2019-02-18

What Do You Want to Want?

Part 1.

So. Desire. But WHICH desires?

Have you noticed how many of the seven deadly sins are desires? Lust, gluttony, greed. Envy is a comparative desire: comparing myself to others, I desire as good or better than what they have. Vanity is a sort of reversal of envy: it’s conviction that others must envy me -- rooted in the desire that they do so. And anger – that’s what you feel when a desire is thwarted. That’s six of the seven deadly sins that are malfunctions or excesses of desire.

Pope Gregory I in the 6th century delineated these seven deadly sins. Calling them sins probably only encourages judgment, self-judgment, and repression -- which millennia of Christendom’s experience show don’t work all that well. “The Return of the Repressed” might be the title of a very fat history of Western Civilization. Still, Pope Gregory was right that greed, lust, gluttony – and envy, vanity, and anger – can be problems for us and those around us.

On the other hand, desirelessness is also problematic. The one deadly sin not yet mentioned is sloth – which is the sin of desirelessness.
Without any desires, we have no motivation and are sunk in sloth.

Desire can take us to soaring heights of passionate intensity that makes life delicious and glorious. Desire for inner peace and equanimity can take us to contemplative practices that cultivate compassion, gentleness, and wise insight. So it’s not a question of desire or don’t desire – it’s a question of which desires are worth throwing yourself into with abandon – and which ones warrant a little disciplined, well, if not self-denial, then re-direction of the energies.

There's a passage from Walden in which Henry David Thoreau said:
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. . . . I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life.”
As I bob along on the current of Thoreau’s paean to the glory of giving yourself over to desire, I find I abruptly run aground at the word, “Spartan-like.” The famously austere and disciplined Spartans represent pretty much the exact opposite of hedonist indulgence. Clearly, Thoreau did not equate a life of desire with a life of gratifying every impulse.

The thing is, we are, each of us, a hodge-podge of conflicting desires. Some of them are the joy of life. Some of them make us miserable. So what do we do? First, notice what these things are, desires, how they come to us, how they arise without our having chosen them. The main desires that drive your life, for better or for worse, weren’t ones you picked. If we were to personify Desire, we’d say our desires picked us, we didn’t pick them.

Part 2. (Part 2 duplicates the first half of "Creature Comforts" -- HERE. Readers who have already read "Creature Comforts" may wish to skip to part 3.)

I was intrigued to learn that the word desire comes from the Latin de sidere. “Sidere” is the root of “sidereal,” meaning “of or relating to the stars.” The suggestion is that our desires are “written in the stars.” We are fated to desire what we desire. Desire is the name of something we don’t choose, that isn’t rationally determined, and that it’s our fate to have.

We call it “freedom” when you can do what you like, but we overlook that you haven’t decided what you like. Brian Magee writes:
“If I am ordering a meal in a restaurant, I may be free to choose whatever I like from among the alternatives on the menu. But I am not free to choose what I like shall be. I cannot say to myself: 'Up to this point in my life I have always detested spinach, but just for today I am going to like it.' What I am in the mood for, and what I like or detest, are not at my command.”
Philosopher William Irvine was struck by the case of Thomas Merton. In his college years, Merton was a hard drinker who ran with a fast crowd and fathered a child out of wedlock. Merton would later describe his young adult self as
“an extremely unpleasant sort of person – vain, self-centered, dissolute, weak, irresolute, undisciplined, sensual, obscene, and proud. . . . a mess.”
Then, out of the blue, Merton felt a desire to convert to Catholicism. He took instruction, got baptized, and became a Catholic. Shortly thereafter, he got another spontaneous desire: to become a priest. He tried the Franciscans for a while. And then a third desire: to be a Trappist monk. He didn’t know where the desire came from, but there it was: powerful, irresistible, clear.

William Irvine recounts Merton’s story, and finds it very disturbing.
“It raises the possibility that we are all just three spontaneous desires away from life in a Trappist Monastery.”
That’s disturbing to Irvine because he hasn’t had those desires. It startles him to realize that he could. We don’t control what desires come: Merton becoming a monk; Siddhartha Gautama leaving behind the palace of pleasure for practices of severe austerity, and eventually leaving those behind for the Middle Way.

Less famous cases of shifting the direction of one’s life are common. Every year, 18-year-olds show up on college campuses intent on a Business degree – and somewhere in the next year or two some of them decide that what they really desire is to study 18th-century French poetry.
Or maybe they show up intending to major in art history and discover that what they really love are the complexities and challenges of the finance industry. Our calling comes to us as a desire to be a certain sort of person, follow a certain path. It’s called “calling” because we don’t choose it. We are called to it, as if by a voice, as if written in the stars in writing that, suddenly or slowly, becomes clear.
Desire emerged in animals because the ones that desired certain things that made surviving and reproducing more likely were naturally selected for.

Evolution made certain things feel good, which is to say, desired. William James pondered the case of chickens who build nests and tend the eggs in them despite never having done so before, never having seen other chickens do that. Squirrels gather and bury nuts, even in their first year when they have no experience of winter and don’t realize food will become scarce. James says the hen tends her eggs because she finds them “utterly fascinating and precious and never-to-be-too-much sat upon.” It feels good to her to sit on her eggs. It feels bad not to – if she is prevented from sitting on her eggs, she feels anxious. She tends her eggs because she wants to – she has a desire to. She wants to because it feels good to do that and feels bad not do it.

Once we have organisms with the emotions, memory, and cognition required to have pursuable desires – then chains of desire form.
That is, some things feel good just because they are instrumental for getting something else that feels good. I want A for no reason other than that it leads to B, which I want for no reason other than that it leads to C. And then we begin to be organisms who enjoy doing some things where the chain of connection back to something that increased our odds of surviving and reproducing is so long the links become invisible.

Mountain-climber George Mallory, asked in 1923 why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, famously replied, “because it’s there.”
For Mallory, mountains are to be climbed.

When John Kennedy in 1962 declared that “we choose to go to the moon in this decade not because it is easy, but because it is hard” he was appealing to this desire for accomplishment even when disconnected from any purpose for accomplishing it. (As an aside, I have to mention that, in fact, the space program wasn’t so disconnected from perceived threats to survival. It was driven by cold war military objectives of impressing upon the Soviet Union that we had the capacity to deliver Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles to the other side of the globe. It was an intimidation display such as is common throughout the animal kingdom. Still, the idea of doing something just because it’s hard felt good and was inspiring for a lot of Americans.)

Indeed, birds evidently feel some satisfaction in a nest well built even independent of their desire to have a place to sit on eggs. We gather this because some species build multiple nests and end up using only one. Some ornithologists will hazard one of several guesses about why birds do this, but most will just say “we don’t know.” Whatever the reason, it’s evident that those birds desire to build nests. They build them because nests are to be built. They do it not because it is easy but because it is hard.

We are made of desires. We don’t choose them. Advertisers and grifters can easily manipulate them. Even something as fundamental as the desire to live is astonishingly easy to change if you have access to a brain and know where to place the electrodes, as in the case of the woman receiving treatment for Parkinson’s when the electrodes were slightly misplaced. Or, as Leo Tolstoy experienced, we might find the desire for life itself going away for no evident cause.

Part 3.

But if desires can be manipulated – by accident or by design – can we manipulate our own? Can you choose that you’re going to like spinach if you have always detested it? Not on the spur of the moment, no. Over time, though, yes, tastes and desires can be cultivated. There’s a sometimes-delicate-sometimes-rough dance between our fixed biology and what can be cultivated. Some people have more taste receptors on their tongue particularly sensitive to the bitterness in spinach and others don’t. It’ll be harder, but not impossible, for them to train themselves to like it. And why should they?

More significant desires might be worth the effort to cultivate. This requires intentionality and most of the time most of us don’t bring much intentionality to the development of desires – we just let them develop as they will.

So. What do you want? And ultimately more important: What do you want to want?

As we set about to cultivate and weed the garden of our desires, I think we’d get rid of most of the desires for things that we have no control over. Yes, some times it can be fun to desire things we have no control over – cheering for your sports team on TV when you have no way to have any affect on the game’s outcome, for instance. Gambling can be enjoyable – in fact it can be so enjoyable that it becomes a life-ruining addiction. We are wired to enjoy – to crave -- that hit of dopamine that comes will a lucky roll. It can be a fun indulgence if reserved for rare occasions and affordable amounts.

Generally, though, desiring what we have no control over leads to miserable and pointless worry and anxiety. If you think you don’t have this problem, let me remind you that once you have cast your ballot in an election, you have no further control over the outcome. So how late were you up on the night of Tuesday November 8, 2016, and how upset were you about an outcome you couldn’t do anything more about? Pretty late – and pretty upset? Yeah, me, too.

