm of carbon dioxide, the planet survives. If we get above 350 for very long, or if we get very far above 350, then we will trigger tipping points and irreversible impacts. The journal Nature said that above 350
"we threaten the ecological life-support systems that have developed in the late Quaternary environment, and severely challenge the viability of contemporary human societies,"
Yet we've been above 350 for 36 years now, and as of May 2022 the global average concentration of C02 in the atmosphere was 421 ppm, and we are still adding about two more parts per million every year. In fact, scientist Kevin Anderson projects that even if rich countries adopt draconian emissions reductions within a decade, it is improbable that we will be able to stop short of 650 ppm of C02.

Our planet is already not what it was 54 years ago. What I would like to do today is take a look at a theory out there that it is the nature of intelligent life to destroy itself and how climate change might seem to fit that theory. I will, however, be taking the chance to note that reality is never depressing. I'll mention some practical features of how we will live on this Earth that is already not the one many of us were born on. And I'll point to the spirituality - particularly the Ecospirituality, the connectedness to the sacredness of the Earth - that we need for this new Earth. I'll conclude that maybe the nature of intelligent life is not to destroy itself, but more often to work its way to the emergence of a peaceful, sustainable way of life in which the beings delight in the home they have.

The theory that it is the nature of intelligent life to destroy itself emerged as one possible response to the Fermi paradox. And what is the Fermi paradox?

The brilliant Italian physicist Enrico Fermi, born 1901 , reasoned as follows:
  • Our Sun is a young star. There are billions of stars in the galaxy that are billions of years older.
  • There is a high probability that some of these stars have Earth-like planets which, if the Earth is typical, may develop intelligent life.
  • These older stars with Earth-like planets would be way ahead of us in developing interstellar travel.
  • At any practical pace of interstellar travel, the galaxy can be completely colonized in a few tens of millions of years.
  • Given billions of stars that have billions of years of head start on us, a few tens of millions of years is nothing.
It follows, concluded Fermi, that the Earth should already have been colonized, or at least visited. But Fermi did not think there was any convincing evidence that we had been. Moreover, not only have we not been visited, we haven't even spotted a sign of intelligence elsewhere in our galaxy. Hence Fermi's question: "Where is everybody?" This question has come to be known as the Fermi paradox.

One theory that has been proposed as an explanation of why we haven't encountered or seen other intelligent life is that it is the nature of intelligent life to destroy itself. The theory is that, on any planet that evolved species that developed civilization and then technological civilization, those species will "usually or invariably destroy themselves before or shortly after developing radio or space flight technology. Possible means of annihilation include nuclear war, biological warfare or accidental contamination, climate change." It's a conjecture some scientists have offered - just one of many possible answers to the Fermi paradox.

Is it inherent in the way that intelligence emerges that a species will arrive at enough intelligence to be able to destroy itself before it arrives at enough intelligence not to? Yes, intelligence emerges in response to competition for scarce resources. As long as resources are plentiful, species don't need to outsmart other species, and all species remain comparative simpletons. So, yes, wherever intelligence emerges, it necessarily comes with the aggressive competitive drives that spurred that intelligence to develop in the first place.

When that ancient competitive aggression and drive to consume resources, extend longevity, and reproduce suddenly becomes paired with powerful new technology: boom. That "boom" need not mean that the civilization entirely self-destructs, only that it becomes once again nontechnological.

According to this conjecture, this has already happened on billions of other planets and is now happening here. The result of that rising C02 is that the top 10 hottest years ever recorded have all been after 2000. An average temperature increase of 1.1 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures has already happened. The increase is expected to reach 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2040, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. We are on track to reach 2.7 degrees Celsius hotter by the end of the century even if current pledges from governments around the world to decrease emissions by 2030 are met.

In the 20 years, 1980 to 2000, the number of distinct weather-related disasters affecting the United States and doing at least a billion dollars of damage averaged 4.75 per year. In the 20 years, 2004 to 2024, the number of distinct weather-related disasters affecting the United States and doing at least a billion dollars of damage averaged 13.35 per year. That's 2.8 times more billion-dollar weather-related disasters that in the 20 years from 1980 to 2000. This is from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and their cost estimates for weatherrelated disasters are adjusted for inflation, so it's a true increase of almost 3 times more major disasters per year.

Is this intelligent life destroying itself? Three and a half billion people live in places particularly vulnerable to climate change. By 2100, 50-75% of the world population will see periods of "life-threatening climatic conditions" - mainly heat and rainfall. Food insecurity and water shortage will lead to humanitarian crises, conflict and displacement, with heaviest impact in parts of Africa, Asia, Central and South America, small islands and the Arctic. 350.org, summarizes:
"Glaciers everywhere are melting and disappearing fast, threatening the primary source of clean water for millions of people. Mosquitoes, who like a warmer world, are spreading into lots of new places, and bringing malaria and dengue fever with them. Drought is becoming much more common, making food harder to grow in many places. Sea levels have begun to rise, and scientists warn that they could go up as much as several meters this century. If that happens, many of the world's cities, island nations, and farmland will be underwater. Meanwhile, the oceans are growing more acidic because of the C02 they are absorbing, which makes it harder for animals like corals and clams to build their shells and exoskeletons."
When we speak of climate change and the long list of planetary damages it wreaks, it's common to invoke grandchildren. "Preserve the planet for the sake of our grandchildren," we say. Or, "Let's not let our grandchildren have to deal with the problem with which we should be dealing." But the Earth of the first Earth Day is already gone. As Bill McKibben says:
"Forget the grandkids. It turns out this was a problem for our parents." (16)
At this point, maybe you're thinking: "Oh, such gloom and doom! It's depressing. It's stressful. Tell me something uplifting and inspiring, not this litany of disaster scenarios." I'm going to tell you the truth as best I can discern it. And here's a truth that I think happens to also be inspiring: 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's the source of depression. Struggling to resist irresistible reality - that's what triggers depression and stress. Reality is never depressing. Paying attention to reality is the antidote of depression. Mindful attention to exactly "what is" is a practice of cultivating joy, Even if "what is" is pain. Literally. For example, if you've got a throbbing knee pain or headache, bring all your attention to the pain itself, minutely noticing every detail of its sensation. This doesn't make the pain go away, but it does make the pain bother you Less, for as long as you sustain attention. Reality presents us with challenges, and those challenges become depressing or stressful problems only when we want to push them away, push them out of mind. Instead, engage, and connect.

The good news is: you and I are going to die. (This may not be news, though you might not have thought of it as good.) 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 have that responsibility. We only have this short time a day, a year, a few decades and all we have to do is show up for just a few decades, just this decade, this year, this day. That's all.

Hallelujah, we do not bear the burden of eternity. 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 "me," I am liberated. My task is no more than to manifest this transience that I am. My task is no more than that - and also no less. We are, each of us, called upon only to manifest and in our manifesting engage with the challenges that happen to arise for the few years we happen to be here.

