Biology and Spirituality, part 2

It happened, to the best of our ability to tell, just once: an archaeon and a bacterium merged, and both survived as parts of one organism. That happened just once in 4 billion years, and it very easily might not have happened in 8 billion years or 16 billion. (The universe itself, remember, is less than 14 billion years old.)

Life out there may not be all that rare, but eukaryotic life? Maybe in 200 billion galaxies averaging 100 billion stars per galaxy, and 1 to 10 planets per star, only one single spot in the whole wide vast universe happened to produce such a monumentally unlikely thing as eukaryotic life. Maybe.

The science inspires our spirits into the awe and wonder of this amazing fluke – an archaeon absorbing a bacterium and both parts surviving, now as one. With that eukaryotic barrier crossed, then it was off to the races. How did we get to multi-celled organisms? Studies of single-celled eukaryotes called choanoflagellates offers a clue. They reproduce, as all unicellular organisms do,
“by dividing in two, but sometimes the two daughter cells fail to split completely and end up connected by a short bridge. This happens again and again, until there’s a sphere of linked cells, enveloped in a single sheath” (Ed Yong, I Contain Multitudes 56).
This turns out to be helpful because the choanoflagellates are better at catching food as a group than they are on their own. So maybe that’s how the jump to multi-celled organisms got started. And from there came the explosion into 8.7 million species of eukaryotes – some 7 million of them animal species.

Here, then, is a spiritual message – a message of transcending mystery and wonder, and a message that offers us a sense of meaning. What we are, fundamentally – what we humans share with all primates, with all mammals, with all vertebrates, with all invertebrate animals, with all plants, all algae and all fungi – is that we are based on two very different things coming together and, against all odds, making one.

Moreover, life on this Earth has been combining into one in amazing ways every since. Which brings me to the book that our "Science and Spirituality" group is currently reading, which I have quoted from but not named: it’s by Ed Yong, titled, I Contain Multitudes. It’s all about the microbes that live around us, on us, and within us, and how they make our life possible.

I learned, for instance, that human milk has over 200 unique complex sugars called oligosaccharides. That’s far more than any other mammal. Why do we have so many? And here’s the real kicker: babies can’t digest oligosaccharides. They aren’t for the baby – at least not directly. Ed Yong writes that:
“When [milk researcher Bruce] German first learned about Human Milk Oligosaccharides, he was gobsmacked. Why would a mother spend so much energy manufacturing these complicated chemicals if they were indigestible and therefore useless to her child? Why hasn’t natural selection put its foot down on such a wasteful practice? Here’s a clue: these sugars pass through the stomach and small intestine unharmed, and land in the large intestine where most of our bacteria live. So, what if they aren’t food for babies at all? What if they are food for microbes?” (I Contain Multitudes 94)
One particular bacteria species, B. infantis, gobbles up human milk oligosaccharides and, in so doing, releases short-chain fatty acids that feed the infant's gut cells.
“While mothers nourish the microbe, the microbe in turn nourishes the baby” (95).
B. infantis also produces sialic acid which supports the rapid growth of a human infant’s brain.

Throughout the animal kingdom, there is dependence on microbes. As Yong says:
“When we look at beetles and elephants, sea urchins and earthworms, parents and friends, we see individuals, working their way through life as a bunch of cells in a single body, driven by a single brain, and operating with a single genome. This is a pleasant fiction. In fact, we are legion, each and every one of us. Always a ‘we’ and never a ‘me.’” (5)
"help to digest our food, releasing otherwise inaccessible nutrients. They produce vitamins and minerals that are missing from our diet. They break down toxins and hazardous chemicals. They protect us from disease by crowding out more dangerous microbes or killing them directly with antimicrobial chemicals. They produce substances that affect the way we smell. They are such an inevitable presence that we have outsourced surprising aspects of our lives to them. They guide the construction of our bodies, releasing molecules and signals that steer the growth of our organs. They educate our immune system, teaching it to tell friend from foe. They affect the development of the nervous system, and perhaps even influence our behavior.” (12)
There’s a cat microbe called toxoplasma gondii. It only reproduces in the specific environment of a cat’s gut. The cat’s poop teems with this microbes eggs, but the eggs have to get back into some cat’s gut. Rats, which will eat almost anything, eat the cat poop. Now there’s toxoplasma gondii in the rat’s system, and it influences the rat’s behavior – suppressing its normal fear of any place that smells like it might have a cat nearby. So the rat boldly ventures out, is more likely to get eaten by a cat, and thus the toxoplasma gondii happily makes its way back to a cat gut to begin the cycle anew.

In humans, it’s likely that certain microbes in certain numbers, high or low, can shift our mood.

