Know Thyself

Know Thyself. It’s an Ancient Greek aphorism. Socrates makes reference to it in one of Plato’s dialogues. And, before we’re done today, we will find a Valentine’s Day message in this maxim.

Supposedly, “know thyself” was the first of three maxims inscribed at the Temple of Apollo at Delphi – along with "nothing to excess" and "certainty brings ruin." So: know yourself, but not excessively, and, anyway, don’t be so sure.

It appears that the ancient Greeks used “know thyself” primarily in two ways. People whose boasts exceeded reality were cautioned to know themselves – because, if they did, they wouldn’t make such boasts. Second, saying “know thyself” was a way to suggest “be true to thyself” – like “you do you” – pay no attention to the opinion of the multitude. So: you’re not as good as you think you are – but you’re better than what your critics say.

Know thyself, the Greeks said -- recognizing that we aren’t always as self-aware as we could be – or, aren’t as self-aware as others think we could be – or, others tend not to be as self-aware as we think they could be – or something. In any case, knowing thyself is no easy thing. Thyself has been built to systematically fool itself in a number of ways.

The 86 billion neurons of your brain are firing away across about a trillion synapses – firing anywhere from once a second up to, at peak excitement, about 200 times a second. Some of those neurons, we don’t know what they’re there for. What exactly their function is, we don't know. But all of them are firing away doing something in there. Even where scientists do have a pretty good idea which neurons do what, that, of course, doesn’t mean that I know what mine are doing at any particular time.

Among the things I wouldn’t detect are the biases those neurons have – yet we know from myriad studies that a long list of cognitive biases bedevil human brains. For instance, when we explain other people’s behavior we overemphasize their personality and underemphasize situational factors – yet when we explain our own behavior we do the opposite, overemphasizing situational factors and underemphasizing our personality. That’s called actor-observer bias.

The odds of a coin toss coming up heads are 50-50. But if it’s landed on heads five times in a row, we think that it’s more likely to land tails the sixth time. Nope. It’s still 50-50. That’s the gambler’s fallacy.

We consistently underestimate the costs and the duration of basically every project we undertake. That’s optimism bias.

We are likely to think traveling by plane is more dangerous than traveling by car because images of plane crashes are more vivid and dramatic in our memory and imagination, and hence more available to our consciousness. So that’s called availability bias.

When making decisions, we over-rely on the first piece of information offered, particularly if that information is numeric. This was illustrated in one study in which participants observed a roulette wheel, and then were asked an unrelated question. Half the participants saw the roulette wheel land on 10. The other half saw the roulette wheel land on 65. All were then asked what percentage of United Nations countries is African. “The participants who saw the wheel stop on 10 guessed 25 percent, on average. The ones who saw the wheel stop on 65 guessed 45 percent.” (At the time of the experiment, the correct answer was 28 percent.)(Ben Yagoda, “Your Lying Mind,” Atlantic, 2018 Sep). This tendency to be pulled toward whatever number has most immediately entered our consciousness is called the anchoring effect.

Then there’s sunk-cost thinking tells us to stick with a bad investment because of the money we have already lost on it. Nations will continue to pour money and lives into unwinnable wars – and will have widespread popular support to do so – because, people think, “we’ve already invested so much.” The thought that pulling out would mean that the early casualties died for nothing is so powerful that we send more and more lives to die for virtually nothing. That’s the sunk-cost fallacy.

What you already have is more valuable to you than what you could get. We will put more energy and thought into avoiding losing $100 than we will into gaining $100 – and if we do lose $100 it bothers us a lot, whereas gaining a windfall of $100 feels only a little good. Participants were given a mug and then asked how much they would sell it for. The average answer was $5.78. But when participants weren’t given the mug, but were shown it, and asked how much they would spend to buy it, the average answer is $2.21. Once the mug is yours – even if it’s been yours for less than 60 seconds – it’s more than twice as valuable to you.

Confirmation bias: that’s a big one. We look for evidence that confirms what we already think, and we discount or ignore disconfirming evidence. We interpret ambiguous results as supporting what we already believe. Consequences of confirmation bias can be enormous. The 2005 report to the president on the lead-up to the Iraq War said:
“When confronted with evidence that indicated Iraq did not have [weapons of mass destruction], analysts tended to discount such information. Rather than weighing the evidence independently, analysts accepted information that fit the prevailing theory and rejected information that contradicted it.” (Yagoda)
Why do our brains do this? Because using the available information to solve an abstractly presented problem is never the only thing your brain is working on. Your brain is always also working on relationships.

Whatever else your brain is working on, it is always also processing relationships: monitoring relationships, assessing relationships, considering how to build relationships. It's got an eye on your relationship with A, your relationship with B, and is also watching the relationship between A and B.

If you have an opinion about abortion rights, or about gun ownership rights – and who doesn’t? – that’s partly about assessing fetal value versus valuing women’s equality and autonomy, or about assessing the safety afforded by a gun versus the danger of having a gun around. But those aren’t the only factors your brain is crunching on. It’s also working on relationships – and, arguably, in the case of these two examples, relationships are the main thing. Who are your people? Who are the opponents of your people? You need to be in solidarity with your friends and associates, so you adopt the opinion and the reasoning of your friends and associates.

The function of human reason is to persuade one another – that is, to bring people into agreement. The function of human reason is not (or not only, and not even primarily) to use available information to solve abstractly presented problems. In human evolutionary history, it is typically valuable for a group to agree on its viewpoints and theories. It is typically less valuable that those viewpoints and theories be true, or correspond to reality, or be usefully applicable for addressing the widest variety of isolated problems. As long as the decision-making isn't terrible but only a little bit less than optimal, then group agreement is more valuable than a marginal increase in good decision-making. Having a shared view of things helps us like each other and get along. Very often that’s more important than whether the shared view of things is true.

So our brains are oriented to produce conclusions that the group collectively endorses. Once we understand that, then we see that confirmation bias is quite handy: it keeps us focused on the evidence we can point out to each other to reinforce our consensus and bring lagging skeptics on board.

Whatever particular problem it might be thinking about, your brain is always also thinking about relationships. Why do we value the mug more if we already have it? Duh! It was a gift. Gifts are tokens of and reinforcers of relationship. Even if it was given by some experimenter you only just met, now she’s given you a gift. Aww. Isn’t that sweet? Of course you’re gonna value that more than you would some mug presented to you for purchase.

Every one of those cognitive biases is there because it was, in some way, functional for our ancestors’ survival. Your brain always has at least one eye on your relationships. So the source of our cognitive biases is also the great superpower of being human. At some point in about the last million years, our ancestors developed shared intentionality – that is, the ability to share mental representations of a task so that multiple people can work on it. Take something as seemingly simple as one person pulling down the branch for the other to pluck the fruit, and then both of them share the meal. Chimps never do this. We are profound collaborators, connecting our brains together to solve problems that single brains can’t. We distribute the cognitive tasks. No individual knows everything it takes to build a cathedral, or an aircraft. Our species success comes not from individual rationality but from our unparalleled ability to think in groups. Our great glory is how well we rely on each other’s expertise.

