UU Minute #72

Parish vs. Church in Massachusetts

The First Amendment, ratified with the Bill of Rights in 1791, provides that
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
Originally, this applied only to the national congress. States were not so constrained.

In Virginia, the statute of religious freedom, written by Thomas Jefferson and enacted in 1786, provides that no taxation can support a church. In Massachusetts, the state constitution, written by John Adams and adopted in 1780, provided for every town to tax their citizens
"for the institution of the public worship of God, and for the support and maintenance of public Protestant teachers of piety, religion and morality."
Massachusetts’ system of Standing Order churches drew a distinction between the church and the parish. The church consisted only of those who had been admitted to church membership – which generally entailed having a verified experience of religious conversion in the church. The parish, on the other hand, consisted of the residents of a town who had not joined another religious group such as the Episcopal Church. All members of a parish, whether or not they were also members of the town’s Standing Order church, were taxed to fund the “worship of God” and the “maintenance of public Protestant teachers.”

When a new minister was to be selected, the church voted – for this was their spiritual leader. The parish also voted, for this was their publicly-funded “Protestant teacher of piety, religion and morality.”

Usually, the church would vote to call a minister, and the parish would, pro forma, sanction the church vote. But the emergence and spread of liberal congregationalists – increasingly accepting the label “Unitarian” – produced splits between church and parish. Sometimes the church was liberal and the parish conservative; more often the parish was liberal and the church conservative.

NEXT: Which Church is the Dedham Church?


Do You Talk to Your Car? part 2

Certainly, it’s good practice to treat your dog as person-like – as having beliefs and desires entitled to a certain degree of concern and respect. It may be the case that your dog's person-like-ness is another pretend belief -- that dogs don't really have the feelings we attribute to them. But keep in mind that you and I might also not REALLY have the feelings we attribute to each other and to ourselves. It remains unclear how much of a distinction to draw between human and canine emotional lives.

Psychology professor Lisa Feldman Barrett argues that emotions are mostly socially constructed. There are, she says, two biological continua that are "real." There's the pleasant to unpleasant continuum, and there's the the high arousal to low arousal continuum.
For low arousal and pleasant, think of blissful calm.
For high arousal and pleasant, think of something really fun and exciting.
For high arousal and unpleasant, think of being very scared or anxious.
For low arousal and unpleasant, think of being bored or lethargic.

As far as what's "real" in our emotional lives, that's it. That's all there is: just the pleasant-unpleasant continuum and the high-low arousal continuum. Everything else emotional -- joy, love, anger, fear, sadness, shame, ennui, schadenfreude, and on and on -- is socially constructed interpretation.

We have to learn how to read each other's feelings, and our own, just as we learn to read marks on a page as words of our language. (Indeed, you have to learn a French word before you can read ennui in others or yourself, and a German word before you can perceive the indications of schadenfreude.)

In her chapter, “Is a Growling Dog Angry?” Dr. Barrett says that the growling dog isn’t angry in the sense of the dog itself constructing “anger” from its experience. Anger is an interpretation, and dogs don't interpret that way. That is: to be angry requires speaking English or some other language with a word that translates as "angry." Since dogs don't speak such a language, then, in that sense, the growling dog isn't angry. On the other hand, we humans do interpret ourselves and others with the concept, "anger" -- and it's reasonable that we should interpret dogs that way, too. In THAT sense, yes, the growling dog IS angry. We include dogs in our social reality when it comes to some emotions.

"Reality," said Phillip K. Dick, “is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away.” Expanding on that a bit: Physical reality is that which doesn't go away even if everybody stops believing in it; social reality is that which doesn't go away if you, alone and by yourself, stop believing in it but does go away if everybody stops believing in it. Anger -- in dogs or in humans -- isn't physically real. If no one believed in it, it wouldn’t exist. Money, for that matter, isn't physically real either. If no one believed in it, it wouldn't exist. So, at that level, anger and money are pretend beliefs. But anger and money are both socially real. If you alone, by yourself, were somehow able to stop believing in anger or in money, it would not go away. So, at that level, believing in it isn’t merely a pretend belief.

We do like to pretend. Board games and video games invite us into a pretend story. In a board game like chess, the story of battle and politics is thin and abstract and the focus is on the raw logic of strategy. In Monopoly the story is about buying, developing, and renting out real estate. Entering into that story is the appeal of the game. Then there are games with higher levels of role-playing: Dungeons and Dragons is the best known. These games are entirely about the story, and all strategic choices are in service to the story. These games are attractive because we like to pretend.