Some desires may be impossible to achieve, and we make ourselves miserable pursuing them, and ashamed of ourselves for not attaining them.
The image of the body we think we ought to have may be unrealistic, for example.

If we are choosing what to want, I think we’d probably make sure not to have any addictions. Addiction can happen not only with drugs, alcohol, gambling, food, or sex but also with shopping, TV shows, or the news – or work (hence the word “workaholic.”) Any activity can take on addictive quality if it gives us a temporary pleasure but hijacks our better judgment so that we find ourselves indulging even when we know the activity is contributing neither to our productivity nor to our overall well-being and happiness.

Which desires would we keep?

There are universal and recurrent needs: food, air, rest and sleep, fun and laughter, meaningful work to do, aesthetic experience, sexual expression, empathy and understanding, affirmation of trust, of respect. These are universal in that everyone wants these, and recurrent in that our desire for them is roughly proportional to how long it’s been since we had some.

We’d probably also like to be the sort of person who is at peace with themselves, compassionate, gentle, and wise. If we aren’t sociopaths or severely narcissistic, we want to love well and have relationships of depth and meaning. We want to be the sort of person who has caring connection to other people, other beings, nature, our neighborhood, town, or city. We want to be the sort of person who can experience joy in our circumstances, whatever they may be. Those are nearly universal – pretty much everybody wants those things, and wants to want them.

What about desires that are unique to you? Your calling or passion – whether it’s creative writing or stock brokering – is something you want and want to want. You didn’t choose your passion, but if you’ve got one, you probably want to it – maybe even amplify it.

I’m not going to talk about how to cultivate desire. You can google “how to cultivate desire” and get lots of good ideas and strategies. But the first step is deciding to bring intentionality to it – deciding to seriously ask yourself, not “what do I want?” but “what do I want to want?”

Most people never undertake to revise the desires written in their stars. The degree to which we can re-write our stars is limited, but we can do some editing. So, before cranking up the google to search for "how to cultivate desire," I suggest making a list of what you want to want. Take a few days to reflect on and add to your list. That’s the essential first step.

This first step is a discernment, not a decision. It's about self-discovery; about taking a deep-dive into interpreting what you can make out of what's written in your stars, teasing out the most important themes of that muddled and often contradictory text.

Second step, hit google for some ideas.

Third step: talk to other people in your life about the changes you’re trying to make. We really need to create networks of accountability for ourselves if we trying to make a change – friends who we promise to regularly report to, and who will ask us about it if we don’t. Without forming this support structure for yourself, your intentions will go the way of the vast majority of New Year’s resolutions.

What do you want to want? If you don’t get clear about that now, you, too, might end up in a Trappist monastery. Or maybe, if you DO get clear about that then you’ll head to a monastery. May it be your best, most thoughtful self that makes that choice.

2019-02-11

Grief Amid Denial

Seven weeks ago, on December 23, I preached a sermon, “Reality Amid Ideology.” The ideology at issue was exceptionalism – the sense of being God’s favorite and under a special divine blessing. US exceptionalism goes back to John Winthrop, the Puritan governor in 17th century New England who told his fellow Puritans they were creating “a city set upon a hill.” The Monroe Doctrine articulated in 1823 declared that the Americas were off limits to any further European colonization – effectively ensuring US hegemony over two continents. Theodore Roosevelt’s imperialism acquired the Philippines and reached into Korea, Japan, and China, driven by a sense of uniquely American Manifest Destiny, and the racist conviction that Asian peoples were inferior to what Roosevelt called our Anglo-Saxon, our Teutonic – he even sometimes said Aryan -- civilization.

More recently, the ideology of US exceptionalism is expressed in four ways.

First, as military force. The American empire has displaced the old European empires, and we have been the world’s only superpower. Our military passion is evident in our literal flag-waving, our mania for displaying the US flag, and in the weird emotions we have around our national anthem. (Heaven forbid anyone should kneel during the required worship of our “rocket’s red glare”!)

Second, economic domination. Globalization has meant US domination. US control of natural resources and international markets drove a flourishing US economy and produced an inordinately high standard of living in this country. We have had a sense of "entitlement to the resources and goods of the world for our own benefit.”

Third, racism. Our exceptionalism as a nation has been enmeshed with our sense of national identity as a nation of people of northern European descent. There are reviled “others” – African Americans, rooted in the slave trade; Asian Americans, long regarded as the “yellow peril”; Hispanic Americans regarded as a threat to jobs for “real Americans” -- for a sense of the racial purity of the ruling class is a deep part of our history. I remind you there were anti-miscegenation laws, forbidding interracial marriage, in 16 states up until 1967 when the Supreme Court struck them down.

Fourth, religion. The Protestantism of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants purveyed a “God and country” patriotism over Biblical injunctions to welcome the stranger and embody neighborliness. But 9/11 was a blow to the myth of American exceptionalism – we saw that we are not immune to attacks we liked to think only happened in other countries.

US military hegemony is waning. Every year the war in Afghanistan drags on, the limitations on what military force can accomplish become more and more evident.

US economic dominance is waining. We certainly remain economically powerful, but no longer dominate. Meetings of the G8, for instance, have been cow-towing to US interests less and less – and that was before the 2016 election.

Preferred racial-ethnic singularity is waning. The ethnically northern-European have lost the capacity to maintain “our kind of America.”

And simplistic moral certitudes are waning. The old-line Protestant churches are in institutional free fall in numbers, dollars, and missional energy.

None of the things we’ve lost and are losing were ever good or healthy things to have. Military dominance inevitably turns the possessor into the global bully. Economic dominance was never sustainable. Racism has always been our scourge. And religious institutions that saw no need to distinguish between Bible-thumping and flag-waving were never conducive to real spiritual flourishing.

None of those things were good things to have. But each of them did provide certain delusional comfort to a lot of people. In the face of the loss of those comforts, one can grieve and relinquish – come to accept that the world no longer has what has been lost – or one can go into denial. Many Americans have and are opting for denial.

The attempts to cling to what has been lost manifest in many ways. For instance, we have an essentially racist and certainly classist prison system – in which the number Americans in prison, which had been 196,000 in 1972, exceeded 1.5 million in 2007. We almost octupled our prison population in those 35 years. As a proportion of population, we went from 93 imprisoned per 100,000 population in 1972 to 506 per 100,000 in 2007. (Since 2007 incarceration numbers have been dropping only slightly.)


Twenty-seven states have legislatively adopted stand-your-ground laws since 2005. The gun lobby has become unrestrained. Our government regards torture as a viable procedure. These are the responses of a people that feels threatened. They are attempts violently to shore up old privilege and entitlement and fend off reality.

With the old delusional comforts slipping away, these are attempts want to get them back – to make America “great” again – meaning, push away the mounting evidence that US exceptionalism was always a dangerous delusion.

One may see parallels to this sort of phenomenon in other empires through history, but today we’ll look at the parallel case offered by a city-state: Jerusalem, before, during, and after the Babylonian Captivity. That’s because Jerusalem had prophets – figures such as Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Amos, Hosea, et al.

These figures offer us some helpful resources for us in our present situation. In particular, these prophet-poets played an important role of giving public voice to grieving.

In the centuries before the Babylonian Captivity, Jerusalem, too, was in the grip of an ideology of exceptionalism. From the covenant of Abraham, and then the covenant of Moses, the Israelites understood themselves as God’s chosen people. They felt they had a divine guarantee. The oracle Nathan had told David in 2nd Samuel:
“Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.”
The assurance is reiterated to Solomon in 1st Kings – that the Temple shall endure:
“The Lord has said that he would dwell in thick darkness. I have built you an exalted house, a place for you to dwell in forever.”
The ruling elites, sure of their protection, co-opted chosenness into the ideology that kept them in power – and kept oppressed laborers oppressed.
God was on the side of the powerful, and they need not hold themselves accountable to the poor, the widowed, the vulnerable.

The prophets called out the urban elite for their “arrogance, pride, and self-indulgence.” Around the middle of the 700s BCE, Amos and Hosea were active. Then Isaiah and Micah were active until the end of that century. Then there’s a gap of some 70 years before Jeremiah’s 40-year career as a prophet. The texts we have of these prophets provide us with poems indicting the wealthy class for imagining themselves “the center of the universe and not accountable" to anyone for anything. “The elite have manipulated the markets, paid low wages, foreclosed on homes, and managed the economy in their interest to the detriment of others” (Brueggemann). The elite have, in short, said the prophets, failed at both of the two central commandments: love God, and love neighbor.