Our strong bias toward relationship means that we run into problems sometimes when addressing isolated questions abstracted from relational context. Knowing thyself means knowing this fact about how ineluctably relational you are.

* * *

We know from a number of studies that a main job of the cerebral cortex is to create an illusion of intentionality – that is, it’s not so much deciding what to do as noticing what you did and making up a story about it.

Here’s one such study. Participants are asked to look at two pictures of very different looking people, and choose which one they think is more attractive. The experimenter then turns the two photos face down, and pushes the selected photo toward the participant. The experimenter says, “Explain, please, why you found that person to be more attractive. You can turn the picture over.”

So the participant picks up the photo, turns it over, and begins telling some sort of made-up rationale for why the person in this picture is more attractive. How do we know it’s a made-up rationale? Here’s the kicker. In the role of the experimenter, a professional magician has been hired. With deft sleight of hand, he switches the pictures half the time. So half the participants pick up the picture they really did select as the more attractive, and half pick up the one they thought was less attractive, believing it to be the one they’d selected as more attractive.

You’d think, surely, they would notice. They’d be like, "wait, that’s not the one I picked." And, yeah, that’s what did happen – 27 percent of the time. Only 27 percent of subjects noticed that the experimenter had slipped them the wrong photograph – despite the fact that the two photographs were very dissimilar, and participants had had unlimited time to choose which one they thought was more attractive. The other 73 percent of participants, when asked to explain their choice, explained it in ways that were no different from
“the reports given by those who were explaining the photo they’d actually chosen as being more attractive....People who were shown the card they had not chosen nevertheless told a completely compelling story explaining why they had chosen that photograph. They failed to notice the card switch and so they devised a perfectly good explanation for a choice they had not actually made.” (Nicholas Eply, Mindwise, p. 32)
This is because your cerebral cortex is good at its job – and its job is to notice what you’ve done and to fabricate a story about why you’ve done it. The story purports to explain how you made your decision, but in fact, the decision was already made unconsciously before the cerebral cortex invents its story. It’s so good at explaining your decisions that it seamlessly does so even when the decision it’s explaining wasn’t the one you made.

So how can we possibly know ourselves? Well, for one thing, if you know that your motives are opaque to you, that’s already knowing something very important about yourself – something you wouldn’t know if you went around naively believing what you think.

For another thing, we know ourselves about the same way we know other people. We read our own minds with the same inferential habits we use to read other minds. We aren’t mind readers in the sense of “telepathy, clairvoyance, or any kind of extrasensory power that creates a psychic connection” (Epley, p. xi). But dozens of times a day we “infer what others are thinking, feeling, wanting, or intending.” This is the basic human mind-reading that gives us the power
“to build and maintain the intimate relationships that make life worth living, to maintain a desired reputation in the eyes of others, to work effectively in teams....[It] forms the foundation of all social interaction, creating the web of presumptions and assumptions that enables large societies to function effectively.” (Epley, p. xi)
So: back to that participant smoothly explaining why she chose the photo she actually didn’t choose. Rather than saying she is unaccountably self-deluded, let’s see what she’s doing in a different light. What she’s doing, with remarkable skill, is imagining why someone who did pick that picture would do so. She’s simply applying to her own mind the mind-reading skills she uses to make sense of other minds. As psychologist Nicholas Epley points out:
“The only difference in the way we make sense of our own minds versus other people’s minds is that we know we’re guessing about the minds of others.” (p. 32)
In fact, we are just as much guessing about our own mind – but, with our own mind, we have the illusion of special, privileged access to the causes and processes that guide our thoughts and behavior.

We learned from George Herbert Mead, writing 100 years ago, that the self is the generalized other. We form our conception of who we are as a generalization of the people around us. We get a sense of what makes them tick – how to infer from their behavior what they believe, desire, and intend. Then we apply this to ourselves: inferring from what we see ourselves doing and saying what we ourselves must be believing, desiring, and intending. As Epley writes:
“If you see someone smiling at a cartoon, you will assume that they find it funny. If you find yourself smiling at a cartoon, even if you are smiling only because you’ve been asked to hold a pen in the corners of your mouth so that it makes a smile, then you are likely to report finding the cartoon funny as well. If you see someone hunched over, you will assume that they are not feeling very proud. Find yourself hunching over in the same way, even if only because you’re filling out a survey on a table with very short legs, and you may report being less proud of yourself and your accomplishments, too.” (p. 32)
There are two important spiritual messages here. One is that we ARE other people. We are made of relationships. The way we think – or, more precisely, the way we construct our impression of what we think we’re thinking – was built out of interactions, starting in infancy, with other people. Yes, each of us is unique. That uniqueness lies in the distinctiveness of the significant people in your childhood, combined with the somewhat quirky way you generalized from them to form your self.

Each other is our belonging. Each other is our place. Each other is where we live and breathe and have our being.

The second spiritual lesson is humility. Now that you know that the story of your decisions is just as much guesswork as the story you might have of someone else’s decisions – that your impression of having special, privileged access into yourself is an illusion – you can be a bit more humble about the accuracy of that story.

And this is important. The illusion that we know our own minds more deeply than we actually do has a disturbing consequence: it can make your mind appear superior to the minds of others.
“If the illusions you hold about your own brain lead you to believe that you see the world as it actually is and you find that others see the world differently, then they must be the ones who are biased, distorted, uninformed, ignorant, unreasonable, or evil. Having these kinds of thoughts about the minds of others is what escalates differences of opinion into differences worth fighting (and sometimes dying) for.” (Epley, p. 33)
Know thyself – but remember also those other two maxims at Delphi: "nothing to excess," and "certainty brings ruin." Don’t know thyself so excessively that you regard the interior of your thought-world as the standard of truth. And, know thyself – but don’t be so sure. Know that thou, too, are built with unavoidable biases and illusions.

The good news is that those biases are there because we are built for relationship. We are built to love. We aren’t built to be right.

Here, then, is the Valentine’s Day message I promised at the beginning:
Love. And give up on being right.
Blessed be. Amen.


Prayer for UN World Interfaith Harmony Week

Source of healing and wholeness we call by many names,

Ground us in gratitude. May we find our way back from the brink of anger or fear to a foundation of thanksgiving and gladness and praise.

Praise be for diversity. Different people have different experiences of the world. We have different stories we tell to make sense of our world. Some stories about reality feature a creative force that knows and desires. Other stories depict the forces of the universe creating and destroying without anything that could be compared to knowledge, intentionality, or purpose -- rather, beauty, awe, and majesty-compelling reverence are the products, not the source, of unfolding creation.

Still other stories tell of a creative force that metaphorically rather than literally has knowledge and desires. We have different senses of what’s out there. Of course we do. We’ve had different experiences, shaped by different cultures and traditions. We’ve admired and respected different elders, heroes, and saints, so how could we not have different stories about the grounding of this reality we all share?