I remember as a teenager spending a rather thrilling afternoon with friends pouring over Beatles lyrics and album covers looking for clues that Paul was dead. According to the theory, Paul McCartney died in a car crash in November 1966 and was secretly replaced by a look-alike. Clue-hunting proved infectious, and became an international phenomenon. It was kind of exciting to see a clue. "Oh, look, in this picture from the Magical Mystery Tour album. They’re all in white tuxedos, with roses on the lapels. The other three have red roses, but Paul’s rose is black. Ah!" And: "Doesn’t the cover of the Abbey Road album, with them walking across the street, look like a funeral procession?" It was fun how weird it was.

There’s a basic rule for this sort of game that is better known as a rule for improvisational theatre: never argue against what another character makes up. Accept whatever they say and build on it. It’s the “Yes, and…” rule. Never say, “no” – say “yes, and…” The rule makes improv comedy more fun – and it also makes conspiracy-theory building more fun.

Without ever saying out loud or acknowledging the “Yes, and…” rule, that’s exactly the rule I was following that afternoon I got all caught up in the “Paul is Dead” game. If someone were to say, "See, Paul is barefoot in this picture, and that's a sign of mourning," I would never have been such a killjoy as to reply, "Yes, in Judaism, mourners take off their shoes when they're indoors. But the Beatles aren't Jewish; in this picture, they are outdoors; and, anyway, wouldn't it be the other three Beatles who would be mourning?" Caught up in the game, I couldn't even have imagined such a reply.

Nevertheless, even in the midst of it, some part of me knew it was a game – just as improv actors know they’re just acting even as they are totally caught up in the scene. For some people, though, the fun pretend belief starts to blur over into real belief. It stops being a game. I imagine that’s how the QAnon conspiracies work. It’s fun to join in with others in cooking up wacky interpretations of “clues.” It’s a way to connect with others, to be creative and collaborative together – following the rule of, “Accept whatever the other players add, and build on it further.”

In the case of the Paul is Dead rumor, the whole thing mostly served to spur album sales, though it became a little annoying for Paul and the other Beatles. In the case of QAnon, it’s doing more harm.

Even with QAnon, some amount of the belief in it is people pretending to believe it rather than really believing it. As Steven Pinker writes in his book, Rationality:
“Though millions of people endorsed the rumor that Hillary Clinton ran a child sex trafficking ring out of the basement of the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria in Washington, virtually none took steps commensurate with such an atrocity, such as calling the police. The righteous response of one of them was to leave a one-star review on Google. It’s hardly the response most of us would have if we literally thought that children were being raped in the basement.” (Rationality 299)
One person, Edgar Welch, took the belief seriously and burst into the pizzeria with his gun blazing. He apparently really thought he was rescuing children. “The millions of others," Pinker concludes, "must have believed the rumor in a very different sense of ‘believe.’”
"[Hugo] Mercier also points out that impassioned believers in vast nefarious conspiracies, like the 9/11 Truthers and the chemtrail theorists (who hold that the water-vapor contrails left by jetliners are chemicals dispensed in a secret government program to drug the population), publish their manifestos and hold their meetings in the open, despite their belief in a brutally effective plot by an omnipotent regime to suppress brave truth-tellers like them. It’s not a strategy you see from dissidents in undeniably repressive regimes like North Korea or Saudi Arabia.” (299)
Many of these people are very seriously pretending to believe the conspiracy – still, for all their seriousness, pretending.

Pinker says there’s a zone of the physical objects around us, and the people we deal with face to face. There’s a set of rules and norms that governs these interactions.
“The other zone is the world beyond immediate experience: the distant past, the unknowable future, faraway peoples and places, remote corridors of power, the microscopic, the cosmic, the counter-factual, the metaphysical. People may entertain notions about what happens in these zones, but they have no way of finding out, and anyway it makes no discernible difference to their lives. Beliefs in these zones are narrative, which may be entertaining or inspiring or morally edifying. Whether they are literally ‘true’ or ‘false’ is the wrong question. The function of these beliefs is to construct a social reality that binds the tribe or sect and gives it a moral purpose.” (300)
The conspiracy theory behind anti-semitism has been growing and morphing and poisoning minds for centuries. It’s hard to imagine it was ever any fun, but the way it evolves suggests the application of the “Yes, and…” rule to bizarre interpretations of fabricated “clues.” Such conspiracy theorizing does function “to construct a social reality that binds the tribe or sect and give it a moral purpose.”