Microbes that are helpful to us in one part of the body can be deadly in other parts. So a large part of the job of containing multitudes is containing all those multitudes. We have elaborate systems with layers of mucus interlaced with bacteriophage viruses to contain the microbes to the area where we need them.
“Microbes subvert our notions of individuality.... Perhaps it is less that I contain multitudes and more than I am multitudes.”
A lot of me inside my skin keeps me going and healthy even though it doesn’t have my DNA. Moreover, what is me doesn’t stop at my skin.
“Every person aerosolizes around 37 million bacteria per hour. This means that our microbiome isn’t confined to our bodies.” (251)
Each of us is walking around in a cloud of...ourselves.

Even so, keep in mind that microbes have their own evolutionary interests, and even the beneficial ones will benefit you only as far as doing so advances their own interests. When Whitman said, “I contain multitudes,” he was addressing the idea that he might be contradicting himself. “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes.” But this, too, fits the microbial story – as microbes, push and pull with other microbes and with their hosts the way that contradictory propositions might pull in opposing directions. We are walking bundles of contradictions – our ideas and our organisms pulling in opposite directions at once.

One more lesson from what the study of microbes reveals is that diversity is good. Whether it’s the ecosystem of a forest or the ecosystem of your body, a diverse one is better than an impoverished one. People in hospitals so frequently contract diseases precisely because hospitals have been such sterile places. The best defense against pathogens isn’t the nuclear option of killing all microbes, because then we kill the ones that counteract the pathogens. We’re better off with diversity within us and diversity around us.

Where do we come from? What are we? We are many. E pluribus unum – from many one. It’s not just a political motto, it’s our inescapable biological reality. It’s our inescapable spiritual reality. E pluribus unum. From many, one.


Biology and Spirituality, part 1

from “Song of Myself”
Walt Whitman

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you....
My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air....

The past and present wilt—I have fill’d them, emptied them,
And proceed to fill my next fold of the future.
Listener up there! what have you to confide to me?
Look in my face while I snuff the sidle of evening,
(Talk honestly, no one else hears you, and I stay only a minute longer.)
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
I concentrate toward them that are nigh, I wait on the door-slab.
Who has done his day’s work? who will soonest be through with his supper?
Who wishes to walk with me?
Will you speak before I am gone? will you prove already too late?
Where do we come from? What are we? Every human culture addresses these questions in some way. Origin myths are part what makes a people a people. What is ours? For Unitarian Universalists today, it’s a story informed by science, which means it is continually revised. Still, we are a faith tradition, not a scientific association.

Where do we come from? What are we? Answers of Unitarian Universalists are many and various and not all consistent. To paraphrase Whitman: Do we contradict ourselves? Very well then we contradict ourselves. We are large. We contain multitudes.

Our faith tradition, informed by science, reaches beyond science in two regards. First: awe, wonder, mystery, transcendence. The first of the sources of the living tradition we share articulated in the Unitarian Universalist Association bylaws is:
“Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life.”
We look to science to inspire some transcending mystery and wonder – and scientists themselves often feel a sense of mystery and wonder evoked by their explorations – but if they speak of it, they are then speaking not as scientists but as simple human beings.

Second: meaning. The fourth principle of Unitarian Universalism declares our "covenant to affirm and promote a free and responsible search for truth and meaning." Science gives us our best current guess about what is true about the way our world may operate in predictable ways – while teaching, also, a humility of understanding that no truth is final and settled. But meaning – what science’s findings mean for who we are, for the ethics and values that guide our life, for the purposes we may construct for being alive – that is beyond the purview of science itself. We can use scientific findings in the construction of meaning of our lives, but that construction is not itself science’s job.

Science inspires our spiritual lives the way science may inspire poetry. Poets draw on science as Whitman did when he wrote: “Every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” As spiritual people -- which is to say, people confronting transcendent mystery and wonder and seeking the meaning of and to our lives -- we draw on science in the way poets sometimes do.

And we ask: What is our place in the grand order of things? For instance, are we alone in the universe?

There are an estimated 100 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy. If we are very generous and assume 10 planets per star, that gives us a trillion planets in our galaxy. And there are perhaps about 200 billion galaxies. Surely in all that vastness this pale blue dot we call Earth can’t be the only place where life appeared.

Well, let’s think through what the barriers are to the development of life. First, habitability. A habitable planet would be one with liquid water and most of the planets out there are either too hot or too cold. A very rough but plausible estimate would be one in a thousand planets are habitable. If one in a thousand are habitable, then 1 trillion planets means 1 billion habitable planets out there.

