UU Minute #76

Most Favorable to Piety

Founded in 1825 as essentially a publishing clearinghouse, the AUA slowly expanded its mission. In 1827, the AUA took on a ministry with the poor, hiring Dr. Joseph Tuckerman as minister-at-large to work with Boston’s impoverished. Also in 1827 the Unitarian Sunday School Society was founded by teachers connected with Unitarian congregations in the Boston area – an early step in the development of our Religious Education.

The AUA even turned toward direct fostering of congregations as it extended financial aid to churches in Pennsylvania and Georgia and began to explore the possibility of Unitarian churches west of the 13 original colonies.

Meanwhile, New England’s orthodox congregationalists opened up a new front in their attacks on Unitarianism. Whereas the focus had been on falsehood of the doctrines the liberals taught, the new attacks were that Unitarians didn’t really care about religious truth, morality or piety. Unitarian theology was a way to ignore those things and simply cater to fashionable society – and it was true that the fashionable society of Boston had mostly gone Unitarian. Vice and crime in Boston were up and moral values were in decline, the critics charged, and it was all because of Unitarianism.

Once again, Unitarian eyes looked to their leader William Ellery Channing, and he did not disappoint. Traveling to New York in 1826 for the dedication of Second Unitarian Church, Channing preached a sermon called “Unitarian Christianity Most Favorable to Piety.” Channing argued forcefully that Unitarianism was not only more rational, but also more moral. He pointed out that the conservative’s doctrine of atonement meant that human salvation required the public execution of an innocent man – and he outraged the orthodox by arguing that such a doctrine had no moral authority.

NEXT: Likeness to God


Chimp Lessons, part 2

Chimps certainly communicate a lot, mostly with signs though they can be taught to use a few symbols. They certainly don’t have the human facility for complex symbol use including abstract nouns, and past tense and future tense verbs – not to mention conditional perfect or future subjunctive or modal verbs. But remember what Talleyrand, the 18th century French clergyman and diplomat, told us about language. Talleyrand said:
“God gave humans language so they could conceal their thoughts from one another.”
In fact, we got so good at hiding our thoughts and intentions from one another that it became useful to have indicators of our feelings that are hard to fake. We might find ourselves smiling, giggling, or crying when we don't want to. These are signals of our feelings that are hard to fake but not terribly hard.

The hardest feeling-signal to fake is the blush. Neither chimps nor bonobos – nor, as far as we have yet to discover, any nonhuman species – blush. And blushing is very hard to fake. Actors who can easily cry tears upon command find blushing much harder, and usually rely on make-up if a scene calls for a blush.

Blushing remains an evolutionary mystery, but one theory is that with all that dissembling and disguising of our thinking made possible by complex symbolic language, it was actually helpful to have some signals that can't be controlled – a way to let others know, even if we might not want to, that our embarrassment or strong feeling is genuine. So Mark Twain’s quip – that “Man is the only animal that blushes – or needs to” – may have been true in ways he didn't imagine.

