Out Beyond Ideas

The Maccabee revolt in the 2nd century BCE. The Rebellion forces in Star Wars. On the one hand, we identify with oppressed people sticking up for their way of life, refusing to be assimilated. On the other hand, what are the rebels really fighting for? Are they fighting for or against progressive values?

Writer Lev Grossman raised questions about the usual way we interpret Star Wars:
“It’s entirely possible to read Star Wars as a movie about white men fighting to regain their rightful position as rulers of the universe, against a man who, if he’s not actually black, wears all black and has the voice of a black man. (Vader was voiced by James Earl Jones.) With a few notable exceptions – Princess Leia, Yoda, maybe Admiral Ackbar – women and nonhuman races are relegated to the sidelines. Human males run the show. Star Wars is framed as a story about revolution, but in some ways it’s also a fable about maintaining an old worldview of race and gender.” (Time magazine, "How J.J. Abrams Brought Back Star Wars," 2015 Dec 14)
Likewise the Maccabee revolution: it's about maintaining an old worldview. The story draws us into cheering for the rebels – yet we also identify with the sophisticates frustrated at the traditionalism of the less educated. Do these traditionalists not fear and hate people who are different? Do these traditionalists not seethe with resentment at what threatens the privileges to which they cling?

Perhaps we should let go of our own opinions, and not take sides if we aren't forced to. Instead, recognize that both sides upheld some important values and negated some other important values.

Of course, we are bound to have opinions. It is, in fact, a civic duty in a democracy, to form opinions about which candidates should be elected and which policies would be best. We also form opinions about what would be best for ourselves, what would be best for our families, what would be best for our congregation.

We exercise our best judgment, but we never really know what would be best. We don’t know if our criteria for best-ness are as comprehensive as they could be, nor do we know if our strategy for maximizing those criteria will work better than alternative strategies. We don’t know. We make our best guess – and then deal with the results with more guesses.

We can’t avoid making and having opinions. But as the saying goes: don’t believe what you think. In other words, be ready to change your mind and maintain a healthy skepticism about your own reasoning process.

We are especially prone to be suckered by stories. We love a story of good guys and bad guys. If we can just identify some group as the bad guys, then some version of the story we love can snap into place. Letting go of our opinions will mean letting go of our stories. We don't have to abandon stories altogether. We can still enjoy them -- in the way we enjoy any good fiction. We can have our stories, but we don't have to really believe them.

We see around us neighbors ready to identify Muslims as the bad guys. Perhaps we detect a similar but opposite impulse in ourselves to identify those neighbors as the bad guys.

We have to have some opinions about some things, but maybe we don’t have to have as many as we do. Are there some of them you could just let go of? If your situation doesn’t need you to weigh in on one side or another, then just stay in that space of openness, not judging good and bad, right and wrong. Unless you’re actually on the jury, you probably don’t need to have an opinion on whether the defendant is guilty or not. And when we do hold opinions, perhaps we could hold them lightly – tentatively – seeing clearly that threats to the opinion are not threats to us personally.

There’s a Zen koan about Fayan and his teacher, Dizang, in 10th-century China.
Fayan was going on pilgrimage.
Dizang said, "Where are you going?"
Fayan said, "Around on pilgrimage."
Dizang said, "What is the purpose of pilgrimage?"
Fayan said: "I don't know."
Dizang said, "Not knowing is most intimate." (Book of Serenity #20)
When we think we know, we filter experience through the categories of what we think we know. Letting go of those categories allows us to be present to the freshness of each situation. Not knowing is most intimate.

So, yes, light a candle for the Maccabee children. They represent a way of life we have left behind. We today are much more Hellenic than traditionalist. Yet still we light a candle for them – though they fought against change, though they despised anyone who was other, though they upheld patriarchy and theocracy.

We light a candle for all our enemies, for letting go of dogmatic insistence on our opinions, and for the hope of loving our enemies.

Our own opinions are surely right – and, at the same time, are also surely wrong. There is a light that shines beyond the question of who is the good guy and who has turned to the dark side. Rumi called it a field:
“Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing, there is a field
I'll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase "each other" doesn't make any sense.”
Rumi called it a field, but we might call it a light: the light beyond the dimness of our judgments of wrong-doing and right-doing, the light that shines on what we share. We all have fears; we all have the same needs, though different strategies for trying to meet them. It is a light that shines both from the sacredness of traditions and also from breaking through tradition to new ways of understanding. It is a light compassion: compassion for those who are other – compassion as well for those who fear those who are other. It’s a light of love that transcends all opinion. Don’t let that light go out.

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This is part 3 of 3 of "A Hanukkah for Letting Go of Opinions"
See also:
Part 1: Hanukkah History
Part 2: Yay for the Bumpkins...?


Yay for the Bumpkins . . . ?

Emperor Antiochus IV, ruler of the Seleucid Empire, 175 - 164 BCE, was still, despite rumors to the contrary, very much alive in 168 BCE. He was just coming off a bit of a humiliation in Egypt. Finding that his appointed high priest, Menelaus, had been run out, Antiochus took out his frustrations on Jerusalem.

Antiochus attacked the town, restored Menelaus as high priest of the temple, massacred a few thousand Jews, outlawed Jewish rites and traditions, and ordered that Zeus be worshipped as the Supreme God. He then went on his way, leaving behind a governor in Jerusalem, Philip, to enforce Hellenic religion.

Had the people of Jerusalem thought like modernists – or postmodernists – do, they might have adapted to the new worship requirements. "No big deal," they might have said. "Zeus is simply a metaphor for Yahweh. Just go with it." The people of the second century before the Common Era were not prepared to think that way.

A huge part of what religion has always been about is: who is “us,” and who is “them.” The origin of religion – the reason religion emerged among early humans – probably had a lot to do with rituals and stories that facilitated the tribe’s cohesiveness, which was crucial since battles between tribes were frequent. The tribes that had a strong sense of bonding to “us,” and had hostility to “them,” were the tribes that survived. For the Jews of the 2nd century BCE, the word “Zeus”, and bowing to a statue of Zeus, meant “them” – and siding with “them” was a betrayal of “us.” There’s no metaphoring around when tribal identity is at stake -- when “us” is fighting for its continued existence as a distinct identity against "them.”

The more Hellenized Jews, however, didn’t see it that way. They actually were saying, essentially, “This is no big deal. Just go with it.” The First Book of Maccabees relates how Greek soldiers forcibly gathered the Jewish villages and told them to bow down to a Greek idol, then eat some pork. A Greek officer ordered Mattathias, a High Priest, to do these things. Mattathias refused. When another villager stepped forward and offered to cooperate on Mattathias' behalf, Mattathias drew his sword and killed the villager, then turned on the Greek officer and killed him too. That he struck out first against a fellow Jew indicates the simmering civil conflict between the Jewish factions.

Mattathias’ five sons and the other villagers then attacked the remaining soldiers, killing all of them. Mattathias and his family went into hiding in the mountains, where other Jews wishing to fight against the Greeks joined them. Led most prominently by Mattathias son, Judas Maccabee, the rebels retook their land from the Greek Seleucids. The Maccabean revolt succeeded.

Once the Maccabees had regained control, they returned to the Temple in Jerusalem. By this time it had been spiritually defiled by being used for the worship of foreign gods and for sacrificing animals the Jews regarded as unclean. Judas Maccabee restored and rededicated the Temple.

That’s the Hanukkah story from First Maccabees, redacted in the late second century, relating the events of 350 years before. There’s nothing in the books of Maccabees about a one-day supply of oil lasting for eight days. There’s only this decree that
“every year at that season the days of dedication of the altar should be observed with joy and gladness for eight days”
But why eight days? That bit isn’t explained until a portion of the Talmud written about 600 years after the Maccabean Revolt. That’s where we get the story of the Maccabees discovering that almost all of the ritual olive oil had been profaned. They found only a single container that was still sealed by the High Priest, and thus had not been profaned. That container had only enough oil to keep the menorah in the Temple lit for a single day. They used this, yet it burned for eight days. It had to be eight days because that’s how long it takes to have new oil pressed and made ready so that the Temple menorah can burn continuously.

