Mercy v. Justice

Mercy Sakes! part 1

Mercy. It seems to be a species of compassion -- especially that compassion represented in forbearing from punishment, leniency, or forgiveness. Since it is unearned, it also overlaps substantially with grace.

One thing that uniquely emerges with mercy – that isn’t indicated in compassion or forgiveness or grace -- is the challenging relationship it has with justice. If justice is treating like cases alike – following rules about what sort of crime warrants what punishment, and applying those rules fairly and equally, then mercy looks like deciding to be unjust. If the judge is merciful to one convicted defendant but not others, that’s not fair. And if the judge is merciful to all of them, then that’s not mercy – it’s just that judge’s rules of procedure.

Mercy has not been a great focus of attention among Unitarian Universalists, but justice is. In the seven principles which Unitarian Universalist congregations covenant to affirm and promote, justice is the only word – other than articles, conjunctions, and prepositions – that appears twice. It’s in the second principle: “Justice, equity, and compassion in human relationships.” And it’s in the sixth principle: “The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.” Justice is big for us. So if there’s something called mercy that is at odds with justice, we need to look at that. We need understand how this mercy-justice relationship works, and begin to integrate that into how we are in the world.

St. Anselm, the 11th-century theologian and philosopher articulated what appeared to be a problem for imagining God to be both just and merciful:
“But how canst thou spare the wicked if thou art wholly just and supremely just? For how does the wholly and supremely just do something that is not just? We can find no reason to explain why, among men who are equally evil, thou does save some, and not others, through thy supreme goodness, and does condemn the latter, and not the former, through thy supreme justice.”
The issue was dramatized in Shakespeare’s "Merchant of Venice." Antonio offers a pound of his flesh closest his heart as guarantee of a loan. When the loan is not repaid, Shylock claims his pound of flesh. Portia then tells Shylock he must be merciful. Shylock retorts, “On what compulsion must I? Tell me that.” Portia then famously explains,
“The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.”
“Not strained” means we cannot be constrained to be merciful. Mercy can’t be compelled. If it’s compelled, it isn’t mercy. To Shylock's question, on what compulsion must I be merciful? the answer is there's no compulsion. It's not about compulsion.

Justice, on the other hand, IS about compulsion: there are principles of fairness that rightfully do constrain our behavior. On Portia's account, mercy doesn’t work that way. Mercy just happens, the way gentle rain falls on the ground. When it does, it blesses both giver and receiver.

A few lines later, Portia makes the point: “in the course of justice none of us should see salvation.”

Wait. What? None? OK, I think I see our problem here. If justice is understood as that which, strictly adhered to, condemns us all, then we need a new idea of justice. Alas, the idea that we all deserve damnation is our Western heritage. Theologians and priests for centuries emphasized what sinners we are. They gave us a picture of ourselves as fundamentally corrupt at our core. Every one of us is so profoundly, inherently sinful, that if we got what we deserved, we’d all be thrown to the worst punishment we can imagine.

So mercy enters the picture. No one is good enough to deserve going to heaven on their own merits, but some people get in just because of God’s benevolent mercy.

The Church has generally avoided stating precisely how many would receive this grace. (The Jehovah’s Witnesses are an exception. They teach that exactly 144,000 faithful Christians will go to heaven to rule with Christ in the Kingdom of God.) Mostly, only a rough sense of the proportions was indicated. In John Calvin’s theology, for instance, it seems like very few. I get the impression from Calvin that he imagines maybe something around 2 percent of all people will get to heaven. Our forebears, the Universalists, taught that God’s benevolent mercy extends to all -- every person will go to heaven. We get our name, Universalists, from this doctrine of universal salvation. But even the Universalists, for the most part, didn’t think people deserved it, or had earned it. Justice would condemn, but God’s mercy saves. On that point, the Calvinists and the Universalists agreed -- they merely disagreed on how many of us God’s mercy saves.

Through the 20th century, Unitarians and Universalists slowly shed the sense that sin – inner corruption – was humanity’s essential feature. Instead, we began to see human suffering in terms of disconnection: the deprivation (in the lower classes) and alienation (in any class) that accompanies uprootedness from healthy community of care, respect, meaning, and opportunity.

We stand, as ever, in need of justice: not justice as punishment for our wickedness, not justice in the course of which none of us should see salvation, but justice as the construction of fairness in the face of oppressions that undermine community, justice as healing the wounds of separation, justice as the restoration of belonging. We stand, as ever, in need of mercy: not mercy as respite from harsh punishment (though we could use a lot more of that, too), but mercy AS reconnecting justice.

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This is part 1 of 3 of "Mercy Sakes!"
See also
Part 2: Sin v. Disconnection
Part 3: Justice AND Mercy

What Is Mercy?
Just Mercy


What Is Mercy?

Words do twist and meander, don’t they? The etymology says mercy comes from Latin mercedem (reward, wages, pay hire) and merx (wares, merchandise). “See market,” it says! (etymonline.com.) The Latin root also gives us mercenarius (mercenary -- originally any laborer hired for wages), Mercury (the Roman god of commerce), and merces (bribe). The market doesn’t give away merchandise for free, and wages or payment for hire are given to those who do some work (or at least appear or promise to). Wages have to be earned, and so does merchandise insofar as earned wages must be exchanged for them. How did this merx turn into mercy – a thing necessarily unearned? How did pay hire and merchandise turn into compassionate forbearance?

By the 6th century, the sense of “wages, reward” had morphed, in Christian usage, into the reward God extends to those who show kindness to the helpless. The primary text for this idea that God's mercy is payment/reward to those who show mercy is Matthew 5:7, from the Sermon on the Mount:
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”
Matthew's line about mercy is not repeated in the Luke Sermon on the Plain (though much of the Matthew Sermon on the Mount is), leading some scholars to suppose the line may be a construction by "Matthew." The Greek root is eleos (hence eleemones, "merciful," and eleethesontai "will receive mercy"): "kindness or good will toward the miserable and afflicted, joined with a desire to relieve them" (Thayer; Vincent). In the Latin Vulgate Bible, created in the late 4th-century, Matt 5:7 is:
"beati misericordes quia ipsi misericordiam consequentur."
Misericordes is from miseria "misery, distress, woe, wretchedness, suffering," hence the verb misereor "to pity (the miserable)" -- but already, in Vulgar Latin, mercedem "reward, pay" and miseria had become somewhat intermingled, as mercedem came to mean "favor or pity." Alms to a beggar, for instance, is both payment and pity.

As conversion to Christianity spread north from Rome in the 5th- and 6th-centuries, missionaries speaking Vulgar Latin used mercedem to mean "reward, a bargain, or a blessing." This usage became accepted in Gaul, and elsewhere, where, for centuries the Classical Latin term for wages, merchandise, and trade had been resisted as representing everything that was despised about the occupiers. (The Old French began using the word to express appreciation, shortening it to mercit, hence merci.)

I read Matt 5:7, whether Jesus actually said the words or "Matthew" put them in his mouth, as making the important point that love is all around; that to receive it we have but to open our hearts; and both the cause and effect of an opened heart is a welling up of love for others. I don’t read the Sermon on the Mount as talking about extrinsic reward from a cosmic third-party -- yet that is the reading that was the emerging orthodoxy of the early medieval church. “Isn’t this a little odd?” I might have said (in Latin) to a Medieval priest. “The mercy I showed -- my kindness in aiding the helpless -- was not any kind of reward or payment for anything. The recipient didn’t earn it. But God’s mercy is then tendered as a reward I earned (by being merciful). That doesn’t seem quite right. On the one hand, it debases me: my act of kindness has been turned into a service for which I get paid. On the other hand, it debases God: if I am ennobled by extending unearned mercy, wouldn’t that mean God is debased by extending mercy only when we earn it?” Next thing I’d know, I’d be arrested, tortured, and executed as a dangerous heretic. Sigh.