Then in 597 BCE Babylonian forces deposed Judah’s King Jehoiakim and sent him and his family into exile along with his court and thousands of others. Eleven years later, 586 BCE, in response to uprising among the remaining Israelites, Babylonia’s King Nebuchadnezzar crushed the rebellion, destroyed the temple, and deported thousands more back to slavery in Babylon. Through the period of enslavement far from home, the Hebrew people maintained their national spirit and religious identity. There was a Jewish community led by elders and the first synagogues were established. Then, 48 years after the destruction of the Temple, in 538 BCE, Cyrus the Great of Persia conquered Babylonia and freed the Jews to return home – a people shaken and forever changed by the experience.

Perhaps this calamity was the judgment of God, as the prophets said. “Or perhaps it was the inexorable outcome of policies of abuse and exploitation in which widows, orphans, and immigrants” suffered. Or maybe those two are the same thing: “judgment of God” being another way of saying “inexorable outcome of policies.” Another possibility, not considered by the prophets, was that the destruction and captivity “was simply the consequence of Babylonian expansionism at the expense of a weaker state” (45), and would have happened regardless of Judah’s policies.

Walter Breuggemann writes:
“In any case, the end did come with great force and brutality....But the urban elites clustered around king and temple had not seen it coming. They imagined that their life was so good, so successful, and so guaranteed that it would not be interrupted. The practitioners of the ideology of exceptionalism in Jerusalem – chosen city, chosen king, chosen temple – lived in a state of denial about their coming future. Ideology as false consciousness does that to us. It gives us a constructed, contained view of reality that covers over the facts on the ground and offers us instead a preferred set of facts that reassures and confirms the way we thought and wished the world were. When the ideology is one of assurance issuing in entitlement and privilege, it will not be interrupted by facts of the ground, for such facts are characteristically ‘inconvenient.’ As a consequence, the facts on the ground must be denied in order to sustain a world view of entitlement and privilege.” (46-47)
Even after the first incursion that deposed King Jehoiakim and deported thousands in 597, the denial continued. Jeremiah reports that a competing prophet, one Hananiah, was confidently predicting that within two years all the deported would come back, including the royal family, restored to their rule. “The yoke of [Babylon] cannot last, because this is Jerusalem with all its guarantees.” (56)

Hananiah represents a broad conviction “that a quick return to normalcy would surely happen. Evidence to the contrary did not count.” This conviction “made it impossible to see the reality at hand.” (57)

Denial, rooted in the ideology of exceptionalism, was countered by grief. Rituals of grieving – wakes, funerals, memorial services – allow us to emotionally relinquish what we have lost and face the new reality. The poems of the prophets and of the Psalms from the period of captivity express that grief.

And yes fantasies of violence against those that brought on our grief might be part of that response. Four years ago, an aunt of mine died, in a town outside of Pittsburgh. At the Memorial Service my Uncle, now widowed and anguished, rose to speak. He described what sounded like careless oversights made by medical personnel – oversights he saw as responsible for his beloved’s death. He had some anger about that. He said: “Now you tell me how I’m supposed to feel.” I can well imagine that fantasies of violence probably had come to him – what he momentarily imagined he’d like to do to those medical personnel who killed his spouse.

Our species has deep evolutionary reasons for the way emotions are wired in our brains, for our tendencies to violence, and for why in certain circumstances retribution can strike us as intensely appealing. Grieving – including expressing, articulating our sadness – helps us work through that. There can be no pretending here – no playing nice. Grief ain’t grief if it ain’t real. We need venues where raw feelings can be spoken with raw words.

Psalm 137, composed during the Babylonian captivity, is just such an expression of grief. Its evocative, haunting words have inspired a number of musicians to set them into beautiful songs – songs which usually leave off the last verses. Adam’s centering music this morning included Charles-Valentin Alkan’s musical depiction of Psalm 137.



It’s an instrumental paraphrase, but judging by the tempestuous ending, Alkan did not leave the Psalm’s last verses from his musical depiction.

When the staff this week raised a question about including all of the words of Psalm 137 in the insert in your Order Service, or maybe just leave off that last verse because it’s so disturbing – Adam spoke up including all the verses -- for the sake of the fidelity to the Psalmist and fidelity to the composer whose music depicts all of the Psalm, not just the nice parts. I’m glad he did – because as I have sunk into the experience of these words, and the grief of the people of Zion, how intense a raw that was, and how their feelings needed to be voiced, I see the importance of acknowledging even the impulses that aren’t nice. So that those impulses can then be relinquished. There is no rallying cry here to go and act on those impulses – that would be something very different. The Psalm also tells us that grieving, relinquishing, facing the new reality does not mean forgetting. Indeed, the memorial services that help us let go of our loved ones also help us be committed to remembering them.
By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?
If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill.
May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy.
Remember, Lord, what the Edomites did on the day Jerusalem fell.
“Tear it down,” they cried, “tear it down to its foundations!”
Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is the one who repays you according to what you have done to us.
Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.
Through grief, we work our way through anger – and through bewilderment. The sheer bewilderment of the people during the captivity is particularly poignant in Lamentations 5, which goes back and forth between the old assurances of forever, then the feeling of abandonment, then the hope for restoration, and then the thought that maybe that just can’t happen. The lament poem concludes:
“But you, O Lord, are enthroned forever,
Your throne endures through the ages.
Why have you forgotten us utterly,
Forsaken us for all time?
Take us back, O Lord, to Yourself,
And let us come back;
Renew our days as of old –
Unless you have utterly rejected us
And are angry with us beyond measure."
Here Israel has moved to candor about its profound loss – a necessary step and a big step away from exceptionalism. “It’s a move made possible by the anticipation and articulation of grief among the prophets” (70) and poets who give voice to the feelings of a people, who are skilled at grief – who “have the skills, courage, and presence to bring any death to speech, so that the community can fully and finally embrace the loss” (63).

These artists of sadness refused any cover-up of loss. “When the cover-up is broken, it becomes possible to breathe again. In denial, one can only hold one’s breath” (71).

The collapse of American illusions has not presented so acute a crisis as captive enslavement in a foreign land – which means many of us will be able to sustain denial for the indefinite future. Grief breaks through denial.

Poems -- like the ones HERE -- help articulate our loss, help us trust in reality. For in grieving our losses we can relinquish our illusions and position ourselves to receive anew.

2019-02-10

Prophetic Grief: Four Poems

Our country has a profound need acknowledge loss, to give voice to grief and thereby relinquish our clinging to an imagined past. Giving voice to grief, to sadness about loss, is a key task of the prophets. The prophetic voices today come from our poets. Herewith, four examples:

In “How Much Faith?” Al Staggs grieves about the rising economic insecurity of the middle class.
So how much faith do we possess?
From where does our financial security come?
The economic crisis has deeply touched
both our emotional and spiritual lives
and we are compelled to ask deep questions.
If our lifestyles are radically altered; that is,
If our houses, cars and most of our possessions are lost
and our savings and retirement accounts become depleted
and we can no longer afford health coverage,
in what fashion will we then pray
and what will be the nature of our worship,
our praise and our thanksgiving to God?
Might all those turn to laments,
the kind of laments that the vast majority
of people throughout the world
have voiced for centuries?
They knew the grinding lifestyle of poverty
long before the sin of avarice gave birth
to our own present crisis.

In “After Katrina,” Kevin Simmonds grieves the losses brought by that hurricane.
There’s no Sabbath in this house.
Just work.
The black of garbage bags,
yellow-cinched throats opening
to gloved hands.
Black tombs along the road now,
proof she knew to cherish
the passing things,
even those muted before the waters came
before the mold’s grotesquerie
and the wooden house choked on bones.
My aunt wades through the wreckage, failing,
no matter how hard she tries,
at letting go.
I look on, glad, at her failing
her slow rites
fingering what she’d once been given to care for.
The waistbands of her husband’s briefs,
elastic as memory;
the blank stare of rotted drawers,
their irises of folded linen still,
smelling of soap and wood
and clean hands.
Daylight through the silent soft windows
And I’m sure now: Today is Sabbath,
the work we do, prayer.
I know what she releases into the garbage bags,
shiny like the wet skins of seals,
beached on the shore of this house.