Our fancy words, of course, disguise ourselves not only from others, but from ourselves. We fabricate accounts of what we’re doing and what we intend, and then we believe our fabrication. It’s not that chimps can’t intentionally deceive each other and humans -- but the study of other hominins does give us some glimpse into part of what may be going on with humans behind our more elaborate linguistic constructs and conceits. When Frans de Waal began his chimpanzee studies as a young graduate student it was the flower-power era of the 1970s. What he saw in these other hominins, he began to see in humans. He writes:
“My generation was anarchistic and fiercely democratic, didn’t trust the authorities that ran the university, viewed sexual jealousy as antiquated, and felt that any kind of ambition was suspect. The chimpanzee colony that I watched day in and day out, on the other hand, showed all those ‘reactionary’ tendencies in spades: power, ambition, and jealousy. Sitting there with my shoulder-length hair, nourished by saccharine songs such as ‘Strawberry Fields Forever,’ and ‘Good Vibrations,’ I went through a truly eye-opening period. Right away, as a human being, I was struck by the similarities between us and our closest relative....I had to come to grips with behavior that my generation roundly denounced but that was common in [these other] apes....I began to better understand my own kind. I started to notice rampant jockeying for position, coalition formation, currying of favors, and political opportunism – in my own environment. And I don’t mean just among the older generation. The student movement had its own alpha males, power struggles, groupies, and jealousies. In fact, the more promiscuous we became, the more sexual jealousy reared its ugly head. My ape study gave me the right distance to analyze these patterns, which were plain as day if you looked for them. Student leaders ridiculed and isolated potential challengers and stole everybody’s girlfriend while at the same time preaching the wonders of egalitarianism and tolerance. There was an enormous mismatch between what my generation wanted to be, as expressed in our passionate political oratory, and how we actually behaved.” (Mama's Last Hug, 26-7)
Writing now almost 5 decades of study later, de Waal finds:
“Human hierarchies can be quite apparent, but we don’t always recognize them as such, and academics often act as if they don’t exist. I have sat through entire conferences on adolescent human behavior without ever hearing the words power and sex, even though to me they are what teen life is all about. When I bring it up, usually everyone nods and thinks it’s marvelously refreshing how a primatologist looks at the world, then continue on their merry way focusing on self-esteem, body image, emotion regulation, risk-taking, and so on....Yet among teens, there is nothing more obvious than the exploration of sex, the testing of power, and the seeking of structure.” (31)
Example after example, study after study, has chipped away at notions of human exceptionalism in the emotional and social realm.

Consider, to select almost randomly, one example: triadic awareness -- i.e., awareness of not only your relationship with B and your relationship with C, but also the relationship of B with C.
“Many animals obviously know whom they dominate, or whom their own family and friends are, but chimps go one step further by realizing who around them dominates whom and who is friends with whom. Individual A is aware not only of his own relationships with B and C but also of the B-C relationship. Her knowledge covers the entire triad. Triadic awareness may even extend outside the group, as shown by Mama’s reaction to the zoo director. She had little direct contact with him, yet she must have picked up on how jumpy and deferential the caretakers acted whenever he stopped by. [Other] apes observe and learn, just as [humans] do when we understand who is married to whom or to which family a child belongs....Triadic awareness is not limited to ape – it has also been found in monkeys and ravens.” (30)
We learn a lot about B by watching how B is with C – and we are far from the only species who does that.
“Scientists at the University of Kyoto tested how capuchin monkeys reacted to a scene in which a person pretended to have trouble opening a plastic container and asked a human experimenter for help. The experimenter kindly gave the help. In the next scene, the person asked a different experimenter for help – one who turned away and ignored the request. Would the monkeys like the good guy or the selfish jerk? Mind you, this was about how the experimenter treated not the monkeys but another person. After watching the scenes enacted in front of them, the monkeys refused to have anything to do with the despicable experimenter, turned off by her poor level of cooperation.” (164)
They’re watching – just as Mama was watching in order to pick up on the authority that the zoo director had. And the level of political intrigue in a chimp colony comes pretty close to our own. De Waal describes the case of Nikkie.
“After Nikkie became the new alpha male in the chimpanzee colony of Burgers Zoo, he regularly practiced strategic retaliation. His dominance was not yet fully acknowledged, and subordinates would often pressure him, banding together and chasing him around, leaving him panting and licking his wounds. But Nikkie did not give up, and a few hours later he’d regain his composure. The rest of the day he’d go around the large island to single out members of the resistance, visiting them one by one while they were sitting alone minding their own business. He’d intimidate them or give them a beating, which likely made them think twice before opposing him again.”
You may have noticed that presidents seem to age faster – that Obama, for instance, looked a lot more than 8 years older at the end of his presidency than he had at the beginning of it. In chimps, too, “alpha males live under constant pressure and can get stressed out.” An alpha male at the Yerkes Field station had a rival who never let up and provoked him every day. A photo of the chimp seems to show the constant worry reflected in his eyes.

Our own species is remarkably plastic. And those linguistic constructs that conceal our thoughts also allow humans to build civilization far beyond what other apes can do (which, itself, is a good news, bad news story). The chimp lessons – toward which I have but gestured – teach us what we may have hidden from ourselves. Power and sex dynamics continue to be huge drivers of our behavior, howsoever our conceptualizing may disguise and dress them up.

