Sources of Evil

Evil and Hope, part 1

I have my doubts about whether there is such a thing as evil. There is certainly harm. People do things that harm other people, that harm living beings and this earth. People are not all sunshine and light. Harm happens.

How does it happen? The source of harm, I’m going to say, is one of two general categories: either there’s a medical condition, or there’s a lack of skills.

First, the medical conditions.

Sometimes there’s mental illness that can cause a person to harm themselves and others. Antisocial Personality Disorder is now the preferred term for what we used to call psychopaths and sociopaths. People with antisocial personality disorder feel the basic emotions: anger, fear, sadness, disgust, surprise, joy, acceptance, anticipation. They do not feel the social emotions: love, guilt, shame, and remorse.

Some people are born this way: they are genetically incapable of those social emotions. Other people are born a little weak in these areas, but with the right kind of environment they can build up a capacity for the social emotions – or, with the wrong kind of environment, they can lose what capacity they had for them.

People with antisocial personality disorder show no regard for right and wrong, ignore the rights and feelings of others, tend to antagonize, manipulate or treat others harshly or with callous indifference. Without the guidance we get from guilt, shame, and remorse, and without feeling the bonds of love connecting us to others, people with antisocial personality disorder can do terrible harm.

This fits the picture of “evil,” but I don’t think it helps us any to call that evil. We need to engage with the issue to find the best treatment and social response, and labeling it “evil” doesn’t help us do that.

Of course, I need to stress that most individuals with serious mental illness are not dangerous. At the same time, there are dangerous people, and sometimes psychosis is what makes them dangerous. Schizophrenia can sometimes cause violent and harmful behavior. Bipolar disorder is usually nonviolent, but is associated with a slightly increased risk of violence.

There are a lot of ways things can go wrong with the brain.

Charles Whitman was a twenty-five-year-old student at the University of Texas in 1966 when, one August day, he climbed up the UT Tower to the observation deck, lugging with him a footlocker full of guns and ammunition. At the top, he killed a receptionist with the butt of his rifle. Two families of tourists came up the stairwell. He shot them, and then he began to fire at people below. He shot 49 people before being killed by the police. Earlier that morning Whitman had murdered his mother and stabbed his wife to death in her sleep.

An autopsy revealed that
“Whitman’s brain harbored a tumor the diameter of a nickel. This tumor, called a glioblastoma, had blossomed from beneath a structure called the thalamus, impinged on the hypothalamus, and compressed a third region called the amygdala.” (David Eagleman, "The Brain on Trial, Atlantic Monthly, 2011 Jul/Aug)
When those areas are impinged upon it can lead to very aggressive behavior, and overpowering impulses to violence and inability to regulate emotions in the normal way.

Whitman sensed what was happening to him, but couldn’t stop it. The note he composed the evening before his death related:
“I talked with a Doctor once for about two hours and tried to convey to him my fears that I felt [overcome by] overwhelming violent impulses. After one session, I never saw the Doctor again, and since then I have been fighting my mental turmoil alone, and seemingly to no avail.”
Charles Whitman had been, by all indications, a fine, bright upstanding young man. And then this tumor made him crazy violent. In that final note, he wrote:
“I don’t really understand myself these days. I am supposed to be an average reasonable and intelligent young man. However, lately (I can’t recall when it started) I have been a victim of many unusual and irrational thoughts. It was after much thought that I decided to kill my wife, Kathy, tonight... I love her dearly, and she has been as fine a wife to me as any man could ever hope to have. I cannot rationa[l]ly pinpoint any specific reason for doing this...”

That sure sounds like evil, doesn’t it? -- chilling in its premeditation, and the calm, deliberate way he prepares to kill the woman he loves. But Charles Whitman did not suffer from a spiritual condition called evil. He suffered from a medical condition called glioblastoma.

* * *
This is part 1 of 2 of "Evil and Hope"
See also
Part 2: Evil as Lack of Skill


The Prophets and the Buddha

On Being a UU Buddhist, part 3

I am not just a Buddhist. I am a Unitarian Universalist and a Buddhist. I was born and raised Unitarian Universalist for 40 years before starting Buddhist practice. And all the while I was becoming Buddhist I was also becoming more UU than ever. I was studying our history, our polity, our theology, our congregational life -- and loving us more and more.

As a Unitarian Universalist, I learned to appreciate the Hebrew scriptures and Christian gospels, understanding when and how to treat them as allegorical, as metaphors. Fiction, yes, but like all good fiction, it tells us something true. I brought that interpretive felicity to Buddhism as well. Karma and reincarnation, for me, are metaphors for reminding us that our actions do have effects and that what we make of this life influences lives to come – not just one “next life,” I would say, but all lives to come. Every time a child is born, we are reincarnated in that child – every one of us in every child.

The thing that Buddhism doesn’t have, that none of the Eastern religions have, the thing that is vital to my faith, and the reason Buddhism alone is insufficient for me, is the prophetic tradition – the tradition of attention to social justice as an inseparable part of faith. My religious orientation is toward justice, fairness, equity. As Unitarian Universalists, our second principle is "justice, equity, and compassion." The Buddhist tradition has a lot to say about compassion; very little about justice and equity. It’s great on lovingkindness, and has very helpful practices for cultivating equanimity, which social justice activists require to ground and sustain their work, but there is very little there in the way of a tradition of engaging with the question of how society ought to be set up, what arrangement of powers and authorities would be fair and reasonable.

This has begun to change. In recent decades, there's been a lot of work developing "Socially Engaged Buddhism." But in the ancient texts of Buddhism, what “speaking truth to power” looked like was that sometimes a king would take an interest in his spiritual development and would come seeking the Buddha’s spiritual teaching.

In lands where, for millennia, the Emperor was simply the ultimate and unquestionable authority, the idea that your spiritual development also called for you to engage in questions of public policy just never arose. Western civilization, by contrast, took its shape from the interaction between two powerful and enduring traditions – call them Athens and Jerusalem.

In the millennium before the Common Era began, the Greeks developed a limited form of democracy. Along with it came public discourse about what was right and fair for the state to do. And the Israelites developed a society with a place for the prophets. The prophets of the Hebrew Bible – Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Amos, Hosea, and others – had a recognized role which even the king felt compelled to respect. The prophets were supposedly the mouths of God. In Deuteronomy, the Creator says,
“I will put My words in his mouth, and he shall speak unto them all that I shall command him."
Utilizing the protections of a legitimate, recognized social role, the prophets criticized their government, criticized the powerful. Our idea of speaking truth to power goes back to those prophets.

You might recall that the prophets were always warning that the wrath of God was going to befall the people of Israel for straying from the divine law. What is sometimes forgotten is that the specific divine law from which the prophets were haranguing Israel for departing was divine law about treating people fairly and taking care of the poor. Isaiah said,
“What do you mean by crushing my people, and grinding down the poor?”
He denounced judges who took bribes and failed to give proper justice in cases involving the orphan and the widow. Amos proclaimed divine judgment upon those who
“sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals.”
Says Biblical scholar D.N. Premnath:
“One thing we learn from the prophets is that poverty or injustice is no accident. They knew exactly what the causes were and who was responsible for it. They did not speak in abstraction. They knew what the oppression/injustice was, and who the oppressors and oppressed were.”
Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams recognized the enduring importance of the prophetic tradition for Unitarians:
“Old Testament prophetism institutionalized dissent and criticism and thus initiated the separation of powers. The prophets said that the culture was not under the control of centralized power; viable culture requires the institutionalization of dissent – in other words, the freedom to criticize the powers that be.”
Out of Jerusalem going back 3,000 years, here’s this tradition of dissent, of appealing to an authority greater than the king to counterbalance the king’s power. Out of Athens, going back 2500 years, we have this tradition of public discourse, citizens trying to reason with each other to reach consensus, or, at least, majority agreement on what should be done.