In “We Cry Out,” Leonard Cohen grieves our failures, concluding on a hopeful possibility of repentance.
We cry out for what we have lost, and we remember you again. We look for each other, we cannot find us, and we remember you. From the ground of no purpose our children accuse us, and we remember, we recall a purpose. Could it possibly be? we wonder. And here is death. Could it possibly be? And here is old age. And we never knew; we never stood up, and the good land was taken from us, and the sweet family was crushed. Maybe, we said, it could be, and we gave it a place among the possibilities. I’ll do it myself, we said, as shame thickened the faculties of the heart. And the first reports were of failure, and the second of multilations, and the third of every abomination. We remember, we cry out to you to return our soul. Is it really upon us? Yes, it is upon us. Do we merit this? Yes, we merit this. We cry out for what we have lost, and we remember you. We remember the containing word, the hold channels of commandment, and goodness waiting forever on the Path. And here and there,
among the seventy tongues and the hundred darkness – something, something shining, men of courage strengthening themselves to kindle the lights of repentance.

In “Never Say,” Hirsch Glik speaks of the rejuvenation that can come when grief is acknowledged.
Never say you’ve come to the end of the way.
Though leaden skies blot out the light of the day.
The hour we all long for will surely appear –
Our steps will thunder with the words: We are here!
From lands of palm trees to far-off lands of snow.
We come with anguish, we come with grief, with pain and woe;
And where our blood flowed right before our eyes
There our power’ll bloom, our courage will arise.
The glow of morning sun will gild a bright today.
Night’s darkness vanish, like the enemy cast away.
But if we perish before this dawn’s begun –
This song’s a message passed to daughter and to son.
In blood this song was written, and not with pen or quill,
Not from a songbird freely flying as he will.
Sung by a people crushed by falling walls –
Sung with guns in hand, by those whom freedom calls!

Poems cited in Walter Brueggemann, Reality, Grief, Hope

2019-02-03

Creature Comforts

I was intrigued to learn that the word desire comes from the Latin de sidere. “Sidere” is the root of “sidereal,” meaning “of or relating to the stars.” The suggestion is that our desires are “written in the stars.” We are fated to desire what we desire. We don’t choose our desires, nor are they rationally determined.

Freedom means that you can do what you like. But you don’t decide what you like. Brian Magee puts it this way:
“If I am ordering a meal in a restaurant, I may be free to choose whatever I like from among the alternatives on the menu. But I am not free to choose what I like shall be. I cannot say to myself: 'Up to this point in my life I have always detested spinach, but just for today I am going to like it.' What I am in the mood for, and what I like or detest, are not at my command.”
Desire can take us to soaring heights of passionate intensity that makes life delicious and glorious. Desire for inner peace and equanimity can take us to contemplative practices that cultivate compassion, gentleness, and wise insight.

On the downside, desiring what we can’t get strips life of satisfaction and generates only discontent. Or desires can become addictions that make our lives miserable. But either way, we don’t choose them.

Sometimes they grab us by throat and take over. Other times, it takes an intentional process of inner exploration to discover the yearnings you didn’t know you had. We don’t always know what we want. But whether they are loud and blatant or quiet and hidden, we don’t choose our desires. They choose us.

Philosopher William Irvine, exploring the topic of desire, was struck by the case of Thomas Merton. In his college years, Merton was a hard drinker who ran with a fast crowd and fathered a child out of wedlock. Merton would later describe his young adult self as
“an extremely unpleasant sort of person – vain, self-centered, dissolute, weak, irresolute, undisciplined, sensual, obscene, and proud. I was a mess.”
Then, out of the blue, Merton felt a desire to convert to Catholicism. He took instruction, got baptized, and became a Catholic. Shortly thereafter, he got another spontaneous desire: to become a priest. He tried the Franciscans for a while. And then a third desire: to be a Trappist monk. He didn’t know where the desire came from, but there it was: powerful, irresistible, clear.

William Irvine recounts Merton’s story, and finds it very disturbing.
“It raises the possibility that we are all just three spontaneous desires away from life in a Trappist Monastery.”
That’s disturbing to Irvine because he hasn’t had those desires. It startles him to realize that he could.

We don’t control what desires come: Merton becoming a monk; Siddhartha Gautama leaving behind the palace of pleasure for practices of severe austerity, and eventually leaving those behind for the Middle Way; less dramatic, or, at any rate, less renowned cases of shifting the direction of one’s life are not uncommon.

Every year, 18-year-olds show up on college campuses intent on a Business degree – and somewhere in the next year or two some of them decide that what they really desire is to study 18th-century French poetry. Or maybe they show up intending to major in art history and discover that what they really love are the complexities and challenges of the finance industry.

Our calling comes to us as a desire to be a certain sort of person, follow a certain path. It’s called “calling” because we don’t choose it. We are called to it, as if by a voice, as if written in the stars in writing that, suddenly or slowly, becomes clear. We humans are as free and as unfree as any other animal.

Desire emerged in animals because the ones that desired certain things that made surviving and reproducing more likely were naturally selected for. Evolution made certain things feel good, which is to say, desired. William James pondered the case of chickens who build nests and tend the eggs in them despite never having done so before, never having seen other chickens do that. Squirrels gather and bury nuts, even in their first year when they have no experience of winter and don’t realize food will become scarce.

James says the hen tends her eggs because she finds them “utterly fascinating and precious and never-to-be-too-much sat upon.” It feels good to her to sit on her eggs. It feels bad not to – if she is prevented from sitting on her eggs, she feels anxious. She tends her eggs because she wants to – she has a desire to. She wants to because it feels good to do that and feels bad not do it.

In evolutionary history, first there was reflexive action – organisms wired so that stimulus A produces response B -- like sneezing in response to certain stimuli. To progress from reflexive action to desire-driven action requires an ability to learn: emotional memory of what felt good and bad in the past, and reasoning enough to calculate how to produce good-feeling results and avoid bad-feeling results.

Once we have organisms with the emotions, memory, and cognition required to have pursuable desires – then chains of desire form. That is, some things feel good just because they are instrumental for getting something else that intrinsically feels good. I want A for no reason other than that it leads to B, which I want for no reason other than that it leads to C. And then we begin to be organisms who enjoy accomplishments even when they are no longer connected to increasing our odds of surviving and reproducing.

Mountain-climber George Mallory, asked in 1923 why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, famously replied, “because it’s there.” There’s no evolutionary reason to desire to reach the peak of tall mountains, but that desire is a side-effect of being the sort of organism that builds chains of desire, and is motivated to move through the chain because each link starts to feel good all by itself. And then we enjoy accomplishment for its own sake. The chain can become disconnected from the survival-and-reproduction advantages that originally prompted the building of the desire chain.

When John Kennedy in 1962 declared that “we choose to go to the moon in this decade not because it is easy, but because it is hard” he was appealing to this desire for accomplishment even when disconnected from any purpose for accomplishing it. (In fact, the space program wasn’t so disconnected from perceived threats to survival. It was driven by cold war military objectives of impressing upon the Soviet Union that we had the capacity to deliver Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles to the other side of the globe. It was a display meant to intimidate, and such displays are common throughout the animal kingdom. Nevertheless, Kennedy’s appeal succeeded because the idea of doing something just because it’s hard felt good.)

Indeed, birds evidently feel some satisfaction in a nest well built even independent of their desire to have a place to sit on eggs. We gather this because some species build multiple nests and end up using only one. Some ornithologists will hazard one of several guesses about why birds do this, but most will just say “we don’t know.” Whatever the reason, it’s evident that those birds desire to build nests. They build them because nests are to be built. They do it not because it is easy but because it is hard.

We are made of desires. We don’t choose them. Advertisers and grifters can easily manipulate them. Yet desires constitute the meaning of our lives. Even something as fundamental as the desire to live is astonishingly easy to change if you have access to a brain and know where to place the electrodes, as in the case of the woman receiving treatment for Parkinson’s when the electrodes were slightly misplaced. Or, like Tolstoy, we might find the desire for life itself goes away for no evident cause.

* * *

It’s true that certain complex desires are unique to humans. Only humans have desires to play “Stairway to heaven” on a guitar, or to read a novel, or to invest in the futures market, or to organize a SuperBowl party, or to become a Trappist monk. (I like to imagine that being a Franciscan monk might appeal to a variety of species, but Trappist? Definitely only humans.) Four things to note about these uniquely human desires:
  1. Every species has some desires that are unique to it.
  2. Not all humans have any given such desire. Only humans desire to own an original Van Gogh, but not all humans do. No one has yet discovered any desire that all humans have – or even one that nearly all humans have -- that isn’t also shared by other species.
  3. When we focus for a while on how we don’t choose our desires – when we open ourselves to notice the mystery of where they come from and how they aren’t in our control – it becomes more difficult to regard the desires that rule humans as superior to those that rule other animals.
  4. Our desires, however specific and complex, are built up from components shared, at least, by all mammals.
Consider, for instance, cows. What do cows desire? Well, what do we know about cow interests and capacities?