The next barrier is stability: it has to have a climate that stays benign over eons. It’s quite difficult to get that much stability because astronomical forces tend to push a planet towards freezing or frying. Our moon – unusually large for a planet our size, and just the right distance away -- gives Earth a stable axial tilt and a slow rotation rate – which helps us have a more-or-less stable climate. Maybe one in a thousand planets in the habitable zone have long-term climate stability. Now the billion planets is down to a million.

As scientist and writer Stephen Webb looks at the remaining barriers to the sort of sophisticated technological life that humans have developed on Earth, he continues to use the very rough guess of about one planet in a thousand making it through each barrier. He says:
“Life must start -- the million becomes a thousand. Complex life forms must arise -- the thousand becomes one. Sophisticated tool use must develop -- that's one planet in a thousand galaxies. To understand the universe, they'll have to develop the techniques of science and mathematics -- that's one planet in a million galaxies. To reach the stars, they'll have to be social creatures, capable of discussing abstract concepts with each other using complex grammar -- one planet in a billion galaxies. And they have to avoid disaster -- not just self-inflicted but from the skies, too. That planet around Proxima Centauri, last year it got blasted by a flare. One planet in a trillion galaxies.” ("Where Are All the Aliens?" 2018)
But our best guess is that there probably are only 200 billion galaxies. So, Stephen Webb concludes, “I think we’re alone.”

This is a rather disappointing conclusion. I love to imagine other star-faring civilizations out there – but as best we can guess, the probability of that is, sadly, low. Very simple life, though, according to Webb’s rough estimations, may well be on about a 1,000 planets in our galaxy alone – but it’ll be single-celled prokaryotes.

Prokaryotes may have started here on Earth as soon as 3.5 billion years ago. But the jump from prokaryotic life to eukaryotic is a huge jump. Stephen Webb simplifies his calculation by assuming that each of the successive barriers he lists is cleared by one out of every thousand planets that had cleared the previous stages. But from what I’ve gathered, it’s really that jump from prokaryotic to eukaryotic that’s the big one.
As Ed Yong writes,
“For roughly the first 2.5 billion years of life on Earth, bacteria and archaea [the two forms of single-celled prokaryotes] charted largely separate evolutionary courses. Then, on one fateful occasion, a bacterium somehow merged with an archaeon, losing its free-living existence and become entrapped forever within its new host. That is how many scientists believe eukaryotes came to be. It’s our creation story: two great domains of life merging to create a third, in the greatest symbiosis of all time. The archaeon provided the chassis of the eukaryotic cell while the bacterium eventually transformed into the mitochondria. All eukaryotes descend from that fateful union.” (I Contain Multitudes 9)
Eukaryotes include all the animals, plants, fungi, and algae. Thus, every animal, plant, fungus, and algae emerged from that one highly improbable fluke. An archaeon absorbed a bacteria and somehow they both survived it, and lived on as a conjoined organism. It was still single-celled, at first, but now it was a cell with a nucleus, surrounded by mitochondria, each with its own distinct DNA. This changed everything. The bacteria part, the mitochondria, provided an extra source of energy, allowing cells to get bigger and become more complex.
“There’s a huge void between the simpler cells of bacteria and archaea and the more complex ones of eukaryotes, and life has managed to cross that void exactly once in four billion years. Since then, the countless bacteria and archaea in the world, all evolving at breakneck speed, have never again managed to produce a eukaryote. How could that possibly be? Other complex structures, from eyes to armor to many-celled bodies, have evolved on many independent occasions, but the eukaryotic cell is a one-off innovation. That’s because, as [biochemists] argue, the merger that created it – the one between an archaeon and a bacterium – was so breathtakingly improbable that it has never been duplicated, or at least never with success.” (I Contain Multitudes 9-10)
Once – in four billion years. Scientists in laboratories haven’t been able to come close to getting an archaeon to absorb a bacterium and have them survive together – yet somehow it happened.

We’ll pick up from there in part 2.


UU Minute #80

Rev. Charles Follen

Charles Follen – whose name you may have heard as responsible for bringing the Christmas tree tradition to America – was born in Germany, where as a young man, he was involved with radical politics. Forced to flee, Follen arrived in America in 1824, at age 28. Harvard University hired him to teach German. A few years later, he became instructor of ethics and ecclesiastical history at Harvard Divinity School.

Gravitating to Unitarian circles, Follen and William Ellery Channing became friends. Follen was also a close friend and collaborator with “radical abolitionist” William Lloyd Garrison.

In 1835, when Follen was age 39, Harvard fired him for his outspoken abolitionist beliefs. The hostility and scorn the newspapers heaped on Follen, Garrison, and any who called for the abolition of slavery didn’t help. Boston and Cambridge would later become centers for the abolitionist spirit, but in the 1830s, weren’t there yet.