Not denying the reality we face, nor retreating into some survivalist bunker, ours is the path of open-eyed and open-eared awareness, and the path of connection to both nature and neighbor. We shall choose neither despair nor defense, but new community.

On this 55th Earth Day, the Earth we celebrate is not the Earth of 1970 - but it still has technological civilization. Intelligent life has not destroyed itself yet, and maybe won't. Our odds get better the more of us have the courage to face reality exactly as it is - and this courage comes from spiritual discipline. This courage IS a spiritual discipline.

Our capacity to hold our world in love, whatever may come is developed in spiritual practice and in spiritual community. Where love is, fear and sadness are not.

Because of climbing C02 level, and the consequent climate change, the Earth of our ancestors and of our youth is gone. We now face the prospect of developing community on a new Earth. Our new Earth will rely more on local food, and on farming that doesn't use huge quantities of fossil fuel for its fertilizers, its pesticides, its machinery, or its product transportation.

Food will cost more. For many years now food, by historical standards, has been ridiculously cheap, partly because of agriculture subsidies and fossil fuel industry subsidies (which also subsidize the type of agriculture that intensively relies on fossil fuels). Even so, rising food prices will be a hardship for some, so food aid programs will need expanding. Our new Earth will rely more on locally-produced energy - solar panels and solar water heating on your own house, and windmills in your yard because transmission across power lines loses efficiency over many miles. We'll also use the internet and Zoom instead of flying and driving places -- a move that has already begun.

To sustain us in our new Earth we need the very thing that sustained many of us on the old Earth: a spirituality of connectedness with this earth, of reclaiming a way of living lightly, carefully, gracefully on this delicate home, rituals and practices and ways of thinking that nurture attention, and calm delight in the simple beauties of life. Ecospirituality -- which "means that our experience of the divine comes through the natural world." (Jeanne Mackey) — will sustain us, individually and collectively. As Steven Rockefeller writes:
"Our environmental problems will not be fully addressed until we come to terms with the moral and spiritual dimensions of these problems, and we will not find ourselves religiously until we fully address our environmental problems."
Emerging Ecospirituality recognizes not merely that we have a religious obligation to protect ecosystems, reduce consumption, and in general be responsible stewards of our environment, but that nature itself is sacred, has intrinsic value, and is due reverent care — not simply because it is God's creation and God tells us to, but because nature tells us to, and nature has that authority based on being sacred in itself.

Connecting to the sacredness of the earth is what saves us. Wanting stuff makes us stressed, and being stressed makes it harder to step back from our desires for a larger perspective. So what I'm talking about really is not impending grim necessity - but emerging wholeness, joy, and delight. We may make for ourselves a materially sparer and spiritually fuller life on our tough little planet.

Getting there won't be easy. It takes being focused and intentional, and it takes a lot of us paying attention together.

When Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) experienced unity with the divine, she gave the experience these words:
"I am the breeze that nurtures all things green I am the rain coming from the dew that causes the grasses to laugh with the joy of life."
In riding a bicycle or driving a car we can quickly come to feel the vehicle as an extension of our own bodies. In the same way, the whole world is an extension of your own body. Yes, sometimes it does things you don't want it to and can't control, but the same is true of your joints and organs (increasingly so as the years go by!) Truly, everything in the world is your joints and organs, sinews and bones, glands, skin, and hair. And brain and mind. Says Joanna Macy:
"We are our world knowing itself. We can relinquish our separateness. We can come home again — and participate in our world in a richer, more responsible and poignantly beautiful way."
We have, of course, no idea how things may have gone on other planets. If thousands or even millions of other civilizations have arisen in our galaxy, the reason we haven't heard from any of them, though, would seem maybe NOT that they destroyed themselves. It seems at least as likely the reason we haven't heard from them is that they haven't needed to go colonizing for more resources. The nature of intelligent life just might be not to destroy itself, but, more often, to work its way to the emergence of a peaceful, sustainable way of life in which the beings delight in the home they have.

Perhaps the galaxy is full of technological civilizations that found their way into the joy of living together with smallness of resource consumption and smallness of carbon footprint upon their planet. Perhaps Earth will be next.

2024-04-14

Love and Ethics

Love and Ethics. That touches on two of the three prongs of our mission – what we’re here for. We’re here to grow ethically – as well as spiritually – and we’re here to love radically: ethics and love. I want to explore today the overlap: how do ethics and love relate to each other?

I learned at a young age from the Gospel of John – Lennon – that “all you need is love.” Is that true? The Beatles sang it, but, then, they also sang, “I am the walrus,” “nothing is real,” “happiness is a warm gun,” and “we all live in a yellow submarine” – so maybe not everything they sang is true.

Yes, certainly, in addition to love, we need things like air, food, water, shelter – but looking just at the ethical realm: to be a good person, to be a moral, ethical person, is love all we need? Is love all you need as your guide for how to act? I’m going to say, actually, yes. Love – including attentive care to be as effectively compassionate as we can be – IS all we need.

The counter viewpoint, generally accepted, is that to act rightly in the world, it is necessary to have moral principles. However, what I’m suggesting to you today is: never mind principles. Just love. Love is the only law, as sources as disparate as Ziggy Marley and Nisargadatta Maharaj have said. Making the case against principles may be a bit of a heavy lift. Let us jump in and see what can be carried.

We all face ethical decisions: Do I speak up, or remain quiet? When is it time to put Mom in a nursing home – or time to "let go" of a child? Am I prioritizing my time in a way that most benefits myself and others in the long run? Is the comfort I get from bumping up the thermostat a couple degrees, or the enjoyment of eating meat worth the damage to the planet? Does it really matter if my coffee is or isn’t fair trade, or if my shirt was or wasn’t made in a sweat shop, or if some product was or wasn’t tested on animals? Whenever you choose to do, or not do, anything, there’s the question of whether that choice is the right one.

The great ethical traditions have defended ethical principles. Immanuel Kant propounded the principle: so act that the maxim of your action may be willed a universal law for all. In other words, before you do something, ask yourself, what if everybody did that? Kant’s ethics also tell us to treat others never as a means only, but as ends in themselves.

The utilitarians argued that, instead, the only test of the goodness of an action is the goodness of its results. Their ethical principle is: so act to maximize the total happiness, or the total benefit, to all beings.

The third great ethical school is virtue ethics – which is rooted in Aristotle. This school of ethics says that to be a good person you cultivate virtues such as courage (which we’ll be looking at next month since courage is our the theme of the month for May), and justice (i.e., treating people fairly), and temperance and prudence. These are philosophical approaches to ethics, and I will say, as a former philosophy professor, philosophers are, occasionally, worth paying attention to.

Your brain, like mine, is a mish-mash of competing, contradictory ideas, concepts, values, beliefs. Cognitive dissonance sometimes surfaces, but whenever we can keep it out of mind, we do. Becoming conscious of cognitive dissonance feels icky -- to be avoided if possible. But a philosopher is somebody who goes looking for dissonance. Philosophers concoct all manner of bizarre, unrealistic hypothetical examples just for the purpose of inducing dissonance.