The moral here, I take it, is not that since the drives for power and sex are only natural, we should drop our inhibitions and subterfuge and more baldly and aggressively assert these drives. Rather, my teaching today, as it often is, is: pay attention. Notice. It’s when we don’t notice the operations of power and sex drives that they most control our lives. By paying attention to the arising of these drives – in ourselves and in others – and only by doing so – we gain some freedom to decide for ourselves what to do about them.

Let us not deny what we are. Let us not or repress, or suppress – except maybe temporarily as a particular situation may require. Over the long haul, it’s not repression that we seek. Rather, we seek grounding in a clear awareness of what we are, as reading up on the behavior of our fellow hominins helps provide. We may then channel what we are into what we yet may be. May that be so.



Chimp Lessons, part 1

Let us begin with a recitation of the litany of "us":
  • 13.8 billion years ago the universe began.
  • 4.6 billion years ago, in the last third of the universe’s lifespan, our sun formed, and within about 60 million years, the Earth.
  • 3.5 billion years ago, a billion years after our Earth formed, life on Earth began.
  • 2 billion years ago, after a billion and a half years of prokaryotic life, eukaryotes (cells with a distinct nucleus) appeared when symbiotically linked prokaryotic cells fused into one organism.
  • 800 million years ago, some eukaryotes developed into the first animal.
  • 535 million years ago, within the last 4 percent of the age of the universe, some animals developed into the first vertebrates.
  • 200 million years ago, some vertebrates developed into the first mammals.
  • 60 million years ago, some mammals developed into the first primates.
  • 25 million years ago, some primates developed into the first hominoids (apes).
  • 20 million years ago, the hominoids split into the hominids (great apes) and the gibbons.
  • 17 million years ago, the hominids split into the homininae and the ponginae (orangutans).
  • 10 million years ago, the homininae split into the hominins and the gorillins (gorillas).
  • 6 million years ago, the hominins split into the australopithecines and the panina (chimps and bonobos).
  • About 2 million years ago, some australopithecines developed into the first homo genus. There have been 8 or 10 species of homo, many of them on earth at the same time.
  • 200,000 to 300,000 years ago, one of those homo species became the one called sapiens.
  • 40,000 years ago, homo neanderthalensis, the last non-sapiens homo, went extinct -- though not before interbreeding with homo sapiens enough that today the average human's DNA is 2% neanderthal.
I love recounting this litany of our place in the family of life. I have to re-look-up the numbers every time I assemble this litany. I don't retain all the numbers in memory -- and, besides, the numbers keep getting tweaked as more of the fossil record is revealed, and interpretations of that record rise or fall among scientists. Maybe you won’t remember any of those numbers, but just to hear them and hold them for a moment offers a chance for awe, both humbling and glorifying at the same time. How small we are – and yet how grand the long story that brought us into being.

Consider the period since vertebrate life first appeared on earth – not life, not eukaryotes, not animals, but just the time since vertebrate animals appeared. If we expressed those 535 million years as a single year -- with the first vertebrate animal life appearing the moment of the new year on January 1, and right now being the ball dropping on the end of that year – then the first mammals didn’t appear until August 17 of that year. The first primates weren’t here until November 21. The hominids (the great apes) got here on December 18. The last common ancestor of humans and chimps lived and died on December 27. And humans didn’t show up until about 8:30pm on December 31. That’s us, on the time scale of vertebrate life.

Early homo sapiens probably played a role in the extinction of other homo species, but two other hominin species have, so far, survived humans: chimpanzees and bonobos, both of the genus pan. Outside the regions of the African habitats of chimps and bonobos, human civilization in Europe, Asia, and the Americas unfolded unaware of our closest relatives. Up until the 19th century, Westerners never saw live apes other than humans. As Frans de Waal tells it:
“When the first [nonhuman] apes went on display, no one could believe their eyes. In 1835 a male chimpanzee arrived at London Zoo and was exhibited while clothed in a sailor suit. He was followed by a female orangutan who was put in a dress. Queen Victoria saw the exhibit and was appalled. She couldn’t stand the sight of the[se] apes, calling them painfully and disagreeably human.” (Mama's Last Hug, 17-18)
Charles Darwin also saw the exhibit and also found these apes strikingly human-like, but he was not repulsed by this. “He felt that anyone convinced of human superiority ought to come take a look” (18).