Follen took ordination as a Unitarian minister. He was called to serve our New York City congregation that is now All Souls, but because of conflicts over his radical anti-slavery, he kept the position only one year. A lot of Unitarians weren’t there yet either.

Follen returned to Lexington, Massachusetts and designed a unique octagonal building, for the Unitarian church there, which he would serve when the building was complete. At the groundbreaking for the building, Follen declared the mission of his church:
"[May] this church never be desecrated by intolerance, or bigotry, or party spirit; more especially its doors might never be closed against any one, who would plead in it the cause of oppressed humanity; within its walls all unjust and cruel distinctions might cease, and [there] all men might meet as brethren."
Charles Follen would die in a tragic steamboat accident before his ministry there could begin.

NEXT: Channing Resigns in Place


What We Merit, part 2

Talent + Effort

Merit, or deservingness, is a product of two factors: talent, ability, natural gifts on the one hand and effort, hard work, training on the other. We'll look at the talent side, and then at the effort side.

First, let us ask: from where did the talent come? Some of it came from genes – that’s luck. Some of it came from childhood experiences. But growing up in the right sort of environment to bring out a given ability is not something the individual made happen. That’s also luck.

The other factor – effort, hard work, motivation, training -- isn’t always possible to separate from native talent. But whether you have the opportunities for training, have good coaches available, and training facilities, have encouraging people around you, and an environment that yields enough reward for hard work early on so that it develops as a habit – that’s all luck. There may also be a genetic component in predisposing some people to focused work and delayed gratification, and, if so, that would also be luck.

Getting to Third Base

There’s a question in this month’s issue of On the Journey, on the theme, Humility. It asks: “In what ways are you, too, guilty of 'being born on third base and thinking you hit a triple'?” The question presupposes a dichotomy between earning your way to something, or just being lucky. But if we look closer, we see it’s luck either way.

If you were born on third base, well, that’s luck.

And if you actually did hit a triple, let’s face the fact that that was luck, too. To be born in a time in which baseball exists, to have a natural talent for hitting a ball with a stick, to have good teachers and coaches and a training environment that was neither so frustrating as to be discouraging nor so easy as to be so boring you moved on to other pursuits -- and then to have the pitcher throw you just the pitch you were ready for, and for your line drive not to go right at a fielder – all luck.

Yet the rhetoric of merit, of deservingness, predominates.

Justice Distributive and Contributive

The more we’ve emphasized meritocracy, the greater our inequalities of income and wealth have grown. Or maybe it’s the other way around: as our inequality has shot up since 1980, we’ve responded by rationalizing it with an increasingly dominant rhetoric of merit. Either way, the rise of emphasis on merit and the rise of inequality correlate.

Distributive justice is needed for fairer, fuller access to the fruits of economic growth and a reduction in inequality. Beyond distributive justice, we need contributive justice: the opportunity to contribute meaningfully to others. It’s contributive justice that fosters the sense that we’re in this together.

Human beings require the social recognition and esteem that goes with producing what others need and value. An adequate wage is part of that. It’s hard to feel your society really values your work if they won’t pay you much for it. But the point isn’t just redistributing income and wealth. It’s that people should get a good income because they’re doing work that really matters to other people. The distributive justice and the contributive justice need to go hand in hand.

As Sandel writes,
“The fundamental human need is to be needed by those with whom we share a common life. The dignity of work consists in exercising our abilities to answer such needs. (The Tyranny of Merit 212)”
Robert F. Kennedy understood this. Campaigning in 1968, he said,
“Fellowship, community, shared patriotism – these essential values of our civilization do not come from just buying and consuming goods together.”
They come from
“dignified employment at decent pay, the kind of employment that lets a man say to his community, to his family, to his country, and most important, to himself, ‘I helped to build this country. I am a participant in its great public ventures.’” (RFK: Collected Speeches 385-86)
Politicians don't much talk that way anymore.

What We Merit

What do we merit? Suppose the answer were: nothing. Merit is a pretense. The supposed distinction between luck and deservingness collapses under scrutiny.

There are certain spheres of life where the pretense is necessary. When it’s time to ask the boss for a raise, you go in and make the case for how you deserve it. But later, when you're back home, in a moment of calm reflection where you can step back from your work life and can view it in your spiritual, holistic capacity, then you can appreciate that, really, there is no deserving. It’s all grace. You just happened to have some skills – including the skill called “motivation” – and you just happened to live in a world with market demand for your particular skills – and just happened to have the boss and the company that you do.