Let us seek not to minimize real difference – let us seek to celebrate it.

We pray that our hearts grow better able to celebrate the fact of diversity among us. Ground us in gratitude.

We also use words differently. We speak of the same things with different words, and use the same words for different things. Teach us not to feel shame or blame, or evoke forlorn images of Babel’s tower, but to delight in and learn from each other’s creativity, each other’s different modes of expression, the new poetry offered us by unfamiliar traditions -- for new poetry may open our hearts to new depths of connection to the sacred that is beyond all words.

Thank you, thank you, for the riches of expression our diverse traditions offer us all. Ground us in gratitude.

Ground us also in hope, for we know the path ahead is not easy. There is much in all our traditions that is neither about a sense of what’s out there or in here, nor about a sense of how to speak of it. It’s just about: "What side are you on? Whose team are you on?"

We love and are nurtured in the communities of our own. Let us hope not to dissolve all boundaries of identity. Let us hope to uphold our differences while building understanding, maintain our distinctions while cooperating for peace, sustain our separate identities while recognizing participation in a greater unity that transcends the very boundaries we also need.

Ground us in that hope, that we may find the strength and the wisdom to make it so.



Cultivating Ourselves

Here we are gathered as a Unitarian Universalist congregation. We worship in an evolving tradition – a living tradition, as the title of our hymnal says ("Singing the Living Tradition"). Certain themes run throughout: freedom, reason, tolerance – and critique of the trinity.

Unitarianism in Europe goes back 450 years. And then it started – almost independently – in America – with William Ellery Channing, born 1780. The Unitarian ideas were bubbling up from a number of places. It was Channing who consolidated them and gave them their most forceful presentation, and who developed them in some new directions which became deeply influential on the Unitarianism of his time and thereafter. Ralph Waldo Emerson called him “our bishop.” We could be called Channingites. (Or maybe you’d like “Channingans” – which is kinda fun in that it sounds a bit like shenanigans.) Yes, we’ve evolved quite a bit from Channing, but, then, Lutherans are still called Lutheran even though they’ve evolved quite a bit from Luther.

Self-cultivation – cultivating ourselves – is our theme for February, and it's a theme that goes back to William Ellery Channing. He emphasized that we should always seek to grow, to develop. He spoke of human perfectibility – which may give you pause. It gave me pause when I first encountered it. Perfectible? But then I learned that Channing said that we, actually, are infinitely perfectible. Infinitely perfectibile.

The “infinitely” takes the sting out of the “perfectible.” Perfect might sometimes seem to suggest some static standard. Maybe it’s impossible to achieve, or maybe it is possible to achieve – in any case, there’s a static standard. If you were to achieve it, you’d be done. At that point, your only task would be to stay that way. But if you’re infinitely perfectible, then there is no place of being done, no point at which one just stays that way.

Running through the history of Western thought is an association of perfection with unchangingness. That was Plato’s idea, and it was enshrined in neoplatonic Christian theology of ancient and medieval times. God, on this conception, represented perfection and immutability – unchangingness. The perfect, it seemed to Plato and neoplatonists, was necessarily immutable because anything that changed was, ipso facto, not already perfect. If it were perfect, it wouldn’t need to change.

Channing turned that idea of perfection on its head: he said perfection was change. Granted, not just any change would do. After all, decay and collapse and degeneration are also changes, but Channing wasn’t championing those. He was talking about growth. Multiple different paths of development are open to us, but to grow, rather than to decay, is to develop in some positive direction.

So you might have the thought to substitute "improvable" for “perfectible.” And you’d be close. Still: Is a 50-year-old oak tree an improvement over the sapling? The large oak has done its job of growing, but it doesn’t feel quite right to say it is an improved version of the sapling – something better.

"Well," you might argue, "if the large oak isn't improved, by the same token, it’s not more perfect either." But there was something about the traditional notion of perfection that Channing was holding on to – there was a reason he used that word, some connotation that he wished, in fact, to evoke – even though he was entirely reversing the unchanging bit. What he wanted to keep and evoke was the sense of awe and wonder that the concept of perfection pointed toward – the God-like-ness of things suggested by saying “perfect.”

As Channing once wrote in a letter: “My mind seeks the good, the perfect, the beautiful.” The perfectibility on display as we contemplate the grand oak tree isn’t that this tree is an improvement upon the sapling it once was. Rather, it’s the awesome path of growth that brought it from the sapling to what it is now. It is the process through time, not the end product, or not just the end product, that properly incites our admiration. I mean, yes, the end product is magnificent, but our awareness of its magnificence comes in part from the knowledge that it took many years of growing to arrive at what it is.

So, for Channing, our task as human beings is to cultivate ourselves – to grow in some way, to develop. This is not about having some image of an ideal, a perfection in our mind, and then working to get closer and closer to it – as close as we can before we die. There are no surprises in that model. There are successes and failures, but no surprises. Instead, Channing's model of growth allowed for surprises. We know not into what we may grow. We grow in order to find out.

Channing called it "self-culture" – meaning what we call self-cultivation. The “culture” he was speaking of was the “culture” in agriculture – that is, the cultivation of growing things. Channing said:
“To cultivate anything, be it a plant, an animal, a mind, is to make grow. Growth, expansion is the end. Nothing admits culture, but that which has a principle of life capable of being expanded. He, therefore, who does what he can to unfold all his powers and capacities, especially his nobler ones, so as to become a well-proportioned, vigorous, excellent, happy being, practices self-culture.”
So, you see, this idea of cultivating ourselves is baked into Unitarian Universalism from it’s very beginning – or, to be precise, it’s baked into the Unitarian side of our heritage. It was emphatically there in Channing, and has remained a key part of who we are for the last 200 years. We are the people who grow – or, at least, who believe in the idea of growing. It’s right there in our theology, as articulated by Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams, writing more than a century after Channing's death:
“Religious liberalism depends first on the principle that ‘revelation’ is continuous. Meaning has not been finally captured. Nothing is complete, and thus nothing is exempt from criticism. Liberalism itself, as an actuality, is patient of this limitation. At best, our symbols of communication are only referents and do not capsule reality. Events of word, deed, and nature are not sealed. They point always beyond themselves. Not only is significant novelty both possible and manifest, but also significance is itself inchoate and subject to inner tensions of peril and opportunity.”
In saying revelation is continuous, Adams is saying we hope and expect to be continually growing our understanding. Our rejection of all dogma – which is a rejection of freezing any statement in place and saying it cannot be criticized or altered – is, at root, our commitment to the ongoing cultivation of our understandings.