Earlier, I referred to the long story that brought “us” into being, and subsequently said, “that’s us, on the time scale of vertebrate life.” But who is this “us”? That litany of life I conducted offers concentric circles of “us” – us humans, us hominins, us hominids, us hominoids, us primates, us mammals, us vertebrates, us animals, us Terran life forms. It’s all “us.” Sometimes we need a little help remembering that all homo sapiens are us – whatever their class, or color, or gender identity or affectional orientation. Sometimes we need a little help remembering that not only homo sapiens are us.

I trust this will not come to you as painful and disagreeable as it was to Queen Victoria – whose brief observation of Tommy the chimpanzee revealed only a tiny sliver of what we now understand about chimps, yet revealed more than she was comfortable knowing. I get how being disabused of human specialness can be disconcerting – but it can also be, as it was for Charles Darwin, exhilarating. It offers us new possibilities for connection, opens a door for a larger love – while at the same time, because there are important ways that we hominins differ from each other, offering us lessons in respecting people and beings that aren’t like us.

To accept and embrace kinship while respecting difference – this is the project of making community within our species, and it is the project of making community within our genus (if there were any other extant homo species), within our hominin tribe, our hominid family, our primate order, our mammal class, and our chordate phylum.

Part of respecting differences is knowing that chimps can be dangerous. Frans de Waal writes that
“no human in his right mind would walk into a cage with an adult chimpanzee. Chimpanzees don’t seem large to us, but their muscle strength far exceed ours, and reports of horrific attacks are plentiful.” (14-15)
So the story de Waal tells of two elderly hominins is all the more remarkable. One of them was dutch biologist Jan van Hooff nearly 80 years old. The other was Mama, a female chimp at the Arnhem Zoo Chimpanzee Community, a month shy of 59. The two of them had known each other for over 40 years, but hadn’t seen each other recently when Jan came to visit the dying matriarch of the Arnhem Chimp colony.
“Curled up in a fetal position in her straw nest, Mama doesn’t even look up when Jan, who has boldly entered her night cage, approaches with a few friendly grunts. Those of us who work with [nonhuman] apes, often mimic their typical sounds and gestures: soft grunts are reassuring. When Mama finally does wake up from her slumber, it takes her a second to realize what is going on. But then she expresses immense joy at seeing Jan up close and in the flesh. Her face changes into an ecstatic grin, a much more expansive one than is typical of our species....Half of Mama’s face is a huge smile while she yelps – a soft, high-pitched sound for moments of high emotion. In this case, the emotion is clearly positive because she reaches for Jan’s head while he bends down. She gently strokes his hair, then drapes one of her long arms around his neck to pull him closer. During this embrace, her fingers rhythmically pat the back of his head and neck in a comforting gesture that chimpanzees also use to quiet a whimpering infant. This was typically Mama: she must have sensed Jan’s trepidation about invading her domain, and she was letting him know not to worry. She was happy to see him.” (13-14)
The video of Mama’s last hug is here. Let me know if you get through it with dry eyes. I did not.

If Queen Victoria was disturbed to see Tommy in a sailor suit, what could she have made of this tender encounter?


UU Minute #75

The A.U.A. Begins, 1825

After William Ellery Channing had delivered his1819 Baltimore Sermon and after Massachusetts courts had delivered their ruling the 1820 Dedham case, the liberals faced the question whether they ought to organize a new denomination. Our younger ministers sensed an opportunity and were keen to organize so as to better spread their faith. Our older ministers were reluctant. They feared the consequences of sectarianism. Their focus was less on seeking converts and more on moral character, civic virtue, public welfare and philanthropy.