Now: Can you hold on to that spiritual truth even as you return again to the sphere of markets and work? It’s like the capacity to play a game -- parcheesi or gin rummy or chess -- while at the same time knowing that you’re just playing a game. Or like the capacity to watch an engrossing movie, while a part of you retains the consciousness that what you’re looking at is just lights projected on a screen. In the case of games and movies, it's pretty easy. In the case of merit, it takes a special spiritual maturity. As Max Weber observed,
“the fortunate person is seldom satisfied with the fact of being fortunate. Beyond this, he needs to know that he has a right to his good fortune. He wants to be convinced that he ‘deserves’ it, and above all, that he deserves it in comparison with others. He wishes to be allowed the belief that the less fortunate also merely experience their due. Good fortune thus wants to be 'legitimate' fortune.” ("The Social Psychology of the World Religions" [1915])
To be able to hold before you unwaveringly the insight that your good fortune really is just good fortune -- really is utterly undeserved -- to never forget that for a moment -- even when you’re in the middle of an intense round of the game called, “demanding what you deserve,” – that is a difficult spiritual challenge.

I regularly bring myself back to this awareness that it’s all grace, that none of it is deserved or earned, but that bit about “never forget for a moment” is beyond me. I do regularly bring myself back to remembering, but that’s because I do regularly forget.

This might be your first glimpse of seeing through the illusion of merit – the first time it came to your notice that the distinction between deserving and lucky is illusory. So I invite you to hold on to that. Don’t let it slip away. Rest in that new way of seeing, and imagine what it might be like to live that way – with awareness that merit is a fiction, a game you are sometimes called upon to play, but which you recognize isn’t real.

If you imagine holding that awareness in your mind, what difference would that make for your life? For one thing, if you’re sharply aware that it’s all luck, then you’ll be less caught by surprise when the luck changes. Market shifts can make your particular skills no longer in demand. A sudden accident or disease can make your body no longer able to play the violin, or hold a scalpel steady – or can make your mind less able to concentrate. In the vagaries of fortune, if you’ve thoroughly grasped that your success is not deserved, then you’ll be prepared to see that your failure isn’t either.

And something else. Not only do you not deserve your failure, but you’ll more clearly see that other people don’t deserve theirs.

Under the meritocratic ethic, my success is my own doing, so other people’s failure must be their fault. Meritocracy thus corrodes commonality. It traps me within the delusion that we aren’t in the same boat. It says I built my boat, and you built your boat, so there’s no particular reason I need to be concerned if yours is sinking.

But if I see my situation as wholly an undeserved grace, then I can imagine a new and harsher grace that might put me in someone else’s shoes. (Ram Dass, after the stroke that left him wheelchair-bound, called it 'fierce grace.') And if I can have that clarity, then my life turns in a different direction, turns toward a different task.

My task is not to out-compete others for the prizes of success and status. Nor is it to facilitate my children in out-competing others. My interest shifts from the prizes available only to the winners to restoring the dignity of all work.

There is a possible world in which everyone, whatever their talents and training, can meaningfully contribute their work to our shared public enterprise, and meaningfully contribute their voice to democratic deliberation that forms that enterprise. It will be no easy thing to get there from here. It will take, at best, several generations to reverse the effects of the last several generations.

Meanwhile, here in the microcosm of a congregation, we practice. Week in and week out, we embody a communal life without meritocracy, where we stand together on ground of equality, where everyone can meaningfully contribute to our shared enterprise, where we learn together an ever-deepening appreciation of grace and our inherent solidarity. Week in and week out, we are demonstrating to the world a better way.



What We Merit, part 1

Preface: The Mechanically Moral Universe

The mechanically moral universe thesis says the universe rewards virtue and punishes wickedness. If virtue goes in, you get reward out; wickedness in, punishment out – as if the universe were a great moral machine, a cosmic meritocracy. Wisdom from the Hebrew Bible has for thousands of years reminded readers that life is not all about getting what one deserves.