Animal Behavior and Cognition is a peer-reviewed journal for empirical research on animal behavior, behavioral ecology, ethology, cognitive science, and comparative psychology. In 2017 the journal published, “The Psychology of Cows” – an extensive review of the literature by Lori Marino and Kristin Allen. The references pages cite some 240 articles and books the authors combed through. What does the research show?
  • Cows learn different tasks, have long-term memory, complex spatial memory, extrapolate the location of a hidden moving object, discriminate complex stimuli, and discriminate humans from one another and discriminate among individual cows.
  • "Calves as well as adult cows show learned fear responses to humans who have previously handled them in a rough manner."
  • Cows have fear and anxiety, and we now know that the less eye white is shown, the better they feel – and that their ears also signal their emotional states.
  • Cows also like to play, and decreased play compromises well-being.
  • When subjected to stress, cows, like mammals generally, including you and me, are less able to judge ambiguous stimuli.
  • Cows pick up the emotions of those around them in a phenomenon called emotional contagion. “When cows are exposed to stressed conspecifics [other cows] they too show pronounced stress responses, such as decreased feeding and increased cortisol release."
  • Cows have diverse personalities. Some are bold, others shy. They have variable sociability, gregariousness, and temperamentalness.
  • “Cows display broad parameters of social complexity,” where social complexity is measured as “the number of differentiated relationships that members of a species have with conspecifics.”
Cows have the emotional, memory, and cognitive capacities to form desires through essentially the same processes that desires form in us. Probably no cow has formed the desire to know more about ancient Greek philosophy, but, rather to my disappointment, relatively few humans have that desire either. Nor, we may reasonably surmise, has any cow desired to drive a car at 500 miles an hour, and, thankfully, relatively few humans have that desire.

But the desires that almost all humans share would seem to be largely shared by cows. We experience fear and anxiety and desire to avoid it. We desire to avoid beings who harm us. We experience well-being, and desire the things conducive to it. We are devoted to our offspring, and desire their well-being. We desire play. We desire self-expression – to manifest our different personalities. As our emotions resonate with those around us, we desire social harmony. We desire relationships – the variable companionships of others of our kind.

* * *

For the last two Sundays I have been, in various ways, looking at our attitudes toward difference. When we’re at the polarization stage, we think we – our culture, our religion, our species – is good or superior, and what is different is worse and inferior. When we’re at the minimization stage, we minimize differences and emphasize how we’re all the same.

Two weeks ago ("What is 'White Culture'?"), I talked about white culture, and how those of us who are of that culture might see that our own way of seeing things isn’t just universal common sense but the product of particular cultural training. The path forward from minimization of cultural differences is more deeply grasping the ways we ourselves are cultural products, which allows us to appreciate the profundity of cultural difference.

Last week ("God is Not One"), I talked again about moving beyond minimization – this time when it comes to other religions. Religions aren’t all the same. What’s called for is appreciating the real differences.

When it comes to culture and religion, many of us are at the minimization stage, so I have been offering a case for going beyond that to appreciation. When it comes to other species, many of us are at the polarization stage -- the stage of feeling that "we have worth and dignity – they don’t." Here our need isn’t to move beyond minimization, but just to move into minimization – to recognize the extent of our commonality.

This might raise your level of concern about animal cruelty. Whether it does or not, it’s an important insight into ourselves. If who we are – our nature as beings on this planet – is an iceberg, then being human is only the tip. "What does it mean to be human?" That’s a question that points our attention only to the tip of our being. "What does it mean to be primate?" Now we’re attending to a little more of ourselves. "What does it mean to be mammal?" "What does it mean to be vertebrate?" As we explore these questions – learning what we have in common with all vertebrates rather than what separates us from other primates – a much fuller picture of what sort of being we are begins to emerge.

We are driven by desires we do not choose, that are written in our stars, and that often conflict with each other. We seek the comforts of our common creatureliness -- food and health, rest and play, companionship and self-expression. May all such of our desires be fulfilled.

2019-01-28

God is Not One

On Friday a couple days ago, one of our congregation’s members posted on the Facebook “CUUC Forum” a helpful bit of information (HERE). He wrote, “How many times have we all been in the situation where the answer to this question just doesn't flow off the tips of our tongues?” The question at issue, in large letters at the top of the graphic he posted was: “Where does the word Unitarian come from?” Of course, you can’t trust anything you read in a Facebook graphic (starting with the fact that they are called "memes" when, in fact, they are graphics, not memes.) But this one got it right. It says:
“Its roots lie in the Reformation of 16th-century Europe, when Protestant Christians read and interpreted the Bible for themselves. Some of them found that the Bible spoke of one God. This did not square with the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity, which says that God consists of three ‘persons’. Because these people believed God to be a ‘unity’ rather than a ‘trinity’ they became known as ‘Unitarians'."
And there you have it. God is one, not three, as the Trinitarians say. That’s what makes us Unitarian.

The first Unitarian churches formed in what is now central Romania, and was then Transylvania, around which curved the Carpathian mountains. Transylvania’s King John Sigismund, who reigned for about 10 years until his death in 1571 is history’s only Unitarian king. There are a number of Unitarian churches today in central Romania that have been Unitarian churches for 450 years.

In the back of our gray hymnal is reading number 566. The words are adapted from Francis David, who was King John Sigismund’s Court Theologian in Transylvania. Francis David is a foundational figure in the emergence of Unitarianism. David sounded, as you see in this reading, a number of themes that have always been important for Unitarians. Acceptance of differing viewpoints has, from our beginnings, been a hallmark of us Unitarians. Reading 566 begins by affirming:
“In this world there have always been many opinions about faith and salvation.”
David urged toleration. The second line is the most well-known:
“We need not think alike to love alike.”
Our Unitarian tradition emphasized reason. The fourth line in the reading:
“Sanctified reason is the lantern of faith.”
The sense that revelation is continuous, that we are always learning is also there. The sixth line:
“If they offer something better, I will gladly learn.”
The Unitarianism that comes down to us through Francis David also emphasized this world over some future afterlife. The ninth line:
“We must accept God’s truth in this lifetime. Salvation must be accomplished here on Earth.”
That, too, is a Unitarian idea from our beginnings. But the idea that we get our name from – is in the last lines of this compilation reading:
“God is indivisible. Egy Az Isten. God is one.”
Over the doors of many of those original Unitarian churches in Transylvania are painted those words in Hungarian: Egy Az Isten, meaning God is one.

I tell you all that because I want to be clear with you about the situation I have put myself in. If a Unitarian minister of a fine Sunday morning steps into his pulpit to deliver a sermon titled “God is not one,” well, he’s got some ‘splaining to do. So let me explain.

I am referencing a book by religion scholar Stephen Prothero titled God is Not One. Prothero’s aim is not to defend trinitarianism against the perfidies of Unitarian heresy. Rather, he wants to say religions are really different. It has been a temptation of various European thinkers since the 18th-century to assert that religions are all the same. "All religions are one," argued William Blake in 1788. In the 60s it became fashionable to hold that all religions are beautiful, and all are true.

Another religion scholar, Huston Smith, expounded on the popular metaphor that the great religions are different paths up the same mountain. Wrote Smith:
“It is possible to climb life’s mountain from any side, but when the top is reached the trails converge. At base, in the foothills of theology, ritual, and organizational structure, the religions are distinct. Differences in culture, history, geography, and collective temperament all make for diverse starting points. But beyond these differences, the same goal beckons.”
It’s true that the Golden Rule is found in Christianity, Judaism, Confucianism, and Hinduism. But some shared ethical precepts don't mean they are all "essentially" the same. There are the obvious differences.

Christians don’t go on pilgrimage to Mecca. Muslims don’t baptize. Hinduism tells of many Gods, Judaism of one God, and Buddhism makes a case for no gods. Unitarians, the old joke goes, believe in, at most one God. Mormons say God has a body. Muslims say God doesn’t. Hindus say humans have souls. Buddhists say we don’t.

The issue of whether all religions are basically the same depends on what we take to be basic. Are the differences non-essential, while the essentials are shared? Or are the differences essential? But things don't have essences in and of themselves -- what we pick out to call "essential" depends on our purposes. As Prothero says,
"The world's religious rivals do converge when it comes to ethics, but they diverge sharply on doctrine, ritual, mythology, experience, and law. These differences may not matter to mystics, but they matter to ordinary religious people. Muslims do not think that the pilgrimage to Mecca they call the hajj is inessential. Catholics do not think that baptism is inessential."
The impulse to say that the essence of religions is in what they share is well-intentioned. There has been such conflict and fighting – often violent – over religions. If the combatants would only see that their faiths are basically the same – just different paths up toward the same peak – then they wouldn’t hate each other. When there’s polarization – each side demonizing all other sides – then a strategy of minimization – that is, seeking to minimize differences – is indeed an important and positive step.