Eastern Asia had neither of those traditions. The Emperor’s power of decree was hindered by no channel of dissent recognized as legitimate and no need to persuade anyone with reasons.

Being a Unitarian Universalist Buddhist means bringing together the practice and insight of the Buddhist tradition and the social commitments originating from ancient Athens and Jerusalem. Unitarian Universalism and Buddhism call my name, and I call theirs.

As a Buddhist, I sit. As a Unitarian Universalist, I stand.

What’s calling your name?

* * *
This is part 3 of 3 of "On Being a UU Buddhist"
See also
Part 1: A Path to Buddha
Part 2: Get a Spiritual Practice, They Said


Get a Spiritual Practice, They Said

On Being a UU Buddhist, part 2

I began divinity school at United Theological Seminary in Minneapolis, because, that year, LoraKim and I were living in Rochester, Minnesota where she was doing her ministerial internship. As per the procedure that was in place at that time, after the first year of seminary, I drove over to Chicago to be interviewed by the Midwest Regional Subcommittee on Candidacy. These regional subcommittees have since been discontinued. They were created to try to head off the problem of too many people who were just not cut out for ministry investing years of their life in seminary education, accumulating debt. The subcommittee’s job was to say, either, “Yes, we see a prospective minister here,” or “We’re concerned that that you’re pursuing a career path that’s not going to work out for you.”

As you can imagine, it’s kind of a nerve-wracking deal.

The intellectual strategy that served me just fine when I was orally defending my thesis was not what they wanted to see. At one point they asked me: “Do you have a spiritual practice?”

Before starting seminary, I had spent two years as the congregational facilitator and preacher for the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Clarksville, Tennessee. Before that, I'd served as a president of our Fellowship in Waco, Texas, as Vice President of our church in Charlottesville, Virginia and had worked as the church secretary for a year at our Nashville, Tennessee church. But did I have a spiritual practice?

I was a born-and-raised Unitarian Universalist. I had a Ph.D. I'd been a philosophy professor. I could debate about metaphysics, metaethics, metatheology, poststructuralism, postindustrialism, and postmodernism. If it was meta-, or post-, I was all over it. But did I have a spiritual practice?

Well, no, I didn't.

“Get a spiritual practice,” the committee told me. “And come back to see us again in a year.”

On the five-and-a-half-hour drive from Chicago back home to Rochester, it became clear to me what practice I would try, at least for starters.

I liked what the Buddhists said. Let me try practicing what the Buddhists practice. The idea of meditation seemed like a good one. The time had come, it seemed, actually do it.

I began the way I usually begin new things: I got a book. It told me about mindfulness, finding a posture for stillness, and what to do with my mind while being still. And what to do when my mind wandered off from doing what I had told it to do.

I started with fifteen minutes a day, and after a couple months was up to 30 minutes each morning of sitting meditation. I started going to weekly meditation group meetings and Vipassan (insight) meditation classes.

In 2002, LoraKim and I moved to El Paso, and I started exploring Zen. I had heard that there was a UU minister named James Ford who was also a Zen master. I wrote to Rev. Ford and asked his advice. He wrote back and said: “There are two times to visit many masters: at the beginning of your training, and at the end.” He listed some I could visit, and his strongest recommendation was for Ruben Habito, a Filipino former Jesuit priest teaching comparative religion at Perkins Theological School in Dallas. I visited with, and meditated with, and chanted with, and absorbed the dharma talks of Zen teachers in Las Cruces, and Tucson, and Albuquerque, and Austin, before finally going to see Ruben in Dallas. For the next 10 years, he was my Zen teacher.

Since 2001, I’ve been sitting daily, going to group meditation weekly, and going to intensive meditation retreats a few times a year. After a few years, I sewed a rakusu – a patchwork apron-like garment that symbolizes the traditional robes of Buddhist monastics – and went through a jukai ceremony in which I formally received the Buddhist precepts and was given a Dharma name: "Hotetsu." It’s basically a confirmation ritual. I was confirmed as a Zen Buddhist in 2007.

In the Buddha-Dharma, I hear recurrent echoes of the themes of the pragmatist philosophy I studied. Attachment to your picture of reality doesn’t help. Upaya (skillful means) does. Concepts are empty, yet useful within a context of a particular purpose. All things are impermanent, including the list of sentences that humans, at any given time, commend as ‘true.’ Things do not have essences or permanent, distinct identities, but are a continually shifting networks of relationships – and this includes the self. My favorite philosophy professor, Richard Rorty, taught about “radical contingency.” I discovered the Buddha also taught about this, calling it “interdependent co-origination.”

One difference, though, was that the pragmatists emphasized language and purpose. Buddhism emphasized nonlinguistic and nonpurposive presence. The path to this mindful presence is one step at a time. Language and purpose keep popping up – it’s how we were made. Notice and see through the linguistic description and the purpose it serves. Then the next one, then the next, then the next. Just keep at it. This is the path.

My parents raised me with one central value: know stuff. Now my spiritual practice is not knowing: opening myself to let each thing present itself afresh without burying it under the load of all those concepts I worked so long to acquire.

* * *
This is part 2 of 3 of "On Being a UU Buddhist"
See also
Part 1: A Path to Buddha
Part 3: The Prophets and the Buddha


A Path to Buddha

On Being a UU Buddhist, part 1

Hush, Hush. Somebody’s callin' my name.
Oh, Hush. Hush. Somebody’s callin' my name.
Hush. Hush. Somebody’s callin' my name,
Oh, my Lord, Oh, my Lord, what shall I do?

- Choir Anthem, tradidtional

What’s calling your name? What labels claim you, and do you claim? Labels can be problematic -- but they are also handy for giving shape to who we are, and how we represent ourselves to others and to ourselves. I claim the label "Unitarian Universalist," and "Buddhist." Sometimes I claim the label, "humanist." I've been called a Christian -- very rarely -- and while I'm not at pains to deny that label, it's not one that I claim for myself. There are also labels I don't really want -- like "white" -- but it's important to acknowledge. We won't get to a post-racist society by pretending we already are there. It's important that those of us who have been privileged own up to our privilege. Labels sometimes chafe, and they are sometimes diminishing or dismissive, but they can also help us know who we are.

My parents were college professors. Mom’s PhD was in physical chemistry, and she taught physics and chemistry. Dad’s field was English. His specialty was 18th-century British Literature: “The Age of Reason.” As their first-born, I imbibed their core value: know stuff. Knowledge is good. I remember that in the house we lived in when I was in 2nd and 3rd grade, Dad had a plaque over his desk, quoting Plato:
“There is only one good, knowledge; only one evil, ignorance.”
My parents were rationalist, humanist, academics. I grew up and went into the family business: being a rationalist, humanist, academic. I became a philosophy professor.

Along the way, little bits of an Eastern perspective slipped in. There was some exposure to it in my RE classes as I grew up a UU kid.

In eighth grade, I read Hermann Hesse’s novel, Siddhartha – and I loved it. The year was 1972. Some of the hippie types were into wisdom from the East, and I began to pick up on that vibe.

Later, as a college sophomore, I saw a copy of the Dao De Jing in the campus bookstore and bought it. Its opening lines told me:
“The Dao that can be told is not the eternal Dao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth.
The named is the mother of ten thousand things.”
This was not my father’s Oldsmobile – or my mother’s.

Despite these dabblings and the impress they made, my studies focused on Western philosophy. But my interest in philosophy was in deconstructing its own assumptions. Philosophical conundrums result from stretching concepts outside the contexts where those concepts make sense. I studied particularly the pragmatists and was something of an anti-philosophy philosopher.