So the rebels won. Yay, rebels. Of course, there is a sequel, and the Empire does strike back. Then, after that, there’s a return of the Jedi (the “Jewdi”? As Mel Brooks put it, “May the Schwartz be with you.”)

And so on, back and forth and forth and back through the millennia. This is where the story becomes a test case for letting go of our own opinions -- because in the Jewish civil war of almost 2200 years ago, there weren’t good guys and bad guys. There were just people trying to make their way as best they could. Both sides represented some qualities we can admire, and both sides were sometimes unskillful in their strategies.

On the one hand, we can identify with a rebel faction fighting against an empire that had slaughtered so many of its people. Just as in “Star Wars,” we cheer for the rebels, the country bumpkins who hold to an older and mystical religion. Yay for them.

On the other hand, we can also identify with open-ness to new ideas, to learning, to urban and urbane adaptability. If I were to sum up my philosophy of religion in six words, they would be: “It’s a metaphor. Go with it.” I identify with people who like to read Plato, and who are inspired by Greek ideas of democracy as opposed to the patriarchal and priestly rule of the Jewish traditionalists. (Not that the Seleucid Empire was very democratic, but they brought Greek thought that planted seeds of democratic hope.)

* * *
This is part 2 of 3 of "A Hanukkah for Letting Go of Opinions"
See also:
Part 1: Hanukkah History
Part 3: Out Beyond Ideas


Hanukkah History

Happy Hanukkah! The eight-day festival of lights -- began at sundown on Sun Dec 6 ended at Sundown on Mon Dec 14. And then on Fri Dec 18 -- well, you know what happened on Fri Dec 18. Th new Star Wars movie opened, of course. The festival of lights – and then the temptation of the dark side.

The Hanukkah story and the Star Wars story both involve a heroic rebellion against an empire – and conflict within the rebelling faction. On this Hanukkah, let us review and remember that Hanukkah story – starting with the historical background.

The Historical Background

Alexander the Great's Greek-Macedonian forces conquered Israel in 333 BCE. Ten years later, 323 BCE, Alexander the Great died. On his death bed, Alexander carved up his empire and bequeathed various parts of it to his generals. Within another twenty years, the general that got Judea had lost it to Egypt. Another of Alexander’s generals, Seleucus, was more successful. Seleucus expanded on the holdings Alexander left to him, and established his own empire. The Seleucid Empire lasted 250 years, and, at its height, encompassed an area that included:
  • about half of what is now Turkey,
  • all of Syria,
  • all of Lebanon,
  • most of Israel,
  • a sliver of Jordan,
  • most of Iraq,
  • all of Azerbajian,
  • all of Iran,
  • about half of Turkmenistan,
  • half of Uzbekistan,
  • small chunks of Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan, and Tajikistan,
  • almost the entirety of Afghanistan, and
  • about half of Pakistan.

Big empire!

The ruling class of the Seleucid Empire were basically Greek-Macedonian, like Alexander.
In 198 BCE, the Seleucids took control of Judea, ending a century of Egyptian control, and returning the region to Hellenic rule. (“Hellenic” means Greek-based culture.)

The conquest by Alexander, followed up by the Hellenic re-conquest by the Seleucid Empire, introduced challenges and enticements to the Hebrew people: Greek sports, Greek art and architecture, Greek philosophy. The Hebrew people had been beat up on for centuries by Assyrians, by Babylonians, by Egyptians, but these Greeks were something else. They had not only a powerful army, but had more sophisticated thought. The Greeks could subjugate you by force, and then examine your concepts with Plato and Aristotle, win your heart with the tragedies of Sophocles and the comedies of Aristophanes, and top it off by dazzling you with some Euclidean geometry.

The first Plato I ever read was “the Apology of Socrates” in high school. It won my heart – I went on to be a philosophy major in college. So I guess you could say I can relate. I'm a "Hellenizer" myself.

In those BCE years, the Jewish urban intellectuals of Jerusalem found Greek thought very attractive. More and more of them were assimilating into the high secular Hellenic culture, abandoning Jewish tradition. Meanwhile, the traditionalists in the countryside – the country hicks from the small villages around Jerusalem – were having none of it. They didn’t buy that city-slicker sophistication. They had work to do, farms to run, no time for reading Plato or attending Greek drama, and no use for that new Greek gymnasium that had gone up. They had their own literary traditions and didn’t want them cast aside or overshadowed. To them, Hellenizing was turning to the dark side.

When the Hellenizers began to get their people appointed into positions as high priests over the Temple, the traditionalists fought back. The First and Second Book of Maccabees tell of the Maccabean Revolt in the 160s, BCE – before the Common Era. The Books of Maccabees paint the Revolt as a nationalist uprising of the Jews against the political and cultural oppression of Emperor Antiochus IV of the Seleucid Empire. To some extent, it was. But historians now understand that the root of the conflict was a civil war between orthodox, traditionalist Jews and secularizing, assimilating, Greek-influenced Jews.

Antiochus got involved in an attempt to quell the civil disturbance. He took the side of the Hellenizer Jews – and unfortunately escalated the conflict. In doing so, he abandoned the usual Seleucid practice of not interfering with the local religions. The standard approach of the Seleucid empire, over its vast range encompassing a great diversity of local customs and rites, like many empires, was: we’re going to take our tribute of taxes, we’re going to conscript some of your young men for the Imperial army, but you can keep your religion and your culture.

In Judea, however, Antiochus faced a situation in which his subjugated people were fighting against each other. To bring peace to the region, he entered the conflict, put the Imperial might behind the Hellenizers – the natural choice for a Hellenic overlord – and sought to quash the Hebrew traditionalists. To do this, he banned the traditional practices of Judaism, persecuted any Jew who maintained the observances, and required the people to follow Greek religious practices, including worshiping Zeus, which meant bowing to a statue.

The Books of First Maccabees and Second Maccabees say Antiochus was simply wicked. They don’t mention that persecuting the local religions was a total departure from the Seleucid practice in all other places, and they downplay the civil conflict the Jews themselves were having with each other.

As the books of Maccabees tell it, the Seleucids had been ruling over the Jews in Jerusalem for about 30 years when, in 168 BCE, the Emperor Antiochus IV was rumored dead. Jason, who had been the high priest of the temple in Jerusalem, until outmaneuvered by Menelaus, believed the rumor to be true. Jason took advantage of the perceived interregnum to mount a little army of about 1,000 – tiny, but not bad for a priest. Menelaus fled.

Next: But Antiochus wasn't dead. . . 

* * *
This is part 1 of 3 of "A Hanukkah for Letting Go of Opinions"
See also:
Part 2: Yay for the Bumpkins...?
Part 3: Out Beyond Ideas


How to Let Go of Fear

We humans are governed by a dual-control system. Though both systems are in the brain, we can think of them as "head" and "gut." Head is thoughtful and rational but slow and often wrong. Gut is quick, intuitive, and even more often wrong.

Gut often leads us in irrational directions. For example, people who are told a certain device will save 150 lives are not terribly impressed. Oddly, they are more impressed if they learn the device will save 98% of 150 lives. Why that’s almost all of them! For Gut, it feels like a nearly full cup. You could even say it saves 85% of 150 lives, and still get a more favorable reaction than if you say it saves 150 lives. See what Head is up against?

Suppose I tell you that motor vehicle accidents are the number one cause of death of children. Is that good news? Oh, my god, that’s awful, says Gut. But if Head gets a chance, it’s going to say, hey, wait a minute. That’s great news. Every single other cause of death is less. Terrorists, internet stalkers, crystal meth, school shootings, avian flu, genetically modified organisms, contaminated food, pesticides – sharks – all the other fears of our time: much, much less. In particular: infectious diseases are now less. Measles, mumps, rubella, typhoid, polio, cholera, small pox – these things used to kill huge numbers of children, and now they've been reduced so much that motor vehicle accidents are left as the number one cause of death? That’s great news.