Example: Suppose either 5 people had to die or 1 person had to die. Which would be better? Clearly, it would be better for 1 person to die than for 5, right? OK, so suppose you have five people who are dying of different organ failures. One of them needs a heart transplant, another needs a liver transplant, another needs two kidneys, another needs lungs, and another needs pancreas and intestines. Would it be OK to kill one healthy person, harvest his organs and distribute them among the five? No! But wait -- better one person die than five.

See? The philosopher’s job is to induce cognitive dissonance -- which is uncomfortable. As we confront the issue of how we live our lives, we like to think we have moral principles that guide us. We imagine ourselves to be principled people. We would hate to be accused of being unprincipled. To live by principle seems an admirable thing. Moral principles keep you on the righteous straight and narrow irrespective of how you might feel about it.

Principles don’t depend on your emotions. You don’t have to love your neighbor to know you shouldn’t steal from her.

But on the other hand, if you do love your neighbor, maybe you don’t need principles. Philosopher Jonathan Dancy is a champion of an approach to ethics called "moral particularism." Dancy argues that ethics isn’t really about having principles and following them. Here's the opening paragraph of Dancy's article about moral particularism in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
“Moral Particularism, at its most trenchant, is the claim that there are no defensible moral principles, that moral thought does not consist in the application of moral principles to cases, and that the morally perfect person should not be conceived as the person of principle. There are more cautious versions, however. The strongest defensible version, perhaps, holds that though there may be some moral principles, still the rationality of moral thought and judgment in no way depends on a suitable provision of such things; and the perfectly moral judge would need far more than a grasp on an appropriate range of principles and the ability to apply them. Moral principles are at best crutches that a morally sensitive person would not require, and indeed the use of such crutches might even lead us into moral error.”
Jonathan Dancy and moral particularism were featured on an episode of the NBC comedy, “The Good Place” a few years ago. “The Good Place” is about four people in the afterlife who are trying to become better people by studying ethics. They want to deserve to be the “the good place” – and their strategy is to study ethics. It’s hilarious. They talk about Kant, Sartre, utilitarianism, Kierkegaard, John Rawls. They mention names and ideas of people you’d have to be a total philosophy nerd to have ever heard of: Philippa Foot, Tim Scanlon – as well as this Jonathan Dancy. They talk about the scenario I mentioned of killing one person to save five. The cognitive dissonance that drives philosophy turns out to be more tolerable when it’s also funny.

I do love the concept here, though the evidence, unfortunately, does not support the idea that studying ethics – moral philosophy – has much real connection to being a better person. Studies of actual ethics professors show that they are not more likely to be courteous, more likely to vote, more likely to give to charities, more likely to be vegetarian, or less likely to slip into conferences without paying the conference dues than any other academic. In fact, a survey of which books go missing from academic libraries shows that ethics books go missing more than other philosophy books matched in age and popularity. So studying ethics may not help you be more ethical.

Still, perhaps a life of learning in any field is apt to make us better people. Indeed, most of us feel that learning is, in itself, a component of a good life. The characters in "The Good Place," seeking to become better people, might just as well have taken up the study of economics or chemistry. They happen to have chosen moral philosophy, and I guess that might work as well anything would. Just trying to learn IS becoming better.

The show's protagonists do confront moral dilemmas, and it's nice to see sitcom characters employing the vocabulary of moral philosophy as they wrestle with what to do. As one reviewer wrote, "The Good Place stands out for dramatizing actual ethics classes onscreen, without watering down the concepts being described."

The show ran for four seasons, and by the second season Chidi, who was an ethics professor in life, has settled into the role of serving as the ethics tutor for the other three: Eleanor, Tahani, and Jason. Also, Chidi and Eleanor have an on-again off-again romantic relationship going. In the 11th episode of the 2nd season, Chidi declares himself a Kantian. Chidi has talked about Kant, more or less sympathetically, in many of the episodes, but without committing himself unequivocally. Now our heroes are trying to get to “The Judge” who they hope will rule favorably on their case. To get there, they have to go to The Bad Place and make their way through a room full of demons who are having what is, essentially, a cocktail party. Our heroes must impersonate demons in order to make it through this demon party. They must hide their true identities. They will need to lie. Chidi says:
CHIDI: I hate this. I hate lying. It’s not permissible. I can’t do this.... Kant says that lying is always wrong, and I follow that maxim....Principles aren’t principles when you pick and choose when you’re going to follow them. ("The Good Place," Season 2, episode 11)
Later on, when our heroes have arrived at the cocktail party in Hell and are trying to last it out without being discovered, Chidi manages to pull Eleanor aside for a moment of private conversation.
CHIDI: Those bro demons over there think I’m some kind of great torturer. They want my advice on how to torture some one. Help me.

ELEANOR: You know the answer, dude. Lie your ass off.

CHIDI: No! Lies have consequences. I will have contributed to someone’s eternal torture because I disobeyed a basic Kantian principle. I’m going to be sick, and I don’t want to go back to the bathroom because they put mirrors in the toilet, and that makes you really confront what you’re doing!
ELEANOR: OK, OK. Sit down. [They sit.] Take a breath. Rub your lucky bookmark. Hear me out. What if lying is ethical in this situation? What if certain actions aren’t universally good or bad? Like Jonathan Dancy says.

CHIDI: Jonathan Dancy? Are you talking about moral particularism? We never even covered that. You read on your own?

ELEANOR: You think just because I’m a straight hottie, I can’t read philosophy for fun? Look. Moral particularism says there are no fixed rules that work in every situation. Like, let’s say you promised your friend you’d go to the movies. But then your mom suddenly gets rushed to the ER. Your boy Kant would say never break a promise. Go see “Chronicles of Riddick.” Doesn’t matter if your mom gets lonely and steels a bucket of Vicodin from the nurse’s closet.

CHIDI: Real example?

ELEANOR: Yep! But, a moral particularist like me – I’m one now – I just decided – would say there’s no absolute rule. You have to choose your actions based on the particular situation and right now we are in a pretty bonkers situation.

CHIDI: I don’t think I can change what I believe just like that!

ELEANOR: And I didn’t think I would ever be at a cocktail party in literal Hell, lecturing my teacher-slash-ex-lover about moral particularism, but life throws you curveballs, bro!
And life does throw us curveballs. We get that there’s something noble about the principled stand – that, as Chidi says, “principles aren’t principles when you pick and choose when you’re going to follow them.” But Immanuel Kant was just wrong. Moral principles cannot be absolute. Generally, lying and breaking promises are wrong – the moral ideal is to avoid those as much as possible. But if you’re a gentile homeowner in Holland in the early 1940s, and you have a family of Jews hiding in your attic, when Nazi stormtroopers come around asking questions, it’s time to lie. And, as in Eleanor’s example, when your Mom has just been rushed to the ER, it’s time to break your promise to see a movie with a friend at that time.