First, from the book of Ecclesiastes, chapter 9, verse 11:
“Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the skillful; but time and chance happen to them all.” (NRSV)
Second, the Book of Job. Here is Michael Sandel’s exposition.
“A just and righteous man, Job is subjected to unspeakable pain and suffering, including the death of his sons and daughters in a storm. Ever faithful to God, Job cannot fathom why such suffering has been visited upon him.... As Job mourns the loss of his family, his friends (if one can call them friends) insist that he must have committed some egregious sin, and they press Job to imagine what that sin might be. This is an early example of the tyranny of merit. Armed with the assumption that suffering signifies sin, Job’s friends cruelly compound his pain by claiming that, in virtue of some transgression or other, Job must be to blame for the death of his sons and daughters. Although he knows he is innocent, Job shares his companions’ theology of merit, and so cries out to God asking why he, a righteous man, is being made to suffer. When God finally speaks to Job, he rejects the cruel logic of blaming the victim. He does so by renouncing the meritocratic assumption that Job and his companions share. Not everything that happens is a reward or a punishment for human behavior, God proclaims from the whirlwind. Not all rain is for the sake of watering the crops of the righteous, nor is every drought for the sake of punishing the wicked....God confirms Job’s righteousness but chastises him for presuming to grasp the moral logic of God’s rule. This represents a radical departure from the theology of merit....In renouncing the idea that he presides over a cosmic meritocracy, God asserts his unbounded power and teaches Job a lesson in humility. Faith in God means accepting the grandeur and the mystery of creation, not expecting God to dispense rewards and punishments based on what each person merits or deserves.” (The Tyranny of Merit 36)
Grace and Solidarity

Grace and solidarity: these two seem to me to pretty well sum up what makes a good life. Grace: the freely given, unmerited gifts you did not earn and do not deserve. Like being alive. Like being more or less healthy – healthy enough and pain-free enough to be able to be reading this right now. Like air, and the feel of breath in your lungs. Like sunlight, rain, autumn leaves, or a warm breeze on this first day of Spring. You didn’t earn those things. You’ve done nothing to deserve them. They are free gifts – grace.

You might choose to not notice them. But a life of richness and depth is one that is constantly seeing grace everywhere – the beauty all around us.

And: solidarity. We’re not in it just for ourselves. We’re in this together. We are here for each other – what else?

Grace and solidarity. As those are the crux of a good life, it behooves us to attend to whatever undermines the place in our lives of grace and solidarity.

The Corrosive Meritocratic Ethic

An emphasis on merit – on who deserves what – is the killer of both grace and solidarity. The meritocratic ethic says that life is all about two other things: ability and hard work, also known as talent and effort, or capability and motivation. From these two come your merit, your deservingness for success and status. The meritocratic ethic casts life as a zero-sum game – a competition, and, as per the nature of competition, winning means causing someone else’s loss. Michael Sandel, in The Tyranny of Merit, says of the meritocratic ethic:
“Among the winners, it generates hubris; among the losers, humiliation and resentment. These moral sentiments are at the heart of the populist uprising against elites. More than a protest against immigrants and outsourcing, the populist complaint is about the tyranny of merit. And the complaint is justified. The relentless emphasis on creating a fair meritocracy, in which social positions reflect effort and talent, has a corrosive effect on the way we interpret our success (or the lack of it).” (25)
The meritocratic ethic produces a
“smug conviction of those who land on top that they deserve their fate, and that those on the bottom deserve theirs, too.” (25)
For those on the bottom, the meritocratic ethic means either frustration or humiliation and despair. Either they believe that the system fails to recognize their merit and denies them opportunities to use it – or, perhaps worse, they accept that meritocratic sorting has been more-or-less fair, and they just aren’t good enough to have earned any better than they got.

The Rise of Meritocracy

The grip of the meritocratic ethic has been growing through the post-World War II era. A 1958 book, The Rise of the Meritocracy, by British sociologist Michael Young, described meritocracy as a dystopia.

By 1958, the British class system had been breaking down for some time. The old aristocracy had been giving way to a system of educational and professional advancement based on merit. In many ways, this was a good thing. Gifted children of the working class could develop their talents and escape from a life of manual labor. But the old system at least had the weird advantage that everybody knew it was unfair. Neither the Lords nor the working class believed they deserved their status – which tempered the arrogance of the upper-class and precluded despair for the laborers. The working class knew their situation wasn’t their own fault.

Michael Young, writing from an imagined position in the year 2033 (75 years in his future), said:
“Now that people are classified by ability, the gap between the classes has inevitably become wider. The upper classes are no longer weakened by self-doubt and self-criticism. Today the eminent know that success is just reward for their own capacity, for their own efforts, and for their own undeniable achievement. They deserve to belong to a superior class. They know, too, that not only are they of higher caliber to start with, but that a first-class education has been built upon their native gifts.” (The Rise of the Meritocracy 106)
Meanwhile the losers in the meritocracy are resentful at the arrogance of the winners while also humiliated with the knowledge that they have no one to blame but themselves.
“Today, all persons, however humble, know they have had every chance.... Are they not bound to recognize that they have an inferior status – not as in the past because they were denied opportunity; but because they ARE inferior? For the first time in human history, the inferior man has no ready buttress for his self-regard.” (108-9)
Michael Young’s tale from 1958 predicted that in 2034 the less-educated classes would rise up in a populist revolt against the meritocratic elites. We can now say that the revolt that Young predicted came 18 years ahead of schedule, in 2016, when Britain voted for Brexit and America voted for Trump.