Evil doesn’t start as evil. It starts in a very human, necessary function. We need to make sense of our world – to have a story to participate in that lends meaning to our lives. Sometimes the stories turn toxic.

What can be done about this? Of course, the obvious: stand up for the truth. Be willing to violate the rule of improv, and say “no” rather than accepting and building on the other person’s craziness. Adhere to good standards of credibility. Don’t leap to conclusions beyond what the evidence supports. Cite your sources and ask others to cite theirs. Be skeptical. Be ready to change your mind. We need a lot more observance of all those guidelines.

I have one other suggestion that wouldn’t have seemed so obvious. Take an improv class. Encourage the teaching of improv in our schools. I suggest this because improv actors know that they are acting, and we need to get better as a society at drawing the distinction between when we’re really believing and when we’re pretending to believe. We don't need to stop all pretend-believing -- as if we could. We don't need to stop playing board games with story lines or talking to our cars and pets -- or "Brother Sun" or lampposts. Much of that is good for us and good practice. We just need to be able to step back sometimes and recognize that we are, in fact, playing make-believe.

Also: improv is hugely fun, and we could all use more fun. We need to have fun with this weird thing we’re all saddled with called being human. May it be so. Amen.


Do You Talk to Your Car? part 1

I’m interested in what we believe. In particular, I’m interested in those things that we believe but don’t really believe – the things we pretend to believe. And why we do that.

Do you talk to your car? “Come on, start.” Or: “Please, please make it to the gas station.”

St. Francis of Assisi talked to "Brother Sun," and "Sister Moon" -- to "Brother Wind," "Sister water," "Brother Fire," and "Sister Earth." He was liable to talk to any creature he encountered, calling it a sibling. If Francis had had a car, I imagine he would have talked to it, too.

"Hello, lamppost," says Paul Simon in "The 59th Street Bridge Song," "Whatcha knowin'?"

We don’t really believe our cars, or the Sun, or lampposts, hear us, or understand, or in any way care about whatever we may be saying. A lot of us know our cars don't hear or care, yet we talk to our cars anyway. I do.

Some of us even name our cars. Does your car have a name? LoraKim's and my car has a name – and I really appreciated that, when we got it a couple years ago, and I was telling someone about our new car, the question they asked was: "What’s its name?"

Her name is Merope because she’s a Subaru, and Subaru is the Japanese name for the constellation that we call the Pleiades, and the Pleiades, in Greek mythology are the seven sisters, daughters of Pleione and the Titan Atlas. Merope is one of those sisters, and I picked that name because Merope is the only sister who married a mortal. The mortal she married was Sisyphus, which would make LoraKim and me, collectively, Sisyphus -- which, yeah, I kinda resonate with -- some days more than others.

So there’s this little story I have – a story to participate in -- which enriches my experience of the particular automobile to which I have the keys.

It also connects me to a little bit of family history. Y’see, my Dad used to speak fondly of a Nash Rambler they had back around the time I was born and was too little to remember. There’s a black-and-white photo in the family album of my young parents standing beside that car. It’s name, they told me, was Terpsichore – also a figure from Greek mythology: the muse of dance. It makes me smile to look at that old photo. It makes me laugh to think of that hulking Nash Rambler as the muse of dance.

And today, I have Merope, and I do talk to her. When I enter the garage to go out somewhere, I’m apt to call out, “Hello, Merope.” I might add, “How are you today?” She responds, as things do, by silently shining.

Upon returning from whatever trip or errand took me out, I get out of the car and walk around, and typically pat her on the hood and say, “Thank you, Merope. Good car.” Many people talk to their pets this way – “good dog” – which might seem less crazy that saying “good car” to a metal mechanism.

When we do talk to nonliving things, it’s more often in frustration. One evening as a boy, I was on the periphery of the kitchen as my mother, a physics professor, struggled to open a jar. “Come on,” she said to the jar, “what’s the matter with you?” as her white-knuckled hands strained to twist the lid. My father entered just in time to hear this. “It takes a physicist," he observed, "to believe in the perversity of inanimate objects.”

It turns out, as I have only recently learned, that there is a thing called resistentialism – the idea that objects deliberately resist human intentions. Wikipedia says that resistentialism
“is a jocular theory to describe ‘seemingly spiteful behavior manifested by inanimate objects,’ where objects that cause problems (like lost keys or a runaway bouncy ball) are said to exhibit a high degree of malice toward humans. The theory posits a war being fought between humans and inanimate objects, and all the little annoyances that objects cause throughout the day are battles between the two.”
There are times when this is an attractive theory.