But minimization brings problems of its own. Truly respecting another religion or another culture requires respecting and appreciating its uniqueness, just as respecting a person entails honoring what is unique and different about that person. Papering over differences and insisting that what’s more important is the sameness is a deliberate blindness to some of the things that the other person, other culture, or other religion regards as crucially important about themselves. It’s putting them in a box of our definition of sameness instead of letting them define themselves and what’s important to them. Stephen Prothero says,
“the idea of religious unity is wishful thinking and has not made the world a safer place.”
The minimization impulse, he notes, is “dangerous, disrespectful, and untrue.”

Instead of seeing the world’s religions as starting out from different places around the base of a mountain, and all trying to make their way up to the same peak, we should see it the other way around. The world’s religions begin from the same place, and then head off in different directions. Prothero says,
“What the world’s religions share is not so much a finish line as a starting point. They begin with this simple observation: something is wrong with the world.”
Something’s wrong. What is it?

For Christianity, what’s wrong is sin. So Christianity heads out to climb the mountain to salvation, salvation from sin.

For Buddhism, what’s wrong is suffering. So Buddhism heads out to climb the mountain to nirvana, extinguishment, release from the cycle of rebirth into suffering.

For Islam, what’s wrong is arrogance -- “the hubris of acting as if you can get along without God.” So Islam heads out to climb the mountain to humility and obedience.

For Judaism, the problem is exile (“distance from God”). So Judaism heads out to climb the mountain of following the law to return to God.

These are not different paths up the same mountain. They are headed up different mountains.

Prothero doesn’t discuss Unitarian Universalism. I think we could say that for us, what’s wrong is disconnection – human isolation and alienation from one another. So we Unitarian Universalists conceive of the religious project as one of connecting, of understanding and remembering our, and everyone’s, inherent belonging. The “unity” in Unitarian began as a reference to the unity or oneness of God, but even very early on, our emphasis has been on this life and this world. The unity that better captures what we're all about is the unity – the connection and belongingness – of all beings of the Earth.

When we affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every being, we’re saying no one is of such nature as to warrant exclusion from the family of things. When we affirm respect for the interdependent web of all existence, we’re saying that we are all placed in a network of mutuality. What’s wrong with the world is that we ourselves sometimes feel disconnected and sometimes treat others as if they didn’t belong. The challenge for us is to understand that we all belong -- not because of a shared basic sameness, but, in fact, because of our profound difference.

Minimization – that is, the orientation toward minimizing differences among cultures and religions – is a helpful path out of polarization. But minimization introduces distortions of its own. We haven’t truly accepted Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Christians, and Buddhists AS Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Christians, and Buddhists if we keep smoothing over their differences, keep seeing them only through the lens of what they all share.

Interestingly, what helps a person move beyond minimization to acceptance of real difference is attention to their own uniqueness. Only, this time around, we aren’t saying we’re different because we’re better, we’re just saying we’re different because we’re us. I’m a Unitarian Universalist because that’s who I am. It’s not because there’s something wrong with being some other religion, or no religion.

Nor is it because it doesn’t make any difference. It makes a huge difference – it’s a very different way of life, way of community, way of fellowship, and way of being from the exclusively Christian way, exclusively Muslim way, or exclusively Buddhist way. You notice that word “exclusively.” One of the things that makes Unitarian Universalism different is that we’re explicit about honoring that UUs can be Christian UUs, Jewish UUs, Buddhist UUs, Hindu UUs, Muslim UUs, humanist UUs, or pagan UUs. So I can’t talk about how being UU is different from being Christian because some of us are both at the same time. But I can talk about how being UU is different from being exclusively Christian.

To be exclusively Christian, typically and usually, though not always, entails more emphasis on sin. The typical devoted Christian sees the world through the lens of an inner corruption in the human soul. The morning newspaper’s stories of scandal, crime, violence, conflict, sexual misconduct, and drug abuse rates is all seen as reflective of basic human sinfulness. Unitarian Universalists read the same news but through a different lens. For us, it’s reflective of basic human disconnection. We see a drive for meaning and belonging that, when not met, can turn desperate, can lead to strategies of dominance – to abuse of others to prove to ourselves that we matter, or to abuse of ourselves with drugs to ease the pain of loneliness.

We got our name, Unitarian, because we rejected the Trinitarian conception of God. We got our other name, Universalist, because we believed in Universal salvation – that there is no hell and we are all bound for heaven. But the specific content of our early doctrines is less important than the motivation and methods that led our forebears to embrace those doctrines.

Our forebears got to Unitarianism through reason. They read the Bible carefully and thoughtfully. They studied church history, and noticed that the Trinitarian doctrines arose among theologians centuries after Jesus, and in response to particular needs of the time. Trinitarianism is not in the Bible and runs contrary to reason, we said – so they called us "Unitarian." But the more vital characterization of what we’re about is that we trusted the authority of reason over the authority of tradition. We trusted in the capacity of individual minds to see for themselves.

We Unitarian Universalists have seven principles, and they form an arch. The first principle and the seventh principle are the two pillars holding up the arch. The first principle affirms the inherent worth and dignity of every person or every being. The seventh principle affirms respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. Those are the pillars of our faith.

But the middle principle, the fourth principle – that’s the keystone of the arch. If you know about arch construction, you know that what makes the arch strong is the way all the stones press in on that central keystone at the top of the arch. For us, that crucial keystone, the middle principle, is the free and responsible search for truth and meaning. On one side of the arch are the second and third principles: justice, equity, and compassion in our relations, and acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth. These speak to our individual, face-to-face relationships of connection. On the other side are the fifth and sixth principles: the use of democratic process that respects rights of conscience, and the goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all. These speak to the political and social systems for connection and belonging. And they all lean in against that keystone: a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.

On the downside, we Unitarian Universalists tend to struggle with humility. A faith that puts such trust in reason runs the risk of arrogance. We think we can figure it all out ourselves and sometimes fail to appreciate the hard-won prudence of the ages. Sometimes tradition has more going for it than our reason can grasp. The upside that makes this risk worth it is our conviction that our commitment to peace and justice matters – that our hopes for a fuller realization of belonging for all are not defeated before they begin by inherent sinfulness.

On our Universalist side, again, the particular doctrine – in this case, a doctrine about the afterlife -- is less important than why our forebears felt moved to adopt that doctrine. The early Universalists said that a loving God would not condemn creatures of his own making to eternal torture. In other words: they felt the universe as a loving presence – a presence that loves all of us, a presence in which all of us are accepted and belong.

Through the centuries those doctrines have faded into insignificance. Today we Unitarian Universalists have little concern with "the errors of the Trinity," or with arguing that we all go to heaven. But what originally motivated those doctrines – the trust in our consciences and reason in a world in which all of us are accepted and inherently belong – that is with us still. This is who we are. Whether we are also Buddhists or Pagans or Jews or Christians – this makes us UUs different from those who are exclusively Buddhist, Pagan, Jewish, or Christian.

This is our path, and belongingness is both its means and its destination. We can respect other traditions, we can learn from them, we can even incorporate some of their teachings and practices. In a UU context they become something different. What those teachings and practices mean and how they function in a UU context is different from the meaning and function they have in their original context.

Clarity about who we are and integrity to our tradition is the ground from which true respect of other traditions can grow – with acceptance rather than minimization of our real differences. May it be so.

2019-01-20

What Is "White Culture"?

When Martin Luther King Jr called for a world in which people were not judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character, he didn’t mean that we wouldn’t see the color of their skin – or that we’d pretend not to. I’m not sure he knew all the details of how it would work, but I don’t think he’d have wanted people’s identities erased, who they are rendered invisible.

His primary task up until he died 50 years ago last April was addressing overt racism. Today we know we must also address subtle cultural matters. It may once have counted as progress to treat minority cultures the same. But we must do more than that. We must respect and honor and stand ready to adapt to the ways cultures are different. And for those of us in the dominant white culture, that means recognizing our own culture, recognizing that it, too, has its place in the family of things – alongside, not arching over, all other cultures.

* * *
The four heroes of the TV show the good place are a multicultural lot. Eleanor is a white woman from a dysfunctional lower-class family in Arizona. Tahani is an Asian British woman from a dysfunctional upper-class family. Chidi is a native-French-speaking black man, born in Nigeria, raised in Senegal, who became a moral philosophy professor in Australia. Jason is a Hispanic young man from the youth, drug, petty-crime, and dance culture of Jacksonville, Florida.