Centering the Field of Competition

While Democratic candidates, and many Republicans were repeatedly intoning that everybody ought to be able to go as far as their talent and hard work could take them, Trump never said that. His fans knew that the meritocratic game cast them as the losers, that their work no longer had much dignity, or even afforded much of a living any longer. Their feelings of both humiliation and resentment proved potent.

If the game being played on the field is one that inherently has winners and losers, then leveling the playing field does nothing to revitalize civic life, does nothing to foster a sense that we’re all in this together, does nothing to shore up solidarity. Is that the world we want? Hubris, arrogance, for the winners and despair and humiliation for the losers?

There will always be a place for competition – for working hard to win, for reaping rewards when you do, and for coping with the disappointment when you come up short. But even competition can be approached in a cooperative spirit – as an exercise in working together to spur each other to greater excellence. This way, I’m not trying to win for winning’s sake. I’m trying to hold the bar as high as I can to help you practice rising to it, while understanding that you’re doing the same for me. The point isn’t the winning or losing – the point is working together to develop our excellence. The win or loss is just feedback we get along the path of that pursuit.

Sandel writes that,
“a perfect meritocracy banishes all sense of gift or grace. It diminishes our capacity to see ourselves as sharing a common fate. It leaves little room for the solidarity that can arise when we reflect on the contingency of our talents and fortunes. This is what makes merit a kind of tyranny, or unjust rule.” (The Tyranny of Merit 25)
There’s a lot of talk of leveling the playing field – and for those aspects of life where there should be competition, the playing field does need to be level. Where we decide to have competitions for some prize or other – a college admission, a job, an elective office – it is right and proper that we ensure that the competition be fair.

But when we make the levelness of playing field the major concern, we forget that public life isn’t all about the competition. It’s about recognizing that we’re in this together. It’s about standing as equals with each other as neighbors, engaged in the work of citizenship (whether we are legal citizens or not).

It’s not all about standing as competitors in a zero-sum game. We may, from time to time, want or need to meet on a competitive playing field, but meritocracy puts that competition at the center of public life, instead of putting our shared civic enterprises at the center.

Meritocracy also puts that competition at the center of our individual sense of who we are. Meritocracy defines us – to each other and to ourselves -- by what we deserve, what we earn. It teaches us relative disregard for all the range of life that isn’t, or shouldn’t be, marketable.

The Perfect Meritocracy: Sports

"Level playing field" is a sports metaphor, and sports is often held up as the perfect meritocracy. There’s ability, and there’s the hard work of training to maximize that ability – and that’s it. In sports, it’s apparently easy to believe that everybody really can go as far as their ability and hard work will take them.

But even in this most perfect of meritocracies, let’s notice that the race isn’t always to the swift nor the battle to the strong. The ball can take a funny bounce. Sometimes a bad hop can determine the outcome of a championship game. It’s luck.

Suppose there is no funny bounce or gust of wind. Suppose, say, a basketball game comes down to one free throw, and an 80% shooter is on the line. Her talent and her training got her to the point where she’s an 80% shooter. But whether this one shot will be one of the 80% she makes or one of the 20% she misses – that’s luck.

There’s always luck. And let’s dig deeper. Where did the ability and the training come from?

Next: digging deeper


UU Minute #79

Unitarians and Slavery: William Ellery Channing

In 1833, Lydia Maria Child’s book, An Appeal in Favor of that Class of Americans Called Africans, came out, and that same year, William Ellery Channing read it. He was so moved that he walked from Boston to Roxbury to thank Child for the book.

It must be admitted that Channing was a bit slow to address the slavery issue.
“When Channing grew up in Newport, [Rhode Island], the slave trade was still active there. His own nanny was, or had been, enslaved.
After college, he worked as a tutor on a plantation in Tidewater Virginia. In the winter of 1831, he went to the Virgin Islands for a rest cure for his chronic tuberculosis. There he came to see white racism as another chronic illness, not one easily abolished simply by will or fiat.” (Buehrens)
And yet years kept rolling by without Channing’s eloquence speaking up strongly against slavery.

The fact that Boston’s most powerful industrialists were pro-slavery, and that Channing’s Federal Street Church membership included many them, may have inhibited him.

He promised he would speak out – yet another year went by. In 1834, the 54-year-old Channing received a visit from his colleague in Unitarian ministry, Rev. Samuel Joseph May who was with the Anti-Slavery Society. Why had Channing remained silent on slavery, May pressed, and reminded him of the promise he’d made.