Channing called it salvation by character. By "character," he didn't mean some permanent nature you have. He meant the character you cultivate and grow. And the word, “salvation” comes from the root “salve” – like a healing ointment – a balm in Gilead that will heal our wounds, repair our brokenness, and make us whole. Our growth is our salve. My colleague Rev. James Ford describes Channing’s “Salvation by Character”:
“Our salvation, salve, that is our healing from the hurts and bruises of life, the woundedness we experience, our shortcomings we’re so painfully aware of, our failing our ideals so often, and all the harm that follows these failures of our deepest aspirations, for ourselves and the world, is resolved in how we choose to live, in who we become through what we do. That is salvation by character. Healing, the great healing is in our hands. Channing preached this good news from the rooftops. Who we are counts. What we do counts.”
The exercise this month in the February issue of “On the Journey” is to complete the sentence: “The areas of myself I’d like to cultivate are . . .” What are the areas of yourself you’d like to cultivate? It is a familiar question for many of us.

But there is a dark side to the force – "the force," in this case, being the force of our will to grow. The idea of self-cultivation can be taken as implicit self-criticism – as saying that what you are is not enough: you are inadequate; you need to grow into something else. And as we know, whatever we don’t like about ourselves we tend to project on others who we then don’t like. So the injunction to always grow, develop, and unfold can be a source of self-righteousness toward people we might happen to think aren’t or haven’t been growing as well as we. We want to grow and learn – and we do – and then, sometimes, we get smug about it.

So while we have this notion of what Channing called “Salvation by Character” coming to us from our Unitarian side, we have a counterpoint coming to us from our Universalist side: “Salvation by Grace.” From our Universalist side comes the teaching that our worthiness, our value as human beings is assured no matter what our expression of our character might be. Even when we fail, even when we are less than we might have been, we are loved, and worthy of being loved.

Our Unitarian side calls us to express our worthiness in this world through acts of character. Our Universalist side guarantees our worthiness through divine and universal love. Is there some tension between these two sides? As the Zen master Shunryu Suzuki said: "You are perfect just as you are – and you could use some improvement."

We express both of the two sides in our third principle – which just might be probably my favorite of our principles. Not the first principle: the inherent worth and dignity of every being, as important as that is. Not the seventh principle: Respect for the Interdependent Web of All Existence of Which We Are a Part – as crucial as that is. But the third principle: Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth. On the one hand acceptance of one another. We accept each other just as we are. Just as we are we are whole, we are complete, we are lacking nothing. And – at the same time – we want to encourage each other to spiritual growth, to change.

What tension there is between our Unitarian side and our Universalist side is all contained in the tension within our 3rd principle. As another colleague, Rev. Paul Sprecher put it:
“There will always be a struggle between the complete acceptance, the grace we can offer to everyone, and the striving to do what is right and to persuade others to work with us to do what is right. This is the tension in which we must live all of our lives. Wholeness – or salvation, to use the theological term – is about aligning ourselves as clearly and consistently as we can within this tension between right purpose and love, between justice and mercy, between striving and accepting.”

The metaphor that most readily expresses cultivating ourselves is gardening – and in that very metaphor is a certain resolution of what tension there may be between Salvation by Character and Salvation by Grace – between acceptance of ourselves and each other just as we are, and encouraging ourselves and each other to further growth.

Each of us is both the garden and the gardener. There is work to do. Inch by inch, row by row – as the song says ("The Garden Song," by David Mallett, recorded by Pete Seeger, among others). Plant your rows straight and long. Pull the weeds and pick the stones. But you didn’t and couldn’t make the seeds. You didn’t and couldn’t make the soil. You didn’t and couldn’t make the rain come tumbling down.

We are like gardeners who have been given a bag of unidentified seeds. We won’t know what they are until they sprout. Yet we have this task before us to plant, to nurture – to cultivate. Who knows what will come up? We cultivate ourselves, not knowing what we will become. We can only do what is ours to do, and then turn it over to grace.

As Wendell Berry said: “The seed is in the ground. Now may we rest in hope – while darkness does its work.” And as Wendell elsewhere said: “Not by your will is the house carried through the night.” This is a reminder to humility, an antidote for arrogance or self-righteousness about other people’s gardens, and for our inner critic about our own garden. It is mysterious darkness that does the work. We but contribute a little facilitation.

We cannot make a tomato plant. We can only hoe and plant and “rest in hope.” Maybe a tomato plant will happen. Maybe it won’t. We can only do our part. After that, it’s not up to us.

We are made of dreams and bones: bones (this perfect material body that we are), and dreams (the aspirations that hearken us forward). Dreams and bones. Dreams and bones alike can be broken – and can be re-set. Dreams and bones alike can become brittle – and can be made more resilient.

And all our dreams – and all our bones – come forth into this world from sources beyond our control and beyond our ken. We are both the gardener and the garden – and the gardener we are is just as much a grace as the garden we are.

We are here to cultivate a self – but what self that may be, or grow into, is not ours to decide. Mulch it deep and low – make it fertile ground – and delight in what sprouts. In our metaphorical gardens, we are free.

May you keep up the planting, good people! May you keep up the hoeing, and the weeding, and the watering. And may you allow whatever sprouts in you and in your world to be for you a thing of wonder and joy.

Blessed be. Amen.


Our Road to Multiculturalism

For about 20 years I have from time to time met with a group of newcomers to Unitarian Universalism – sometimes including long-term members as well. I’ve done this in Nashville, Tennessee; El Paso, Texas; Gainesville, Florida; and, from time to time over the last 9 and a half years, here in White Plains, New York. I ask, “What drew you to Unitarian Universalism?”

Answers vary, of course, but two themes predominate, across the years and across the places. Asked what they like about Unitarian Universalism, UUs will often say some variation of, “I love being at a place where other people think like me.” Just as often, in my experience, we will say some variation of, “I love being at a place where people are so different; I love the variety.”

These are not contradictory. If you resonate with both those answers, there need be no cognitive dissonance there. We do have some things in common here that often aren’t all that common in the wider world. One of those things is the heritage that we come into here – the heritage that becomes your heritage when you become a Unitarian Universalist – the heritage of religious freedom, reason, and tolerance that stretches back 450 years in Europe, and was picked up about 225 years ago in this country – the heritage of resistance to Calvinist ideas of human depravity and predestination -- of 19th-century abolitionists, of the Unitarian re-shaping of the Christmas holiday, of the 1930s humanists in our churches, of the Unitarian Service Committee’s work in World War II to get Jews out of Nazi-occupied areas, of the civil rights and anti-Vietnam-war movements that found a religious grounding in our congregations – as well as the heritage of all the ways we and our forebears have fallen short, have failed to have the wisdom to see and the courage to act. We have all that in common – we are the carriers forward of all that heritage.

But before you learned about any of that, before you’d seen even one "UU Minute" or read about any of our history, you’d have noticed here a prevailing appreciation of diversity – a way of being together that prizes learning from each other and growing and changing in ways that don’t happen as well in groups where all the people have very similar knowledge, styles, habits, and expectations. One of the key ways that we are alike is that we are high in openness to difference.