Over time, the meaning morphed further. The sense of payment from God for good behavior became muted, and the emphasis on God's mercy as unearned and unearnable grew. What started as a word for merchandise and wages became a name for something quite removed from marketplace values. By the 13th century, we see “mercy” being used to mean a disposition to forgive or show compassion. It took a long time for the derivatives of merx and mercedem to become translations of the Greek eleos and the Latin misereor.

While the uses of mercy today are not always entirely shed of associations with extrinsic payment to those who merit it, I am encouraged to find that contemporary writings on the topic of mercy often address social justice issues.
Mercy has come a long way, and has come to have a meaning that our times need. Certainly we need compassion and pity, forgiveness and grace, humility and magnanimity. We also need a concept that brings all of those together into one thing – a virtue which, as it did for Tolkien’s Bilbo in the postscript below, shapes our character into a counterweight to evil.


From J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, Book 1, Chapter 2.
“But this is terrible!” cried Frodo. “Far worse than the worst that I imagined from your hints and warnings. O Gandalf, best of friends, what am I to do? For now I am really afraid. What am I to do? What a pity that Bilbo did not stab that vile creature, when he had a chance!”

“Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need. And he has been well rewarded, Frodo. Be sure that he took so little hurt from the evil, and escaped in the end, because he began his ownership of the Ring so. With Pity.”

“I am sorry,” said Frodo. “But I am frightened; and I do not feel any pity for Gollum.”

“You have not seen him,” Gandalf broke in.

“No, and I don’t want to,” said Frodo. “I can’t understand you. Do you mean to say that you, and the Elves, have let him live on after all these horrible deeds? Now at any rate he is as bad as an Orc, and just an enemy. He deserves death.”

“Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. For even the very wise cannot see all ends. I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it. And he is bound up with the fate of the Ring. My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and when that comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many – yours not least.”
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See related:
Three-post series, "Mercy Sakes!" (BEGINS HERE)
Four-post series, "Just Mercy" (BEGINS HERE)


Politics and No-Self

What would be the political implications of mass awareness that the self is an illusion? Arriving at and integrating that awareness through a devoted spiritual practice generally facilitates a pro-social orientation -- caring and compassion for others. But suppose the increasing reliance on artificial intelligence algorithms leads us to abandon the illusion of self that has been so powerful in the human psyche for millenia. What then? Hard to say.

Yuval Harari's new book, Homo Deus, argues that automation is making people unnecessary. In particular, the less powerful people (a.k.a. the masses) may come to be regarded as unnecessary by companies and governments. Japan and Europe provide free health care to their populations, and even the myopic US has some form of social safety net. Harari's point is that one of the motivations for government programs that take care of people is to strengthen their industry and their army. But if a country's industrial and military needs can be met with robots, governments may have no reason to care about people.

As the recent election made even more clear, voters have no particular interest in electing politicians that care about them, or in policies that promote their well-being. If governments decide that people are disposable, the people themselves will not be inclined to disagree. A majority of us have been taught to blame ourselves for our misfortunes and discount the benefits of cooperatively working together to ensure we are all taken care of.
"The reason to build all these mass social service systems was to support strong armies and strong economies. Already the most advanced armies don’t need [as many] people. The same might happen in the civilian economy." (Yuval Harari, "The Post-Human World," Atlantic, 2017 Feb 20)
Indeed, we are, in certain ways, already beginning to lose the need for our selves -- or certain parts of ourselves. We are increasingly handing over to algorithms our very own decision-making judgment -- traditionally a central aspect of what makes us who we are.
"Look at GPS applications....Today, everybody is blindly following what Waze is telling them. They’ve lost the basic ability to navigate by themselves. If something happens to the application, they are completely lost. You reach a juncture on the road, and you trust the algorithm. Maybe the junction is your career. Maybe it’s the decision to get married. But you trust the algorithm rather than your own intuition. The most important invention that’s spreading now is biometric sensors. They may become ubiquitous. Humans will consult their biometric data to determine how to live. That is really interesting and scary stuff, because we will no longer be in charge of our identity. We will outsource our executive decisions to biometric readings of our neurochemical signals to decide how to live." (Harari)
In the not-too-distant future, perhaps, we won't even decide for ourselves what to have for dinner. Some Artificial Intelligence with access to our biometric readings will tell us what foods will best contribute to our health and happiness. What's left of "me" if I'm not even deciding for myself what to have for dinner?
"What really happens is that the self disintegrates. It’s not that you understand your true self better, but you come to realize there is no true self. There is just a complicated connection of biochemical connections, without a core. There is no authentic voice that lives inside you....The very idea of an individual that exists, which has been so precious to us, is in danger." (Harari)
But "the self disintegrates" isn't quite right. Rather, the illusion of a self disintegrates. When a person comes "to realize there is no true self," they are aware of what has always been the case but they didn't know it.

Longtime meditators grow accustomed and familiar with the arising of thoughts. Thoughts simply arise. Sitting and watching them arise, we become aware that there was no decision for a given thought to arise -- it just appears. Spending some time with this awareness, day after day, gradually leads to integrating the understanding that our thoughts are not us -- our thoughts are just something that happens to us, like a cold, or a traffic jam. In meditation we see for ourselves what the Buddha taught: there is no self.

If Yuval Harari is right, then popular neurobiology and artificial intelligence algorithms are now leading nonmeditators to understand what meditators have understood for centuries: the "very idea of an individual that exists, which has been precious to us" has always been an illusion.

The path of meditation tends to cultivate compassion and lovingkindness along with insight into the emptiness of our concepts of self. Along that path, there is a natural connection between seeing the way the ego constructs its illusions and feeling an opening of the heart to care for other beings. The path of artificial intelligence may be different. Algorithms may make better decisions than the wet-ware inside our skulls -- and growing comfortable with that may, as Harari suggests, have the effect of disabusing us of our notions of a transcendent "decider" soul. It's just wet-ware (100 billion neurons firing across 100 trillion synapses) on the one hand and microchips on the other hand. But this path of arriving at the insight of no-self might do nothing to improve our compassion.

It might, indeed, merely facilitate a growing assumption on the part of our governments and our corporate leadership that humans are superfluous -- an assumption we might be increasingly making about ourselves.


Evolving Religion

"Church! Huh! What Is It Good For?" part 3

Religion came to early humans as both a blessing and a curse. Faith community provided a feeling of connection, of at-home-ness, of being with our people, and in a world that made sense, just where we belonged. This blessing made early communities cohesive, and that cohesiveness proved essential to survival.

We need the blessing today as much as ever: overcoming alienation with community belonging and overcoming stress and greed with greater spiritual awakening. We need moral grounding today as much as ever, and we seem to be losing it.

At the same time, we need forms of religion that don’t do what religions often have done: inculcate intolerance and distrust of outsiders. The future holds to us the possibility of expanding the circle.

We can learn to take our sense of US-ness that evolution wired into us, and keep expanding it until it takes in, well, everything. Expand US until there is no THEM. All beings are US.

Just as nature wired into us a need for faith community, so it wired into us a propensity for going further with that capacity. Our inherited structures that made us able to bind together for war are available to be appropriated to connect us to live in peace and justice, without domination, or mastery, or hegemony. What evolution created for one purpose can now be put to a new purpose.

This is the method of transcendence that nature has often taken. When we think of evolution of abilities, we think of incremental improvements in serving a given purpose -- like the eye, starting with a layer of photosensitive cells and slowly getting better and better at seeing. An important part of evolution, however, lies not in incremental improvements of a function, but the abandoning of the original function and appropriating the capacity for a completely different purpose from the one it originally served.