A few episodes ago on “The Good Place,” our four heroes find themselves in a place called Janet’s void, one of the features of which is that they all find themselves in identical Janet bodies – all played by the actress D’arcy Carden.
Chidi-Janet: "This is nuts. We’re in a void, in the body of a white lady."
[The other characters remind him that Janet is not a lady. Janet appears female – and the pronoun “she” is used for her, but she is actually an unsexed humanoid machine.]
Jason-Janet: "But we are white, though. Let’s all say white people things. Billy Joel. I found it on etsy. There was nowhere to park. Did you refill the Brita?"
I mention this because sometimes, for those of us who are white, our white culture is invisible to us. We notice other people’s culture, but we tend to think of ourselves as not having one. Other people are shaped in one way or another by their culture, while WE are left free to live our lives by pure common sense.

We also think of ourselves as not speaking with an accent. For instance, if someone sounds to your ear as if American English is their first language, and they tell you that English is their second language, you might be tempted say, “Your English is great. You have no accent.” I could have very easily said that 15 years ago – and maybe I did. But I’ve since learned that there’s no such thing as having no accent. If I felt a need to comment on it at all, it would be better to say, “Your accent sounds to me just like mine.”

There is no unaccented English. You could train yourself in another accent, but you would not so much be “dropping your accent” as trading one accent for a different one. We all have an accent. We notice other people’s accents, but we don’t notice our own.

It’s the same with culture. Noticing and remembering our own culture is a crucial step in recognizing just how deep culture goes for all humans. It’s especially hard for white people to see their white culture because white is the dominant culture. Nonhispanic whites are currently 61% of the US population – a clear majority. Moreover, for much of the last century or so, the nonhispanic white population has been much more dominant. From 1900 until 1950, the percent of the US population that was nonhispanic whites stayed level at 87%.

Whiteness remains the majority, and we have a long history of it being an even higher majority – and that history as well as the current majority ensconces whiteness as the US norm. So white folk see themselves not as a culture, but simply as “normal.”

The very fact that we call ourselves “white” – as in blank, without color – reinforces the impression. Colorlessness implicitly connotes culturelessness. But, of course, whiteness is not cultureless.

The other challenge to recognizing our white culture is that it really is pretty amorphous. Attempts to identify white culture often point to features that are, indeed, more common among whites than among nonwhites – but that fail to characterize even a majority of whites. For instance, the Jason character mentioned Billy Joel, etsy, and Britas. Most of the fans at a Billy Joel concert, perhaps, are white – (I guess, I haven’t been to one) but most whites have never been to one. Users of etsy and Britas may be mostly white, but most whites don’t use etsy, and most don’t use Britas.

White people eat more vegetables and dairy. US Department of Agriculture data indicates that white Americans eat 16 pounds more vegetables at home per year than nonwhite Americans, and that for every pound of dairy consumed by the average black American at home, White Americans eat 1.75 pounds.

Whites are higher on alcohol consumption. Almost a third of nonhispanic whites had a heavy-drinking day in the last year. Only 24% of Hispanics did, and only 16% of black Americans did.

There are still lots of whites who don’t eat very many vegetables, and two-thirds of whites did not have a heavy-drinking day in the last year.

According to the American Time Use Survey, white people average over 3.5 hours per year attending museums or the performing arts – well above non-white averages. A report from the National Endowment of the Arts found that white Americans were twice as likely as black or Hispanic Americans to have done at least one arts activity in the past year – including “jazz, classical music, opera, musical and non-musical plays, ballet, and visits to an art museum or gallery.” So if you go to a Pat Matheny concert, that’s an arts activity, because that’s jazz. But if you go to a Tina Turner concert – or, for that matter, a Billy Joel concert -- that’s not within the NEA definition of an arts activity.

So, these are things that nonhispanic whites do more than blacks or Asians or Hispanics – but even so they tend to characterize less than half of white people. Most whites haven’t been to the opera, or had a heavy drinking day in the last year, or regularly consume kale. A disproportionate percentage of golfers are white, but most white people haven’t been out on the links in the last year.
To make the point at the extreme, it turns out that the whitest surname in the US is Yoder. 98.1 percent of all people named Yoder are white. Though the overwhelming majority of Yoders (over 98 percent!) are white  – the overwhelming majority of whites (well over 98 percent) are not Yoders. So identifying things that are more common among whites than nonwhites doesn’t tell us about white culture generally.

If our own culture seems invisible to us, this is partly because whiteness is the majority, we have a long history of it being a greater majority, it’s dominant, and because humans are built to notice other people’s accents and cultures while overlooking our own. But it’s also because white culture really is amorphous. One of the side effects of the amorphousness of white culture is what we might call the Rachel Dolezal effect. Having a more clear and definite culture to identify with can start to look attractive. Rachel Dolezal a few years ago became famous for her attempts to pass as black. Back in the 1930s, jazz musician Mezz Mezzrow declared himself a voluntary negro after marrying a black woman and selling marijuana. What Rachel Dolezal did was unusual because of her age and professional and leadership status. It’s fairly normal for white adolescents to “take on what they perceived to be the characteristics of another race while exploring their identities.” Anita Thomas, professor of counseling psychology, says,
“For white [American] youth, who are disconnected from European heritage or legacy, it often feels like whiteness as a concept is empty.”
I can see that.

Last summer I sent away a saliva sample for DNA testing. I was not surprised with the results that my ancestry is almost entirely British and Swiss-German – but, yeah, I was a little disappointed. I know that’s kinda laughable – this spectacle of middle-aged white guys hoping they have some portion of nonwhite ethnicity in their DNA – and being so proud of it if they do. There’s a part of us that wants to belong, and white isn’t just invisible because it’s dominant, and the majority, and because we aren’t self-aware – it’s also invisible because it is amorphous. Amorphousness is weak on belonging.

Rachel Dolezal and Mezz Mezzrow represent one response to the urge to belong to a more definite cultural identity. At the opposite extreme are the white nationalists, trying to make whiteness a more definite thing, worthy of defending and promoting against perceived and largely fabricated threats.

Mona Chalabi writes, “If the 'somethingness' of white culture is never quite pinned down, it remains both 'nothing, really' and 'well, everything'.”

Psychologist Mikhail Lyubansky suggests that “this wish – to be rid of whiteness – is at the very core of white culture.” People with a strong cultural identity will typically be happy to talk about it at the slightest encouragement. However, Lyubansky notes, “White people don’t want to talk about their whiteness.”

In some ways there are certainly multiple white cultures – just as there are multiple black cultures and multiple Asian cultures and multiple Hispanic cultures and multiple indigenous cultures. If you cut it particularly fine, in some sense, each of us is a culture of one. So it would be tempting to abandon the idea of trying to say anything about white culture at all.

But we can learn something from the ways that our institutional cultures have been frustrating to people of minority cultures. Consider these cultural differences in the way businesses and governments and organizations at all levels function, make decisions, and allocate and protect power. On each of the 13 spectra below, the left end of the spectrum represents "white culture" -- not because all whites prefer those cultural practices but because (a) the left-end cultural practices tend to sustain the power of powerful groups; (b) members of powerful groups learn to be good at these cultural practices that sustain their power; and (c) in particular, historically, the left sides of the spectra have preserved the power, control, and privilege of people of European descent.