Sometimes principles conflict with each other – the principle of protecting life or supporting one’s mother in her time of need might conflict with the principles of not lying and not breaking promises. Conflicting principles can’t both be absolute.

Could the principles be ranked in order of importance so that only one principle, ranked at the top, is truly absolute? If that one is satisfied, then you move to the second, and if that is satisfied, on down to the third, and so on. When principles conflict, you follow the one that is higher ranked.

The problem with this approach is that it supposes that satisfying a principle is all-or-nothing. But principles tend to be variably satisfiable. There’s a difference between being saying something slightly misleading and telling a bald-faced whopper. We might protect life a little bit, or we might protect it a lot. So if a given action would violate the top-ranked principle a little bit, but not doing that action would violate the second-ranked principle a lot, then maybe it’s the second principle that should govern in that case. Once we admit that possibility, then it’s useless to try rank-ordering the principles.

Can we have principles without making them absolute or rank-ordering them? Some philosophers take this approach, seeing moral principles as contributory rather than absolute. For example, in deciding what to say, contributory principles might be “Is it true?” “Is it necessary?” and “Is it kind?” One might take the position that any two of the three is sufficient. If it is necessary and kind, then it need not be true. If it is necessary and true, then it need not be kind. If it is kind and true, then it need not be necessary. Each of the principles contributes, but none is absolute, and they aren’t ranked.

The moral task is to balance the contributions of various principles that apply to the given situation. At this point, are they really principles? Chidi says, “Principles aren’t principles when you pick and choose when you’re going to follow them.” But is "pick and choose" any different from "balance the contributions of various principles"?

“Pick and choose” sounds capricious. And now I think we’re getting to what’s really at stake. We don’t like to think of ourselves as unprincipled because we think of “unprincipled” as capricious or self-serving or both. Love is the answer to both those. Love manifests as care for others, and a steady commitment to care.

Caprice is what happens when we haven’t found our way to, or have lost our way from, our commitments of care. Self-serving is being negligent about appropriate care of others’ concerns and needs – it’s a failure of love. What we mostly do, and that love attunes us to do better, is take in the details of the situation.

Various details provide reasons for doing this or that. When those details are seen in the light of love -- including love for ourselves – then we are guided to respond in compassion and care.

Every situation is full of reasons – that is, details relevant for discerning how to respond. We need to attend to reasons, but Jonathan Dancy’s moral particularism says we don’t need principles.

What we know about human behavior is that by and large, in fact, we don’t follow principles. Nor does talking about principles and declaring allegiance to them, studies find, make people act better. It doesn’t stiffen up waning resolve – just as studying ethics doesn’t make people more ethical. As Dancy, writes:
“There is only one real way to stop oneself distorting things in one’s own favor, and that is to look again, as hard as one can, at the reasons present in the case, and see if really one is so different from others that what would be required of them is not required of oneself. This method is not infallible, I know; but then neither was the appeal to principle.”
Look again, as hard as one can, at the reasons present in the case. Pay attention. Notice. But what is the energy that we need for attending to the details of what is going on? We will be able to attend just so far as we care, so far as we love – love this life, love this world, love each other, our fellow travelers.

Love is the fuel of caring attention, and it is caring attention, not moral principles, that guides us in discerning what to do. As we love more, we pay attention more, notice more, and thus more fuller respond – bringing more of who we are to more of what the world needs.

All you need is love. Our four protagonists in "The Good Place," trying to become better people by studying ethics, do gradually become better people – but, you will notice if you see, or have seen, the show – they become better people through their commitment to each other, through their burgeoning capacity to love.

All you need is love. All you need is love indeed.

2024-03-24

How We Feel

READING

from psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett’s book, How Emotions are Made. Dr. Barrett tells this story:
“Back when I was in graduate school, a guy in my psychology program asked me out on a date. I didn’t know him very well and was reluctant to go because, honestly, I wasn’t particularly attracted to him, but I had been cooped up too long in the lab that day, so I agreed. As we sat together in a coffee shop, to my surprise, I felt my face flush several times as we spoke. My stomach fluttered and I started having trouble concentrating. OK, I realized, I was wrong. I am clearly attracted to him. We parted an hour later – after I agreed to go out with him again – and I headed home, intrigued. I walked into my apartment, dropped my keys on the floor, threw up, and spent the next seven days in bed with flu.”
For Dr. Barrett, this is an illustration of how we create emotions by interpreting our bodily states. In this case, the initial interpretation was over-written with the strong evidence that her bodily state was not, after all, attraction, but the onset of flu. Usually, we have no reason to second guess our initial interpretation. Dr. Barret writes:
“An emotion is your brain’s creation of what your bodily sensation mean, in relation to what is going on around you in the world. In every waking moment, your brain uses past experience, organized as concepts, to guide your actions and give your sensations meaning. When the concepts involved are emotion concepts, your brain constructs instances of emotion. If a swarm of buzzing bees is squeezing underneath your front door while your heart is pounding in your chest, your brain’s prior knowledge of stinging insects gives meaning to the sensations from your body and to the sights, sounds, smells, and other sensations from the world, simulating the swarm, the door, and an instance of fear. The exact same bodily sensations in another context, like watching a fascinating film about the hidden lives of bees, might construct an instance of excitement....Emotions are not reactions to the world. You are not a passive receiver of sensory input but an active constructor of your emotions....With concepts, your brain makes meaning of sensation, and sometimes that meaning is an emotion.”
SERMON

Four weeks ago, in the sermon called, “Believing, Really Believing, and Talking to Your Car,” I mentioned that psychology professor Lisa Feldman Barrett argues that emotions are constructed. There are, she says, two main biological continua. There's the pleasant to unpleasant continuum, and there's the high arousal to low arousal continuum.

For low arousal and pleasant, think of blissful calm. For high arousal and pleasant, think of something really fun and exciting. For high arousal and unpleasant, think of being very scared or anxious. For low arousal and unpleasant, think of being bored.

The rich and subtle texture of our emotional lives is then a matter of using learned concepts to interpret our biological states in socially recognized ways. Today, I wanted to go back to that earlier point and say a bit more about that.

Our emotions are a huge part of what we are. What are they, where do they come from, what do they mean, what are we to do with them?

Consider, for example, a feeling that you may have had, though you didn’t have a name for it. Lisa Feldman Barret describes it:
“Imagine the feeling of reaching into a bag of potato chips and discovering that the previous chip you ate was the last one. You feel disappointed that the bag is empty, relieved that you won’t be ingesting any more calories, slightly guilty that you ate the entire bag, and yet hungry for another chip.”
So: a mix of feelings: disappointment yet relief, a hint of guilt, yet desire for more. Dr. Barrett gives this made-up emotion a name. She calls it chiplessness.

What makes an emotion is that we learn to interpret our body states with a category. We use those categories to interpret other people’s feelings as well as our own – so the categories constitute a social reality. If you have feelings of love, well, you wouldn’t know that feeling was love if you didn’t have lots of examples from other people. So, chiplessness becomes a real emotion to just the extent that it becomes a social reality – that we learn from each other to understand our body states with that category.