  • Mammalian forelimbs turned into bat wings – or, going another direction, into dolphin fins -- though the original purpose of forelimbs had nothing to do with either flying or swimming.
  • Insect antennae turned into mandibles, with a function completely different from antennae.
  • A jaw bone in dinosaurs, fish, and reptiles emerged for reasons that had nothing to do with hearing, but, in mammals, that small bone was appropriated and made into a part of the auditory system.
  • An ancestor of wasps and bees had an ovipositor (egg-laying tube). It was there to lay eggs, not to sting with -- yet it was appropriated and made into a stinger.
  • Before there were land animals, certain fish developed a swim bladder, which they could fill with gas, usually air. This allowed the fish to stay at a given depth without expending energy on swimming. The swim bladder evolved into the lung of the earliest lungfish – and from there into the lungs of land animals. This device for staying at a given depth in water turned into the essential step for moving onto land -- which was entirely different from the purpose for which it originally evolved.

Structures that served one purpose get put to very different purposes. It happens all the time. The fact that we evolved with a given structure or tendency does not obligate us to continue the purpose for which that structure or tendency evolved. Evolution has never been under any such constraint; if it were, then swim bladders would never have turned into lungs, and we’d all still be fishes. (It's easy to miss just how radical a point this is. Through millennia of Western civilization we have been making moral arguments "from nature": that certain actions -- for example, certain sexual actions -- were "unnatural," and therefore wrong, because they violated the purpose of, for instance, reproductive organs. It turns out nature herself repurposes organs.)

Building upon its inheritance, the lungfish transcended that inheritance and became a new thing on this earth. Bats and dolphins, mandibular and stinging insects, mammalian auditory systems -- and, one way or another, ultimately every complex feature of every species -- built upon its inheritance to transcend that inheritance and become a new thing on this earth.

We, too, may transcend our inheritance: put the wiring that enabled cohesive war-fighting to a new use, building peace. The wiring that finds such comfort and delight in the company of friends, gets active during spiritual experience, and orients us to live in peace within our group, is available for being universalized beyond our group. In this case, we don't even need any further genetic evolution. We already have the necessary neural structures of social orientation. With the appropriate training of those neural structures, we can teach ourselves to expand our perceived circle of "us" until there is no “them.”

Building upon our inheritance, we can transcend that inheritance and become a new thing on this earth. Our spiritual perception can plumb more deeply, can see more than just what selective pressures once needed our ancestors to see. My awareness can be trained to know, more thoroughly than cognition alone can know, that all humans are I, all sentient beings are I; all bugs and plants, all amoebas, paramecia, bacteria, and fungi are I; all rocks and dirt, rivers and oceans; air and fire; sun, moon, and stars are I.

Church, huh? What is it good for? “Arms to hold us when we falter. A circle of healing. A circle of friends. Someplace where we can be free.” And strength that joins our strength to do the work of building a peaceful and just world. What is it good for? Could be everything.

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This is part 3 of 3 of "Church! Huh! What Is It Good For?"
See also
Part 1: Where Religion Came From
Part 2: Religion and Social Health


Religion and Social Health

"Church! Huh! What Is It Good For?" part 2

“People who frequently participate together in religious rituals achieve a feeling of community that enhances their ability to cooperate and avoid conflict. Even though they may not be conscious of it, they also are able to monitor one another for the sincerity of their commitment, thus making participation in religious rituals a credible signal of commitment.” (William Irons, 2001, 364)
That's where religion comes from. Shared rituals would have included music, drumming, and dance, and a variety of ritual behaviors to perform and watch others perform. Sacred stories supported the group's moral code and reinforced the group's identity.

And a third thing: Early humans attributed a stronger sense of agency than most modern humans do to trees, rivers, mountains, animals, sky, and, perhaps, "reality as a whole." They understood these features of their world to have beliefs, desires, and various means for effecting their desires. They understood trees and rocks and sky to be watching them. This probably triggered the same parts of the brain that account for gossip's effectiveness. Feeling watched made them more likely to "stay in line."

Through the rituals, the stories -- and this sense of being watched and accountable even when other people aren’t around to see -- religion is a cohesive power.

This shows up in studies of communes – communities that hold property in common. Communes often do not last long: if you were a young adult in the 1960s, you may have some direct experience of that. They tend to fall apart because the level of trust and cooperation required is just so difficult to maintain. Studies have found, though, that “communes that base their existence on religious ideals tend to last roughly four times as long on average as do those that base their existence on a secular ideology.” Groups with shared rituals and sacred stories cohere better. Marxist or Skinnerian Behaviorist communes could have benefited from some good hymns -- as well as other features of religion.

So here’s the upshot: Religion is an adaptive strategy fostering group cohesion in larger groups than can be managed by gossip alone.

Religion gives us a sense of US. The corollary is that it also gives us a sense of THEM – a feeling that those who don’t participate with us in our rituals and story-telling are different, are other, and dangerous.

So here’s the further upshot: We have religion because we had war. War places a premium on group cohesion, and “religion” is the rituals and stories that produced what was needed. War! (Huh!) Church! (Huh!) What are they good for? Each other!

It’s no wonder that human history is filled with wars over religion. This fact once seemed to me ironic and perverse. Why do people have wars over religion, when the religion on both sides teaches peace? But it's hardly surprising that an adaptation for succeeding in war would play a role in prompting us to go to war.

Part Two: What Religion Does Today

Faith community meets real human needs. It feeds people spiritually. But it has also facilitated war, from its very beginning. And, more often than not, it is related to social problems. A recent study in The Journal of Religion and Society did a large-scale cross-cultural comparative analysis, taking into account key indicators of societal well-being for 800 million people in the U.S., Japan, and western Europe. The study found that higher levels of religiosity correlated with lower levels of social well-being. The U.S., where church attendance is high, has had more school shootings than all of Europe and Japan combined. The study found:
“in general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy, and abortion. The most theistic prosperous democracy, the U.S., is . . . almost always the most dysfunctional of the developing democracies, sometimes spectacularly so. The view of the U.S. as a ‘shining city on the hill’ to the rest of the world is falsified when it comes to basic measures of societal health.” (Gregory S. Paul, “Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies,” The Journal of Religion and Society, 7, 2005. View complete article: HERE.)
Europe scores lower than the US on measures of religiosity and higher than the US on measures of social health and well-being. In Europe, a lot fewer people are in prison -- and a lot fewer people are in church.

Religion reinforces a moral code, binds members into community through ritual and story, and triggers our brains to perceive a transcendent, interconnected whole beyond and more deeply satisfying than the concerns of personality and ego. But at what social cost? Is there a way for religion to be more pro-social? Yes, there is.

Next: Evolving a Better Religion

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This is part 2 of 3 of "Church! Huh! What Is It Good For?"
See also
Part 1: Where Religion Came From
Part 3: Evolving Religion


Where Religion Came From

"Church! Huh! What Is It Good For?" part 1

In 1970, in the midst of the Vietnam war, Edwin Starr made the charts with a protest song: “War (What is it Good For?)” “Absolutely nothing,” was the song’s answer.

“Church” – or any sort of faith congregation: synagogue, mosque, temple, sangha, vihara – actually is good for quite a lot, though it turns out religion and war have a shared origin.

As Starhawk said:
“Somewhere, there are people to whom we can speak with passion without having the words catch in our throats. Somewhere a circle of hands will open to receive us, eyes will light up as we enter, voices will celebrate with us whenever we come into our power.”
Don’t we need that? In these times of political turmoil, of social conflict and apparent chaos in our national government, we need more than ever a way to come together so that “I” can become “we”; “me” can become “us.” We are wired to have this need.

I want to look today at where this need came from – so we can understand it better. Religion was an adaptation to the conditions of early humans. But how adaptive is religion to modern conditions? The role of religion in modern society is problematic. Let’s ask whether there is a better way to adapt our wiring to modern conditions so we have more faith and more community and less war and conflict.