Still, in 1820 a group of ministers met in the vestry of Channing’s Federal Street Church. They organized the Berry Street Conference for the purpose of mutual support and for publishing their ideas.

Within a few years, they began discussion of advancing Unitarianism through an organization devoted to the publication of tracts. At the 1825 May meeting of the Berry Street Conference, it was unanimously decided to organize the American Unitarian Association. A committee drafted a constitution and on 1825 May 26 the American Unitarian Association was born.

As fate would have it, on that very day, the British Unitarian Association was founded in England – though neither side had any awareness that the same thing was happening across the pond.

The American Unitarian Association was not what we think of as a denominational structure. It was an association of individuals who signed up to be members – whereas our current Unitarian Universalist Association is an association of congregations, not of individuals. The original American Unitarian Association was a clearinghouse for publications. Its purpose was to spread the word through print -- rather than to serve and support congregations and co-ordinate their activities.

Nevertheless, it was a start, and its publications were a part of Unitarianism’s growth.

NEXT: Most Favorable to Piety


UU Minute #74

The Dedham Case: Conclusion

Baker v. Fales, also known as The Dedham Case, came to trial in 1820. The jury, you’ll recall, deliberated all night about “Which church is the Dedham Church?” In the end, they ruled that the church was built and run at the parish's expense for the benefit of the whole parish, and the minister worked for the benefit of the whole parish. Therefore, the parish had the right to call the minister and the parish owned the assets.

The case was appealed to the Massachusetts Supreme judicial court, and, a year later, 1821, the state’s supreme court unanimously ruled that Massachusetts’ “Bill of Rights of 1780 secures to towns, not to churches, the right to elect the minister.” They also ruled that the connection between First Church and First Parish was indissoluble. Even if only a minority of church members stayed, as happened in Dedham, it was those members who had a right to the name of the church, to choose deacons, and to hold church property.

The decision rocked the Standing Order churches, many of which had already started to come apart. In some towns, a liberal minority left to establish a new church. In others, an orthodox minority left to found a congregation of their own. The reverberations went on for decades, with a quarter of Massachusetts Standing Order Congregational churches becoming Unitarian within the next twenty years. Three of the churches chose to become neither Unitarian nor Congregational, but Universalist.

The case accelerated the conversion of Congregational churches into Unitarian ones, and it was a major milestone in the Massachusetts’ road towards the separation of church and state and led to the state, in 1833, formally disestablishing the Congregational Church.

* * *
Interesting story about the return of the communion silver:
Despite the court ruling, the silver did not stay with First Church. It was returned to First Church, but then stolen one night by Pliny Bingham and [Samuel] Haven. The set was broken up, with various pieces going to different homes for safekeeping. Rumors abounded about where it was, and some of it even was displayed at the Worcester Fair in the 1850s, but it not appear again publicly again in Dedham for more than a century. The flagons were found one morning on the steps of the Dedham Historical Society. The rest remained hidden away until 1969 when it was donated to the Historical Society as a neutral third party. The service has been on permanent loan to the Museum of Fine Arts since then and replicas have been made for both churches. ("Baker v. Fales," Wikipedia)
There was also the matter of the church records. Most were returned as the court ordered. But there was one volume of church records that remained missing. It turned up over 100 years later -- in 1926 -- in an attic in Dedham and was returned to its rightful owners.

NEXT: The A.U.A. Begins, 1825


Desire, part 2

We’re looking at one of Marshall Rosenberg’s key distinctions in his teachings of nonviolent communication. It’s the distinction between demand and request. The distinction lies in whether you are upset if the answer is no. If you are upset, discombobulated, angered, annoyed – if reactivity is triggered when you don’t get what you want, then it was a demand. There might be a little demand energy in your desire, or there might be a lot.

When stoics and Buddhists say that desirelessness is liberation, they’re talking about desires with demand energy behind them – whether you’re demanding better service at a restaurant, demanding that traffic thin out, demanding that your spouse wash some dishes, or demanding that sun and sky provide some clear and warm weather. Demands become tyrants ruling our lives. Liberation deposes the tyrant.