We like to project on objects an imagined hostility toward us. On the other hand, we like to project on our pets various positive feelings toward which we sympathize.

The line between what we really believe and what we pretend we believe can get fuzzy. The other day, I shared with LoraKim a headline of an article I was reading. I’ve been kinda following the launch and deployment of the James Webb Space telescope, and one article I read was titled: “Even NASA Seems Surprised by Its New Space Telescope.” Subtitle: “The $10 billion mission is working better than anyone could have predicted.” I shared this title with LoraKim, who replied, “The scientists said that?” There was a faint tone of concern that the scientists shouldn’t say that out loud because they’d jinx it. Neither NASA scientists nor LoraKim really believe in jinxes, but they kinda believe it, or pretend to believe it. A cautionary voice in their head tells them, don’t tempt fate.

Much of this has a quite sensible rationale. If we talk about how well something is going while its conclusion is still in some doubt, then, if it does end up failing, the social costs of that failure are likely to be higher than if we’d kept our mouth shuts. We are simply reminding ourselves of this rational risk analysis when we say, “don’t jinx it.”

We don’t really believe our cars can hear us, or understand us, yet we talk to them as if they could. Sometimes we talk to the universe in general as if it could hear us – and, after all, isn’t that what prayer is? Prayer is good for us – it helps orient us the way we want to be oriented. It draws on the part of the brain that we use for relating to other people – that constructs an understanding of other people as person-like: as having agency, as having beliefs and desires. To address our car – or reality-as-a-whole -- as person-like – puts us into a story that enriches the relationship, that makes it more meaningful.

If you have one of those smart speakers in your home, you can say, “Alexa, what’s the weather?” or “Alexa, play NPR.” If you say, “play Stevie Wonder,” it’ll start playing a list of his most popular songs – or you can request a particular one. If you say, “Alexa, tell me a joke,” she will -- though not a very good one. If you ask how old she is, she’ll say she’s seven -- because that’s when the original version of the product was rolled out. You can ask if she’s married, and she says she’s happily single. If you say, “Alexa, let’s have a conversation,” it’ll access a conversation program that isn’t very good but is probably marginally better than some of the worst human conversations you’ve had.

You can say mean things to your Alexa and it won’t have any affect at all how she performs with your next request. Or you can be nice, and say, “Alexa, thank you,” and she’ll say, “you’re so very welcome” – and that won’t have any effect on how she performs on your next request either.

But it has an effect on you. The practice of being nice to things around you is a practice, and it shapes you, whether the inanimate things care or not. Pretending they are person-like helps reinforce habits for how you treat actual people. You don’t really believe that Alexa, or your car, is a person, but it’s good practice to pretend that she is and be nice to her.

On the other hand, believing in the perversity of inanimate objects – as Dad gently suggested to Mom – maybe isn’t a belief, or even a pretend belief, you want. It’s not good practice because it trains you to see more perversity everywhere, including in your fellow humans. As the twig is bent, so grows the tree – and the tree of you is always growing.


UU Minute #71

The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom

Thomas Jefferson called himself a Unitarian, and, after 1796, when Joseph Priestley founded a Unitarian church in Philadelphia, Jefferson attended when he was in town. And when he was at home in Monticello, he explained in a letter:
“The population of my neighborhood is too slender, and is too much divided into other sects to maintain any one preacher well. I must therefore be contented with being a Unitarian by myself.”
When Jefferson died, the instructions he left for his gravestone were that it say:
“Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, Author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom, and Father of the University of Virginia.”
He wanted to be remembered for just three things, and serving two terms as President of the United States – and doubling the area of the US with the Louisiana Purchase -- didn’t make the cut. But writing the Virginia Statute for religious freedom did.

Jefferson wrote the statute while serving in the Virginia House of Delegates and introduced it there in 1779. It failed to pass at that time, but a few years later, James Madison, then himself in the Virginia House of Delegates, revived Jefferson’s bill and got it enacted in 1786, while Jefferson was in Paris.

The Virginia Statue for religious freedom disestablished the Church of England in Virginia and provides that no person can be compelled to attend any church or support it with taxes. It says that an individual is free to worship as he pleases with no discrimination.

Once again, we see the link between the Unitarian outlook and insistence on religious tolerance.

In Massachusetts, however, forty years later towns were still taxing residents for the support of Protestant churches.