Part One: Where Religion Came From

The emergence of coherent society begins with reciprocal altruism. My survival chances were enhanced if I did favors for associates who would later do favors for me – although, if I went too far, allowed myself to be taken advantage of by doing favors for associates who would never reciprocate, then my survival odds diminished. In order for a reciprocity system to work, we had to have brains “capable of carefully tracking the behavior of the other organisms with which [we] interact.” (W. Irons) So there was selective pressure to develop the capacity to track and remember others’ behavior.

A second force in the emergence of society was the need for groups to cooperate in order to out-compete other groups. Bands of primates, generally males, competed violently with other bands for food, for territory, for access to females. We see that going on in chimps today – and on campuses. This group-group competition was a powerful force driving us toward formation of larger and better-united groups. Social cohesion required rules, and some method of communicating and enforcing them – keeping most of the members more-or-less in line most of the time. These selective pressures turned our ancestors into the sorts of beings with a facility for learning moral rules.

Reciprocal altruism gradually turned into a system of moral rules. Language allowed us to keep tabs on more and more of each other, which let us maintain a larger group, which allowed a more cohesive and larger fighting force and a better chance of defeating rival groups. Our ancestors learned a technique that we readily recognize and still use, though sometimes we say we don't like it: we call it gossip. Our ancestors met in small groups to monitor others' behavior and moralize about it.

Gossip emerged among early humans because it worked. It tracked who was trustworthy, reinforced the social ties of the gossipers, and strengthened the moral rules of the tribe. There are solid evolutionary reasons why we humans are attracted to gossiping. It’s a part of the system of maintaining the social order.

There is, however, a limit to how far gossip can go. Researchers find that moral rules reinforced through gossip can maintain unity up to about 150 members. Indeed, gossip magazines today maintain a list of no more than 150 celebrities that they keep up with the gossip about. More than that, and it’s too much to keep up with – the gossip just doesn’t pull us in. Larger groups need to be held together with something else. That's where religion comes in.

Religion facilitates cooperation among a group's members by serving to reinforce commitments to each other in a recognizable way. Participating in a group's rituals psychologically reinforces your actual commitment to the group and also lets the group know you're committed to them.
“participation in a ritual tends to alter individuals' brain states and to cause them to feel emotions of identity with a group more strongly and to hold this feeling more firmly in memory.” (Eugene Aquili, The Spectrum of Ritual, 1979)
Reciting and listening to sacred stories works the same way: it bonds us to the group with which we share the story.

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This is Part 1 of 3 of "Church! Huh! What Is It Good For?"
See also
Part 2: Religion and Social Health
Part 3: Evolving Religion


Protecting Faith While Preventing Discrimination

Washington State began recognizing same-sex marriages in 2012. In 2013, Barronelle Stutzman, owner of Arlene's Flowers in Richland, WA, refused to provide flowers for the wedding of Robert Ingersoll and Curt Freed. Ms. Stutzman
"knew that Mr. Ingersoll and Mr. Freed were gay and had sold them flowers for years, but then refused to provide flowers for their wedding. Her Christian faith, which defined marriage as between a man and a woman, created a line, she said, that she could not cross." (NYT, Feb 16)
Wait. If her faith defines marriage as between a man and a woman, then, in the eyes of her faith, the event for which Ingersoll and Freed were requesting flowers was NOT a wedding. The couple may have called it a wedding, and the State of Washington may have recognized the result as a marriage, but Stutzman is not being asked to recognize it as a marriage. She can say, "My faith doesn't recognize this as a real wedding. I am simply providing flowers for this social occasion that, in form, resembles a wedding." For her, it's just one more sale of many she had previously made to Ingersoll and Freed.

Recognizing legitimate marriages is required of, say, insurance companies who offer policies that protect one's spouse. If there are any rights or benefits afforded to married couples but not to unrelated friends, then same-sex married couples are as entitled to those benefits as opposite-sex married couples are. But recognizing the legitimacy of a marriage is not required of florists. Florists only have to sell flowers without discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation. As long as the florist avoids offering any benefit -- a special discount, say -- to couples who prove they are married, she can have any opinion she wishes to have of the legitimacy or illegitimacy of any "marriage." So Stutzman could have sold the flowers while at the same time, in her own mind and heart, in accordance with her faith, regarding the "wedding" as fake. In this way, Stutzman would remain true to her faith and the couple would get their flowers.

But Stutzman didn't do that. Instead, she refused to sell the flowers. Ingersoll and Freed then sued Stutzman for violating the Washington Law Against Discrimination, which added sexual orientation to its list of protected characteristics in 2006. Currently 19 states -- and Washington is one of them -- ban discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. In the 31 other states, Ingersoll and Freed might have had a tougher case to make.

In the case, State of Washington v. Arlene's Flowers, Stutzman's attorney argued that flower arrangement is artistic expression and is thus protected as free speech. Speech? OK, then what would the florist supposedly be saying by providing flowers? According to Stutzman's side, providing flowers would say Stutzman endorses the wedding.
"She believes that participating, or allowing any employee of her store to participate, in a same-sex wedding by providing custom floral arrangements and related customer service is tantamount to endorsing marriage equality for same-sex couples." (Washington v. Arlene's Flowers)
This is nonsense. Businesses such as restaurants, bakeries, and florists may deny service to unruly customers, or to any customer that doesn't follow a set procedure for ordering -- as in the Seinfeld episode where the Soup Nazi denies service to Elaine. They may not, however, deny service on the the basis that service signals approval when, in fact, the service does not signal approval (a point I argued HERE). Does hiring a person indicate approval of the person's particular or general non-work-related habits? No. Does renting housing to a person indicate approval of the person's particular or general habits? No. Does producing and selling a cake (with no message on it, or with only a generic message like "Congratulations") indicate approval of the context in which it will be displayed or eaten? No. Nor does providing flowers for an event signal approval of the event.
"The decision to either provide or refuse to provide flowers for a wedding does not inherently express a message about that wedding. As Stutzman acknowledged at deposition, providing flowers for a wedding between Muslims would not necessarily constitute an endorsement of Islam, nor would providing flowers for an atheist couple endorse atheism." (Washington v. Arlene's Flowers)
The only "statement" Stutzman would be making by selling the flower arrangements is that Stutzman is a florist.

It's pretty clear-cut. The lower court ruled in the couple's favor, and the 9-Justice State Supreme Court ruled unanimously in upholding the lower court.

David French, writing for National Review, characterizes the court's ruling as meaning
"a florist was bound by state law to use her artistic talents to design floral arrangements to celebrate what she viewed as an immoral event: a gay wedding."
But, of course, (1) said florist is not bound to celebrate anything. She only has to provide her business services without discrimination. Selling flowers to an event does not constitute celebrating that event. (2) Her faith says that same-sex weddings are nonexistent. Again: since her faith defines marriage as between a man and woman, then a wedding-like ceremony between two men is not a real wedding -- even if the couple, their families, and Washington State happen to regard it as real. As the Court's opinion notes:
"Stutzman is an active member of the Southern Baptist church. It is uncontested that her sincerely held religious beliefs include a belief that marriage can exist only between one man and one woman." (Washington v. Arlene's Flowers)
It's not that Stutzman believes same-sex marriage to be wrong or immoral. Rather, her faith belief is that no such marriage can exist.

Might Stutzman regard it as immoral to simulate a wedding? If so, she would have to regard every play or movie with a wedding scene in it as immoral. That is not a position that Southern Baptists have taken. In any case, Stutzman did not argue that she found it immoral to engage in what she regarded as a simulation of a wedding.