We like our differences and we would like to have more. We would like this congregation to be more multicultural than it is. That’s what we’ve said, and we weren’t lying. We might criticize ourselves for not being as committed to becoming more multiculturally welcoming as we think we could be, but I believe our various surveys and focus group discussions that again and again affirm that we do want more diversity here. Unitarian Universalists – and I have been one my whole life -- have been struggling with this for as long as I remember.

Our similarities – which include an appreciation of differences – also include factors that have limited our denomination’s multicultural appeal. Tema Okun and Kenneth Jones spent decades facilitating racial equity workshops have identified features of an organization’s culture that limit its welcome of cultural diversity. Unitarian Universalist culture is pretty low on some of these – low in a good way because it means low on a barrier to welcoming more diverse cultures, but we are not low on all of them, and, if we set our minds to it, we could further lower each of these 8 barriers to multiculturalism:

1. Perfectionism. This is the belief, or implicit operating assumption, that there is one right way to do things – a best practice attainable and desirable for everyone – and that somebody in power is qualified to know what this perfect right way is.
2. Either/or binary thinking. This reduces the complexity of life and the nuance of our relationships with each other and all living things into either/or, yes or no, right or wrong in ways that reinforce urgency, and perfectionism.
3. Denial and defensiveness – specifically denying and defending the ways in which barriers to multicultural welcome are erected and maintained.
4. Conflict avoidance. An organization that prioritizes making everyone comfortable cannot have open conflict – and so it cannot develop an ethos of mutual love and respect in the midst of conflict. Conflict is inevitable where truly different cultures are brought together, so stifling conflict entails stifling voices.
5. Individualism. Our cultural story that we make it on our own, without help, while pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps, is a toxic denial of our essential interdependence and the reality that we are, in fact, all in this together.
6. The goal is always “more.” This goal implies that what we’re after has to be objectively measurable. The emphasis on measurable quantity overlooks the importance of the quality of our relationships to all living beings.
7. Idolizing the written word – ignoring the wide range of ways we communicate with each other and all living things and treating every problem as if it were solvable by specifying in writing what the policy going forward will be.
8. Urgency. Martin Luther King spoke of “the fierce urgency of now” – of the need for action over complacency. But when every day-to-day concern becomes urgent, we fail to see the power imbalance that is maintained by keeping everyone frantically busy. We fail to meet our need to breathe and pause and reflect.

These are some of the key features of an organizational culture that inhibits becoming multiculturally welcoming. To create a culture that’s more multicultural, we look for ways to lower these barriers.

As we move forward, we need also to notice that some very popular approaches to DEI – Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion – haven’t worked. In 2016, the Harvard Business Review ran a cover story about how diversity training was backfiring – making things worse. These trainings teach people about bias, combat stereotypes and encourage people to assume the perspectives of others in disadvantaged groups. Alexandra Kalev and Frank Dobbin studied nearly 830 US companies. On average, five years after implementing compulsory diversity training for managers, companies saw declines in the numbers of some demographic groups -- African American women and Asian American men and women -- and no improvement among white women and other minorities.

Other social science studies have shown that efforts to reduce prejudice increase bias or lead to more hostility rather than less. David Brooks summarized the reasons Dobbin and Kalev offered that these programs don’t work:
“First, ‘short-term educational interventions in general do not change people.’ This is as true for worker safety courses as it is for efforts to combat racism.
Second, some researchers argue that the training activates stereotypes in people’s minds rather than eliminates them.
Third, training can make people complacent, thinking that because they went through the program they’ve solved the problem.
Fourth, the mandatory training makes many white participants feel left out, angry and resentful, actually decreasing their support for workplace diversity.
Fifth, people don’t like to be told what to think, and may rebel if they feel that they’re being pressured to think a certain way.”
So having our own congregational version of DEI training probably won’t be helpful.

Then, last week, I learned about the work of Australian political scientist Karen Stenner. Stenner argues that underlying racism and intolerance is something more fundamental she calls ‘difference-ism’: “a fundamental and overwhelming desire to establish and defend some collective order of oneness and sameness.” Another term for this is: authoritarian personality.

In one of Stenner’s studies, people scoring high for authoritarian personality
“were told that NASA had verified the existence of alien life––beings ‘very different from us in ways we are not yet even able to imagine.’ After being told that, the measured racial intolerance of authoritarian subjects decreased by half.”
In other words, they are afraid of whatever is most different. If there are space aliens out there, then suddenly all humans are “us” because the authoritarian personality’s animosity focuses on whatever is the most different. Stenner writes: “black people look more like ‘us’ than ‘them’ when there are green people afoot.”
“Under these conditions, the authoritarians didn’t only become kinder to black people, Stenner noted; they also became more merciful to criminals — that is, less inclined to want a crackdown on perceived moral deviance.” (Friedersdorf, Atlantic Monthly)
Stenner’s book, The Authoritarian Dynamic, concludes that not everyone can learn to respect and value difference. She writes:
“All the available evidence indicates that exposure to difference, talking about difference, and applauding difference...are the surest way to aggravate those who are innately intolerant, and to guarantee the expression of their predispositions in manifestly intolerant attitudes and behaviors.”
Journalist Conor Friedersdorf estimates that “perhaps 15 percent of humans are psychologically ill-suited to dealing with difference.” He doesn’t indicate where that 15 percent figure comes from – it seems to be his impressionistic guess. As a rough, ball-park estimate, maybe that’s about right. Whatever the number might be, we’re never going to “fix” every individual – so we need systems that neutralize the authoritarian personalities from inflicting their phobias on others.

Dr. Sonia Kang, Professor at the University of Toronto, says,
“There’s always going to be some portion of the population that is unreachable....That’s where the organizational design piece becomes even more important. Because if you have someone who’s not willing to change and they, let’s say, are a racist and they got into a position where they’re in charge of hiring, you want to have the structure or the processes, the procedures set up in such a way that it doesn’t matter. They can be racist, but the structure that you’ve built is so equitable that their bias can’t play in there.... I would rather see those resources put into building the structures that allow them to exist without messing things up for everyone else.”
Lily Zheng, a DEI strategy consultant, concurred, adding:
“We should work around the racists to neutralize the impact that their racism can cause. If you design an organization that’s equitable enough and inclusive enough, I really do strongly believe that you can neutralize the impact of people who, I don’t know, maybe are unsavory, maybe who just frankly aren’t perfect. This overfocus of the industry on ensuring that we’re perfect people I think is a complete waste of time and resources. We should design organizations that are equitable and inclusive whether or not every single person inside those organization is inclined the same way.”
Where does this leave us? On the one hand, Unitarian Universalists tend not to be authoritarian personalities. We affirmatively prize diversity and difference, and we tend to score high on measures of open-ness to new experience – precisely what authoritarian personalities score low on.

On the other hand, as noted, we are finding the road to multiculturalism difficult. This year’s UUA Common Read is Mistakes and Miracles. It all about Unitarian Universalist congregations on this road to multiculturalism – the mistakes made, and the grace that can sometimes break through. You can help our congregation on our road to multiculturalism by getting and reading this book and joining in the conversations about how we can change. The first prerequisite for change is: we have to really want to.