I took a job in the religion and philosophy department at Fisk University. I was called upon occasionally to teach a “Humanities” course that included surveying the world religions. As I prepared for the Buddhism unit, I found many of the teachings eerily reminiscent of what I’d spent graduate school thinking about. In one of the sutras, the Buddha is presented with the sort of questions that philosophy and religion typically wrestle: Is the world eternal or not? Finite or infinite? Is the soul the same as the body or different? Does a person exist after death or not? The Buddha replies:
“Suppose a man were wounded by an arrow thickly smeared with poison, and his friends and companions, his kinsmen and relatives, brought a surgeon to treat him. The man would say: ‘I will not let the surgeon pull out this arrow until I know whether the man who wounded me was a noble or a Brahmin or a merchant or a worker; until I know the name and clan of the man who wounded me; whether the man who wounded me was tall or short or of middle height; was dark or brown or golden-skinned; lives in such a village or town or city; until I know whether the bow that wounded me was a long bow or a crossbow; the bowstring was fiber or reed or sinew or hemp or bark; the shaft was wild or cultivated; with what kind of feathers the shaft was fitted; with what kind of sinew the shaft was bound; whether the arrow was hoof-tipped or curved or barbed or calf-toothed or oleander. All this would still not be known to that man and meanwhile he would die.”
The sutra goes on to say that having any of these views -- that the world is eternal, not eternal, etc., -- precludes the holy life. The Buddha refuses to address any such question because it
“does not lead to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to peace, to direct knowledge, to enlightenment, to Nibbana.”
This fit nicely with my own anti-philosophy philosophy.

The rest of what Buddhism had to say made sense to me, too. Life has some hard stuff: we get old, we get sick, we die. Our reactivity against this reality makes it harder. Extremes of self-denial don’t help. Self-indulgence isn’t so helpful either. Take the middle way. That resonated for me because I’d always appreciated Aristotle’s point about the virtues being the golden mean between vicious extremes on either end.

After some years as a philosophy professor, I felt the call to Unitarian Universalist ministry. I wanted to work with congregations rather than classes because, for one thing, I was attracted to the prospect for long-term relationships. In the academy, you could be part of people’s growth and development, but then the semester ended and they all went away. In congregations, we get to keep on working together and learning together indefinitely.

Also: I really like that I don’t have to grade your papers. I was not very good at the whole paper-grading thing.

So off I went to seminary.

* * *
This is part 1 of 3 of "On Being a UU Buddhist"
See also
Part 2: Get a Spiritual Practice, They Said
Part 3: The Prophets and the Buddha


The God Life in this God World

God the Adjective, part 3

It seems to me that God as a noun splits us apart, creates tribal division.

God as a noun begs the question: what properties does this noun have? Is God loving or angry and punitive? Merciful or just? All-knowing or just very knowing? All-powerful or just very powerful? God the noun begs the question: what does this noun do? Does God intervene in human affairs daily? Or did God create the universe a while back, and is now watching it unfold, the way a child watches carefully laid-out dominos fall?

While God the noun has properties – leaving us humans to argue what those properties are -- God, the adjective is a property that we can pretty much agree on. Most of us can agree that life and the universe is awesome and sacred.

If God is a noun, then we must face the question of whether God is the sort of noun that the Catholics describe, or that the primitive Baptists, or the Eastern orthodox, or the Jews, or the Muslims, or the Hindu describe. If, for example, you posit God as an ultimate cause, then you can’t help but get stuck in conundrums like what caused God? In one form of Hinduism, the earth rests upon the back of an elephant. There’s a story of an Englishman encountering an elderly woman of this Hindu faith. What does the elephant stand on? he asked. The elephant stands on the back of a monkey, she answered. And what does the monkey stand on? The monkey stands on the back of a turtle, she replied. And what does the turtle stand on? he asked patiently. The turtle stands on the back of another turtle. “And what does that turtle…?” he started to ask. At that point the woman interrupted him. “From there on,” she said, “it’s turtles all the way down.”

See? That's the kind of conundrum you get stuck with if divine and holy are made into a noun. We get arguments about different conceptions of that noun.

“Do you believe in God?” is a question used to divide people. I believe in the adjectives, and they don’t divide.

I believe in green and growing, dark and peaceful, loving and kind, amazing and wonderful.
I believe in the beautiful and tragic quality of life.
I believe in religious qualities.
I believe in awesome, in grateful, in hopeful, in joyful.
I believe in full.
I believe in earthy.
I believe in wise, and compassionate.
I believe in sufficient: this life, this world, come what may, it is enough. It will do.

I believe in a god world: a world not of our own making that supports us and sustains us, which grounds us for the meaningful pursuit of ideals.

I believe in the god life, which can be experienced by people of any religion or none – a life of awareness, a life of attention to the interplay of forces, a life of deep sympathy with all of them even when it does come time to take a stand against some of them.

I believe in holy, for each breath is holy. I believe in sacred, for each step is sacred: we have but to be mindful and know it.

God the noun is an ultimate cause of things. God the adjective is a quality we can perceive of the flow of all the causal forces, none of them ultimate, interacting continuously. We experience those forces adjectivally: luminescent, transcendent.

I’ll close with three further illustrations of the importance of the adjectives. First, Tagore:
"Is it beyond thee to be glad with the gladness of this rhythm? To be tossed and lost and broken in the whirl of this fearful joy?"
Notice that it's the adjectives that convey the force of Tagore's words: glad, tossed, lost, broken, and fearful.

Second, the well-known e.e. cummings’ passage:
“I thank You God for most this amazing day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything which is natural which is infinite which is yes ...”
It’s the adjectives that carry the impact: amazing, leaping greenly, blue true, natural, infinite – and yes, which cummings is using as an adjective.

Finally, a parable from the Zen tradition.
A man fleeing from a tiger came to a precipice, caught hold of the root of a wild vine and swung himself down over the edge. The tiger sniffed at him from above. Trembling, the man looked down to where, far below, another tiger was waiting to eat him. Only the vine sustained him. Then some mice appeared and began gnawing at the vine. Just then, the man saw a strawberry growing near him. Grasping the vine with one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other. How luscious and sweet it was!
Again, it’s the adjectives that carry the punch: luscious and sweet.

Our time here is short, before the mice hand us over to the tigers. All we can do is notice, notice, train ourselves to notice – notice the god quality in every luscious and sweet moment.

* * *
This is part 3 of 3 of "God the Adjective"
See also
Part 1: How We Argue About God
Part 2: Thinking God an Adjective


Thinking God an Adjective

God the Adjective, part 2

In the years after high school the issue in my mind gradually shifted from being about God to being about "God" – that is, from the ontological question about the way reality is to the semantic question about the way words are used. Might not the word “God” be used, not to make a controversial empirical claim about what is, but to draw our attention, as a good poet does, to certain qualities of existence – qualities which are not subjects about which to dispute, but are a felt reality momentarily overlooked?

It’s not about being convinced or persuaded. It’s not about believing. It’s about being reminded of what we already know deep down: that this present moment – if we truly show up for it – is so sweet and so delicious that we need words like “holy” and “divine” and “God” to help us notice it.

It’s not about what exists; it’s about the qualities of existence: is it wondrous, mysterious, beautiful, awesome? Those adjectives are the crux of the matter, and that’s why I suggest to you today that God is an adjective.

Glen Thomas Rideout’s poem, "god is no noun" is beautiful and evocative (SEE IT HERE) -- and it is dismissive of the idea of God being an adjective. The poem begins:
“God is not a noun and certainly no adjective.”
But I think Rideout overlooks that the qualities of things are more important than the things.