We still have requests – of ourselves, of people around us, maybe, or the world – but if they aren’t met, we’re still OK. We’re still able to be calm, at peace, joyous. And when stoics and Buddhists say that desire causes suffering, again, they’re talking about demands.

Sometimes we don’t get what we want. Even when we do get what we want, Freud spoke of there being inevitably a residue of disappointment in it. There’s a residual disappointment in even the most satisfying experience. Freud wrote:
“There is always something lacking for complete discharge and satisfaction,” and he shifts from his German to a French phrase meaning, “always waiting for something which never came.”
So it’s not just that sometimes we don’t get what we want. In some sense, we NEVER get what we want – not all of it.

This fact is maybe not quite as mystical – or as sexual -- as Freud makes it out to be. Evolution built us to be organisms that keep ourselves alive in a world where dangers are always lurking. This requires finding ways to meet our physical needs, and always moving on to the next thing we can do to improve our safety, enhance our resources, increase the survival chances of our offspring. So, no, we can’t ever be COMPLETELY satisfied – unless we can come to see the residue of dissatisfaction as itself perfectly satisfactory.

When we don’t get what we want, if there was demand in that want, then we suffer. We’re irritated, out of sorts, ruffled – maybe even enraged. We are one form or another of wretched. As Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck put it:
"There are two kinds of desires: demands ("I have to have it") and preferences. Preferences are harmless; we can have as many as we want. Desire that demands to be satisfied is the problem."
Unwholesome desires are fundamentally demands. Even if it’s a desire for something that isn’t good for you, it’s the demand energy that makes it a problem for you. Without the demand, rationality can recognize that it’s not good for you and let it go.

Wholesome desires include preferences, as Joko Beck said. It’s OK to have preferences. It’s OK to prefer chocolate to strawberry ice cream, and it’s OK to put some energy into getting what you prefer. It’s OK to prefer being comfortable to being uncomfortable, and to put some energy into that preference.

But your energies will always need to be balanced. Energy here now, means you aren’t putting it to something else now. Demand skews that balance. Demand siphons off way more of your energy than you would ever, in an ideal setting for calm reflection, have said was really what you wanted. You can’t rationally and calmly discern where you want to put your energies if demand is driving you. Don’t get rid of desires, just get rid of demand.

Of course, that’s easier said than done, but saying it, resolving it, is a beginning toward diminishing the tyranny of demand. That’s liberation – that’s the freedom to put your energies where you want to. You can put them toward this preference or that preference – and toward something overarching that orders and prioritizes your preferences: what I’ve spoken of before as your great vow.

Wholesome desires also include your great vow, the mission of your life, the great purpose – the direction you point your life in whether you make much progress or not. The trick is not to bring demand to your great vow, either. Your vow is not about outcomes. It’s the overarching desire of your life, but it isn’t a demand. If it were a demand, it would be about outcome. In fact, the degree to which your vow is about outcome is the measure of the demand energy in it. Your life vow is not about outcome, but about orientation. It’s about pointing your life in a certain direction – and then just seeing where that takes you, where it takes the world.

With a Great Vow, there’s never a point at which you say, well, that’s done. Mission accomplished. You’ve pointed yourself in a direction: whether it’s “I vow to speak my truth,” or “I vow to embody true compassion,” or “I vow to live for the cause of social justice,” or whatever your vow is. And then you just see where that takes you. Maybe some days it didn’t seem like you were very compassionate, or did much for justice, but you just keep yourself pointed in that direction. The analogy I’ve used before is that it’s like flying an airplane through thick clouds, very limited visibility, and you have no instruments except a compass. Your vow is that compass. It keeps you pointed: East, say. There’s no question of ever arriving at East.

There’s nowhere to get to. There’s just being headed that way. Moreover, you have no speedometer (on the path of vow, there's no such thing as a speedometer), so there’s no way to know how fast you’re going East.