Our Unitarian Universalist Association selects only one Common Read a year – urging UUs everywhere to share in this reading experience, to talk and reflect about the issues raised. Mistakes and Miracles is this year’s Common Read. Please get a copy. Read it carefully and thoughtfully. We will be announcing opportunities for you to participate in groups reflecting on what our congregation’s road to multiculturalism might be like. Those will be in the Spring. Stay tuned for word of those – and in the meantime, please start reading.

African American UU minister Rev. Sofia Betancourt says:
“I like to invite folks to spend some time thinking about what the heart of Unitarian Universalism really is. Not what it looks like, not the old familiar comforting expression of it, but what IS Unitarian Universalism to you? What are the central values – [which may not match] how they’re expressed? Where is the faithfulness for you? Where is spiritual practice for you? What are the things that can never be set down? What’s inherent to us?”
We need to be able to relax, to slow down, to reflect. Too much busy-ness is one of the tools, as mentioned, that sustains the power imbalance. In fact, the Practice Pointer you’ll see in a moment is: Relax. But between the relaxing, the journey continues – the struggle.

There’s a story in Genesis of Jacob wrestling through the night with a stranger. We don’t know who this is: Is it God? Is it an Angel? We don’t know. But it is, for Jacob, a difficult and wounding experience. My colleague Rev. Abhi Janamanchi, who served in a neighboring church in Florida while I was a minister in the state, notes:
"Jacob prevails but he doesn’t WIN, and he’s wounded in the process. And the stranger blesses him, and renames him Israel, which means the one who has striven with God. That’s a powerful metaphor for what we are called to be in this world as Unitarian Universalists. It calls for us to be open to the spiritual discomfort of engaging with “the other”: to be present in that way, and to know that we will come out of that experience transformed and even renamed. Part of our spiritual task is to develop the muscle, the spiritual muscle, to be present to that discomfort and pain. This is where I think we have growing up to do. Being by nature conflict averse, we want quickly to move to the resolution phase, where we can just be renamed and we carry on!”
It’s going to be slow. So relax, breath, and step into the journey.

Blessed be. Amen.


Participation and Flourishing

The longest study on human happiness ever conducted is the Harvard Study of Adult Development. It establishes a strong correlation between deep relationships and well-being. I read about it this week in an article in Atlantic magazine by the current directors of the Harvard study, Robert Waldinger and Marc Schulz. They have a book out called, The Good Life: Lessons from the World’s Longest Scientific Study of Happiness.

The Harvard Study of Adult Development started in 1938 with 724 participants – all young men. Through the years, the study incorporated their spouses and 1300 descendants of the original subjects. Every two years participants fill out a questionnaire – and researchers visit a selection of them every year for in-person in-depth interviews. The study has tracked participants as they “fall in and out of relationships, find success and failure at their jobs, become mothers and fathers.” The longest in-depth longitudinal study on human life ever done yields that simple yet profound conclusion: Good relationships lead to health and happiness.

And good relationships have to be nurtured – which, too often, doesn’t happen. The US average for time spent on solitary activities – television, radio, staring at their phone or computer screen – is 11 hours a day. The time we spend we spend interacting live with another person – preferably in person – is a lot less. The good relationships that nourish us need time in – live and embodied.

Relationships affect us physically. We feel invigorated by a good conversation, when we feel understood. When they aren’t going well, relationships also affect us: you know the tension and distress you feel after an argument, or the sleeplessness during romantic strife. This is your body responding to the fact that the relationship matters to you. Instead of heeding this message of the relationship’s importance, we often drift away from people – sometimes even spouses, but it’s especially easy to spend less and less time with friends to whom we aren’t married and with whom we don’t live.

Life is relationships. But it’s easy not to participate. Even before the pandemic, researchers spoke of an epidemic of loneliness. And then the pandemic worsened it. A report from the Making Caring Common Project
“suggests that 36% of all Americans—including 61% of young adults and 51% of mothers with young children—feel ‘serious loneliness’”
– meaning they felt lonely “frequently” or “almost all the time or all the time.”

In a separate report, researchers at the Columbia School of Public Health in August 2022 write:
“Loneliness, the subjective feeling of inadequate meaningful connection to others, is prevalent throughout the U.S. In 2019, pre-COVID, 61 percent of Americans over the age of 18 years were lonely, a dramatic increase since the 1970s when rates were as low as 11 percent....Roughly 50 percent of adults over the age of 80 years experience loneliness. The proportion of adolescents and young adults who experience loneliness reaches 71 percent. Contributing factors to the epidemic of loneliness may include changes in family structure and location, longer lives with high rates of loss of significant others in old age, a built environment fostering independence and isolation, weakening of local institutions that strengthened social capital, and the ways the Internet is used by young adults.”
The Columbia report goes on to say:
“The effects of loneliness at the cellular level indicates that chronic loneliness elicits an immune response that promotes inflammation, and chronic inflammation can facilitate the onset of chronic diseases, including cardiovascular diseases, cancer, cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease, and frailty. There is also evidence that chronic loneliness leads to adverse mental health outcomes, such as increased rates of anxiety and depression. More broadly, loneliness appears to be a driver of ‘deaths of despair’—deaths due to alcohol, drugs, and suicide.”
The Waldinger and Schulz article notes that loneliness
“can render people more sensitive to pain, suppress their immune system, diminish brain function, and disrupt sleep, which in turn can make an already lonely person even more tired and irritable. Research has found that, for older adults, loneliness is far more dangerous than obesity. Ongoing loneliness raises a person’s odds of death by 26 percent in any given year.”
The U.K. studies of the economic impact of loneliness — "because lonely people are less productive and more prone to employment turnover” — led to the government in 2018 to create a Ministry of Loneliness.
“The first round of funding helped more than 840 organisations across England to connect small groups of people through projects and activities they enjoy.”
Doctors were encouraged to “prescribe” social outings like cooking classes and walking groups. Japan, Australia, and New Zealand also have national loneliness-reduction stragegies. China has gone so far as to make it a legal requirement that adult children visit their aging parents regularly.

The fact that you’re here – in person or in zoom – means you’re doing at least that much to join in. You have found in this place a way to participate, to be with others, to belong. In the U.S. we don’t have a Ministry of Loneliness. But we do have congregations. As your minister, it’s my role to remind you that this place is not just a social club – and that we are here to do the work of spiritual growth – which is to say, for deepening our sense of the meaning of our lives within the widest possible context. If, for you, this place is only a social club, then I’m failing to get through, and our congregation leaders who understand our task as a faith institution are failing to get through. Still, a social club isn’t nothing. Going to a social club on Sunday mornings is better than being alone and lonely staying home. These loneliness studies show that increasing numbers of Americans don’t have any social club -- and such a club could be a lifeline for them.