Try spending an afternoon in a Victorian cemetery, noticing how many gravestones have death-dates only a few years different from the birthdates. The defining feeling of our age ought to be gratitude, not fear. Yet it seems the less we have to fear, the more we fear. (Daniel Gardner, The Science of Fear: Why We Fear the Things We Shouldn't--and Put Ourselves in Greater Danger, 293)

You may remember the stories in the mid-1990s about silicone breast implants leading to connective-tissue disease. Out of about 100 million women, 1 percent had breast implants, and about 1 percent get connective-tissue disease, so by coincidence alone, that’s 10,000 women with both. The FDA said there was no evidence of a correlation between implants and disease. Activist groups were outraged. “We are the evidence,” became their slogan. But if we put the many-more-thousands-of-women who had connective-tissue disease without breast implants together with the many-more-thousands-of-women who had breast implants without disease, they might have claimed that they were the evidence that implants prevented disease, and there would have been a lot more of them. When the epidemiological surveys came in, they repeatedly confirmed that, while some women with breast implants were very ill, they were not more likely to be ill than women without the implants. But Gut pays attention to stories – it’s not so good with numbers, statistics, probabilities.
“Shaped in a world of campfires and flint spears, our intuition is as innately lousy with numbers as it is good with stories.” (Gardner 93)
Advertisers know that fear sells products, from home security systems to pharmaceuticals. Newspapers know that stories about things to be scared of sell newspapers. Politicians know that fear scenarios get them elected. And as the media, and the advertisers and manufacturers and politicians compete with each other to get our attention, the fear appeals grow more and more urgent-sounding.

The cumulative effect is that we begin to feel like the world is coming to an end. Apocalypse is in the air – as evidenced by the growth and popularity of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic movies and novels.

So what are we to do? Aware that fear gets attention, that fear can dominate lives, and that fear also leads us to bad decisions, how do we let it go?

First, and foremost, notice. Notice when you’re scared. Gut is an important part of who you are. Gut is your friend. Embrace your intuitive side. But don't do what it says until you've checked it out with Head. Don’t let Gut masquerade as a rational or realistic assessment of risk.

Notice when fear arises. “Ah, there’s fear. Eyes are opening wider, heart beating a little faster – yep, I’m experiencing fear. Hello there, fear.” Don’t tell the fear to go away. Don’t repress or suppress. Instead, attend to fear. Pay attention to it, listen to it.

Letting go of something isn't a matter of deciding to banish it. Whether it is anger, or resentment, or a grudge, or attachment to a relationship that just isn’t working anymore -- or fear -- you didn’t consciously decide for the feeling to arise, so you don’t get to decide it’s going away. What you can decide to do is see through your illusion of control. Let fear go, not in the sense of dismissing it, but actually in the sense of allowing fear to proceed. Let it go – that is, allow it to go on. You don’t have to do what it says, but give it a hearing.

If you saw the wonderful Pixar movie Inside Out, then you’ve seen how fear is like a little person inside. Just like a real person, if Fear feels listened to, then Fear will start calming down. It may take a while. Give it all the time it needs. It’s when we don’t acknowledge our fears that they just keep on in the background pulling our levers.

Moreover, the more we know the way that fear works, and the more we understand how the quirks of evolution made our brains this way, then the more we can recognize our built-in tendencies toward certain kinds of error and the better able we are step back from a Gut reaction when we see it arising.

Finally, Head and Gut are not the only players here. What about Heart? What about Spirit? What about that source of the living tradition we share: Jewish and Christian teachings that call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbor as ourselves? When fear arises, and you give it a fair hearing, you can then say, “OK, let me now hear from love, from that capacity within me to love my neighbor, love all beings. What does universal love have to say?” That’s the question to come back to, the question I leave you with: What does love have to say?

* * *
This is part 3 of 3 of "Letting Go: Fear"
See also:
Part 1: Fear Kills
Part 2: Your Head vs. Your Gut


Your Head vs Your Gut

We have a lot to be scared of -- or, we think we do. Terrorists and mass shooters may be currently at the top of our lists, but it’s a long list. Here's a sampling, in no particular order, of some of the things that spook us:

internet stalkers
crystal meth
avian flu
genetically modified organisms
contaminated food
contaminated water
contaminated air
climate change
breast implants
the obesity epidemic
West Nile virus
mad cow disease
alien invasion (the interplanetary kind)
alien invasion (the international kind)
flesh-eating diseases
road rage
pedophiles lurking in parks and internet chat rooms
spontaneous combustion
Satanic cults
genetically enhanced bioweapons
computer hackers
identity thieves
self-replicating nanotechnology that turns everything into “gray goo”
artificial intelligence robots taking over the world
weird experiments in physics that could create a black hole destroying the planet

At home, children are forbidden from playing alone outdoors, as all generations did before, because their parents are convinced “every bush hides a pervert.” As it happens:
“Obesity, diabetes, and the other health problems caused in part by too much time sitting inside are a lot more dangerous than the specters haunting parental imaginations." (Daniel Gardner, The Science of Fear: Why We Fear the Things We Shouldn't--and Put Ourselves in Greater Danger, 13)
Fear, of course, has its purpose. We need fear. Fear helps us survive by gearing up energy to protect ourselves -- either by fighting of the threat or running away from it. When someone behaves "fearlessly" they probably aren't literally without fear. They're just managing their fear well. The presence of fear is what allows courage to be courage and not just foolish risk-taking.

In human evolution, we needed mechanisms that would grab our attention and steer us away from danger. Every human brain is two systems attempting to operate side-by-side. There’s Head (reason), and Gut (feelings and intuitions). If you want reasoning, Head is gonna have to stop and think. Head is slow.

But if you need a snap judgment, Gut is there for you. Gut doesn’t worry with having to explain itself – often you can’t explain your hunches, your intuitions. Your Gut, operating below the radar of consciousness, checks for the most readily available examples it can find in the brain’s storage. If an alley looks a certain way, you’ll feel uneasy about walking down it because Gut has grabbed a quickly accessible memory of something you saw in a movie in which someone walked down an alley like this and got attacked.

Gut can’t even tell the difference between your first-hand experience and someone else’s stories. Gut believes the examples that are most readily at hand. Statistics completely fail to hold Gut’s attention. Gut just fixates on one or two lurid stories.

This dual-control system was pretty adaptive for hunter-gatherers who never traveled very far.
If there was a vivid memory of danger ready to hand, then it was probably a memory of something that actually happened in your presence and not far from where you are right now. If you’re facing a situation that looks similar, it makes sense for that fear reaction to be triggered without waiting for the slow, plodding assessment of reasoning.

Imagine a Stone Age hunter who falls asleep by the glowing embers of a campfire one night. When he opens his eyes in the morning, he is lying on a sidewalk in Times Square. That’s basically us. We inherited our protective and fearful gut reactions from our Stone Age ancestors – only, we’re trying to make our way in a very different world.

Gut was really helpful for our ancestors dealing with the world they found themselves in a million years ago. But a system that grabs our attention, gives us quick-reaction intuitive judgments, and overrides reason is ripe for manipulation. So the evening news specializes in “a report you can’t afford to miss” about “a danger that could be lurking near you.” It grabs attention. That’s what they need for their ratings.

The result is that the overall fear in our lives creeps up. We overestimate the risk from things that make the evening news, and underestimate the risk from things that don’t. Murder, terrorism, fire, flood – and sharks – seize our fearful imaginations. Risks like diabetes, asthma, and heart disease – and auto accidents -- are much greater but get less of our attention.

Let me illustrate how Head and Gut compete for control. Consider this question: A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost? The immediate impulse is to say 10 cents. It feels right. It’s wrong, and if Head has a chance to come in, it can offer a helpful corrective. In a nonthreatening scenario, dealing with math, there's a good chance you call in Head and follow Head's advice. Head will say: “Oh. The ball costs 5 cents and the bat cost $1.05.”

Suppose I ask you two questions: "Was Mohandas Gandhi older or younger than 9 years old when he died? OK, right. He was older. Forget that. How old was he?"

Now suppose I ask you a different pair of questions: "Was Mohandas Gandhi older or younger than 140 years old when he died? OK, right. He was younger. Forget that. How old was he?"