“Desire,” says Ram Dass, “is the creator; desire is the destroyer. Desire is the universe.” Let me now give the more extended quotation. Ram Dass has said:
“The first thing my Hindu teacher wrote on his slate in teaching me was the statement, “Desire is a trap; desirelessness is liberation; desire is the creator, desire is the destroyer, desire is the universe.”
As I hope you now see, the sort of desire that is a trap is outcome-focused demand. And liberation is a life oriented by our desires, pointed by them in the direction we want to go, but not dependent on outcome -- moved but not driven, laughing at every failure and at every success along the way – working, yet filled with appreciation; purposive, yet filled with gratitude; intentional, yet filled with joy.


Desire, part 1

"Blue Horses,"
by Mary Oliver
I step into the painting of the four blue horses.
I am not even surprised that I can do this.
One of the horses walks toward me.
His blue nose noses me lightly. I put my arm
over his blue mane, not holding on, just
He allows me my pleasure.
Franz Marc died a young man, shrapnel in his brain.
I would rather die than explain to the blue horses
what war is.
They would either faint in horror, or simply
find it impossible to believe.
I do not know how to thank you, Franz Marc.
Maybe our world will grow kinder eventually.
Maybe the desire to make something beautiful
is the piece of God that is inside each of us.
Now all four horses have come closer,
are bending their faces toward me
as if they have secrets to tell.
I don’t expect them to speak, and they don’t.
If being so beautiful isn’t enough, what
could they possibly say?

Desire. It’s our theme of the month for February 2022, as it was for February 2019 and February 2016. It comes around every three years. If you were with us six years ago, or three years ago, this is a chance to come back around to some of those questions about desire and see how your relationship with desire has evolved in that time.

“Desire,” says Ram Dass, “is the creator; desire is the destroyer. Desire is the universe.” The first two are fairly straightforward. Desire is the creator – it’s what drives us to create – to create something beautiful maybe, and, that desire to create something beautiful, might be, as Mary Oliver suggests, “the piece of God that is inside each of us.” Insofar as “God” is a name we give to the creative forces that made the universe, it’s our desire to create that puts us in the image of God. Desire is the creator.

Desire is also the destroyer. Destruction isn’t always a bad thing. Sometimes an old building needs to be torn down – or an old system, or ideological structure (a way of thinking), needs to be torn down to clear space for a new creativity. White supremacy, the prison-industrial complex, rape culture that normalizes and excuses sexual violence against women, the ongoing forms of colonialism that extend political, economic, and cultural domination over peoples – these are structures in need of some destroying. Desire – in this case, desire for respect, equality, and justice – desire for wholesome relationships that don’t exploit or oppress – is the destroyer.

But desire is also a destroyer in an unfortunate way. Addictive desires, desires to acquire, consume, possess, desires to dominate others – these are forces that can destroy the sweetness and beauty of life.

Then he says “desire is the universe.” This means, I take it, that we see reality through the lens of what we want. What do you want to hold on to? What do you want to get rid of? Your whole reality can be defined by those two concerns. Here’s my stuff – car, house, home entertainment system, clothes, computer, smartphone. I want to hold on to that – protect it, make sure it isn’t stolen, make sure it doesn’t break or wear out. Here’s things I don’t like – sore joints, aching tooth, annoying telemarketers, my neighbor’s poltics. Making judgments about “that’s good” and “that’s bad,” and then trying to hold on to what you’ve decided is good and trying to fix or get rid of what you’ve decided is bad can consume your whole day. Your whole universe is nothing but things judged good, things judged bad, and your efforts to protect the one and exile the other. That’s how desire defines your universe.

In Robert Aitken’s book of parables, Zen Master Raven, there’s one episode in which the fictional zen master Raven acknowledges a desire common to actual Ravens: "I have this urge to prey on newborn lambs." Asked how he deals with it, Zen Master Raven explains, "I'd be disoriented without it."

Disoriented, she says. Yes, our desires orient us. The question is (as Humpty Dumpty said to Alice in a rather different context) which is to be master? Do you have your desires, or do desires have you? Which is the master?

It takes some time and some practice to master desire. And the project of mastering desire is never finished and complete. There are various approaches to mastering desire.