This place is doing you good -- even for those for whom spiritual work doesn’t appeal. Even so, some of us may have some loneliness. And even if we aren’t lonely, we could use more deepened relationships with more people. As Waldinger and Schulz write:
“We don’t always know why we do things or why we don’t do things, and we may not understand what is holding us at a distance from the people in our life. Taking some time to look in the mirror can help....It never hurts — especially if you’ve been feeling low — to take a minute to reflect on how your relationships are faring and what you wish could be different about them. If you’re the scheduling type, you could make it a regular thing; perhaps every year on New Year’s Day [– or, say, Lunar New Year’s Day –] or the morning of your birthday, take a few moments to draw up your current social universe, and consider what you’re receiving, what you’re giving, and where you would like to be in another year. You could keep your chart or relationships assessment in a special place, so you know where to look the next time you want to peek at it to see how things have changed. If nothing else, doing this reminds us of what’s most important.”
Waldinger and Schulz conclude:
“Relationships keep us happier and healthier throughout our life spans. We neglect our connections with others at our peril. Investing in our social fitness is possible each day, each week of our lives. Even small investments today in our relationships with others can create long-term ripples of well-being.”
Arthur Brooks wrote last year a piece called, “10 Practical Ways to Improve Happiness.” Number 1 is,
“Invest in family and friends. The research is clear that though our natural impulse may be to buy stuff, we should invest instead in improving our closest relationships by sharing experiences and freeing up time to spend together.”
Brooks’ 10 suggestions also include:
“Join a club. The 'social capital' you get from voluntarily and regularly associating with other people,...has long been known to foster a sense of belonging and protect against loneliness and isolation.”
The other 8 – just because I know you want to know – are:
- Be active both mentally and physically.
- Practice your religion.
- Get physical exercise.
- Act nicely.
- Be generous.
- Check your health.
- Experience nature, and
- Socialize with colleagues outside of work.

Our focus today is on relationships – on fostering friendships. Julie Beck did 100 interviews with people about their friendships. She writes, “People are at their most generous, their funniest, and their most fascinating when talking with and about their friends.” While every friendship is unique, she finds six forces fuel friendship: accumulation, attention, intention, ritual, imagination, and grace.

1. Accumulation means the accumulation of time spent together.
“One study estimates that it takes spending 40 to 60 hours together within the first six weeks of meeting to turn an acquaintance into a casual friend, and about 80 to 100 hours to become more than that. So friendships unsurprisingly tend to form in places where people spend a lot of their time anyway: work, school, church.”
2. Attention means “noticing when you click with someone, being open to chance encounters.” The magic of your attention helps you “step out of your habits and into the moment.” An old friendship can be immensely rewarding. Openness to new friendships is also crucial – and that takes paying attention.

3. Intention means taking action. As Beck writes, “you have to put yourself out there, and that requires courage, vulnerability, and a willingness to let things be awkward.” Most friendships require a bit of courtship to get going. Being intentional about fostering a friendship is probably the hardest part of friendship. It takes energy and thought – intention and follow-through.

4. Ritual helps make keeping up with friends easier. Coordinating get-togethers gets much simpler something is baked into your schedule, and all you have to do is show up.

5. Imagination. As Beck explains, our culture encourages us to think of friendships as something
“on the sidelines. They’re supposed to play a supporting role to work, family, and romance. It takes imagination not to default to this norm, and to design your life so that friendship plays the role you really want it to.”
It takes imagination to craft a nonromantic friendship. Beck mentions friends who bought a house together, went to therapy together, raised their children together, committed to an “arranged friendship,” pour hours into justice work together – a man who gave his friend a kidney and a woman who gave birth to her best friend’s quadruplets. “Quieter ways of showing your friends love can still be radical. The beauty and the challenge of friendship is its diversity" – and its only limit is our imagination.

Finally, 6. Grace. Friendship doesn’t always have to be about presence; it can also be about love that can weather absence. Beck’s interviews collected many stories of second chances and rekindlings. This is grace – a gift not earned or deserved. Friends offer forgiveness when we fall short – and that is a grace. Opening ourselves to the possibility of connection and re-connection is also a grace, for we cannot make it happen, cannot earn it, cannot deserve it. Yet sometimes it happens.

We need friends along this path of life. A month or so ago, our congregation’s Nomination and Leadership Development committee asked me for a sermon that would help them in their work. And this is what I offer us. When our Nominating and Leadership Development team invites you to fill a position, they are thinking about our congregation’s needs. You may also think about that, but more to the point, this is a way to develop the friendships that you need, that so enrich your life, and that maybe you, like so many others in these times, have rather neglected.

You’ll be working with others – having that scheduled time together that so facilitates getting to know – and love – each other. Relationship requires attention and intention – accumulation of time in – and the ritual of regular meetings helps. Anthony asked you think about what you could do, how you would like to help – to reach out and ask how you can become more involved. He told of how he went from attending Sunday services to joining committees, to joining the choir, to becoming involved in journey groups and social justice teams. He said he met great people and feels much more connected to the congregation.

This congregation offers such possibilities for enriching relationships – you’ll need some attention and intention to begin to take advantage of them. If you’ll take this New Year – or this lunar new year – to – as suggested -- take a few moments to draw up your current social universe, and consider what you’re receiving, what you’re giving, and where you would like to be in another year – include the reflection on, as Anthony suggested, “What drew you to CUUC?” That question will offer clues about how to now go further with this relationship.

Julie Beck mentioned to role of imagination in the development of friendship, and with things around here constantly in flux, we are called to imagine futures different from our past. You can’t earn or deserve grace – if you could, it wouldn’t be grace – but we can practice grace toward others, and open ourselves to what grace might come, and getting together to do the creative work of the congregation affords venues through which that can happen.

Bring your whole self to CUUC every time you come, said Anthony. When we bring our whole self, our self becomes more whole. The Quakers understand the connection between friendship and congregational participation so well that they call themselves the Society of Friends. That’s not our official name, but we, too, are a society of friends – of relationships. For some of us they have been ongoing and developing for years, and for others of us they are there, waiting to develop to the next level. It just takes some time in, some attention, intention, ritual, imagination, and grace. Say, yes to that.

Blessed be. Amen.


Only Love

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven, for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the gentiles do the same?" (Matthew 5:43-47)
On this day, January 15, in 1929, Martin Luther King Jr was born in Atlanta. He went to Atlanta’s Morehouse College, and got a BA at age 19. Then: Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, where he got a Divinity degree at age 22. Then directly to Boston University for doctoral studies.

In 1954, he was called to Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. The next year, 1955, he finished his PhD, and began organizing the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which brought him to national prominence. He was just 26.

Martin Luther King’s book, “Strength to Love,” came out in 1963. It’s a collection of 17 of his sermons on a wide range of topics, including love, nonviolence, racism, and social justice. The book is widely considered one of King's most important works and continues to be read and studied today for its powerful message of hope and change.