NEXT: Parish vs. Church in Massachusetts


UU Minute #70

Unitarian "Sparks" Spread

On the way down to Baltimore in 1819, William Ellery Channing and the half-dozen prominent liberal ministers of Boston that traveled with him stopped and preached along the way in various places, including in New York, where Channing’s sister, Lucy Channing Russell, invited about 40 friends to her house in lower Manhattan to hear her brother speak. This would lead to the founding of the Unitarian Church of All Souls.

Channing’s Baltimore sermon, “Unitarian Christianity,” was produced as a pamphlet. Hardly an American sermon ever has been as widely read. Jared Sparks, whose ordination was the occasion of Channing’s sermon, four months later, himself traveled south to give an ordination sermon in Charleston, South Carolina. On the way, Sparks preached to Unitarians in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Two years later, Sparks was chosen to serve as Chaplain of the U.S. House of Representatives. While in DC, Sparks helped nurture a Unitarian congregation there – also named All Souls. That same year, 1821, Sparks founded “The Unitarian Miscellany,” – a monthly magazine for spreading the Unitarian message. Sparks even received communications of interest in Unitarianism from frontier towns out west beyond the Appalachian Mountains. East coast establishment, unfortunately, didn’t regard the hinterlands as important, so there wasn’t much interest, energy, or organization for serving Unitarians in remote areas.

Meanwhile, back in Massachusetts, the law of the time provided town taxes to supported the town church – even though many people in the town didn’t become official members of the church. In times of ministerial transition, the church and the town as a whole both had a say in approving the new minister. What if they disagreed?

To find out: catch our next thrilling episode!

NEXT: The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom


UU Minute #69

"May Your Life Preach More Loudly than Your Lips"

William Ellery Channing’s Baltimore Sermon of 1819 was the manifesto of our American Unitarianism. The principles Channing laid out were:
  • We must follow where reason leads.
  • God is one, not three.
  • Jesus was fully human.
  • We reject original sin and limited atonement.
  • Atonement does not come from the crucifixion.
  • The key virtues are to love God, love Christ, and live morally.
Beyond such doctrinal points, Channing also made clear that ours is a faith of deeds not creeds – that we must live our religion and not merely profess it. As Channing was preaching on the occasion of the ordination of fellow liberal Jared Sparks, toward the end of his sermon Channing turned to Sparks and said:
“My friend and brother; -- You are this day to take upon you important duties,...to devote yourself to that religion, which the most hallowed lips have preached,...I have spoken of the doctrines which you will probably preach; but...remember, that good practice is the end of preaching,…Be careful, lest the desire of defending what you deem truth,...turn you aside from your great business, which is to fix in men's minds a living conviction...If any light can pierce and scatter the clouds of prejudice, it is that of a pure example. My brother, may your life preach more loudly than your lips. Be to this people a pattern of all good works, and may your instructions derive authority from a well-grounded belief in your hearers, that you speak from the heart, that you preach from experience, that the truth which you dispense has wrought powerfully in your own heart.”

NEXT: Unitarian "Sparks" Spread


UU Minute #68

The Baltimore Sermon: Channing's Conclusions of Reason

Today: the conclusion of the chapter “The Baltimore Sermon” in our UUA Curriculum, “Faith Like a River.” In that hour-and-a-half-long address, Channing took on two tasks. First, as we learned last episode, he established reason as valid and necessary for the interpretation of scripture.

Channing's second task was to lay out reason-based conclusions of Unitarian Christians.

One: the unity of God, as opposed to the doctrine of the Trinity.

Two: the fully human nature of Christ, as opposed to having two natures, human and divine.

Three: the moral perfection of God, which negated such doctrines as Original Sin and the eternal suffering of some while others were elected to salvation.

Four: the purpose of Jesus' mission on earth. Channing rejected the idea that Jesus' death atoned for our sin, allowing God to forgive us. Some Unitarians, Channing said, saw Jesus' life as a moral example. Other Unitarians understood Jesus' death leading humans to repentance and virtue. Whatever their differences, though, Unitarians did not consider Christ and his death as a blood atonement for human sin.

Channing's fifth and final point was that Christian virtue had its foundation in our moral nature or conscience, defined by love of God, love of Christ, and moral living.

Far from settling the simmering arguments, Channing's Baltimore Sermon brought them to a full boil. The Unitarian Controversy raged over the next quarter century. New England's churches continued to split along theological lines, and, within two decades of Channing's fateful sermon, one-quarter of Massachusetts' Standing Order churches became openly Unitarian.

Other Unitarian leaders added defining voices to the movement, but Channing's Baltimore Sermon remains a key turning point in Unitarian Universalist history.

NEXT: "May Your Life Preach More Loudly than Your Lips"