People who were asked the first pair of questions, guess an average age of 50. People who are asked the second pair of questions, guess an average age of 67. See, this is the Anchoring Principle. The brain starts with an anchor number, and then revises up or down to compensate for numbers that are obviously off. But our brains don’t compensate enough. The nine – or the 140 – is stuck in our brains, and even though I say “forget it,” it’s there.

How can we live with brains so irrational?

Suppose I ask you to estimate the probability of an event: What’s the chance of so-and-so winning the presidential election? What’s the chance of a major storm hitting the US in the next 6 months that does more damage than Sandy did? If I ask you to take a minute to vividly imagine the event before you guess, you’re going to estimate much higher, though vividness of imagined detail has nothing to do with probability.

One lottery’s slogan is ‘just imagine.’ They do more than invite us to daydream. They ask us to do something that elevates our intuitive sense of how likely we are to win the jackpot – which is a good way to convince us to gamble. (Gardner 52)

* * *
This is Part 2 of 3 of "Letting Go: Fear"
See also:
Part 1: Fear Kills
Part 3: How to Let Go of Fear


Resolving the Paradox of Tolerance

The paradox of tolerance is: if you tolerate everything, do you even tolerate intolerance? If you do tolerate intolerance, then you are failing to defend tolerance. If you don't tolerate intolerance, then you're being intolerant yourself. Hence: paradox.

Fortunately, this is not hard to resolve. It's about overall climate. Just remember that key phrase: overall climate.

Look, I'm committed to tolerance. I'm committed to cultivating a diversity of viewpoints, and I appreciate people around me who disagree with me. Two things to remember:

1. Tolerance does not mean you are exempt from criticism. I honor your right to have an opinion different from mine. As Evelyn Beatrice Hall (British writer, b. 1868) famously said:
"I do not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it."
Tolerance generally means you get to say it, but that doesn't mean I don't also get my say. And when I get my say, I might very well choose to be very pointed in explaining how you have misrepresented the facts, and how, even if you had the facts right, they do not support the conclusion you have fallaciously drawn.

If, in the process, I also throw in some rude remarks, ad hominem attacks, and misrepresent some facts myself, then I am being a bad debater, not an intolerant one. As long as I'm not using force (which, when it comes to government tolerance, is known as "the coercive apparatus of the state") to stifle or punish your viewpoint, then tolerance is not an issue.

That much is easily grasped. Here's where people start running aground of difficulties:

2. Tolerance does not even require that we must always abstain from use of force to limit your expression. Generally, of course, we want to let viewpoints be freely expressed. However, "time, place, and manner" restrictions are widely recognized as legitimate. You can have your opinion, and express it, but not in certain places at certain times. And the manner of expression might be inappropriate: you can't yell your opinions at the top of your lungs in the middle of a hospital ward in the middle of the night. In fact, in general, you can't disturb the peace.

In determining what sort of content should not be tolerated, the question is: How do we facilitate the greatest overall climate of tolerance? A given climate of tolerance is greater than another when it yields greater diversity of expression. If we allow hateful bigoted expressions to be freely uttered, or posted on the walls of public institutions, then we inhibit counter-expressions.

We refer to the "free market of ideas" because there is indeed an analogy between the discourse of viewpoints and the free market. If you leave either completely free, then it quickly becomes unfree. For the maximum overall climate of free expression -- just as for the maximally free market -- a little regulation is required.

In 1890, Congress passed the Sherman Act, and in 1914 passed two additional anti-trust laws. We passed these laws because we'd learned that if we left the market entirely unregulated, then monopolies could (and would and did) arise which then stifled other businesses. A big, powerful company could afford to sell products at below cost until the competition was driven out of business -- and thus establish and maintain monopoly control: just the opposite of a free market. We needed to limit the market freedom of powerful would-be monopolies in order to foster greater market freedom overall. If you don't limit the freedom of the bullies to bully, then the bullies will limit everyone else's freedom.

In the same way, it is necessary to limit some hateful expressions. Otherwise, the powerful haters will create a climate intolerant of views different from theirs.

When do we tolerate intolerance and when do we not? The question to ask ourselves is: Does the intolerance in question threaten the overall climate of tolerance? If it is not of such nature or power to have a reasonably discernible chill effect on other viewpoints, then allow it (though do share your criticisms of it). But if the vitriol is driving out other viewpoints, then, in the name of tolerance itself, it should not be tolerated.

Every limitation on expression damages the overall climate of tolerance -- but sometimes it's worth it. Sometimes not curtailing certain expressions damages the climate of tolerance even more.

It may sometimes be difficult to tell what the effects on the overall climate of tolerance are. Sometimes our best judgment might get it wrong -- and we'll end up tolerating something we shouldn't have tolerated, or shutting down some expression which we should have allowed. Applying the criterion won't always be easy. Community is messy. There is no easily-applied criterion, but there is a criterion: maximization of the overall climate of tolerance.


UUs and Black Lives Matter Banners

Bethesda, MD: The River Road UU's sign was defaced twice.
All across the country, UU congregations are putting up "Black Lives Matter" banners. Sometimes this attracts the attention of people who don't like that message. In the following cities, UU congregations have posted Black Lives Matter banners which were then vandalized or stolen -- which made the news.

Annapolis, MD. Banner stolen. READ HERE.

Chandler, AZ. Banner defaced, "all" written over "black." READ HERE.

The sign at the Arlington, MA UU Church
Arlington, MA. Their banner has been repeatedly defaced -- usually with the word "black" crossed through and the word "all" written in. This happened despite the fact that their banner actually includes the words:
"Of course all lives matter. We believe every individual is important and every person deserves to be treated with justice and compassion. We live, however, in a society that often suggests otherwise. Because of the continuing injustice and violence disproportionately faced by people of color, we affirm that Black Lives Matter." READ HERE.

Bethesda, MD. Word "Black" cut out of the banner. READ HERE.

Pittsburgh, PA. A smaller yardsign saying "Black Lives Matter" was stolen. The next five signs put up in its place were vandalized then stolen. READ HERE.

In Reno, NV, vandals wrote "WHITE" over the word "Black"
on the banner of the UU Fellowship.
Reno, NV and Bedford, MA: Banners vandalized. READ MORE. This article mentions that, as of Nov 13, more than 50 UU congregations have posted "Black Lives Matter" signs. At press time, 17 had reported their banner had been vandalized or stolen.

UU congregations aren't the only ones to be standing up for what's right. For instance, a Baptist church in Wayne, PA. READ HERE. And another Baptist church in Jamaica Plains, MA. READ HERE.

Of course, the signs don't always get vandalized. The UU congregation in Las Cruces, NM made news for taking the stand of support and putting up a Black Lives Matter sign. READ HERE.

And not all of the UU response to attacks or criticism has been noble. Our congregation in Chicago's Beverly community caved under pressure. READ HERE. Hearing of the Beverly congregation's withdrawal of their sign, Elizabeth Mount posted:
“As a Unitarian Universalist seminarian and a member of the First Unitarian Society of Denver, I am disappointed in this congregation’s conciliatory response to racist trolling. Our General Assembly this year agreed on national support of the ‪#blacklivesmatter‪ movement. We have had these conversations for over a year in many congregations, and this feels like a giant step backward. If we can’t even specifically say that black lives matter out loud and in print, how can we possibly say we don’t think black people are ‘less than’?”
Good question, Elizabeth.


Fear Kills

Here at Community UU, our theme for December is "Letting go." The “Letting Go” issue of On the Journey is out (HERE), with material on which to reflect. Our journey groups this month will allow for plunging into this important topic and going deep. (Not in a Journey Group? Sign up HERE.)