Chapter 5 is a sermon called, “Loving Your Enemies” – which was probably originally delivered in 1957. In that sermon, King takes as his text the passage from Matthew where Jesus says, “Love your enemies.” About half-way through that sermon comes the passage that has become one of the best-known King quotations. I will quote more than is usually quoted, to give you a little more context:
“Let us move now from the practical how to the theoretical why. Why should we love our enemies? The first reason is fairly obvious. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction.”
Only love can drive out hate. Only love.

King goes on to speak of the damage that hating does to the one who hates. He says:
“Another reason we must love our enemies is that hate scars the soul and distorts the personality.”
It certainly harms the hated – and,
“is just as injurious to the person who hates. Like an unchecked cancer, hate corrodes the personality and eats away its vital unity....Psychiatrists report that many of the strange things that happen in the subconscious, many of our inner conflicts, are rooted in hate. They say, ‘Love or perish.’ Modern psychology recognizes what Jesus taught centuries ago: hate divides the personality -- and love, in an amazing and inexorable way, unites it.”
King then adds:
“A third reason we should love our enemies is that love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend. We never get rid of an enemy by meeting hate with hate. We get rid of an enemy by getting rid of enmity. By its very nature, hate destroys and tears down; by its very nature, love creates and builds up. Love transforms with redemptive power.”
So far, what King has said seems anodyne. We have heard it many times. For most of us, grasping King’s point so far does not seem a difficult challenge.

We can’t be sure how challenging it was for Jesus’ audience when he said “love your enemies.” Jesus was definitely calling for a shift. He says:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you: Love your enemies.”
Jesus is referencing Hebrew Scripture with which his audience would have been familiar. The love your neighbor part is Leviticus 19:18 --
“You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
This, however, does not apply to enemies, such as Ammonites and Moabites, about which Deuteronomy 23:6 says:
“You shall never promote their welfare or their prosperity as long as you live.”
And, concerning one’s personal enemies, Psalm 41:10 beseeches,
“But you, O Lord, be gracious to me, and raise me up, that I may repay them.”
Other passages of Hebrew scripture point in a different direction. Leviticus 19 also says:
“When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the native-born among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”
So Jesus, within a tradition that sometimes seemed to endorse animosity, sought to overthrow those parts of his tradition, which he could do by drawing on other parts of the tradition.

In a context where his people were terribly oppressed by Romans, Jesus told his people to love their enemies. Love the Romans. That is the tradition King draws on when he urges loving even the white racists. Now it gets a bit more challenging.

King cites the example of Abraham Lincoln, who appointed some of even his bitterest critics and enemies to his cabinet. King then says:
“It was this same attitude that made it possible for Lincoln to speak a kind word about the South during the Civil War when feeling was most bitter. Asked by a shocked bystander how he could do this, Lincoln said, ‘Madam, do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?’ This is the power of redemptive love.”
For King, what it comes down to most fundamentally is:
“We are called to this difficult task in order to realize a unique relationship with God....We must love our enemies, because only by loving them can we know God and experience the beauty of his holiness.”
We might prefer to say that only by loving them can we be whole.

Anytime you hate, any time you reject, any time you simply cannot accept another person, that person represents a part of you that you are seeking to excise. Our own wholeness requires that we accept all parts of our ourselves, accept all of who we are.

Nowadays we don’t like to use the word “enemies.” I don’t know if I’ve ever in my life identified someone as an enemy, except maybe in a facetious reference to my opponent in some game we were playing. Even our military now prefers to say, “hostiles.” And, yeah, maybe you can’t, or wouldn’t, identify anyone as an enemy, but you can think of times when someone was hostile toward you. You may have felt some hostility back.

There are people who you find difficult. And I’m suggesting to you that what you don’t like about them is a reflection of a part of yourself that you don’t like. Accept them, welcome them, love them. For only then can you accept, welcome, and love all of who you are. Even a certain former president is manifesting parts that are in all of us, and any part of ourselves that we try to excise and exile simply goes subterranean and becomes more powerful. But what we accept, welcome, and love can play its useful role and stay in its place. Only when an inner voice is heard and respectfully acknowledged will it, in turn, acknowledge and be willing to bow to your other and countervailing voices. Only love -- inward and outward not distinguished -- brings us into our wholeness.

Accepting, welcoming, and loving does not mean complacency or quiescence in the face of harm. It does not mean complicity with injustice. Dr. King’s “Loving Your Enemies” sermon made this point -- a point he reiterated many times in his career. He said:
“This does not mean that we abandon our righteous efforts. With every ounce of our energy we must continue to rid this nation of the incubus of segregation. But we shall not in the process relinquish our privilege and our obligation to love. While abhorring segregation, we shall love the segregationist. This is the only way to create the beloved community. To our most bitter opponents we say: 'We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We shall meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws, because noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. Throw us in jail, and we shall still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and we shall still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our community at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half dead, and we shall still love you....One day we shall win freedom, but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.'"
The victory to which King refers is not a once-and-done conquest, but an unfolding victory the earning of which is never completed. Under his leadership, the victory unfolded some. Yet “Chains still there are to break; their days are not finished. Metal or subtle-made they’re still not diminished” (Belletini, Hymn #220)

May we, with our lives, unfold further the double victory. Only love can do that.


UU Minute #103

Transcendentalism and Unitarianism

Ralph Waldo Emerson left behind Unitarianism – but Unitarianism went running after him, nevertheless.

Emerson, at age 29, resigned from Unitarian ministry to become a lecturer and essayist: the pre-eminent voice in the Transcendentalist movement. Key features of Transcendentalism include:
  • People and nature are inherently good. In fact, divinity pervades all nature and humanity.
  • Thus, Divinity may be experienced in the everyday – rather than only in a distant heaven.
  • Individuals are capable of generating completely original insights with little attention or deference to past masters.
  • Accordingly, people are at their best when truly self-reliant and independent, resisting the corruptions of society and institutions.
  • Subjective intuition warrants emphasis over objective empiricism.
  • Physical and spiritual phenomena are not discrete entities, but part of dynamic processes.
Transcendentalism brought together influences from English and German Romanticism, David Hume’s skepticism, Immanuel Kant’s idealism, and the Hindu Upanishads.

Before Emerson, Transcendentalist tendencies were already taking shape within Unitarianism. So Emerson wasn’t rejecting Unitarianism, but only taking it the next step, building on the Unitarian emphasis on free conscience – that each of us must take up the project of articulating for ourselves the religious, spiritual, and ethical conclusions to which our reason and intuition guide us.

Yet transcendentalism did change Unitarianism, moving it away from mild, calm, sober rationalism toward greater intensity of spiritual experience. Emerson’s Divinity School Address of 1838 laid out a Transcendentalist position. Moral intuition is present in everyone, he said, and is a better guide than religious doctrine, including the doctrine that Jesus performed miracles.

While the Divinity School Address shocked and appalled many old-line Unitarians, it was attractive to many younger Unitarians as a logical extension of basic Unitarian commitments.