The empty potato chip bag is the paradigm, but the emotion applies in other cases. Any time you are enjoying something that comes to end and you’re disappointed and relieved and a little guilty because you think maybe you’ve been enjoying it more than you should – yet you’re desirous of more, that’s chiplessness. If you’ve ridden the roller coast at a given amusement park hundreds of times, and you get there one day and the ride is closed for repairs -- you’re disappointed, yet a bit relieved because you’re a little guilty about the way you’ve been a touch over-enthusiastic about this ride – yet there’s still a part of you that did want to ride it. So you’re feeling chipless. Or, you come to the end of the last episode of a series you’ve been binge watching. You’re relieved that you got all the way through it, yet at the same time sorry that it’s over. You suspect maybe spending all that time on this show may not have been the best use of your time, yet you hope there’s going to be another season. You’ve got that chipless feeling.

If you interpret your experience with this category a few times, it won’t be long before you’re adept at it. And now it’s a real emotion – as real as happiness, sadness, anger, or fear.

You might be thinking this new concoction is surely a mix of more elemental emotions. The feeling that something is bittersweet is a combination of bitterness and sweetness. The feeling of “awe,” says the Oxford Dictionary, is “a feeling of reverential respect mixed with fear or wonder.” Even supposedly opposite feelings can be mixed – like happiness and sadness at the same time. If you saw the 1997 Roberto Benigni film, “Life is Beautiful,” in which a father tries to keep his child’s spirits up while they are in a concentration camp, then you probably got a strong dose of happiness and sadness at the same time. The masters of literature evoke the various mixing of emotions as their stock in trade, as in a 1960 New Yorker column by John Updike about witnessing the baseball great Ted Williams’ last at-bat. Updike wrote:
“No other player visible to my generation has concentrated within himself so much of the sport’s poignance, has so assiduously refined his natural skills, has so constantly brought to the plate that intensity of competence that crowds the throat with joy.”
Emotions can certainly be mixed, but let’s examine this idea that mixtures are ultimately made up of elemental, primary emotions. The supposed primary emotions are generally identified with some list such as fear, anger, sadness, happiness, and disgust. Those are the five internal characters inside the psyche of eleven-year-old Riley in the 2015 Pixar movie, “Inside Out.” When I’m encouraging people to identify their emotions and separate the emotion itself from judgment and evaluation – I start with the basics: mad, sad, glad, and scared.

How are you feeling? I might ask. And I might hear, I feel wronged, or neglected, or cheated, or abandoned, or betrayed, or let down. Those are judgments. If you say you feel disappointed, that’s getting closer, but in a given context it’s likely to be tinged with judgment about another person’s conduct rather than your own emotion. So to be helpful in identifying the emotion I might ask, are you mad, sad, glad, or scared? From there, we can begin learning how to fine tune our identification of emotions. Under the general rubric of sadness, one might discern discouragement, distraughtness, resignation, helplessness, hopelessness, misery, despair, grief, sorrow, or anguish – each of which is distinct. Anger might be fine-tuned as annoyance, frustration, exasperation, argumentativeness, bitterness, vengefulness, or fury. Gladness might be fine tuned as sensory pleasure, rejoicing, compassionate joy, amusement, relief, pride, wonder, excitement, or ecstasy. And so on.

Psychologist Paul Ekman did a number of cross-cultural studies in which he showed people photos of facial expressions. Ekman’s work led him to the conclusion that there were six emotions that were innate and universally recognized in all cultures: mad, sad, glad, and scared, plus disgust and also surprise. Another source lists eight primary emotions, leaving out sadness, but including distress and anxiety, as well interest. Despite ongoing ambiguity about the precise list of what the primary emotions are, various writers confidently declare that “primary emotions are universal and innate.”

Turns out – according to Lisa Feldman Barrett and a growing number of researchers whose evidence I find pretty persuasive – that none of these are universal or innate. None. What is universal and innate -- in the area of feelings – are those two axis: low arousal to high arousal, and pleasant to unpleasant. That’s the biology that is indeed basic. It’s basic to all vertebrates and possibly to many invertebrates. Everything else, it turns out, is cultural and learned. We had to learn how to interpret ourselves and each other as angry or scared – and we learned it basically the way we learned a few minutes ago to interpret ourselves sometimes as chipless.

The classic facial expressions that Ekman thought were cross-culturally universal – Surprise --- Anger --- Disgust --- Happiness --- Etc. Those are stereotypes and they are problematic in the way that stereotypes generally are. In the attempt to abstract or summarize, they misrepresent the complex reality. Ekman’s photos weren’t of people who were feeling the emotion supposedly pictured. They were people who were told to show an assigned emotion, so they displayed the stereotype. In reality, people who are angry have all kinds of facial configurations. Maybe sometimes you quietly seethe. Other times you might be scream and shout – which would look more like an open mouth than a very tight-lipped closed mouth. If professional actors made faces like the ones pictured above, we’d think either that their character was being campy, or that they were ham actors. In real life, if you saw someone with stereotypical “surprise" face --- or the "fear" face --- or any of them, you’d be more likely to think they were mocking the feeling than that they were authentically feeling it.

Careful studies measuring facial muscle movements find that there is no facial configuration and no part of a facial configuration that all angry people display or that only angry people display. Sometimes those pursed, tight lips are just someone thinking hard about something.

When we dig a little into Paul Eckman’s methodology, we learn that when he showed his pictures like these to people in remote cultures, he didn’t just say: What’s this person feeling? He presented the question as multiple choice: Choose the word that best matches the face. And the options were limited to Eckman’s six. They might not have been the emotions that in that culture were the most central or primary. Members of a culture in which chiplessness was central and primary to their way of understanding themselves, if there were such a culture, would not have found chipless an available option.

Moreover, in cultures that didn’t speak English, Eckman had to use translations of the English words, even if close matches to the English word didn’t exist in the other language. The !Kung people of the Kalahari don’t have any word for Fear. They certainly feel the heightened adrenaline from an immediately imposed danger, and they will flee from it, and we would characterize them as afraid, but that’s not how they think of themselves – and since part of the experience of fear is recognizing “this is fear” – they don’t have the experience that we have.