It doesn’t matter much whether it’s a house or a cave if it’s luxurious, comfortable, warm, cozy, affordable, and conveniently-located. It’s those adjectives that matter. It doesn’t matter what we say exists or doesn’t exist if whatever exists – existence itself -- is holy, sacred. “God” is an allusion to the quality that existence has when we are so fully present to it that we perceive divinity there.

Dewey and Bonhoeffer

Let me mention two writers – one of them who did not identify as Christian, John Dewey, and one who did, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. They both support this emphasis on the adjectival.

John Dewey said religion, the noun, didn’t do much for him. But he recognized the deep value of religious, the adjective. “Religious” referred to a kind of experience, a special quality that suffuses some experiences. You don’t have to have a religion in order to have religious experience.

The noun, religion, indicates some particular religion, and any particular religion carries a lot of particular baggage – doctrines, rituals, theologies, moral dictates. The religious quality in experience, on the other hand, requires no doctrines, rituals, or moral rules. A religious attitude “may be taken toward every object and every proposed end or ideal,” wrote Dewey.

When something feels profound, or moving, or like a revelation or an epiphany – while on a nature hike, or through involvement in some project – we might say “it was a religious experience!” We wouldn’t say it was a religion. An experience has religious quality when it results in adjustments to life’s conditions, orientation, a sense of peace and security. It might be brought about by devotion to a cause, by a passage of poetry, by meditation. The religious quality is a unifying, connecting quality. It re-orients us, brings a feeling of peace through awareness of interconnection with everything.

Writing along lines similar to Dewey was Dietrich Bonhoeffer -- a German theologian and outspoken critic of Hitler, imprisoned and eventually executed by Nazis. Bonhoeffer called for a religionless Christianity. Wrap your mind around that term: “religionless Christianity.” Bonhoffer wrote in a letter from prison:
“The New Testament must be interpreted in such a way as not to make religion a precondition of faith” (329).
Religion, he said,
“is only a garment of Christianity – and even this garment has looked very different at different times.”
I think Bonhoeffer had in mind the same idea Dewey had: that this noun, religion, denotes some set of doctrines and practices. No single set is necessary for giving experience that religious quality. A wide variety of sets of doctrines and practices can help cultivate the religious quality of experience.

In Bonhoeffer’s way of putting it, the religion of Christianity -- that is, the doctrines and practices -- was only a garment covering over the true Christianity beneath – a Christianity that had nothing to do with doctrine or ritual and everything to do with the experience of transcendence in our lives. Christians discarding the garment of their religion – Christians, that is, who possess “religionless Christianity” – will recognize that very different doctrines and practices – say pagan ones, or Buddhist ones – also facilitate our awareness of that which goes by many names: the oneness of reality, the divine, the ground of being, the transcendent, the awesome quality of the universe, the interbeing of everything, the interconnected web of existence -- God.

Christians discarding this religion garment, said Bonhoeffer, will cease to regard themselves “as specially favored, but rather as belonging wholly to the world” (280-81).

So that’s a little conceptual background from Dewey and Bonhoeffer.
* * *
This is part 2 of 3 of "God the Adjective"
See also
Part 1: How We Argue About God
Part 3: The God Life in This God World


How We Argue About God

God the Adjective, part 1

God is traditionally used as, thought of as, a noun. Last week I talked about "God the Verb." Today: "God the adjective." I should let you know I have no plans for sermons on "God the Preposition" or "God the Pronoun." You might have been particularly looking forward to "God the Expletive"!

Ah, expletives. Expletives do come up when we get to arguing about God. And when we tire of the bickering, we just stop talking about God – which is a shame. The argument about God starts ontological, then gets semantic. At root, however, it is neither ontological nor semantic, but tribal. Let me explain.

It starts ontological: What exists? Is there an entity that knows, desires, and creates?

To the question, "Do you believe in God?" many Unitarians long ago developed the habit of saying, “Depends on what you mean by God.” So then the argument shifts from the ontological to the semantic. What does the word “God” mean? Is it a legitimate use of the English language to use the word “God” to refer NOT to a person-like entity that knows and wants, but only to a source of beauty and mystery; a power inspiring gratitude, humility, wonder, and awe; an ultimate context and basis for meaning and value; the widest reality to which our loyalty is owed; or the Cosmos: “all that is, or ever was, or ever will be”? Can you say that there is nothing in the universe except what the scientists describe and still call THAT “God”?

Why do people get riled up over semantic arguments about the word “God” when no other semantic argument elicits much concern or passion? I think it's because the real conflict is neither about ontology nor semantics. It’s about tribe. Are you in my tribe – do you speak the tribal passwords, affirming or denying the existence of God, adopting my tribe’s definition of the word “God”? If you’re not in my tribe, then we must fight – or else avoid the subject altogether.

There are meanings of “God” acceptable within the English language that don’t mean person-like or supernatural, so I want to ask you: Do you still prefer not to use the word because of tribal identity? You don’t want anyone to think for a minute that you might be in the Woo-Woo tribe? I think, for some of us, that’s the hang-up. We’re more interested in protecting our self-identity as members of the No-Woo tribe than we are in connecting with other people through the meanings that we share: awe, wonder, beauty, mystery, source of hope and healing that we call by many names.

Let me tell you some of my history with God.

The G-word and I have had an uncertain relationship. When I was in first grade, in Pinetops, North Carolina, where there was no Unitarian Universalist congregation, the neighbor kid sometimes invited me to go along with him to his church. Several times that year, I went, and as a result of the instructions given me at that Presbyterian Sunday School, there was a brief period in my life during which I did a nightly bedtime ritual called “prayer.” “Prayer” involved asking someone named “God” to do, for various friends and relations, something called “bless.”

By fourth grade, I had left behind “that kid stuff.” I was then living in a different small southern town: Carrollton, Georgia. Carrollton didn’t have a Unitarian Universalist congregation either, but it was only an hour’s drive from Atlanta, where, sporadically, I was taken to the UU church. Soon after learning there was a word “atheist,” I decided that I was one. I made this declaration at the UU church, and no one seemed very interested. I made this declaration during lunch at my elementary school cafeteria, and a palpable buzz shockwaved through hall.

The news reached an ardent and incredulous girl a few tables over. She arose, and, flanked by a silent friend to function as diplomatic observer, came over and confronted me. “You don’t believe in God?” she asked.

“No,” I said, suddenly interested in the lima beans on my plate.

“Do you know what the Bible is?” she pressed.

I offered my considered and scholarly assessment. “Just some book by some stupid people,” I said sullenly.

She gasped. The diplomatic observer gasped. The two of them withdrew to tut-tut with others over the lostness of my soul and the rift to their social fabric that my apostasy represented.

That was the beginning of my career in theology and scriptural hermeneutics. In my remaining seven years in the town’s public school system, I ventured no further discourses on religion, but that was enough. Throughout that time I was “the class atheist.”

Back then, it was clear what “God” meant – and clear -- to me – that the universe included nothing that instantiated that meaning. Now, nothing about God is clear: there’s only ambiguity and mystery – beautiful, rich, joyous ambiguity and mystery.

The theist says there is such a thing, the atheist says there isn’t such a thing, and the agnostic says “I don’t know whether there’s such a thing or not,” – but they all pretend to know what sort of thing it is they’re talking about. The universe, however, is more amazing – life is more profoundly awesome – and the Bible’s authors, editors, and redactors were wiser and more insightful – than my fourth-grade self was prepared to comprehend.