A distinction between actual marriage and apparent marriage is familiar to us from the concept of annulment. Catholic doctrine holds that a marriage is annulled when it is determined that the marriage, despite initial appearances, did not actually exist. Annulment occurs when a diocesan tribunal decides that no marriage covenant was created because the wedding was conducted under false pretenses. Pretenses which might later be discovered to have been false include: openness and honesty, maturity, emotional stability, full consent, and appropriate motivation. Thus, faith organizations sometimes determine that a "wedding" wasn't a real wedding. Similarly, Stutzman may take the position that, in the eyes of her faith, there was no real wedding.

Looking at the Catholic list of grounds for annulment, raises the question: May a florist refuse to provide flowers for a wedding in which the florist has strong reasons to believe that the parties lack emotional stability, haven't given full consent, or aren't appropriately motivated? Proprietors may, as mentioned, refuse service for a variety of reasons -- generally having to do with the customer's behavior on the business premises. It would certainly be highly unusual to refuse service for a wedding on these grounds, and I don't know how the courts would end up ruling. On the one hand, sale of flowers does not endorse, or approve -- or "celebrate" -- the wedding. On the other hand, if the parties to the marriage (or "marriage") are not in a protected class, perhaps the courts would allow that denial of service. There is no Washington law forbidding discrimination against people planning to wed under false pretenses -- but there is a law forbidding discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. My point is that annulment has been around a long time, and it is based on a distinction with which we are accustomed and familiar: between apparent marriages and actual marriages. When it comes to whether a wedding, same-sex or opposite-sex, is apparent or actual, churches and individuals are free to have an opinion differing from the state's.

The sincerely-held religious belief in question denies the existence -- not the morality -- of same-sex marriage. (By contrast, that same religious belief does deny the morality, and not the existence, of sexual relations between members of the same sex -- though this moral judgment had not previously prevented Stutzman from selling flowers to a couple she knew to to be gay.) Ingersoll and Freed were asking Stutzman to sell flowers for what she was religiously bound to regard as a simulation of a wedding -- which her religion does not forbid. The Washington Supreme Court's opinion, alas, does not make this point. That's too bad. Allowing for individuals to make faith-based determinations about which marriages are "real" -- as long as those determinations do not result in denying a benefit that would otherwise be provided -- protects faith while also preventing discrimination.


I Don't Deserve a Donut

"The Desertless Life" part 3

In the last post, I concluded, "The idea of deserving something positive can be replaced, in some cases, with policies creating entitlements. In other cases, desert can be replaced with notions of reward, or of celebrating appreciation (or a mix of the two)." What about deserving something negative? For instance, we say a criminal deserves punishment. Again, does the notion of deservingness help? Reasons for punishment might include:
  • Society needs to protect itself by removing dangerous people.
  • Punishment might serve as a deterrent for others.
  • Punishment might also help a person become less likely to commit subsequent crimes.
None of those reasons requires a concept of deservingness, nor does desert add anything helpful. What would you gain if, for this year’s Imbolc cleaning of your conceptual garage, you decided to throw away that musty old idea of deservingness, despite your sentimental attachment to it?

First, one thing you’d gain is freedom from thoughts about what you deserve. No more stewing about “I deserve this” or “I deserve that.” You can still stew about what you think you’re entitled to, but entitlement is created by some specific institutional structures, rules, procedures – so, at least, it’s a little more objective whether you really are entitled or not. When I stop thinking about what I deserve, I become more open to grace.

I do not, for instance, ever deserve a donut. Sometimes, to my delight, the opportunity to have one presents itself. When it does, I have to weigh whether to take it. Donuts aren’t very good for me, but, on the other hand, they’re very tasty. If I do take one, it isn’t because I deserve it. I don’t have to have desert in order to have some dessert. (A desertless life is not a life without ever having dessert.) I take my donuts as blessings of grace rather than as something deserved. Isn’t that a more joyful attitude?

Even if I get in the car, drive to a donut shop, stand in line, and pay for a donut, I don’t deserve that there should be such things as donuts or donut shops. If I pay for a donut, then, per the established institutions of commerce, I am entitled to get one. And we could say I'm entitled to the car and the currency in my pocket – because I did certain things that, per instituted practice and procedure, afforded them to me – but I didn’t create any of those institutions, so those are also a grace. Everything is ultimately grace, at its foundation – a fact I can see much more clearly when my vision isn’t obscured by ego’s conceits of self-deservingness.

Second, there are thoughts about what other people deserve. Could we do without those ideas? Perhaps we could. The reasons for rewarding or punishing – or for celebrating or condemning other people’s actions – can stand or fall on their own without notions of deservingness.

If dropping the notion of my own deservingness helps me be in touch with grace, dropping the notion of other people’s deservingness helps me be a grace to others. So maybe I put a quarter in someone else’s parking meter, or pay for the order of the person behind me at the, um, donut shop, or I go to kiva.org and fund a loan that can drastically improve some perfect stranger’s life, or I google “pay it forward” and get more ideas for wonderful, kind things I can do.

In all those cases, it’s not about whether the recipient deserves it. It’s just about the joy of being an instrument of grace in this world of tragedy and of beauty. In fact, if you’re thinking about who deserves what and why, it only gets in the way.

So my suggestion to you this month, with our theme being grace, is that you honor entitlements, where they pertain, and that you treat people as fairly as can, but that you try throwing away the concept “deserve.” For your Imbolc cleaning this mid-winter, try sweeping that concept away. If it turns out you really do need it, you can bring it back later, but for the next few weeks, at least, try living desertlessly – expunging the word “deserve” from your vocabulary. Try it.

Here in the US, we have this rather unusual custom of consulting a groundhog in mid-winter – or a hedgehog, or nutria, or desert tortoise. Strange as this seems to people of other lands, our custom offers to us a lesson. You see, there’s never any suggestion that the groundhog is passing judgment on whether we deserve a long or a short winter. There’s no suggestion we can in any way control our nonhuman guide. Long winter or short, it’s all grace. May we open our hearts to receive desertless groundhog grace.

* * *
This is part 3 of 3 of "The Desertless Life"
See also
Part 1: Mid-Winter Groundhog Grace
Part 2: Shedding Desert


Shedding Desert

The Desertless Life, part 2

Grace is a mix of concepts. Grace is unearned, undeserved. So it’s luck. Serendipity. But not just that.

Grace is also a name for the fact that the best things in life are free. They are just given.

Further, grace includes overtones of providence. No matter what, you are provided for.

Also wrapped up in the idea of grace is our response to it. Grace compels gratitude (a connection more obvious to Spanish-speakers, who have the same word, gracias, for both graces and thank you). In that gratitude, grace bids us, receivers of grace, to become instruments of spreading grace to others. When all the blessings we receive and the blessing that we are to the world merge into one thing – one thing in which giving and receiving are indistinguishable – that one thing is grace.

Central to the concept of grace is that it is undeserved. So I want to focus today on the concept of desert – that is, deservingness.

Desert theory is not about theoretical models of the effects or benefits of having something sweet after a meal. Desert theory has to do with deservingness – who deserves what – as in the old phrase “just deserts,” meaning something justly or fairly deserved.

It’s common for us to invoke desert. We say a hard-working and productive worker deserves a raise -- a vicious criminal deserves a harsh penalty – or someone who has suffered a series of misfortunes deserves some good luck for a change. This is a casual, loose way of talking. Does it really hold up?

Let’s do some philosophy on this – enter into the head-space of examining concepts. These are the concepts we live with, so it behooves us every once in a while to do some concept cleaning, and the Imbolc cleaning time seems the perfect time.

Do we need this concept of desert (deservingness)? For starters, let's notice a distinction between entitlement and desert. "Deserving of" doesn't mean "entitled to" and "entitled to" doesn't mean "deserving of." We would feel that a disrespectful and sometimes even abusive grandson didn’t deserve his grandfather’s inheritance, but if grandpa’s will says he gets it, then he’s entitled to it.