“Utka Eskimos have no concept of ‘Anger.’ The Tahitian have no concept of ‘Sadness’.” (148)

You might think, as one writer put it, that: “A smile is recognized in all cultures as a signal of happiness and social welcome.” Actually, no. Here’s what Dr. Barrett says about that:
“For one thing, ‘Happiness’ is usually the only pleasant emotion category that is tested using the basic emotion method, so it’s trivial for subjects to distinguish it from the negative categories. And consider this fun fact: The historical record implies that ancient Romans did not smile spontaneously when they were happy. The word ‘smile’ doesn’t even exist in Latin. Smiling was an invention of the Middle Ages, and broad, toothy-mouthed smiles became popular only in the eighteenth century as dentistry became more accessible and affordable.”
Classics scholar Mary Beard adds:
“This is not to say that Romans never curled up the edges of their mouths in a formation that would look to us much like a smile; of course they did. But such curling did not mean very much in the range of significant social and cultural gestures in Rome. Conversely, other gestures, which would mean little to us, were much more heavily freighted with significance.”
Thus, Barrett concludes,
“So far as I know, no emotion concept is universal, but even if one were, universality itself does not automatically imply a perceiver-independent reality.”
Take, for example, magical little people – called nymphs in ancient Greece, leprechauns in Ireland, brownies in Scotland, fairies in Celtic legend, Menehune in Native Hawaiian folklore, trolls in Scandinavia, Aziza in Africa, Agloolik in Inuit culture, Mimis in Aboriginal Australia, Shin from China, Kami from Japan. Even if magical little people were part of every single human culture on earth, that wouldn’t mean they were a perceiver-independent reality like atoms, rocks, and trees.

We’re not saying emotions aren’t real. We’re saying they’re cultural. They’re very real – like money – which also isn’t a perceiver-independent reality, but which depends on the social agreement of a given society. Other than those two axis of arousal and pleasantness, everything else in the area of emotion depends on having the concept, and concepts are learned features of a culture.

Not all cultures have the emotion concepts of English-speaking cultures. Instead, they may have others. Of course, cultures sometimes borrow from each other, the way that English speakers borrowed – examples I’ve mentioned before – schadenfreude and weltschmerz from the Germon and ennui from the French. Here are 17 others we might consider appropriating:
From Italian: fiero: the enjoyment felt when you have met a challenge that stretched your capabilities
From Yiddish: naches: feelings of pride in the accomplishments, or sometimes just the existence, of your offspring or mentees
From Dutch: gezellig and voorpret. Gezellig is a specific experience of comfort with friends. Voorpret is pleasure felt about an event before the event takes place – a delighted anticipation
From Greek: stenahoria: a feeling of doom, hopelessness, suffocation, and constriction.
From Korean: jeong: happiness specifically from attachment to a close friend.
From the Ilongot of the Philippines: liget: exuberant aggression involving intense focus, passion, and energy while pursuing a hazardous challenge with a group of people. (Sounds similar to recently developed emotion concept in our culture that we call putting your game face on.)
Also Filipino: gigil: the urge to hug or squeeze something that is unbearably adorable.
From Norwegian: forelsket: an intense joy of falling in love.
From Dansih: hygge: a certain feeling of close friendship.
From Russian: tokka: a spiritual anguish.
From Portuguese: saudade: a strong spiritual longing.
From Spanish: pena ajena: sadness over another person’s loss, or discomfort or embarrassment on someone else’s behalf.
From Japanese: arigata-meiwaku: the feeling that someone has done you a favor that you didn’t want from them, and which may have caused difficulty for you, but you’re required to be grateful anyway (Doesn’t that sound very Japanese? The culture is its concepts, and the concepts for the way we feel – plus the physiological sensations we are interpreting – ARE the emotion.)
Also from Japanese is age-otori: the feeling of looking worse after a haircut.
Other cultures mix and match emotion categories differently: For the Ifaluk, of Micronesia, fago: depending on context, can mean love, empathy, pity, sadness, or compassion
From the Czech: litost: torment over one’s own misery combined with the desire for revenge.
We might want to revive twitterpated from the 1942 Disney movie, Bambi. Twitterpated, like chipless, is a made-up emotion – but they’re all made-up. That's Barrett's point: all emotions are made-up by members of a given culture.

Your emotional life is cultural habits of interpretation of, and projection onto, your awareness of your body states. As we work through the meaning of this new understanding of emotion it’s going to have wide implications. It’s going to have legal implications. Like, we can’t tell what remorse is. Remorse is a cultural product, and some cultures have very different expressions for it, or don’t have the concept at all. So the notion of remorsefulness in criminal sentencing is problematic – yet juries decide sentences in part on whether they think the defendant feels remorse. Dzokhar Tsarnaev of Chechnia, the suriving bomber of the 2013 Boston Marathon bomb, was sentenced to death in 2015. “Tsarnaev spoke words of apology, but when [jurors] looked at his face, all they saw was this stone-faced stare.”

If Lisa Feldman Barrett is right, then
“jurors do not and cannot detect remorse or any other emotion in anybody ever. Neither can I and neither can you....That might be someone who is a remorseless killer, but a stone-faced stare might also mean that someone is stoically accepting defeat, which is in fact what Chechen culture prescribes for someone in Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's situation.”
There’s solid reason to believe Dzokhar Tsarnaev committed the acts of which he was accused. There is no basis for saying that he was remorseless -- or that he wasn't.

There’s a lot more to say about how to understand emotions, but let me leave you with two take-aways. One: learn more emotion concepts. Emotional granularity – having a higher vocabulary of emotion words – is healthy for you. Yes, they are all cultural concepts, but it’s good to have a large toolbox of cultural concepts. The ability to speak and think with greater precision is a brain efficiency for navigating your reality – and we humans have created a fantastically complex social reality for ourselves, so your brain needs all the efficiency it can get.

Second, whatever you’re feeling, you don’t have to take it so seriously. And particularly don’t take seriously your interpretation of what you think other people are feeling. Talk to people and ask them about what they’re feeling – don’t assume. Emotions are social, so be sociable with them and about them.

Blessed be. Amen.

2024-03-17

The Ontological, The Semantic, and the Tribal

Stephen Colbert Interview with Paul Simon, The Late Show, Thu Mar 14, 2024:
SC: Are you yourself a man of faith?
PS: I would say, yes. Well, let me put it another way. I think we’re in an unbelievable paradise on Earth and life is so mysterious a mystery. In the rest of our galaxy there’s really no other life. We don’t know what’s going on. So, life is incredible. So, I think, what a great job you did, God, with this planet. Excellent. And the universe. Paul Simon, hat’s off to you, God. Fantastic universe!
SC: So your faith is an act of gratitude.
PS: An act of gratitude. But then I think, if the explanation for our creation is not “there was a creator,” but there is another explanation, I am no less grateful, and I’m no less in awe of everything. It’s not going to change my morality. I’m not going to think bad is good now, and good is bad, because I feel when it’s good and I feel when I do bad. So, in the two choices between: Is there a creator, or is there another explanation, I like the creator story. That’s where I am with that. You?
SC: I was convicted of my atheism for many years, and then I was overwhelmed by an enormous sense of gratitude for the world. [What you said] resonates for me because this enormous heartbreaking gratitude – even for heartbreaking things -- because the world is beautiful but the beauty isn’t always happy things. Joy is greater than happiness, and happiness is not the ultimate goal. Sublime is the goal. So that feeling that even comes in grief – grief with you is an act of love, so we can both be sad and yet there is joy there because of our ability to share our love in that moment and heal and care for each other – that feeling, that even in that there can be something beautiful, led me to an enormous, overwhelming, uncontainable sense of gratitude, and it had to go someplace, and that led me back to my relationship with what I now call my God.
PS: Yeah. I understand completely
.
This is a sermon about the Unitarian Universalist fourth source. The living tradition we share draws on many sources, of which we enumerate six, and the fourth one is:
“Jewish and Christian teachings that call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbor as ourselves.” (see all six HERE)
This is also a Muslim teaching. So in the midst of Ramadan, with Easter and Passover approaching, I wanted to look at this.