1. Perfectionism------------------------Appreciation

Perfectionism
  • little appreciation expressed for the work that others are doing;
  • appreciation that is expressed usually directed to those who get most of the credit anyway
  • more common is to point out either how the person or work is inadequate -- or to talk to others about the inadequacies of a person or their work without ever talking directly to them;
  • mistakes are seen as personal, i.e. they reflect badly on the person making them;
  • making a mistake is confused with being a mistake, doing wrong with being wrong
  • little time, energy, or money is put into reflection or identifying lessons learned that can improve practice -- little or no learning from mistakes;
  • tendency to identify what’s wrong; little ability to identify, name, and appreciate what’s right
Appreciation
  • taking time to make sure that people’s work and efforts are appreciated;
  • expecting that everyone will make mistakes and those mistakes offer opportunities for learning;
  • recognizing that mistakes sometimes lead to positive results;
  • separating the person from the mistake;
  • speaking to the things that went well before offering criticism;
  • asking people to offer specific suggestions for how to do things differently when offering criticism
2. Greater Urgency------------------------Less Urgency

Greater Urgency
  • chronic sense of urgency that makes it difficult to take time to be inclusive, encourage democratic and/or thoughtful decision-making, think long-term, or consider consequences;
  • sacrificing potential allies for quick or highly visible results – often sacrificing interests of communities of color in order to win victories for white people (seen as default or norm community);
  • funding proposals promise, and funders who expect, too much work for too little money;
Less Urgency
  • realistic workplans;
  • leadership which understands that things take longer than anyone expects;
  • discussion and planning for what it means to set goals of inclusivity and diversity, particularly in terms of time;
  • learn from past experience how long things take;
  • write realistic funding proposals with realistic time frames;
  • clarity about identifying and responding to pressures of urgency when they arise
3. Defensiveness------------------------Nondefensiveness

Defensiveness
  • the organizational structure is set up and much energy spent trying to prevent abuse and protect power as it exists rather than to facilitate the best out of each person or to clarify who has power and how they are expected to use it
  • because of either/or thinking (see below), criticism of those with power is viewed as threatening and inappropriate (or rude)
  • people respond to new or challenging ideas with defensiveness, making it very difficult to raise these ideas
  • a lot of energy in the organization is spent trying to make sure that people’s feelings aren’t getting hurt or working around defensive people
  • the defensiveness of people in power creates an oppressive culture
Nondefensiveness
  • understanding that structure cannot in and of itself facilitate or prevent abuse;
  • understanding the link between defensiveness and fear (of losing power, losing face, losing comfort, losing privilege);
  • naming defensiveness as a problem when it is one;
  • giving people credit for being able to handle more than one thought;
  • discussing ways defensiveness or resistance to new ideas gets in the way of the mission
4. Quantity Over Quality------------------------Quality over Quantity

Quantity
  • all resources of organization are directed toward producing measurable goals
  • things that can be measured are more highly valued than things that cannot: numbers of people attending a meeting, newsletter circulation, money spent are valued more than quality of relationships, democratic decision-making, ability to constructively deal with conflict;
  • little or no value is attached to process; if it can't be measured, it has no value
  • there is discomfort with emotion and feeling;
  • there is no understanding that when there is a conflict between content (the agenda of the meeting) and process (people’s need to be heard or engaged), process will prevail – otherwise, the decisions made at the meeting will be undermined and/or disregarded.
Quality
  • process or quality goals are included in planning;
  • the organization has a values statement expressing its valuation of diverse work styles;
  • the values statement is used and referenced in day-to-day work;
  • ways to measure process goals (such as inclusivity) are sought;
  • there is recognition of times when one needs to get off the agenda in order to address concerns of process or feelings.
5. Fixation on Written Word------------------------Less Dependence on Written Word

Fixation on Written Word
  • if it’s not in a memo, it doesn't exist;
  • the organization does not value other ways information gets shared
  • those with strong documentation and writing skills are more highly valued, even in organizations where ability to relate to others is key to the mission
  • Unwillingness to analyze how people inside and outside the organization get and share information or to reflect carefully on which things truly need to be written down
  • the belief there is one right way to do things and once people are introduced to the right way, they will see the light and adopt it – and if they don’t, there is something wrong with them
Less Dependence on Written Word
  • work to recognize the contributions and skills that every person brings to the organization – such as the ability to build relationships with those who are important to the organization’s mission
  • accept that there are many ways to get to the same goal;
  • work on developing the ability to notice when people do things differently and how those different ways might improve your approach;
  • look for the tendency for a group or a person to keep pushing the same point over and over out of a belief that there is only one right way and then name it;
  • when working with communities from a different culture than yours or your organization’s, be clear that you have some learning to do about the community; never assume that you or your organization know what’s best for the community in isolation from meaningful relationships with that community
6. Paternalism------------------------Inclusion

Paternalism
  • decision-making is unclear to those without power – though they know well the impact of those decisions;
  • those with power make decisions for and in the interests of those without power -- often without steps to understand their viewpoint or experience;
Inclusion
  • everyone knows and understands who makes what decisions in the organization;
  • everyone knows and understands their level of responsibility and authority in the organization;
  • people who are affected by decisions are included in the decision-making
7. Either/Or Thinking------------------------Both/And Thinking

Either/Or
  • things are either/or, good/bad, right/wrong, with us/against us;
  • closely linked to perfectionism in making it difficult to learn from mistakes or accommodate conflict
  • complex realities are oversimplified (e.g., “Poverty is simply a result of poor education”)
  • time and encouragement to consider alternatives is denied -- particularly alternatives that may require more time or resources
Both/And
  • notice when people use “either/or” language and push to come up with more than two alternatives;
  • notice when people are simplifying complex issues, particularly when the stakes seem high or an urgent decision needs to be made;
  • slow it down and encourage people to deeper analysis;
  • when people are faced with an urgent decision, take a break and give people some breathing room to think creatively;
  • avoid making decisions under extreme pressure.
8. Power Hoarding------------------------Power Sharing

Power Hoarding
  • little, if any, value around sharing power;
  • power seen as limited: only so much to go around;
  • those with power feel threatened when anyone suggests changes in how things should be done in the organization, feel suggestions for change are a reflection on their leadership;
  • those with power don't see themselves as hoarding power or as feeling threatened
  • those with power assume they have the best interests of the organization at heart and assume those wanting change are ill-informed, emotional, inexperienced
Power Sharing
  • include power sharing in your organization’s values statement;
  • discuss what good leadership looks like and make sure people understand that a good leader develops the power and skills of others;
  • understand that change is inevitable and challenges to your leadership can be healthy and productive;
  • make sure the organization is focused on the mission
9. Conflict Fear------------------------Conflict Appreciation

Fear of Conflict
  • people in power fear conflict and try to ignore it or run from it;
  • when someone raises an issue that causes discomfort, the response is to blame the person for raising the issue;
  • emphasis on being polite; equation of raising difficult issues with being impolite, rude, or out of line
Appreciation of Conflict
  • role play ways to handle conflict before conflict happens;
  • distinguish between being impolite and raising hard issues;
  • don't require those who raise hard issues to raise them in “acceptable ways,” especially if you are using the ways in which issues are raised as an excuse not to address the issues being raised;
  • once a conflict is resolved, take the opportunity to revisit it and see how it might have been handled differently
10. Individualism------------------------Collaboration

Individualism
  • little experience or comfort working as part of a team;
  • people in organization believe they are responsible for solving problems alone;
  • accountability, if any, goes up and down, not sideways to peers or to clients/customers.
  • desire for individual recognition and credit leads to isolation;
  • little time or resources devoted to developing cooperation skills;
  • valuation on getting things done on one’s own leads to lack of accountability;
  • little or no ability to delegate work to others
Collaboration
  • Values statement affirms value of teamwork;
  • the organization works toward shared goals and people understand that working together improves performance;
  • evaluations emphasize ability to work in a team, and delegate to others;
  • credit is given to all those who participate in an effort, not just the leaders;
  • groups rather than individuals are held accountable;
  • create a culture where people bring problems to the group;
  • use staff meetings as a place to solve problems, not just a place to report activities.
11. Goals blinkered and short-term------------------------Goals include process and long-term

Goals Blinkered and Short-Term
  • conception of “progress” focused on expansion (more staff, larger budgets, more customers/clients)
  • focus on size rather than how well people are served – or whether the people served are the people that most need it
Goals Include Process and Long-Term
  • create Seventh Generation thinking by asking how the actions of the group now will affect people seven generations from now;
  • cost/benefit analyses includes all the costs – including costs in morale, costs in credibility, costs in the use of resources;
  • planning should include process goals, goals about how one wants to work, not just what one wants to do.
12. Objectivity------------------------Shifting Consensus

Objectivity
  • the belief that there is such a thing as being objective, and that emotions are inherently destructive, irrational, and should not play a role in decision-making or group process;
  • invalidating people who show emotion;
  • requiring people to think in a linear fashion and ignoring or invalidating those who think in other ways;
  • impatience with any thinking that does not appear “logical” to those with power.
Shifting Consensus
  • realize that everybody has a world view that affects the way they understand things – including you;
  • push yourself to sit with discomfort when people are expressing themselves in ways not familiar to you;
  • assume that everybody has a valid point and your job is to understand what that point is
13. Right to Comfort------------------------Appreciation of Discomfort

Right to Comfort
  • those with power assume a right to emotional and psychological comfort;
  • those who cause discomfort are scapegoated;
  • individual acts of unfairness against white people are equated with systemic racism which daily targets people of color
Appreciation of Discomfort
  • welcome discomfort as the root of all growth and learning; deepen political analysis of racism and oppression so you have a strong understanding of how your personal experience and feelings fit into a larger picture
  • don't take anything personally
Adapted from Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun, "Dismantling Racism: A Workbook for Social Change Groups" (2001) -- HERE