* * *
This is part 1 of 3 of "God the Adjective"
See also
Part 2: Thinking God an Adjective
Part 3: The God Life in This God World


Transitive, Intransitive, and God

God, the Verb, part 3

In the last part, I gave a brief and rather flimsy account of Process Theology -- there's a lot more to it than I was able mention. (For a short-without-being-uselessly-short introduction, you might start HERE, and if you're ready to dive in the deep end, take a look at Whitehead's Process and Reality and browse books by and about Charles Hartshorne and John B. Cobb.)  I mentioned one idea coming out of, or influenced by, Process Theology: that God is a verb. You might find this perspective radical or exhilarating. You might also have noticed that the God-is-a-verb people are not actually using “God” as a verb.

They say, for instance, that reality is more a matter of events than substances. “Events” conveys a more dynamic quality than “substances,” but if we’re talking about parts of speech (which, supposedly, we are), “event” is just as much a noun as “substance” is. They speak of God as “process” and as “creativity” and as “energy.” All three are nouns. Jean-Claude Koven said God was “unfoldment,” and “infinity,” and “everything,” and “a dance.” Nouns every one. For that matter, “verb” is a noun.


The point is: there is in our life and our experience a cause for wonder, mystery, reverence. This is better thought of as a process, a dance, a creativity, a love than as a person or entity. Calling it a verb is just a way of alluding to its active doing. But supposing we did want to be sticklers for actually meaning what we said. How would that go for God to be a verb?

Verbs need a subject, if we’re going to speak in sentences, so we could say: The universe gods. There’s the vast cosmos, quietly, grandly godding along through the ages. Reality gods. I god, you god, he she it gods, we god, you god, they god. All God’s children…god.

And what sort of activity is it “to god”? Following the lead of the process and the creativity theologians, to god is to unfold, like an infinite flower opening its petals; to develop through a process of interaction with all the rest of the godding universe. To god is to become transparent to the creativity of the universe shining through you. To god is to fandango across the ballroom of oneness, to trip the light fantastic not “with” but “as” the mountains and rivers and great wide earth, the sun, and the moon, and the stars. To god is, in the words of Sufi poet Hafiz, to “laugh at the word two.” It is to swim in the sea of mystery; to quaff from the cup of abundance. To god is to suffice. Whoever you are, whatever your imagined shortcomings, you are enough. To god is to do and be everything that you do and are.

Why would anyone want to call these activities "godding"? We might call them godding to help us remember, to help us wake up to, and attune ourselves to, the fact that everything we do and are is a part of the whole, a part of the dance, the mystery of creativity, the unpredictable unfolding of new things under the sun. For the medievals, to apprehend reality at its most ultimate meant to conceive of changeless eternity. Above this world of corruption and change, God was pure, immutable, outside of time.

To think of God as an active verb is to emphasize the time during which the actions take place. It is to put God in time, rather than removed from time. It is to perceive the holy in change, rather than imagine it in changelessness. It calls attention to divinity as spread throughout all of nature, as manifested by the activities of nature.

Verb theology fit with modern science, which tells us “that reality at the most fundamental level is composed of shimmering waves of probability, fluctuating, intertwining matter and energy.” (Steven Phinney) Instead of saying species just are, biologists now understand species as in flux – as media, we might say, for the playing out of unpredictable creativity. God the verb is a response to these developments in both physics and biology.

I have been imagining God as an intransitive verb. What if God were a transitive verb? If reality gods, what does it god?

The universe gods you, and it gods me. Reality gods the mud and the flowers alike; it gods the Republicans and the Democrats alike. It godded Abu Ghraib and the Syrian refugee crisis. It godded despotic governments at the very moment they were disappearing their people and turning away aid. There is an activity of relationship between all things, an active connection of each thing with all things. In the fullest realization of God-as-transitive-verb, everything gods everything (else).

Unitarian theologican Henry Nelson Wieman, said that the “universe becomes spiritual” as
“more events become signs, as these signs take on richer content of qualitative meanings, as these meanings form a network of interconnective events comprehending all that is happening in the world.” (Wieman 23)
It would seem, to carry Wieman to his logical conclusion, that the universe will have attained total, complete and perfect spirituality when everything signifies everything else -- or when, we might say, everything gods and is godded by everything else.

Godding, then, would be the activity of building meaning by building interconnection and relationship. The butterfly in Australia gods the weather in Chicago. You god the stars and the stars god you. Joy gods sadness and sadness gods joy. This use of “god” seems to mean something like “connects with” or “interdependently arises with.” But more. This way of thinking maybe helps us see through the illusion that there are any separate things. Everything IS everything else.

Verbs need a subject -- that is, if we’re going to speak in sentences. But what if we dispensed with sentences? Could we tell the story of life, of creation, in a language without subjects or objects, a language of only verbs, a language that perhaps the Cosmos itself speaks when it whispers to itself -- or in your ear? Having no tense (because it is timeless), and being neither singular nor plural (because it is both one and many), the infinite Cosmos speaks in the infinitive.

To come, to go,
To run, to jump, to twirl.
To birth, to grow.
To laugh.
To fall, to break, to cry, to rage.
To abandon.
To return, to embrace, to love.
To wound, to bleed, to weep.
To arise.
To work, to play, to smile.
To journey.
To heal.
To arrive, to arrive, to arrive.
To bless.

* * *
This is part 3 of 3 of "God, the Verb"
See also
Part 1: What Are You Saying When You Say "God"
Part 2: Processing Theology


Processing Theology

God, the Verb, part 2

Whitehead gives us Process philosophy, and while Whitehead did write about the place of God in his philosophy, process philosophy did not become full-fledged process theology until the Unitarian Charles Hartshorne’s work expanded, extended, and revised Whitehead.

The main name in Process Theology is Charles Hartshorne. Born in 1897, Hartshorne was 103-years-old when he died in 2000. I never met him, though I could have. He was at our UU General Assembly as recently as 1994. Then 97-years-old, he participated in a seminar there put on by the Unitarian Universalist Process Theology Network, delighting attendees “with his lively, extemporaneous answers to their questions.” (Charles Hartshorne had one child, a daughter, Emily, -- who I did have the pleasure of meeting, -- in the sanctuary of Community UU, when she was visiting White Plains and attended one of our services a couple years ago.)

For Process Theology, God is not omnipotent. God is finite – changing and growing along with creation. Reality is made of events, not material substance. God, being finite and not omnipotent, doesn’t have full control of what happens. Rather, God engages with us in a process in which both we and God develop together. God changes.

God offers us possibilities the full meaning of which God doesn’t know. As we, God’s creatures, explore the offered possibilities, Creator and Creation alike learn, grow, develop, allowing new possibilities to be offered. Hartshorne held that people do not experience subjective immortality, but we do have objective immortality in that our experiences live on forever in God, who contains all that was. Just as you, throughout your life, build on your experiences, developing new experiences shaped by all prior experience, so, too, God, after your death, continues to build on your experiences. Your experiences continue to contribute to God’s new experiences for all eternity.

Yes, God transcends the world, but the world also transcends God. Yes, God creates the world, but the world also creates God. We are a part of God. Our growth is a part of God’s growth. God’s knowledge is the sum total of the knowledge of all life-forms – God’s desires the sum of the desires of life.

The emphasis on change leads to the idea that God is a verb – the active, creative principle in the universe. Buckminster Fuller, in 1940, wrote:
Here is God's purpose –
for God to me, it seems,
is a verb
not a noun,
proper or improper;
is the articulation
not the art, objective or subjective;
is loving,
not the abstraction "love" commanded or entreated;
is knowledge dynamic,
not legislative code,
not proclamation law,
not academic dogma, nor ecclesiastic canon.
Yes, God is a verb,
the most active,
connoting the vast harmonic
reordering of the universe
from unleashed chaos of energy.
And there is born unheralded
a great natural peace,
not out of exclusive
pseudo-static security
but out of including, refining, dynamic balancing.”
The traditional notion of God as creator isn’t entirely off-base, says Process Theology. There really is a connection between the function of creating and the deep mystery, awe, wonder and sense of reverence that goes with the notion “God.” God the creator wasn’t entirely off-base – but God isn’t a person-like creator. Instead, God is creativity itself.