Letting go is a central spiritual idea. Oriah Mountain Dreamer said,
“Sometimes I think there are only two instructions we need to follow to develop and deepen our spiritual life: slow down and let go.”
Letting go overlaps with so many other important theological and spiritual topics – issues that matter for our spiritual growth.
  • Forgiveness: let go of that grudge.
  • Death: let go of your secret illusions of immortality in order to live fully in this brief span.
  • Faith – because letting go “requires we believe that, once we release our grips, life will not leave us empty-handed.
  • It takes faith to let go of what we’ve got.
  • Gratitude: this is what prepares us to trust and let go.
  • It’s letting go of wanting things to be different to make room for being grateful for how they are.
  • Love – because, as the saying goes, if you love something, let it go.
  • Mindfulness: let go of the past in order to live in the present.
  • Justice: letting go of our unjust privilege.
  • Transformation: Because we have to let go of clinging to our usual patterns in order to open up to become something new.
There’s the kind of letting go that implies that you’ve had a hold on something. Release it.

And there’s the kind of letting go that just means allowing things to proceed – not trying to control or hold them. Let them go: allow them to continue.

And, of course, for those of you who have seen a certain animated Disney film, “let it go” also seems to have something to do with self-assertion and independence and building a solitary ice palace, your soul spiraling in frozen fractals all around, and the cold never bothering you anyway.

Elsa’s aria also affirms that in letting it go,
“the fears that once controlled me, can’t get to me at all.”
Today, the letting go that I want to particularly focus on is letting go of fear. There are a lot of ways one can go on the topic of “letting go,” and, in light of recent events, I think what we most need to talk right now about is fear. (Our Journey Groups will, of course, explore the many other facets of letting go.)

Our nation seems to be in the grip of some powerful fears. ISIS spooks us. Why did the Paris bombings last month grab our hearts and attention so much more than a bombing in Beirut the day before did? I suspect part of the reason is that when it happened in Paris, it scared us a lot more. Beirut seems like another world – the victims another culture, another skin tone, not really relevant to US whites. But if terrorist strikes can kill 100 in Paris -- Western and predominantly white -- maybe they could do that in New York. Maybe what happened in San Bernardino last Wednesday was just the beginning.

We’re scared of Jihadists – and also scared of how that fear might lead some our country’s less stable citizens to anti-Muslim violence, lashing out, blaming all Islam, attacking mosques, catching us in the collateral damage, maybe. So, suddenly, say, a planned field trip to visit a mosque seems scary – even though any rational assessment of risks will recognize that the chances of being killed in a traffic accident on the way to the visit are probably a few hundred times greater than the chance of being killed by an explosion or gunfire while there.

Fear itself typically does us more damage than the things we’re afraid of. Just after 9-11, for instance, fear of airplanes went up as you might imagine. Analyzing patterns of car use and airplane travel after 9-11 shows that there was a shift from airplanes to cars that lasted about one year. We have pretty good ways to measure total vehicle miles traveled, and, during the year it took a year for the fear of airplanes to die down, return to normal levels, we saw people putting in more miles by car. The thing is, airplane travel is safer. The fatalities per vehicle mile traveled stayed constant, so as automobile travel went up, so did traffic fatalities.

Gerd Gegerenzer analyzed the numbers, and was able to deduce that the extra car travel in the year after 9-11 killed just shy of 1600 people. That is, the number of Americans killed in car crashes as a direct result of the switch from planes to cars was 1,595. Those were nearly 1600 people who would not have died if the ratio of plane travel to car travel had stayed the same as it was the years preceding 9-11.

The actual collapse of the twin towers killed less than 3,000 people. The increased fear of airplanes over the next year killed over half again that many. Fear kills.

* * *
This is part 1 of 3 of "Letting Go: Fear"
Part 2: Your Head vs. Your Gut
Part 3: How to Let Go of Fear

* * *

P.S. Speaking of "Let It Go" -- you might get a kick out of this Google Translate parody:


This Week's Prayer

Dear love, which calls us to respond,

How shall we respond?

On Wednesday, 14 people were shot dead in San Bernardino, at a center for people with developmental disabilities. It was the second mass shooting of the day. We didn’t hear so much about the gunman in Savannah, Georgia who shot four, killing one.

The Friday before a gunman killed an officer and two others at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs.

What does it mean to pray for the victims and their families? That we take this moment to hold them in our thoughts, in our hearts. As the Daily News pointed out, God isn’t fixing this. It’s up to us to do that.

So as we prayer for the victims, we also pray for ourselves. That we may have the fortitude to demand action. To raise our voices to insist that civilian ownership of combat rifles and certain kinds of ammunition need not be allowed.

We pray for anger that prevents complacency when, one day after the San Bernardino murders, the Senate voted down a measure that would have made it more difficult for people on the terror watch list, felons, and the mentally ill to buy guns.

We pray that our attention and righteous anger may be directed where it needs to be: at elected leaders in thrall to the money and political power of an industry dedicated to profiting from spread of assault weapons.


Hospitality Is Risky

There are good reasons that hospitality is difficult. It takes time and we’re all so busy. Doing, um, work. So we can buy things. Things we’re just as happy without. And so we can earn respect. The respect of the kind of people whose respect is earned that way.

Hospitality takes time, and hospitality is risky. You might get taken advantage of. Or you might be unwittingly facilitating someone’s self-destruction: there’s a time for offering someone a beer, and a time for resisting that impulse, and we don’t always know which is which. We risk getting it wrong.

I'm asking you to imagine that at the center of your life is the question, “What does this guest need?” Putting that question at the center doesn’t mean we will always know the right answer to that question. But to live in the space of that question – always having our radar up for where the need is, and going toward the need we discern – is a life of healing. The payback is the growing, softening heart.

The risks are worth it. Deep down, we humans don’t crave safety. What we ache for is acceptance, and acknowledgment of our worth. Therefore, embrace others as worthy guests, even if they don’t meet our needs. Even if they scare us. To embrace the worth in the other, even when their actions don’t meet our needs, is a radical notion. It might change your world into one in which you don't have to be smart or witty, deep or cultured, beautiful, young, healthy, enlightened, or handy. All you have to do is open the window of your heart and let the outer light in -- and let the inner light out. In that light, you can see and be seen; love and be loved.

It is revolutionary, risky, and world-rattling. Radical hospitality isn't safe or cozy. Commitment to radical hospitality is challenging. I want to be real with you about not only the good intention, but the skills, the emotional and social intelligence, that it takes to simultaneously maintain boundaries while tearing down walls.

Sometimes we’re up for making the initial opening, but aren’t equipped for the follow-through. I was struck by one example of a family whose heart was, or seemed to be, in the right place, but who just didn’t have the skills and resources to pull it off well.

Tanya and Tracey Thornbury of Montevido, Minnesota, were among the many Americans who, in August 2005, felt it was their duty to help victims of Hurricane Katrina. Over the Internet the Thornburys made an offer to open their home to hurricane refugees. They were put in touch with Nicole Singleton, an impoverished 33-year-old single mother of six children, ranging from age 3 to 16, and Nicole’s mother, Dot. The Thornburys, with three children of their own, welcomed Nicole and her children into their home. Tanya Thornbury bought Nicole a bathrobe, pajamas, sandals, helped her find a fob, offered to help make financial decisions about the federal aid. The Thornburys accepted the doubling of their electricity costs and tripling of the natural gas bill. They were good and generous people.

Then problems arose. Nicole’s mother, Dot, refused to live by the rules of the house, allowed her grandchildren to watch violent, inappropriate movies in the presence of the Thornbury kids. The guests wanted to download rap and hip-hop music on the internet, and Tanya said no. Nicole had a boyfriend just released from prison that she was surreptitiously corresponding with – and she revealed to him her new address, which made the Thornburys nervous. Tensions and quarrels began. Six weeks after it began, the merger was over when the Singleton family moved to a donated house in Minneapolis.

From the Thornburys’ perspective, they felt keenly the sting of ingratitude. Tracey Thornbury vowed, “I won’t help anyone again for the rest of my life.” (from Robert Emmons, Thanks!)

Sometimes gifts bring joy. At other times they come with pride, and, the gifts can evoke envy, jealousy, and thus greed, and even hatred. Receiving a gift can place one in a position of inferiority – in which case resentment is be more likely than gratitude. Hospitality requires our humility. It also requires skills and tools.