Entitlement isn’t the same thing as deserving, but they often overlap, and if we’ve got entitlement, maybe we don’t need a notion of deserving. So instead of saying that hard-working and productive employee deserves a raise, we could provide greater clarity for everyone involved by specifying the performance standards for a raise, thereby creating an entitlement when those standards were met. Entitlement can better do the work for which we sometimes lean on a concept of deserving.

Admittedly, the concept of entitlement is sometimes misused. Most concepts are. Neverthless, I would say we probably need to keep some concept like entitlement. Desert, however, we could maybe do without. Deserving is such a subjective, nebulous notion. It’s very hard to say where deservingness comes from. Entitlement, on the other hand, has to do with specified rules and procedures, so it’s easier to get a handle on when it applies.

Most of who we are and what we do is determined by a mix of native endowments, genetics, and by the circumstances into which we are born -- with perhaps some randomizing function in the way "nature" and "nurture" interact. I didn’t do anything to create my genes or the circumstances into which I was born -- nor have any control over the randomizing function. I didn’t create the universities that educated me. The extent to which I applied myself to my studies (middling, for the most part) came from sources which I also didn’t create: the mix of genetic predispositions and the habits and values instilled by my circumstances. So how can I deserve any of the consequences that come to me from who I am and what I do? Consequences certainly come, some positive and some negative, and they shape what I do going forward, but is there any point in calling some of those consequences “deserved” and other consequences “undeserved”?

Of course, entitlement isn't always a suitable substitute for deservingness. Sometimes setting up the rules and procedures of an entitlement would be deadly cumbersome. For example, suppose you want to do something nice for somebody named Bess. “Bess deserves it,” you say to yourself. It would kill the impulse if you tried to set up personal rules for yourself that dictated, for you, just what criteria someone could meet for you to do something nice for them. So, in this case, there’s no question of anyone being entitled to anything, under either a social institution or your own established personal policy. You just want to do something nice. Why? "Because she deserves it," you tell yourself.

But does the notion of deservingness add anything? Is there any content to what you’ve told yourself? You have a positive regard for Bess or for what she’s done, and either you want to reward it, to encourage more of it, or you want your relationship with Bess to be one in which the two of you simply celebrate your appreciations of each other. Neither of those two reason needs a concept of deservingness. For either of those reasons, or for a combination of them, you do something nice for Bess -- and those reasons are wholly sufficient. No notion of desert is needed.

The idea of deserving something positive can be replaced, in some cases, with policies creating entitlements. In other cases, desert can be replaced with notions of reward, or of celebrating appreciation (or a mix of the two).

* * *
This is part 2 of 3 of "The Desertless Life"
See also
Part 1: Mid-Winter Groundhog Grace
Part 3: I Don't Deserve a Donut


Mid-Winter Groundhog Grace

The Desertless Life, part 1

In the beauty and grace of winter the trees rest. Their bare branches let in the sky. The season’s table is set with ice and starlight. It is a time for bundling up, hunkering in, snuggling – a contemplative and spare time before the profligacy of spring. These are the graces of winter.

It is mid-winter now. The precise mid-point between the winter solstice and the vernal equinox was Fri Feb 3, at 5:36pm EST, though the midpoint is traditionally celebrated as Imbolc or Saint Brigid's Day (Feb 1), or Candlemas or Groundhog Day (Feb 2).

Here at Community UU in White Plains, our folks were honoring and celebrating the mid-season "Days in Place" on Sat Feb 4. It was a fittingly chilly and gloriously bright and clear day.

Imbolc -- the mid-winter Gaelic festival marking the mid-way point between winter solstice and vernal equinox -- is a celebration which, in modern times, the neo-pagan movement has revived and spread. Imbolc began as the festival associated with the goddess Brigid, goddess of spring. In some traditions, the solstices and equinoxes are not the beginning of the seasons but the mid-points of the season, which would make the mid-points into the beginnings. According to those traditions, this is the beginning of spring now – and the March 21 equinox will be the mid-Spring point. The difference between the traditions raises the question: is it spring now, or do we have six more weeks of winter?

Imbolc is recognized by Pagans today as a time for purification and rededication – for cleaning, like spring cleaning. With the arrival of Christianity, the day came to be honored as Saint Brigid’s Day – the saint, some scholars suggest, being simply a Christianization of the goddess.

Candlemas is also an occasion marking mid-winter. Anglicans, Methodists, Lutherans, Orthodox, and Catholics have a tradition of bringing their candles to their local church to be blessed for the rest of the year. An old English tradition of Candlemas had it that,
“If Candlemas be fair and bright: Come, Winter, have another flight.
If Candlemas brings clouds and rain: Go, Winter, and come not again.”
It was, perhaps an outgrowth of confusion about two different methods of defining the beginning of spring. Is it now, or is it in six more weeks? Folk traditions said it depends on the weather on February 2. In early-American folklore, this turned into the idea that a bright clear day would mean that a groundhog would see her shadow and be startled back into her den.

In this mid-winter contemplative time, time itself seems nonlinear. Maybe we’ll keep on looping through more of the same, and maybe, a new day will dawn. The mystical groundhog will reveal it to us.

This year Punxsutawney Phil said 6 more weeks of winter, while, closer to home, Staten Island Chuck said early spring. Some locales use alternative animals. In Portland, Oregon, this year Fufu the Hedgehog said early spring. In Louisiana, a nutria – also known as a coypu – named Pierre C. Shadeaux – seems not to have addressed the spring question, but did, on February second this year, predict an early summer. I guess it’s already spring beyond question in Louisiana. In Clark County, Nevada, they consult Mojave Max, a desert tortoise.

In the magical, mystery of mid-winter, we turn to mystical animals for guidance. Are we stuck with day after day of the same frozen-ness? Or is a new warm sunshine about to break forth?

The 1993 movie, “Groundhog Dog,” takes the question to its extreme. Weatherman Phil Connors, played by Bill Murray, literally faces the same day over and over. At first, he can’t stand this winter of the soul that he is stuck in. Blaming the mystical animal, he kidnaps the Groundhog, declaring,
“There is no way that this winter is *ever* going to end as long as this groundhog keeps seeing his shadow. I don't see any other way out. He's got to be stopped. And I have to stop him.”
But kidnapping the groundhog doesn’t work. He’s still stuck in February second.

Over many repetitions of the day – thousands, apparently – Phil comes to make his peace with perpetual winter. We see him at one point, a changed man, giving his report into the camera:
“When Chekhov saw the long winter, he saw a winter bleak and dark and bereft of hope. Yet we know that winter is just another step in the cycle of life. But standing here among the people of Punxsutawney and basking in the warmth of their hearths and hearts, I couldn't imagine a better fate than a long and lustrous winter.”
Which brings us to grace. Blogger Mark Lockard writes:
"Deep down, it's a story about grace. It's about Phil peeling back all the layers of his flawed self, seeing the raw deal and becoming more than he ever knew he could. It’s a story of self-forgiveness, healing and new life....He breaks his cycle by binding his wounds and finding a new way to live and be in the world." (ministrymatters.com, 2015 Feb 3)
For all the pain and disappointment, we can bring kindness to our life, face the hurt, heal.
“So when the clock hits 6:00 and Sonny tells Cher to put her little hand in his, we can put on our booties ‘cause it’s cooold out there’ with confidence. The chill will bite, but we will face the stark winter day wrapped warmly in the knowing that it’s OK to get it wrong; that’s part of the process....That’s what grace is all about.”
* * *
This is part 1 of 3 of "The Desertless Life"
See also
Part 2: Shedding Desert
Part 3: I Don't Deserve a Donut


Spend It On the World

Grace, part 3

We Unitarian Universalists are called to the work of justice. We strive to temper our own greed, and to care for the poor, the oppressed, the disadvantaged. Our faith calls us to sacrifice consumption for the sake of sustaining the planet. We seek to cultivate our intellectual, spiritual, and emotional capacities: to be mindful of beauty, caring with people, curious, grateful and generous, correct self-centeredness, and see through our own self-deceptions. That’s the good work.