You could study the stoic philosophers and work on taking their teachings to heart, internalizing that way of thinking. The two best-known stoic philosophers were Epictetus, who was a Greek slave in the first and second centuries, and Marcus Aurelius, who was a Roman emperor in the second century. Marcus Aurelius is available to us a work called Meditations, which is his journal of reflections. Epictetus is available in two works of notes taken by his student, one called Discourses, and the other Enchiridion. The Stoics offer a lot of thinking about taming desires, cultivating virtue, training ourselves to let go of what is beyond our control and maintain an inner calm. In recent years there’s been quite a revival of interest in the Stoics. It grew out of a general renewed interest in virtue ethics among philosophers in the late 20th century, and has been popularized through a bestselling book, “The Daily Stoic,” by Ryan Holiday, the “Stoicism Today” blog, Stoicon events, podcasts such as the Justin Vacula’s “Stoic Solutions Podcast,” Simon Drew’s “The Practical Stoic Podcast,” and Steve Karafit's “The Sunday Stoic.” Stoic meetups are popular throughout the US, Europe, and Australia. So that’s one route.

A somewhat different approach to mastering desire is taken by the Amish, who are very careful and deliberate about new devices and gizmos actually make life better, and who create strong community ties to help the members channel desire.

Then there’s Zen training, which, in meditation recognizes the self as fluid and unbounded – not fixed and not distinct. Like a hurricane, the self is always changing, has no definite edge and no essence. Out of the atmospheric flow, certain conditions came together and for a little while were coherent enough to have a name, and then dissipated again back into the atmosphere from which it came. When we release clinging to the illusion of a distinct and permanent self, then its desires weaken their grip.

Whatever strategy you take, it’ll take a while to develop, but not as much time as you’ll otherwise spend in pursuit one desire after another. As the philosopher William Irvine has written:
“If we like what the Zen Buddhists have to say about mastering desire, we might want to spend hours in silent meditation. If we like what the Amish say, we might want to join an Amish community (if they will have us). If we like what the Stoic philosophers say, we might want to spend time studying their writings. But having said this, I should add that the time and effort we spend trying to master desire are probably considerably less than the time and effort we will expend if we instead capitulate to our desires and spend our days, as so many people do, working incessantly to fulfill whatever desires float into our head.”
A helpful entry point in mastering our desires – not repressing them or exiling them or, God forbid, not having them, but mastering them and harmonizing with them – is Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication. One of the key distinctions in Rosenberg’s training is between a demand and a request. The distinction is not in how politely you ask, or your tone of voice, or what words you use. There’s only one way to tell the difference between a demand and a request, and that’s: if the answer is ‘no,’ are you upset? And that’s the idea with which we'll pick up in part 2.


UU Minute #73

Which Church is the Dedham Church?

In 1818, a pitched battle broke out in Dedham, Massachusetts, 10 miles southwest of the center of Boston. The Rev. Joshua Bates had resigned his ministry to become president of Middlebury College. Some months later, after visits from a number of prospective ministers, the parish met and voted, 77-29, to call Alvan Lamson to be the new minister and the town’s publicly subsidized “Protestant teacher of piety, religion and morality.”

Later the same day the church met and voted 18-14 to reject Alvan Lamson. The church, however, was bound by the parish vote – unless they split from the parish – so they did.

The town owned the church real estate, so the church conservatives – a majority of the church though a minority of the parish – began meeting in a member’s house as they planned for construction of a new church building. The conservatives took with them church records, financial assets including cash, bonds, promissory notes, leases, and accounts, and portable physical assets, including the communion silver. The assets were the property of the church, they reasoned, and since the conservatives constituted the majority of the church, the assets belonged to them.

If you’re thinking, “well, that’s a legal suit begging to happen,” you are correctamundo. Deacon Eliphalet Baker (of the liberal minority of the church membership) sued Deacon Samuel Fales (of the orthodox camp) for the return of all the church property. The liberals maintained that the assets belonged to the parish, and as the parish majority was staying put, the assets belonged to them.

The case, Baker v. Fales, also known as The Dedham Case came to trial in 1820 February. The jury deliberated all night about “Which church is the Dedham Church?” What did they say? Be sure to catch our next thrilling episode.

NEXT: The Dedham Case: Conclusion