Among the tools that might have been helpful for the Thornburys and Singletons is a covenant. With a neutral third-party facilitator to help them develop their covenant, they might have been able to clarify what to expect of each other and of themselves. Clarifying expectations at the beginning can be a huge component of creating the space within which hospitality can work.

Congregational life affords a way to sharpen our hospitality skills and habits. Before we're ready to welcome strangers into our individual homes, we can warm up the hospitality muscles by welcoming them more graciously into our collective home, our congregation.

Congregational hospitality may be a little easier in some ways, but it raises challenges of its own. Newcomers might be different from us. If we were to make them feel at home, they might, you know, actually, feel at home. And stay.

We would have to change to be hospitable – to meet their comfort needs. I might need to stretch the way I preach and pastor. They might connect better with different music in worship. They might have different ideas about child-rearing, or what should happen at a committee meeting. Hospitality is inconvenient. It will change us – and transformation is always inconvenient to the interests of the person that we were.

It’s also what we’re here for.

Hospitality is job one. This being human is a guest house.

* * *
This is part 3 of 3 of "Radical Hospitality."
See also:
Part 1: This Being Human is a Guest House
Part 2: Jesus, the Dalai Lama, and Hospitality


This Week's Prayer

“For the sun and the dawn, which we did not create; for the moon and the evening, which we did not make; for food which we plant but cannot grow; for friends and loved ones we have not earned and cannot buy; for this gathered company, which welcomes us as we are from wherever we have come; for all our free churches that keep us human and encourage us in our quest for beauty, truth, and love; for all things which come to us as gifts of being from sources beyond ourselves, gifts of life and love and friendship: we lift up our hearts in thanks this day.” (Richard Fewkes, SLT #515)
Dear Grace – all gifts we do not earn or deserve,

Our hearts and thoughts are with the people of France, where at least 127 are dead and hundreds injured after a coordinated series of attacks Friday night. We know that evil dwells in every human heart, and we pray for peace, for wisdom to find ways to end the despair that is the root of the despicable, and for the courage to commit to building a world of liberté, egalité, and fraternité for all.

This week we remembered armistice day, the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, 97 years ago. The price of peace is vigilant attention to justice. Let our hearts be ready to pay the ongoing price for armistice – now, at our own 11th hour.

We remember and prayerfully recommit to helping to end such tragedies as:
  • suicide bombs in Beirut – and elsewhere;
  • genocide in Burundi – and elsewhere;
  • arduous, dangerous, and often fatal journeys for refugees from Syria – and elsewhere;
  • torture in China – and elsewhere;
  • female genital mutilation in Kenya – and elsewhere;
We pray for strength and courage to be agents of love and justice that overcomes such evils.

We know that we have grounds for hope.
  • We celebrate the end of the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone.
  • We celebrate the free elections in Myanmar, and the peaceful transfer of power from the military junta, showing us that peace and democracy can, at last, prevail.
  • While we are saddened at racial hatred manifesting at the University of Missouri, we celebrate the empowerment of black athletes to effect change.
Our lives are filled with blessings not earned or deserved. Let the gifts we have received flow back from us in a river of compassion.


Jesus, the Dalai Lama, and Hospitality

If you are brand new to Unitarian Universalism, bring your hospitality. If you have been a member of one of our congregations for sixty years, you have a special responsibility to demonstrate hospitality for the newer folk.

Radical hospitality goes beyond coffee and donuts and a greeter at the door. It is an orientation of our being that sees everyone as a valued guest.

In Luke, Jesus says: when we are to have a dinner, do not invite your friends or the rich folk.
“When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you.” (Luke 14: 12-14)
Invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. We are here to serve.

I was at a talk once by Sharon Salzberg. She's a spiritual leader and teacher who, in the course of her training and travels, has had occasion to spend a fair amount of time with the Dalai Lama. They’ve gotten to know each other. She spoke of how the Dalai Lama seems to have an almost-magical radar for suffering – and he goes to it. Once, she said, she had had an accident and broken her leg, and was attending an event on crutches and cast. She reported that the room was full of a hundred or two people gnoshing and talking. The Dalai Lama entered, paused just a moment, then made his way straight to her. He was drawn as if by a magnet to wherever the need for care was greatest. So with a room full of various dignitaries and spiritual leaders, he went right to where the injury was. He held her in the embrace of his gentle attention, and said, “What happened?”

Hospitality is responding to the need. It can start with seeing a coffee cup that needs refilling. In its radical form, hospitality goes to the greatest needs. So Jesus, being the radical he was, told us that it’s not about tending to your friends, tending to the wealthy who can help you get or remain wealthy. It’s about the the poor, the crippled, the blind, the hurt, the outcast.

Go to the need. Go to be with it in care. Love the stranger into the family of belonging.

This is a radically anti-consumerist approach to congregational life. On the consumerist model, the members of a congregation are essentially customers. They pay a percentage of their income – and get a product, a service, in return. They get to see a nice show on Sunday morning, nice classes for the kids, a minister to talk to when you’re troubled. Fee for service. The radical hospitality perspective is completely opposite. The building and grounds legally belong to the membership, but spiritually a congregation belongs not to its present members. It belongs to those who aren’t members – not yet, and maybe never will be – but who need it.

Our message to visitors, first-time or any-time, is: We belong to you. Maybe you only need us for one day, one hour. Or maybe for a couple weeks. Or maybe for the rest of your life. Doesn’t matter. We belong to you. One way of putting that is to say, the church is not ours, it is God’s. Another way is to say, we are not here for our own self-interests. There is something beyond, or deeper, or higher, or wider, than gratification of our own passing impulses. There is a love not encapsulated within our own tastes and pleasures, and we are here to serve love.

In a manner of speaking, it is a fee for service deal after all -- only, the service we're talking about is not the service you get. It's the service you give, the service we give which your financial contribution helps enable this congregation to offer to others.

To get ourselves into that welcoming state of being requires making time, making space, slowing down, and listening to one another. Listening is a healing art. There are books you can read, seminars and trainings you can go to, skills to build for the practice of the healing art of listening. And they’re great. For right now, though, I just want to ask you simply breathe into those words for a moment:

Listening is a healing art.

Do you feel the opening, the spaciousness that comes from that orientation?

Go to the need, go to the other, the stranger, the visitor, the guest. Ask, “what happened?” – or just “how are you?” “What is your quest?” – and listen. That’s giving the gift of hospitality.

What we get in return is that hospitality to others helps make ourselves whole, free from the self-preoccupation and narcissism that flesh is heir to. Hospitality asks, “May I know you better and break down my judgment and categorization of you so that my tight little heart stretches a bit?” In the stretching we make room for the deep longing of our hearts, to build and live in a world where no one is excluded, where all are heard, where no one’s tears go unnoticed.

* * *
This is part 2 of 3 of "Radical Hospitality."
See also
Part 1: This Being Human is a Guest House
Part 3: Hospitality is Risky


This Being Human Is a Guest House

"This being human is a guest house." I love that line. It’s from the 13th-century Persian Sufi Muslim poet Jalal ad-Din Rumi. Here's his poem:
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy. A depression. A meanness. A momentary awareness.
They come, these unexpected visitors.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
They may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought. The shame. The malice.
Meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond. (adapted from a translation by Coleman Barks)
Rumi is telling us: living means being a house for guests. Visitors come. Our job – our only job – is to be a good host.

At any given time, wherever you are, the space around you is a house. You’re the host for whatever enters yours space. Some of the visitors are pleasant – charming even. Others might seem obnoxious. Rumi’s examples are feelings.

Be welcoming and hospitable when joy arrives. I don’t always do that. How about you? I’m too busy to pay her any attention. Or I’m so distracted I don’t notice her in the distance headed my direction, and I don't unlock the door, turn on the vacancy sign, and get some cookies in the oven with a wafting aroma to entice her in. So all I get is a glance at my closed front door as she passes by. Or she does come into the parlor, but I don’t relax and enjoy my ebullient guest: I don’t en-joy. Maybe I think my house – my life, my being – is too shabby an accommodation for such an exalted guest. If I subtly or secretly believe I don’t deserve a grand visitor, I probably won’t be very good at making her feel comfortable.