So why doesn’t grace produce complacency? If the greatest boons that life could offer – the full magnificence of riches of air and sunshine, friends and laughter, tastes and sounds, groundhogs and earthworms – is all given free of charge, isn’t that a bit of a work disincentive?

The answer is: we don’t have to pay FOR grace, but we are obligated to pay WITH grace. We are called to take the inheritance of grace that is our birthright and spend it on the world. Let the gift of grace make us gracious, and shine our graciousness upon every person we meet, and into every corner of every situation we enter.

It is as though you won the lottery when you didn’t even buy a ticket. You have millions of dollars of unearned, undeserved money. Great. Now what are you going to do with it? If you just sat on it, or spent it self-indulgently, that would cheapen your inheritance. Grace is free, but it isn’t cheap.

If you’re not using it, you’re forgetting that you have it. It’s unrealized. Grace asks to be invested in promoting everywhere its own fuller and richer realization. Grace is free, yet it makes an infinite demand upon us: to see it more clearly than we have, to love it more dearly than we have, to follow it more nearly than we have.

The abundance of free gifts calls us to be more reverent, and allow room in life for awe. The unmerited favor we receive calls us to the merits of honesty, truthfulness, and humility. The generosity of what the universe gives us calls us to be more generous, and more grateful.

It's like the rich Uncle who writes you an amazingly large check and hands it to you and stands there smiling at you – beaming at you. He says nothing about what he wants in return, nothing about paying it back, or even about paying it forward. Just: "Here." He doesn’t need to say anything because he knows the calling will arise within you, the calling to rise to the opportunities and the challenges the great gift brings you.

A parable from the Lotus Sutra tells of a wealthy man who has a profligate and irresponsible son. On his death bed, the father says to the son, “I have a present for you.” He gives him a jacket. The father says, “All that I have is about to become yours, without condition. You will do with it as you like. Just promise me one thing. Keep the jacket. Never sell it, or give it away, or risk it in a gamble.” The son promises. After the father dies, the son gradually wastes away the family fortune. He spends it irresponsibly, throws expensive parties, gambles it away. After a few years he is homeless and destitute. But he has kept his promise to keep the jacket. It is almost the only possession he has left. One night, preparing to sleep on the streets, he rolls up his jacket to use as a pillow, and feels a lump in the jacket he had not noticed before. He discovers that his father had sewn into the lining, a magnificent jewel beyond price.

You and I are given this jewel beyond price. We have it -- but perhaps sometimes we don't know we have it. Having it requires only that we know we do. All it takes to realize it (make it real) is to realize it (become aware of it).

When you drop the needless anxieties and worries, your spirit will, on its own, rise. It will want to be more open, cultivate an inner hospitality which lets difference in. When you drop the delusions of scarcity, it will stand on the side of love, extending solidarity to those who are suffering, or excluded, or oppressed. When you drop the insecurities and insufficiency, it will grow more strongly self-possessed, able to enter relationships without fear of subordination or domination.

When you drop the overweening drive to earn, to prove yourself – and need only to just be you, you can shine in surprising ways.

It can be scary to trust in grace instead of trusting in your own work and control. It can be scary to see the vast extent of the riches bestowed upon you and feel the call to respond whole-heartedly to the amazing largess. I know it can be scary. But just remember: It’s OK to not know. The other kids don’t either. You are as prepared as you need to be. And: it’s Pierre.

* * *
This is part 3 of 3 of "Grace"
See also
Part 1: Can't Earn It
Part 2: Pay Nothing But Attention


Pay Nothing But Attention

Grace, part 2

You don’t have to earn the best things in life. They're free. You can’t buy them. Nothing you can say, do, be, or become can make you deserve them any more or any less.

I'm guessing you know that. I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. We know it, but we don’t think about it much. We live in forgetfulness of what we know.

It’s like the capital of South Dakota – knowledge we don’t use as often as we would if we lived there. Only, in this case, we do live there. We live in the state of grace, and its capital is this moment. All your anxieties are of no avail, and your hard work is not necessary. That can be a sobering and humbling realization. It can also be exhilarating and liberating.

Beyond reminding us that the best things in life are free, the lesson of grace is also to pay attention to all that is freely given – even if it doesn’t seem to be all that great. To be attuned to grace is to be attuned to the beauty and goodness in the ordinary, quotidian conditions of existence: the feel of breath in your nostrils, the myriad sounds surrounding you.

I’m not saying economic security doesn’t matter. Or that you shouldn’t work hard to earn status, respect, achievements, and income. But maybe you’ve been doing enough of that. Too much, maybe. Perhaps you’ve been neglecting the everyday wonders of life for which you need pay nothing except attention.

Amid the hubbub and jangle of all that is, there is joy. There are pains and terrors, and joy persists. Joy is present in our relationships, in the pleasure that we have in beauty, in the marvel of natural world, and also in the marvel of the social world – all the seamless systems of earth, soil, evolution, and of civilization – the intricate organism that is a blue jay, that is a squirrel, that is a swamp or a forest, that is a city.

In the dark night of the soul, joy and grace may seem far away – inaccessible. Even in the normal, more-or-less satisfactory day-to-day run of life, grace may be hidden behind routine, behind the habit of boredom. Grace may be buried beneath our ambitions and goals. We can be so focused on where we want to get to, that we forget where we are – so focused on earning that we forget the unearned. We can fail to realize.

The double meaning of “realize” is helpful here. To realize is to become aware of. And to realize is also to make real. Noticing that grace is always already there is at the same time making it real. To realize grace and joy – to become aware of it and to make it real -- cultivate habits of reverence and awe.

It’s not hard. Slow down. Mono-task, paying deep attention to what you’re doing. Sink into your senses. Stay in the moment, neither cogitating about the past nor planning the future.

Something else that you know, that I know, but we live in forgetfulness of: none of this world is necessary. Nothing has to be the way it is – or has to be at all. And yet, here it is. Be amazed, be very amazed.

We live in grace. We live by grace. Grace plays hide-and-seek through all that is. It plays peek-a-boo – by turns hidden and revealed. So these questions arise: Am I living in a way appropriate to the promise of life? Am I being dull to life: unmindful of beauty? Careless with people? Closed-minded? Ungrateful and ungenerous? Self-centered, even greedy? Am I unknowingly oppressive, or even indifferent to that possibility? Am I weaving a web of rationalizations and excuses to disguise unhappiness of a shallow and narrow life? Am I realizing grace?

There’s a paradox here – an edge of cognitive dissonance that you might be feeling. On the one hand: the beauty and wonder of life and love and hugs and trees and wild geese honking, and you don’t have to earn it, you can’t earn it – all freely given. Nothing you have to do, nothing you even have to be. Everything that matters is already accomplished, already sufficient – in fact, abundant.

On the other hand, I’m telling you to do things. Slow down, stay in the moment, be amazed, amazed at the accident of it all – wrestle with these questions about whether you life is all it could be or your actions as beneficial as you like to assume.

So which is it? Is there work to be done, or is there no work needed?


Grace, you see, is free, but it isn’t cheap.

* * *
This is part 2 of 3 of "Grace"
See also
Part 1: Can't Earn It
Part 3: Spend It On the World


Can't Earn It

Grace, part 1

We live by grace. We live in grace. There is a joy in life. Even amid the grief and tragedy – in part because of the grief and tragedy, growing out of the sadness – there is a joy.