God is a bit of a contentious topic among Unitarian Universalists. Some of us resist any use of the word or concept. For others of us, some conception of God is a touchstone for making sense of life – for discerning meaning and hope amidst this confused mix of beauty and tragedy we call life.

Last week I told you about a tussle in Unitarian History that started in 1865 and lasted about 30 years. We have always rejected having a creed. And then some Unitarians were like: “I love being creedless. By the way, I’m not a Christian.”

And other Unitarians were like: “When we said we were creedless, we kinda meant that everyone was free to work out for themselves the specific details of their relationship to Jesus. We never imagined anyone would go so far as to not be Christian at all.”

Then the first group, called the radicals, was like: “Well, we’re going that far.”

And the other group, called the conservatives, was like: “OK, but you’re not a Unitarian.”

And the radicals were like: “But I am a Unitarian. Unitarians are my peeps. I love our churches – the sermons, the hymns, the choir, the classes and study groups, and those dinners that we are just now beginning to call ‘Pot Luck.’”

Finally, after about 30 years, the conservatives were like: “yeah, all right, fine.”

That was round 1 – which sets us up this week to hear about round 2. About 20 years went by and in the middle of the 19-teens, we started up the whole cycle again – only this time, instead of being about nonChristians, it was about nontheists. Some Unitarians were like: “Still love being creedless. By the way, I don’t believe in God.”

And other Unitarians were like: "When we agreed that Unitarians didn’t have to be Christians, we never imagined anyone would go so far as to not be theist at all.”

Then the first group, called the humanists, was like: “Well, we’re going that far.”

Again, it was our more Western congregations at the forefront, but “Western” by now was a bit further west than Pittsburgh. The Unitarian Humanist movement got its start right here in Des Moines, when this congregation hosted the 1917 annual meeting of the Western Unitarian Conference. That’s where this congregation’s minister, Rev. Curtis Reese, met the Minneapolis minister, Rev. John Dietrich. Reese and Dietrich got to talking and discovered that each had been working on the idea of religion without God – which they would decide to call humanism.

Just as a couple generations before, there were attempts to adopt a statement that would rule out these nontraditionalists. The controversy was heated, but no statement was ever passed, and the furor eventually petered out. What was ultimately persuasive was not any argument in a Unitarian periodical or from a Unitarian pulpit, but the simple fact that humanists and theists really could sit side by side in our pews and committee meetings, stand side by side in social action projects. And at our potluck dinners, the green jello salad, wobbled the same and tasted the same whether brought by a humanist or a theist.

We are a people that have learned – yet must periodically re-learn – that "We need not think alike to love alike." And: "people with different beliefs can come together in one faith."

With that background, I want today to look at the ongoing status of the difference between our "theists" and our "atheists." What sort of difference is it? The disagreement sometimes seems to be ontological: that is, the parties advance competing claims about the nature of reality and what reality does and does not include. Sometimes the disagreement seems to be semantic: that is, the parties advance competing claims about what words do, or may, mean. Mostly, though, it seems to me that this issue is neither ontological nor even semantic. It’s tribal. The parties affirm the existence or nonexistence of God in order to signal their identity and group loyalty. I think it’s important for us to notice that.

When tribal identity is at stake we become rigid, inflexible, dogmatic about "speaking correctly" -- and this is just as true for those who call themselves "atheists" as for those who call themselves "theists." When our tribal loyalty is not at stake, almost all of us, are flexible, creative, open, and charitable in the ways we use and respond to nonstandard language. The question then arises: What's more important, defending our tribal identity or connecting with other people where they are?

Let me illustrate. Some years ago, I was well into adulthood and my own children were teenagers, and we were all gathered with my parents for Thanksgiving. My Mom regaled the table with a story from my childhood, of which I had no recollection of either the events in the story or of ever having heard the story before. Mom said that once, when I was about five years old, we visited some fair or carnival where I saw helium balloons for the first time. I pondered this amazing thing, and asked: “Mom, why do they go up?”

Mom, rational scientist physics professor that she was, answered me, “Why wouldn’t they go up?”

“Things go down,” I said.

“Uh-huh,” said Mom. “Why do they go down?”

“Because of gravity,” I said.

“Ah,” she said. “Well, the balloons go up because of levity.”

And this satisfied me.

When, years later, I heard this story at the Thanksgiving table I did NOT think, “Egad, my mother lied to me!” After all, why not call it levity? She might have tried explaining that helium is less dense than air, which means helium has less mass for a given volume, and that gravitational attraction is proportional to mass, so gravity’s pull on the air is stronger than on helium, pulling the air down, which pushes the less-dense helium upward, and, according to Archimedes' principle of buoyancy, the weight of the displaced air is equal to the buoyant force, so, with the weight of the helium within the area of the balloon being less than the weight of the displaced air, the buoyant force pushing up on the balloon is greater than the gravitational force pulling down. Mom knew I wasn’t ready to follow such an explanation – so she gave me this word, “levity” as a sort of placeholder. With wisdom and quick wit, she used language to connect with me where I was, rather than to leave me behind. I delight in this family story -- not because Mom’s answer was false, but because it is, really, true. I love knowing again what apparently I was first taught at age five but forgot: There is a force called levity that makes things rise.*

People have different stories to make sense of our world. Some stories about reality feature a creative force that is person-like in that it knows and it wants. Other stories tell of a creative force that kind of has knowledge and desires – in a rather metaphorical sense. Still other stories depict the forces of the universe creating and destroying utterly without anything that could be compared to knowledge, intentionality, or purpose, even metaphorically speaking. Besides different opinions of what does or does not exist out there (the ontological questions), we have different viewpoints for how words may reasonably be used (the semantic questions).

In my experience and study, the core uses of the word ‘God,’ I would argue, are to point to any or all of the following:
  • community-forming power;
  • love;
  • the greatest source of beauty, mystery, or creativity;
  • the widest or deepest inspiration to gratitude, humility, wonder, and awe;
  • origin;
  • any ultimate context and basis for meaning, value, ethics, or commitment;
  • the widest reality to which our loyalty is owed;
  • the cosmos.
My semantic argument is that these are the most important meanings -- the essence, if you will -- to which people, regardless of their religious persuasion, have pretty-much-always been referring when they said ‘God.’ Many who speak that word would also include "person-like creator." But many would not, so I regard "person-like creator" as nonessential.

That’s my semantic claim. Others disagree with me about that. They counter-claim that the word ‘God’ unavoidably implies a person-like creator.