Be welcoming and hospitable when sadness arrives. I don’t always do that, either. You? I don’t want sadness moping around the place in his drab gray overcoat, out of season and out of fashion. I offer coffee – whatever stimulant is at hand – and I fish for a compliment: “How is that coffee?” I ask. He says, “meh.” I don’t need this, I think. “Maybe you’d be more comfortable at an accommodation down the road,” I say.

Or anger comes knocking. When anger comes for a visit, I find it hard to maintain a good host's balance. A good host is interested and engaged, but not too interested -- attentive while also self-defined, comfortable in his own skin, nonanxious. Anger storms in the door, marches over to the thermostat and turns up the heat. I might try ignoring her -- pretending that it's not getting hot. If another guest were to ask, "Is it getting hot in here?” I'd say “No, not at all. I’m not hot.” That's not being attentive to the reality. Or, alternatively, I might try indulging her. If she asks to change the soft background music to some raucous station, I say "Fine.” If she then asks to turn the volume way up, I say, "Yes, yes.” I join her is some arm-waving, head-banging dance of wrath. You know that dance? That's not being self-defined and nonanxious. Good hosts know not to ignore the spoiled children guests, and know not to indulge them either.

This being human is a guest house. The essential skill – the one skill that sums up everything important in life – is hospitality: the skill of knowing how to be attentive and interested and engaged while also not indulging. It’s being a nonanxious presence: Fully present, yet without taking on the anxiety or reactivity of your guest. What our guests most need is our gracious, calm attention.

This being human is a guest house. My job – really, ultimately, my only job – and yours, too, as best you’re able – is hospitality to whoever comes. Hospitality to the visiting emotions prepares us for hospitality to experience generally -- any experience, including the hospitality to other people.

At Community UU, this month we're exploring hospitality in our Journey Group. That’s where the real growth and deepening is slowly nurtured.

"Radical hospitality” means hospitality that goes to the root, hospitality that transforms everything we do, hospitality as Job One -- and as the foundation of every other job. The radical goes beyond social norms. Radical hospitality goes beyond social norms to love others into the family of belonging. Radical hospitality is a spiritual practice, and spiritual practices need a group. Your individual work to be hospitable supports and strengthens our collective, congregational practice of hospitality, and the shared collective practice supports and strengthens the individual hospitality you carry with you out into all aspects of your life. My Job One – what I believe is your Job One – is also our Job One. Every time a congregation of religious liberals gathers, it gathers to practice, to teach by example and to learn, the gentle art of hospitality -- what William Schulz calls the fragile art, when he says the mission of our faith is
"to teach the fragile art of hospitality; to revere both the critical mind and the generous heart; to prove that diversity need not mean divisiveness; and to witness to all that we must hold the whole world in our hands." (SLT #459)
* * *
This is part 1 of 3 of "Radical Hospitality"
See also
Part 2: Jesus, the Dalai Lama, and Hospitality
Part 3: Hospitality is Risky


This Week's Prayer

“Earth mother, star mother, you who are called by a thousand names: May all remember we are cells in your body and dance together. You are the grain and the loaf that sustains us each day, and as you are patient with our struggles to learn so shall we be patient with ourselves and each other. We are radiant light and sacred dark -- the balance. You are the embrace that heartens and the freedom beyond fear. Within you we are born, we grow, live, and die. You bring us around the circle to rebirth. Within us you dance forever.” (Starhawk, SLT #524)
Dear Earth mother, star mother, Mother of love, of inclusion, of justice and peace:

Our hearts are heavy with the things happening in our world, your Earth. War and persecution have displaced nearly 60 million people from their homes – more than at any time since World War II.

A militant group affiliated with ISIS in Egypt claims responsibility for the downing of a Russian passenger plane. Here in our own country, Islamophobia darkens the land, evidenced by graffiti this week at Virginia Tech by someone threatening to “kill all Muslims.”

On Mon Oct 26, a 7.5 earthquake in Afghanistan killed more than 260. Relief efforts are hampered by the fighting in the region. On Sat Nov 7, a 6.8 earthquake struck Chile, an aftershock of the 8.3 quake on Sep 16.

The endangered saiga antelope of Central Asia are mysteriously and rapidly dying off. More than half the species has died in recent months, perhaps because climate change transformed harmless bacteria into lethal pathogens. The saigas could be extinct within a year.

We are hopeful that this week’s nixing of the keystone pipeline is truly a victory for the environment, as many claim. May it be so.

“We are radiant light and sacred dark;” cells in the body of creation -- creation that brought us into being and lives on after us. We know, too, that kindness persists, that everywhere there are hearts that shine with love, voices that cry for justice, hands that care for life, minds that envision new ways, spirits committed to possibilities of connection and mutuality. May our own hearts, voices, hands, minds, and spirits be among them, growing ever stronger.


Can't Get To Freedom By Ourselves

In John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, the character, Lee, is excited about timshel, as translated, "thou mayest." The possibility of acting where there is neither a command ("Do thou") nor a guarantee of an outcome ("Thou shalt") is indeed exciting. It’s very engaging. When no particular authority is commanding and the outcome is up for grabs, then we are called upon to use moral deliberation. Then we bring all our tastes and preferences to the table – they all get to be considered even if they aren’t all gratified. Then we can pursue purposes with integrity with an overarching sense of who we are.

How can you get more Timshel – more of that experience of freedom – in your life? In other words, what might I say today that might function as a cause to help your action be less caused by causes you don’t like and more caused by causes you do?

Practice attention. Just notice what’s at work in you. Noticing that you’re angry, or that you’re scared, noticing the tightness in your chest or throat or shoulders or stomach, noticing the heat rising on your skin, or the contraction of hair follicles that is that hair standing on end feeling – just bringing conscious awareness to these feelings gives them less power over you. Not zero, but less.

Noticing hunger, just paying attention to the sensations, opens up a greater experience of freedom. If we don’t much notice what the hunger really feels like, then we just reflexively grab a bite to eat. But if we do notice it, possibilities of choosing otherwise come into view. We bring our own language of deliberation into the situation, and it might produce a different outcome than just unthinkingly responding.

Or notice when you’re not hungry. Am I reaching for some food when I’m actually not hungry? Noticing where that impulse or habit to eat might be coming from, if it isn’t coming from hunger, allows us the feeling of greater choice – which is to say, it brings the language of deliberation into the causal mix.

If sin is anything that isn’t manifesting your best self -- something that you did that came from an impulse that you would rather have overridden -- the reminder that you have choice – that is, the reminder to bring conscious deliberation into the mix – can be helpful. I was, for example, struck with the blog post by a young woman who struggles with injuring herself, and sometimes with impulses to suicide. She wrote:
'A few weeks ago my friend Austin told me about his favorite passage from John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. In this part of the story, the characters discuss the different translations of the Bible story about Cain and Abel. They found that each translation used a different phrase to describe Cain’s relationship with sin. The King James version says “thou shalt” conquer sin, whereas the American Standard one says “do thou rule.” But the Hebrew word used is “timshel,” which translates to “thou mayest.” And that means there is a choice. With “timshel,” Cain would have a choice to either rule over sin or not. As I sat on the floor listening to Austin speak, my knee shaking with the anxiety of the thoughts in my head, I felt the power of timshel. I knew that while my head was telling me to self-injure, that I needed to self-injure, in reality the words in my head were not “thou shalt” but rather “thou mayest.” I had a choice, and I was able to choose to be safe.' (Emily Van Etten, "Timshel")
Yes. I certainly want to affirm her power to choose to be safe.

Of course, one passage from Steinbeck is not a cure-all. Her struggles returned. Still, any time we can manage to move into the space of conscious choice, bring the forces at work in us into the light of self-awareness, we do, temporarily, open up a little more freedom. At the same time, we should also remember that, in Genesis, immediately after Yahweh tells Cain, “you can be its master,” the very next two sentences are:
“Cain said to his brother Abel, ‘Come, let us go out to the field.’ And when they were in the field, Cain set upon his brother Abel and killed him.”
So one little reminder often doesn’t do much.