Here’s how the poet Wild Bill Balding puts it:
God is a verb, not a noun:
'I am who I am,
I will be who I will be.'
dynamic, seething, active
web of love poured out,
given, received, exchanged,
one God in vibrant community
always on the move,
slipping through our fingers,
blowing through the nets we cast
to hold and name,
confine to nouns, to labels,
freezeframe stasis,
pinned like a butterfly,
solid, cold, controlled, lifeless.
'I am who I am,
I will be who I will be' -
not pinned down by names, labels,
buildings, traditions,
or even by nails to wood:
I am: a verb, not a noun,
living, free, exuberant,
always on the move.
Jean-Claude Koven writes:
“God is indeed a verb. He is not the creator. He is the ongoing unfoldment of creation itself. There is nothing that is not a part of this unfolding. Thus there can be nothing separate from God. . . . When we perceive God as a noun, we envision him as the creator, the architect of, and therefore separate from, his creation. Identifying ourselves as part of that creation, we see ourselves not only separate from our source but separate from each other and all other manifest things as well. . . . Once I viewed God as a verb instead of a noun, my perception of life shifted. Everything around me, manifest or no, became God. There was only God. When someone spoke to me, it was with God's voice; when I listened, it was with God's heart. As you begin to view God not as the creator but as the constantly changing dance of creation itself, you'll discover God in everything you see – including yourself.”
UU minister Stephen Phinney puts it this way:
“I believe that the holy is in the process of giving and taking of the love we have. In other words, the holy or God is the process of interchanging love.”
* * *
This is part 2 of 3 of "God, the Verb"
See also
Part 1: What Are You Saying When You Say "God"?
Part 3: Transitive, Intransitive, and God


What Are You Saying When You Say "God"?

God, the Verb, part 1

I used to have a ponytail. For seven years during the aughts decade I had a ponytail. I was aware that a ponytail makes a certain statement, and a ponytail on a man – or, person apparently presenting as male -- makes a different statement from a ponytail on a person apparently presenting as female. But what statement? What does a ponytail say? Now I have a beard – and what does that say? I don’t know. Different things to different people, I guess.

What does the word “God” say to people? (An even hairier question!) It says something, though it’s not exactly clear what. Whatever it is, does it need to be said? If it does, can it be said as well, or better, without using “the G-word”?

If I don’t know what “God” means, then I don’t know what “atheist” means either. Declaring you’re an atheist – or a theist -- makes some kind of statement. But what? Some people say they believe in God. What are they saying? Others say they don’t believe in God. What are they saying?

And is there a real disagreement here or only the appearance of a disagreement? If you say something is red, and I say no, it’s yellow, but by “red” you mean orange – and by “yellow,” I mean orange – then we don’t have a real disagreement. Thus, some people say they believe in God but not the God that the atheists don’t believe in. They agree with the atheists that that God doesn’t exist, but they believe in another one. It reminds me of the mythological beast described in an early Woody Allen essay. The “Great Roe,” he says, has "the body of a lion and the head of lion, but not the same lion."

So let me ask you some different questions.

Have you felt awe? Have you ever felt a fulsome beauty that stopped you dead in your tracks? Have you felt grandeur in the world, the planet, or the space in which it floats? Have you felt a deep humility in the face of that grandeur? Have you ever felt a oneness with another being – perhaps watching a hawk soaring across the sky felt that you, too, were soaring there – that the boundaries of your self expanded, or dropped away entirely? Have you ever felt mystery and wonder? For all the world’s tragedies and atrocities -- the holocaust, mass famines, horrible hatred and violence, have you ever felt that the entirety, the whole enchilada, the full catastrophe – the stuff we judge good and the stuff we judge bad – all of it together -- the laughter, the tears, and heartache, all added up -- all fit together somehow into a whole that, tragedy and pain and all, is good and beautiful and true?

If your answer to all those questions is “no,” then if you want to identify yourself as an atheist, I won’t quibble. If your answer to even one of those questions is “yes,” then if you still want to self-identify as an atheist, a quibble or two may be in order. To wit: Why not call that feeling a feeling of God?

Maybe one person defines God as the universe – the universe with nothing in it other than what scientists describe. Meanwhile another person defines God as a super-powered person with knowledge and desires. Two such people can have a conversation in which they each mention God. For all their differences, they are both invoking what is of ultimate concern, what is awe-inspiring, what is the source of life and beauty and mystery – that toward which an attitude of reverence is appropriate.

There are a lot of options for how to think about God. In what follows, I will look particularly at an option offered by a school of thought called Process Theology.

Process Theology began in the early 20th century, as a development from Process Philosophy, created by Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947). Whitehead, a mathematician turned philosopher, published Process and Reality in 1929.

Western thought since Plato has privileged Being over Becoming. Whitehead flipped that. He said reality is fundamentally becoming. Process is what’s fundamental, and things are just temporary manifestations of unfolding process -- as opposed to the predominant presumption that things are fundamental and that they change is nonessential, an imperfection, a design flaw.

The perfection of God, from the Platonists through Thomas Aquinas and up to modern times, was God’s unchangingness. Whitehead said change is not a bug in the system. It’s not a bug, it’s a feature. Change is not nonessential – it is the essence. The ultimate principle is creativity – the process of creating takes precedence over any product creation.

NEXT: Charles Hartshorne makes Process Philosophy into Process Theology

* * *
This is part 1 of 3 of "God, the Verb"
See also
Part 2: Processing Theology
Part 3: Transitive, Intransitive, and God


In Praise of Not Knowing

Cultivating Awe, part 3

A koan from the Book of Serenity – case number 20:
Master Dizang asked Fayan, “Where have you come from?”
“I pilgrimage aimlessly,” replied Fayan.
“What is the matter of your pilgrimage?” asked Dizang.
“I don't know'” replied Fayan.
“Not knowing is the most intimate,” remarked Dizang.
At that, Fayan experienced great enlightenment.
“Not knowing is most intimate.” Not that knowledge is a bad thing. Knowledge is great. Ignorance really is a big problem. Here's a story about that.

Many years ago when I was serving our congregation in Midland, Texas, the University of Texas of the Permian Basin -- UTPB -- was then a fairly new addition to the Texas University system. A colorful lawyer had been an important force in the creation of UTPB. During the planning and proposal stages there was concern that the region was too sparsely populated. At a public meeting for citizen input, someone asked, “Can west Texas support a four-year institution?”

The lawyer drew his breath, leaned forward, and said, “There’s enough ignorance in west Texas to support an eight-year institution.”

Yes, absolutely, ongoing continual learning and acquiring knowledge are essential to a full and engaged life. I’m just pointing out that you sometimes can deliberately set aside what you already know because it might be getting in the way of learning a new thing.

Knowledge is a tool – and it’s worth remembering that just because you have a really great wrench doesn’t mean you have to always use it. What we know – the story we have, the categories for putting things in – is very useful, but sometimes the story and categories distance us from the intimacy of a unique moment. So Dizang says, “Not knowing is most intimate.”

Or, as the Korean Zen master Seung Sahn would repeatedly tell his students, “Only don’t know.”

And we can practice that – we can undertake to cultivate openness to awe: the not knowing that stretches us. One of the options for this month’s spiritual practice in the October issue of “On the Journey” – is “Take a Walk Until the World Lights Up.” Just start walking -- in the woods or along a beach or even just down a city sidewalk – opening yourself to see, smell, hear, touch something new – or something old in a new way. Instead of your usual way of sizing things up and moving on, look through that initial quick dismissal to find the incomprehensibility behind the familiar, the perceptual expansion behind your mental map that makes you draw a new mental map. Look for something that will knock you temporarily off-kilter, and you’ll probably find it.