Four weeks ago, if you remember, in a sermon about Blessing, I said that theology is a kind of poetry. It’s not a kind of science or natural history. As poetry-making and poetry-hearing beings, we need to use words creatively, to sometimes treat a peripheral association as a central meaning and ignore the meaning that had often previously been central. I hope that we can get increasingly good at honoring each other’s different experiences of what’s real (different ontological positions) – and that we can also get increasingly good at honoring different semantic positions and different styles of poetry and metaphor.

That has sometimes been hard for us. Why? Here’s why: tribalism. There is an awful lot of religion that is neither about a sense of what’s out there, nor is about a sense of the proper use of words. It’s just about: "Whose team are you on?" Tribal loyalties get in the way of honoring and respecting different experiences about what is real, and different poetic inclinations for choosing words. We have a hard time simply accepting our differences when those differences symbolize what team one is on – and when team membership requires being opposed to certain other teams.

We do need our tribes. After all, another word for “tribe” is “community” – and we need community. And loyalty to our group is, by and large, a virtue. A healthy community, though, will affirm and support some ethics and values beyond tribe loyalty, and will facilitate and help integrate one's transcendent experiences of interconnection and peace. An unhealthy community gives most of its energy to nursing a shared sense of who the enemy is.

Where there are no tribal loyalties at play, we humans are generally pretty flexible about adjusting our understandings of words. For example, one of my former in-laws referred to her refrigerator as "the Frigidaire." She would say, for example, “There’s cake in the Frigidaire.” A glance at the manufacturer’s label revealed that her refrigerator was actually made by Amana. But even at my most churlish, teen-aged self, I was not inclined to say, “No, it’s not in the Frigidaire, it’s in the refrigerator, which happens to be an Amana.” Would you say that? Me neither. (Especially not when there's cake being offered!)

We simply adjust to different ways of using words. If Longfellow's "Song of Hiawatha” wants to call Lake Superior “Gitche Gumee,” we let it. Or consider Lewis Carroll's poem, “Jabberwocky.”
"‘Twas brillig and the slithy toves
did gyre and gimble in the wabe,
all mimsy were the borogoves,
and ye mome raths outgrabe.”
Many of the words are made-up. You can call the poem “nonsense,” but it isn't meaningless. The sound and rhythm and context they create for each other invite us into a world of imagination, and most of us can go with that. Tribalism, however, makes it difficult to extend the same flexibility and charity to language about God.

To illustrate how attitudes about “God” work, consider the ways that some of us find our genial adaptability stiffening dogmatically when it comes to grammar. I, for example, occasionally find myself wrestling with my own grammar dogmatism. I am sensitive to the differences between “lie” and “lay” and between "disinterested" and "uninterested," and I am capable of wishing that other people were, too. Where does this come from? It’s about my own tribal -- and class -- loyalties. It has seemed a betrayal of my grandmothers, parents, and beloved English teachers to allow myself to relax the guard against the barbarians at the gate dangling modifiers and saying “less” when they mean “fewer.”

Those adults we admire were the upholders of our class identity. The adults who sought to instill in me good grammar were teaching me to be faithful to my socio-economic class. The hidden message of prescriptive grammar instruction is: Don’t sound like those people – the lower classes. Grammar will be emotionally important to me precisely to the degree that my class identification is emotionally important to me.

So there’s the question: Do I want to go for separation, or for connection? We face linguistic choices – whether to say “ain’t,” or to call a rising balloon “levity,” or use the word “God.” As you make those choices, do you want to go for separation, or for connection?

For me, I don’t want to be a Grammar Nazi. I’m trying – though sometimes not succeeding – to not be. Connection is more important than separation. If I truly don’t know what you mean, I can ask. It’s not like speakers of upper-class English are really, on average, any clearer.

Neither am I going to be a Nazi about the word “God.” If that word allows for connecting with other people around the shared meanings of community-forming power; love; the greatest source of beauty, mystery, or creativity; the widest or deepest inspiration to gratitude, humility, wonder, and awe; origin; any ultimate context and basis for meaning, value, ethics, or commitment; the widest reality to which our loyalty is owed; the cosmos -- then I’ve decided that connecting with others is more important than separating from them based on the fact that I conceive of God’s knowing or desiring more metaphorically than they do. Connecting is more important than separating.

When loyalty isn’t at play, as when reading Lewis Carroll’s "Jabberwocky," it’s relatively easy to practice the gentle arts of flexibility and charity. I’ve come to understand that whether or not I want to insist that “God” necessarily must imply an entity with awareness and intentions is mostly about my tribal loyalty, just as my grammar pet peeves are.

Can we Unitarian Universalists engage in a process we identify as discerning what God is calling us to do? Can we have conversations about the question, "How do we serve God?" Yes, we can. In talking about serving God, we would be talking about serving life, and good, and the flourishing of all beings, while also reminding ourselves of the finitude and corrigibility of our own conceptions of life, good, and flourishing – which is just what I think Jews, Christians, Muslims, and Hindus are talking about when they speak of serving God.

When we say, as we do in the fourth source of the living tradition we share, that we are called "to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbor as our selves," we are saying that the moments when we have felt the greatest belonging and connection inspire us to want to help our neighbors also feel connected and know they belong – which is what I think it truly means to respond to God’s love, whether or not God is conceived of as a person-like entity, and regardless of how metaphorical that conception is.

If I have a chance to connect with you, whoever you are, then connecting with you is usually more important than separating myself from you. If you and I have each felt mystery, wonder, and beauty come together with peace, compassion, and the softening of ego defenses -- if we have opened our hearts to love -- then we have a shared commonality that transcends both your dogmatic opinions about God and my dogmatic opinions about how wrong your dogmatic opinions are. That shared commonality in the moment matters more than my urge to insist on asserting my tribal identity.

It turns out that I can still oppose mandatory school prayer, support mandatory inclusion of evolution, favor reproductive rights, legal recognition of same-sex marriage, abolition of the death penalty, and public programs to take care of all our people -- and talk about God. I can talk about the impetus of the universe as God’s call for us to improve our understanding, respect our differences, serve life and freedom, and share God’s “preferential option for the poor.” Willing to employ "God talk" judiciously, I can be more effective than I ever could by a fastidious refusal to invoke the one word that, more clearly than any other, conveys a sense of spacious mystery tugging us toward the better angels of our nature.

Moreover, I find my wholeness and healing growing the more I perform the imaginative exercise of pretending that the world might be whispering to me, calling, inviting me to love if I but listen. Listen: it is God’s love calling me to respond by loving myself and my neighbor as my self. It is God’s love lifting me up -- as levity lifts a child's balloon.

May it be so for all of us.

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*Actually, if Mom had said, "because of buoyancy," instead of "because of levity," she'd have been telling the straight-up truth, but I'm guessing that she intuited that "buoyancy" would prompt me to ask more questions whereas something about the parallel sounds of gravity and levity would feel more satisfying to me. After all, I was a Unitarian five-year-old with a lot of questions, and when I was five, my sister would have been one, so I imagine Mom, with two small kids and an academic career, sometimes felt beleaguered.