Many years ago, one summer when my daughter was six and my son was four, we moved: from Georgia to Virginia. New town, new state, new schools. When August came, and the first day of school approached, my daughter was nervous about beginning second grade. She was anxious, which was perfectly understandable.

I asked her what she was afraid of, and she said, “I’m afraid they will ask me what the capital of South Dakota is.” It was a tender and funny moment – my little girl, growing and struggling to cope with a large, strange, and challenging world. So I told her the capital of South Dakota.

Yeah, I blew it.

There’s a place for knowledge, but that’s not the lead of the story she needed in that moment. The poignancy of her need kept me thinking about it. She was teaching me how to be her Dad, and this was my homework. Eventually I did come around to saying what I wished I’d said right off:

“Number one, it’s OK to not know. It’s always OK to just say, I don’t know. Number two, the other kids don’t know either. They don’t know all the states and capitals. I know they don’t because states-and-capitals aren’t taught until 5th-grade. I know some of the kids will seem like they know everything, but inside they’re as scared as you are right now that something about them is wrong. Number three, what you do know really is just right for second grade. You know what 13 plus 12 is. You know what a vertebrate is. You can read. And write. There’s an exciting adventure of second grade before you, and you are prepared. And, finally, number four: it’s Pierre.”

My daughter’s vulnerability in that moment was a gift – as it always is when someone shows us their vulnerability. It was a gift that I didn’t expect, and had not earned, and it was a gift of love. In Christian theology, grace is “the freely given, unmerited favor and love of God.”

For John Calvin, the 16th-century Protestant theologian, grace played a very different role then it does for us. Calvin is worth knowing about for two reasons. First, his thought was hugely influential on our culture. The Puritans and Pilgrims that laid the foundation for what would become the United States were Calvinist. And second because Unitarianism and Universalism have been defined as a sustained reaction to Calvinism. Calvin set the agenda. Unitarians went through and said no to every item on the agenda.

"Total depravity," said Calvin. "Human beings are utterly and totally depraved, corrupt to the core, consumed by sin."
"Nope. Inherent worth and dignity of every person," we said. "It’s a blessing you were born."

"Salvation by faith alone," said Calvin. "Not by your good deeds can you get into heaven."
"Nope. Salvation by works and by character," we said. "It matters what you do."

"Predestination," said Calvin. "It was determined before any of us were born who was going to heaven and who was going to hell, and there’s nothing you can do to change it."
"Nope. Freedom is real, and, with it, character can be nurtured and developed," we said.

"Limited atonement," said Calvin. "Christ’s sacrifice on the cross atoned for the sins of only a few of us."
"Nope. We are all saved," we said.

Straight down the line, whatever Calvin said, we said the opposite.

Grace had an important role in Calvin’s thought. The grace of God is bestowed upon the elect – those whom God has determined to save. Though these elect are as depraved as anybody, God overcomes their resistance to obeying the call of the gospel. The point of emphasizing how depraved we are was to make clear that we can’t save ourselves, and, hence, how dependent we are on God’s gratuitous grace.

I think our forebears were right to dispute Calvin, and I’m glad they did, for in doing so they created this religious tradition which today we inherit. After almost 500 years, though, perhaps we can set aside some of our reactivity and acknowledge a good point. In very important ways, we aren’t in control. That’s the nugget of truth buried in Calvin’s stilted theology. We don’t make and cannot earn the goodness of the world.

The best things in life are free: air to breathe, friendship, love, hugs, smiles, laughter, sleep, the company of trees. You don’t have to earn them, you can’t buy them, and nothing you can say, do, be, or become can make you deserve them any more or any less.

* * *
This is part 1 of 3 of "Grace"
See also
Part 2: Pay Nothing But Attention
Part 3: Spend It On the World


The Terrible, Violent, Beautiful, Gracious Jungle

Spirituality of Evolution, part 3

That the mix of competition and cooperation happened to produce humans is, I mentioned, a cosmic accident. That’s a lesson in humility. That we could readily be replaced is another lesson in humility.
“Some zoologists suspect that chimps and bonobos have long been ‘held back’ by the presence of humans – kept from moving out of the jungle onto grasslands and, more generally, from filling the human niche” (Wright, Nonzero, 292)
So if all humans suddenly vanished today, the chimps would Nash-ramble out into the savanna, start spending more of their time walking upright, which would conduce to the voice box dropping down in the throat, which would allow production of more subtle vocal sounds, which, in combination with the positive feedback loop they already have for increased political savvy, would cause the use of those subtle distinctions in vocal sound in a more complex symbolic language. If some virus wipes out all the humans but not the chimps, probably in about a couple million years or so, we’ll be back – that is, a species very like humans: five or six feet tall, with armpits, bad jokes, spectator sports, musical instruments, and so on.

How’s that for a story to give us a sense of our place in the scheme of things? Of course, the chimps are already so much like us. What if all the apes, or even all the primates, or, heck, let’s say all the mammals suddenly disappeared from earth? High levels of intelligence – that is, behavioral flexibility made possible by larger brain-to-body-size ratios – would probably emerge again.
“Toward the end of the age of dinosaurs – just before they ran into their epoch ending piece of bad luck [when a comet or asteroid struck earth and caused massive climate change that wiped them out] – a number of advanced species had appeared, with brain-to-body ratios as high as those of some modern mammals. It now looks as if some of the smarter dinosaurs could stand up and use grasping forepaws. And some may have been warm-blooded and nurtured their young. Who knows? Give them another 100 million years and their offspring might be riding on jumbo jets” (Wright, Nonzero, 293)
-- and arguing over whether to teach evolution in their schools.

Or maybe they wouldn’t. How any given species will go is a highly contingent matter. Yet a level of intelligence – that is, behavioral flexibility – comparable to what humans have is no fluke. “Given long enough, it was very, very likely to evolve.” (Wright 276)

We -- we homo sapiens -- aren’t necessary. Try holding that awareness in your consciousness throughout your day. Remembering this puts the ego's preoccupations in a wider context, and invites us into that wider perspective. Cultivating continual remembrance of non-necessity is a spiritual practice – grounded in what we learn from science.

The evolution story evokes simultaneously a pride and a humility: we are the universe playing itself out – the grand product of the grandest possible creator. At the same time, if we humans weren’t around, the complexity and flexibility of our intellect would simply appear elsewhere. It is a story of nature red in tooth and claw – ruthless, heartless competition forming the conditions for gradually increasing cooperation to form more complex, more beautiful, coalitions of cells, and then coalitions of individuals, to produce wonders that never would have appeared had life been easy.

The moral of the story is the ultimate moral of many spiritual stories: there is irreconcilable tragedy within a basic goodness of reality. The fundamental beauty of the whole somehow emerges from billions of incidents of vicious ugliness. It’s a story of interconnection – for there is ultimately nothing that separates us from the other animals, other life, or from the earth itself. A little more of this, a little less of that – no barriers.

It’s a story that evokes depths of gratitude; wonder and awe. It’s a story of faith, because it tells us there are forces out there that we can trust – that we don’t have to carry all the world’s burdens ourselves. There are much more powerful forces at work out there, and they are slowly, slowly, pushing for ever-greater levels of cooperation and harmony. We are borne aloft by that grace.

Yes, it’s a jungle out there. For that we can be grateful. We -- whether "we" means homo sapiens or "we" means some species with the behavioral flexibility necessary for highly abstract symbolic language and elaborate structures and mechanisms of social organization -- wouldn’t be here if it weren’t a terrible, violent, beautiful and gracious jungle.

* * *
This is part 3 of 3 of "Spirituality of Evolution"
See also
Part 1: Our Best Myth
Part 2: Competition and Cooperation