Sometimes we’re so sure we know what to do that we miss the little something that’s calling us to do something different.

So there’s Jonah. He’s running a small prophecy business. He knows how to do it. He knows his clientele, he has a relationship with them – he knows how far he can go, as a prophet, in criticizing them to change their ways. He knows how to work with them and motivate them on social justice projects. And then he gets an invitation – a call from God, as the story goes – for a prophesying gig in Nineveh. He doesn’t want to go. He knows his business, and the people of Nineveh aren’t Jewish and won’t listen to him.

What he knows is getting in the way of being open to the freshness of his situation. In fact, he decides to get on a boat and go in the opposite direction. But then Jonah has an experience of awe and wonder: an awesome storm – he’s swallowed up by it, as if by a giant fish. Yet he survives – wonder of wonders. Now he’s had an experience of awe, which has pulled him into the present moment, out of his usual self concerns, and re-oriented him toward kindness and compassion. Maybe he can do something helpful for Nineveh after all.

You see, that part of the story about the storm and the fish – that wasn’t just a device to get Jonah to Nineveh. It was the awe-inspiring experience that was necessary to prepare him to serve as he was then able to do.

The invitation of Yom Kippur is to take this time of the year for forgiveness, reconciliation, atonement. Set aside how well you KNOW that guy’s a jerk, and see the relationship with fresh eyes. These are called the days of awe – because a little awe can slow us down, can pull us out of habitual assessments and orient us toward kindness. Then forgiveness can happen. The work of reconciliation and atonement can properly begin. Then we can, as the saying goes, meet each other again for the first time.

These are called the days of awe because a little awe can help that happen. And when it does happen, it’s awesome. It is the feast by which we time-starved become time-fed.

* * *
This is part 3 of 3 of "Cultivating Awe"
See also
Part 1: Too Busy? Maybe You Need Some Awe
Part 2: In Praise of Being Temporarily Off-Kilter


In Praise of Being Temporarily Off-Kilter

Cultivating Awe, part 2

Big and Small Doses

Different people experience awe from different things. Overall, travel ranks high. A clear night and a star-filled sky gazed at for a while is also effective for many people. There are certain sensational films that can do it for a number of folks. Anything encountered in a massive quantity is liable to be awesome: a large school of fish, a vast field of tulips in bloom, a bustling market in India.

I mentioned previously a study where staring up at a building wasn’t as effective as staring up at tree. Although nature gets the edge, sometimes really large buildings can also be awesome. The new and the big gets our attention, forces us into the present moment. And, while a profound experience of the Grand Canyon, or standing underneath a massive murmuration of starlings can stay with you for the rest of your life, cultivating small doses of awe in the everyday boosts life satisfaction.

Can you have a small dose of bigness? Researchers into awe generally define it as “an experience of such perceptual expansion that you need new mental maps to deal with the incomprehensibility of it all.” Is it possible to have that on a daily basis?

It’s a matter of being “temporarily off-kilter in terms of your understanding of the world.” Part of that is taking yourself to unfamiliar places – exposing yourself to things you can expect to not understand at first.

Familiarity and Expertise

Another part of that is deciding to set aside your understanding. When we know a lot about something, our knowledge can actually get in the way of experiencing the thing fresh.

In his autobiography, Life on the Mississippi, Mark Twain explains how becoming knowledgeable and experienced about piloting steamboats on rivers changed his experience of rivers.
“Now when I had mastered the language of this water and had come to know every trifling feature that bordered the great river as familiarly as I knew the letters of the alphabet, I had made a valuable acquisition. But I had lost something, too. I had lost something which could never be restored to me while I lived. All the grace, the beauty, the poetry had gone out of the majestic river!”
He then describes an experience before becoming expert in the ways of riverboating: seeing a beautiful and awe-inspiring sunset over the river.
“If that sunset scene had been repeated, I should have looked upon it without rapture, and should have commented upon it, inwardly, in this fashion:
‘This sun means that we are going to have wind to-morrow; that floating log means that the river is rising, small thanks to it; that slanting mark on the water refers to a bluff reef which is going to kill somebody's steamboat one of these nights, if it keeps on stretching out like that; those tumbling 'boils' show a dissolving bar and a changing channel there; the lines and circles in the slick water over yonder are a warning that that troublesome place is shoaling up dangerously; that silver streak in the shadow of the forest is the 'break' from a new snag, and he has located himself in the very best place he could have found to fish for steamboats; that tall dead tree, with a single living branch, is not going to last long, and then how is a body ever going to get through this blind place at night without the friendly old landmark?'
No, the romance and the beauty were all gone from the river. All the value any feature of it had for me now was the amount of usefulness it could furnish toward compassing the safe piloting of a steamboat.”
Twain is wonderful at making vivid and concrete the price we sometimes pay for knowledge and expertise. But were Twain my parishioner, I would challenge him to re-examine his feeling that awe was gone for good from the river. His focus on usefulness for “compassing the safe piloting of a steamboat” may have become a habit for him – but it is still a choice. He can choose to set that habit aside. He would have to deliberately try – and I’m not sure that occurred to him.

It is possible to have knowledge, but to intentionally, temporarily set it aside. Face the river with an intention of seeing it fresh, of opening yourself to the wonder of it again. Before his expertise, he didn’t have to choose that – a striking and beautiful scene simply slapped him in the face, willy-nilly. After expertise, the awe need not be gone for good. It just requires intentional attention to cultivate.

The Way Your Fingers Tie Your Shoe

Twain then makes an analogy that I think betrays his claim of permanent loss. He says,
“I have pitied doctors from my heart. What does the lovely flush in a beauty's cheek mean to a doctor but a 'break' that ripples above some deadly disease? Are not all her visible charms sown thick with what are to him the signs and symbols of hidden decay? Does he ever see her beauty at all, or doesn't he simply view her professionally, and comment upon her unwholesome condition all to himself? And doesn't he sometimes wonder whether he has gained most or lost most by learning his trade?”
Perhaps you are, like me, wondering: did Mark Twain ever talk to a doctor about this? In my experience, doctors of either gender are as apt as anyone to notice and appreciate human beauty when they see it outside the context of professional diagnosis.

As a doctor can set aside diagnosis, and a riverboater, when not engaged in riverboating, can set aside the diagnosis of the river, so you and I can intend to set aside, temporarily, our knowledge of the familiar objects and procedures of our day. Decide, for example, to watch with amazement the intricate and flowing way that your fingers move when you tie your shoe.

* * *
This is part 2 of 3 of 'Cultivating Awe'
See also
Part 1: Too Busy? Maybe You Need Some Awe
Part 3: In Praise of Not Knowing


Too Busy? Maybe You Need Some Awe

Cultivating Awe, part 1

Awe doesn't magically create more time. It just feels like it does.

Do you feel "time-starved"? It seems a feature of contemporary life: busy-ness, busy-ness, busy-ness. Even the term, the concept, “time-starved,” is a creation of the last couple decades. A generation ago, the notion of “time-starved” would have been novel.

People are, increasingly, reporting they are time-starved.
“A December Gallup poll found that 61 percent of working Americans said they did not have enough time to do the things they wanted to do. Some of us feel this more acutely than others: A 2015 Pew Research Center survey found that 9 in 10 working mothers said they felt rushed all or some of the time.” (Laura Vanderkam, NYTimes, 2016 May 13)
But the busy-ness of our lives has two components. One component is how many hours you are actually productively working or commuting – including necessary household chores. The other component is how busy you feel.