Cultivating the habit of constant self-awareness, always noticing the needs, feelings, desires as they arise, this is the practice of freedom. We do this not to suppress or reject the parts that we don’t like, but to own them and embrace them.

To hold ourselves fully responsible – that is, response-able; able to respond to – all of who we are – to own and re-integrate all of ourselves, all the terrible things we’ve done and said and felt and failed to do or say – this is the practice of freedom.

Psychologists use the term “dissociation” to describe a range of detachments from reality. It often has to do with distancing ourselves from a part of ourselves. In extreme cases, it is multiple personality disorder, as the Dr. Jekyll self seeks to sequester and banish the Mr. Hyde self. We are all prone to some form of dissociation – we want to identify with the parts of the self that we like, and get rid of the parts we don’t like. Freedom comes from embracing it all. Cain is banished from the presence of Yahweh and goes to the land of Nod, East of Eden. Freedom comes from bringing your inner murderous Cain back from the land of Nod (the land of nodding off, the land of sleepy unawareness), back into the full presence of the awakened self -- and owning the responsibility for all of who you are. Not indulging every whim, but not suppressing any either. Neither indulging nor suppressing, but aware of and responding to. We do not rule over our sin by banishing it, but by welcoming it into the community of self, by recognizing the legitimacy of its needs.

At the end of East of Eden, the servant Lee begs for the father Adam to give his son, Cal, his blessing. “Don’t leave him alone with his guilt…Let him be free,” pleads Lee. And Adam, as he is dying, whispers one word: “Timshel!” "He thus affirms that Cal has indeed, by accepting responsibility, demonstrated that he is capable of ruling over sin." ("John Steinbeck's Midrash on Cain and Abel")

In the end, freedom and responsibility are not something we can do by ourselves. We need each other creating the community that can show all of us, all of our parts, back into relationship. You have to do your part, but you don’t have to go it alone. Indeed, you can’t do it alone. Freedom means no one is banished. And that takes all of you welcoming all of who you are, all of us welcoming all of us.

A British band called Mumford and Sons has a song titled “Timshel.” Some of the lyrics echo the East of Eden passage we've been looking at:
“And you have your choices,
And these are what makes man great
His ladder to the stars.”
But the song lifts up also the crucial role of one another.
“But you are not alone in this
And you are not alone in this.
As brothers we will stand and we’ll hold your hand,
Hold your hand.”
“I can’t move the mountain for you”
“But you are not alone in this."
Timshel: we can do it. Si se puede. Thou mayest rule over sin – that is, we just might overcome all banishment, heal from our dissociations, enter into a welcoming responsibility. We may become whole through love. We need all of us. That's our ladder to the stars.

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This is part 3 of 3 of "Timshel: Thou Mayest"
See also
Part 1: "You Can Be Its Master"
Part 2: Determinism Is Beside the Point


Determinism Is Beside the Point

The Liberal Pulpit is looking at Genesis 4:7, which reads, "Thou mayest rule over it" (JPS, 1917), or "You can be its master" (New JPS, 1985) -- "it" being "sin."

John Steinbeck's East of Eden is a literary exposition on the Cain and Abel story, and, in particular, gives attention to this one verse. Steinbeck, through his character, Lee, puts the emphasis on free will: thou mayest. And, for Lee, free will is a really super nifty thing. Free will is what
“makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice.”
What is Lee talking about?

When it comes to free will, I am reminded of the debates between free will and determinism into which I used to egg my philosophy students. There were always a few students ready to defend the determinist position, and at least a few others ready to stand up for free will, against determinism.

Determinism is the claim that everything is caused, and happens the way it happens because of its various causes. Determinism is ultimately beside the point, I’m going to say, but it does serve the purpose of helping clarify what is the point -- what is at stake when we strive for greater freedom. What will turn out to be at stake, I will argue, is relationship, community -- all of us welcoming each of us. Through love are we free.

Determinism points out: If freedom means you get to do what you want, where does your wanting come from? Some combination of genetic predispositions and environmental influences produced the want. You get to choose, but you don’t choose the factors that will cause you to choose the way you do. Everything is the product of causes.

Everything, that is, except for certain quantum phenomena that, for complicated reasons of which physicists seem very confident, are entirely uncaused. Under certain conditions the spin of certain particles is absolutely random – NOTHING caused it to spin the way it is spinning and not the other way.

So, if quantum phenomena can be uncaused, can human behavior be uncaused? Well, what if it can? Is that what freedom looks like? If you saw somebody moving about randomly – muscles contracting here and there without cause or reason – we wouldn’t say she was free. Quite the opposite. We’d say she was in the grip of – enslaved by, we might say – some bizarre and horrible neurological condition.

Determinism makes a very logical point. Everything that happens is either the product of causal conditions and forces, or it isn't. If it is, then it's not free. If it isn't, then it's random, and randomness isn't free either. "Free will" is an incoherent concept.

This logical point is sound, but the sort of free will that is thereby defeated is not the sort of free will that any one who yearns for freedom is yearning for. They aren't yearning for some incoherent concept, but for something very real in our experience. What is it?

People who are yearning for freedom are yearning for liberation from some force or condition in their life. It might be a slave master or prison bars or an addiction or bad habit or mental illness or poverty. Someone yearning for freedom isn’t looking to become uncaused. They just want certain causes removed so that happier causes can, instead, dictate their actions. They would like to be guided by purposes that make sense and are rewarding rather than by someone else’s commands and by threats of painful punishment. They would like to have certain specific constraints removed. They would like to be guided by the better angels of their nature rather than by their demons.

Nor does determinism mean we can’t hold people responsible for what they do. If the social practice of holding a given person responsible for a given action helps us maintain an orderly society, then let's keep the practice. Moral disapproval sometimes works. Most of us don’t shout profanity at particularly inappropriate times – because the moral disapproval of those around us has taught us not to do that. Relationships including a shared language of moral deliberation work, much of the time. For people with Tourette’s syndrome, that doesn’t work. We say they aren’t responsible for what they do – which is to say that the shared language of moral deliberation – praise, blame, censure, punishment – is an ineffective causal force for making them change that particular behavior.

Much of the time, though, holding people responsible through use of moral language works just fine. If your teenager has misbehaved and protests that causes made him do it, you can just reply, “Of course. And now let’s see if being grounded will cause better behavior in the future.”

So what I’m saying is this: Thou mayest – you get to choose – doesn’t mean your choice is undetermined, not even a tiny bit. The mixture of influences you didn’t choose and genetic inclinations you didn’t choose – maybe with some randomness thrown in that you also didn’t choose – wholly determines what you will choose. But that’s beside the point because the important question isn't, "Are your actions determined?" The important question is, "What is freedom actually experienced as?"

We don’t experience freedom as uncaused action, so when the determinist points out that there is no uncaused action, this fact is irrelevant to the experience we’re talking about. The real question is how do we experience freedom, and how can we experience more of it?

One: We experience freedom when one of the causes is a shared language of moral deliberation. When an action happens reflexively or habitually or driven by obsessive-compulsive tendency or by any other mental disorder, we don’t experience it as being as free as we do when the language of moral deliberation can play out in our minds and when there’s a real possibility that we will actually carry out the conclusion of that deliberation.

When we say that depression, schizophrenia, and mania aren’t free choices, we’re saying that talking – including threatening and ostracizing – doesn’t do much good. We experience freedom not when our action is uncaused, but when language – particularly the language of deliberation -- plays a key causal role.

Two: We also experience greater freedom when all our tastes and preferences – howsoever unchosen those tastes and preferences are – are allowed at the table. We don’t, in the end, have to act to satisfy every taste, but not squelching or suppressing or denying that we do have the tastes we have is a piece of the experience of freedom.

Three: We experience greater freedom when the causes that are coming from our own body, including our brain, are within the range of normal and healthy, rather than including mental or physical illness.

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This is part 2 of 3 of "Timshel: Thou Mayest"
See also:
Part 1: "You Can Be Its Master"
Part 3: Can't Get To Freedom By Ourselves