How attached are you to your story of how busy you are? Professionals tend to overestimate work hours. We
“remember our busiest weeks as typical. This is partly because negative experiences stand out in the mind more than positive ones, and partly because we all like to see ourselves as hard-working. One study . . . found that people estimating 75-plus hour workweeks were off, on average, by about 25 hours.”
Moreover, while reports of being time-starved have been increasing, the overall time that Americans spend watching TV or streaming video has not been going down. Adults aged 25-49 average about 30 hours a week watching TV or video. Those over 50 average even more. Which raises the question: are we really as busy as we feel?

Laura Vanderkam, an author with a busy speaking schedule and a mother of four children under the age of eight,
"logged on a spreadsheet in half-hour blocks every one of the 8,784 hours that make up a leap year. I didn’t discover a way to add an extra hour to every day, but I did learn that the stories I told myself about where my time went weren’t always true. The hour-by-hour rhythm of my life was not quite as hectic as I’d thought."
Certainly, there were some times that really were frenetically busy.
“If I wanted to construct a narrative of craziness, the sort professional women in particular tell one another as we compete in the Misery Olympics, I had moments that would qualify. I pumped breast milk in Amtrak bathrooms. I was up from 11:30 p.m. to 2 a.m. with the baby one night before getting on an early flight to Tampa, Fla., where I was giving a speech. I logged hours doing laundry — sheets, blankets, pillows — as a brutal stomach bug worked its way through the gastrointestinal tracts of all four children. To catch up, I worked late at night. I worked on weekends. I worked on vacations. These data points exist, but there was plenty of evidence of a calmer life. I got eight massages. I went for long weekend runs (constituting some of the 232.75 hours I spent exercising). I went out to dinner with friends. I spent evenings after the kids went to bed sitting out on the porch, reading fashion or gossip magazines. (My reading total: 327 hours flat. It could have been War and Peace. It wasn’t.)” (Laura Vanderkam, NYTimes, 2016 May 13)
Feeling time-starved extracts a toll on health and well-being. Is there a way to do just as much but feel less stressed, hectic, frenetic?

Yes. There is.

Experiences of awe increase your perception of how much time you have.

Awe experiences also increases your orientation toward compassion, which is a crucial indicator of your own well-being. Across three different experiments, researchers found that jaw-dropping moments made participants feel like they had more time available and made them more patient, less materialistic, and more willing to volunteer time to help others.
"The researchers found that the effects that awe has on decision-making and well-being can be explained by awe’s ability to actually change our subjective experience of time by slowing it down. Experiences of awe help to bring us into the present moment which, in turn, adjusts our perception of time, influences our decisions, and makes life feel more satisfying than it would otherwise.” (Melanie Rudd, psychologicalscience.org, 2012 Jul 19)
One of the measures they use is the box of pencils drop. An experimenter pretends to accidentally drop a box of pencils. Almost every subject will help pick up the pencils -- but are they merely going through the motions of helping because there’s social pressure not to just stand there? With the pencil-drop test, experimenters measure how many pencils the subject picks up.

In studies of how money effects people, researchers used the pencil drop test and found that if people had been answering questions about money, or were just sitting near a stack of Monopoly money, they pick up fewer pencils. Just the thought of money makes people self-centered and less compassionate. But when people have been exposed to something awe-inspiring, they pick up a lot more pencils than the control group.

Awe is good for you. Your awe is also good for the people around you.

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This is part 1 of 3 of "Cultivating Awe"
See also
Part 2: In Praise of Being Temporarily Off-Kilter
Part 3: In Praise of Not Knowing


Simultaneous Experience of Opposites

Why is There Awe? part 3

Psychologists say awe is a form of self-transcendence. You transcend, step outside of your usual sense of yourself. The boundaries between yourself and others blurs.

Neurologically, what’s happening is decreased activity in the brain’s parietal lobe. The parietal lobe contributes to our spatial sense of self and orients us in the physical world. And that in itself is kind of awesome. We tend to think that the sense of “me,” and the difference between “me” and other is just a feature of reality, but, no, there’s a particular part of your brain whose job it is to create that sense – to generate the useful illusion that there is a distinct “me,” spatially located “here.” When that parietal lobe calms down a bit, the illusion of self is a little less robust, and we see through it to oneness and connectedness.

Relatedly, the autonomic nervous system is gearing up when awe happens. The autonomic nervous system has some circuitry for calming us down, and it also has some circuitry for arousing us for fight or flight. Normally, the autonomic nervous system is either generating one or the other -- calmness or arousal -- one side comes on, and the other side shuts down. You can also be somewhere in between: not particularly calm, but not particularly aroused either. But experiences of awe involve both heightened calmness and heightened arousal at the same time.

Think about when you’ve experienced awe, didn’t it seem both exciting and calming at the same time? It’s extraordinary.

There’s also another mix of simultaneous opposites: a sense of mystery and unknowability, with the sense of knowing and insight. It feels like seeing something, at last, clearly – while at the same time having a sense of impenetrable, profound mystery. Paul Piff, psychology professor, says, “An awe-inspiring thing can be literally large or just conceptually large, but in either case your current understanding or frame of reference can’t accommodate it.” We’re like the baby going into a tunnel – nothing in our past experience has prepared us for it. Awe is a connection to something vast and mysterious – something impressive and powerful.

If you gaze into the sky on a clear rural night – or stand beneath an impressively large tree staring up at it -- you can get a sense of wonder almost right away. If you keep gazing, relaxing your shell, you might break into awe.

Billions of stars, balls of fire bigger than imagination, yet farther away than you can conceive. Billions of plant cells photosynthesizing, and carrying sap and making wood. There’s a sense of power in that vastness – and mystery. Vast, mysterious, powerful – just what our ancestors (and many today) call God.

The feeling of awe, studies show, appears to increase people’s feeling of connectedness and willingness to help others. People are more likely to behave altruistically after an experience of awe. One 2012 study found that awe had a social bonding effect that included reducing impatience and causing “people to perceive that they had more time available.”

Events that induce awe are among the fastest and most powerful drivers of personal change and growth. “Awe,” says psychologist Robert Leahy, “is the opposite of rumination.” Awe
“clears away inner turmoil with a wave of outer immensity. . . . Being in awe is losing yourself in something or someone else. The anxious person’s sense that ‘it’s all about me; I must control my situation’ disappears.”
Awe experiences teach that “it’s not about you.”

Confronted with grandness, we feel small – but not small as in ashamed or humiliated. Small yet connected to something much bigger – which makes us big -- and small at the same time.

Subjects who saw an awe-inspiring video were more generous than those who watched a humorous video, and they behaved more ethically in lab experiments. They helped the study’s investigator pick up more pens that were “accidentally” dropped, and they showed less of a sense of entitlement. Some of the subjects watched a video showing droplets of colored water “colliding with a bowl of milk” in super-slow motion. These subjects then exhibited higher pro-social behavior.

Other subjects watched awe-inspiring videos of destructive forces with potential to wreak harm: tornadoes and volcanoes. These subjects also exhibited the pro-social behavior. In another study, subjects were taken to the tallest hardwood grove in North America and were asked to look up at the eucalyptus trees, some exceeding 200 feet, for one minute. The control group went to a more urban area and looked up at a plain, tall building for one minute. Sure enough, the tree-gazers felt more awe and were happier precisely because of what they felt. They also acted more generously in a lab test and reported feeling less entitled than the building-gawkers.

There wouldn’t seem to be much fear mixed in with the sensation of gazing up at trees. But it is a milder form of something that pulls you out of yourself – something that, in more intense versions, would get scary.

In any case, it seems to be good for you.

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This is part 3 of 3 of "Why Is There Awe?"
See also
Part 1: Awe is Scary Wonder
Part 2: What Evokes Awe?