Channing replied, “Brother May, I must acknowledge the justice of your reproof. I have been silent too long.”

Channing spent the next summer, 1835, writing a small book called Slavery. On the one hand, he condemned slavery in uncompromising terms. On the other hand, he rejected the label “abolitionist” as tainted with harsh rhetoric and unrealistic, immediate solutions.

NEXT: Rev. Charles Follen


Humility, part 2

The fourth difficulty some Unitarians have with humility is that we can be proud of the way we are, and we don’t want to let that go. Many of us have a lot of education. I do – because I enjoyed wrestling with recondite texts and then meeting with others in classrooms and seminars to talk about them. That was my idea of fun, and I had enough generational privilege to be able to do that.

Many of us tend to be proud of our schooling and erudition. Those years in school were good for something, we are convinced. They improved us. They made us better that we were. We might not like to admit out loud to the logical train that follows from that, but our egos put two and two together: if we now are better than our less educated former selves, and if our less educated former selves were the equals of their peers, then it logically follows that we now are better than those peers who didn’t get the improvement. So, yeah, there’s some hubris there.

It was years after my last degree before I gradually started to think of those years less in terms of how wonderful it was to get educated and more in the terms I just used: going to school was just something I enjoyed doing, and had the privilege to be able to. Yes, it changed and shaped me, but anything else I’d have done during those years would also have changed and shaped me. Experiences can make us wiser – if we have the temperament to let them – but experiences of reading books or of sitting in classrooms are no more likely to do so than experiences of lots of other kinds.

Still, the hubris of thinking otherwise is a common affliction among Unitarian Universalists, and I confess my own antibodies for that affliction do not always suffice to keep me symptom-free. That’s the fourth difficulty we might have with humility. Setting aside our hubris is no easy thing, but it’s crucial if we are to be more welcoming of diversity – including diverse paths to maturity that might not have included college.

A fifth difficulty we may have with humility might be that we’ve seen it used by the powerful as a way to keep the less empowered down. We’ve seen calls for humility that seemed more interested in other people being humble than the person doing the calling.

What the poor and oppressed need are allies that help empower them, that encourage them to pursue their power, and what they have too often gotten are songs of praise for how great it is to be humble. We’ve seen the seen the voices of the self-interested powerful rebuff calls for equality as overly prideful. “They should be more humble – not so arrogant as to demand any rights. People need to keep in their place.”

What’s going on there, of course, is that certain people have gotten used to a certain order of things. That order works for them. They are comfortable with it. It feels to them right and proper, so they’re nervous about upsetting that order. When they meet a call for change – a call from people who have not been treated fairly to be treated more fairly – that feels like arrogance, like people arrogating to themselves improper powers and authority.

There’s a close logical connection between arrogating and not keeping in one’s place – so the parties interested in keeping people in their place naturally find it arrogant when those people express a preference for not keeping to the place to which they have been relegated.

Having diagnosed the problem as one of arrogance, the privileged naturally respond by calling for humility. But the fact that this happens is not humility’s fault. The moral of this story is not that humility itself is a suspicious, but that humility has to begin at home, and that we should especially cultivate humility against passing judgment on other people’s arrogance.

One of the other slogans from the recovery community that you may have heard is that when you point the finger at someone, there are three fingers pointing back at you. So when we feel an impulse to regard someone else as arrogant, it’s time to examine what arrogance in ourselves might be taking such offense at someone else’s behavior.

The point here applies to the “troublemakers” in the political realm, and also to those in your personal life – family members or coworkers who make trouble for you. As Pema Chodron reminds us, “It’s the troublemakers in your life who cause you to see that you’ve shut down, that you’ve armored yourself, that you've hidden your head in the sand.”

To recap: I’ve mentioned five difficulties we might have with humility, and offered a response to each:
  1. We might associate it with putting ourselves down. That’s not what we’re talking about.
  2. We might suppose that humility is superfluous, unnecessary. But I argue that it’s an important enabling virtue to give some attention to how our ego defenses can block development of general virtue.
  3. We might find it perplexing or self-contradictory to self-assess humility. But we don’t need to assess it – just stay on the path, paying attention to it.
  4. We have achievements that we are proud of – and for many Unitarians, it’s our intellects and our education. Yes, that is a difficulty, and it’s one that we can – and at our best, do – face head-on and try to get over.
  5. Humility has been invoked in the interests of keeping other people in their place. But the misuse of a concept doesn’t mean we should throw out the concept.
Let’s turn now to a kind of humility that Unitarian Universalists actually have taken to heart and embody. Our epistemic humility, I think, is one of the best things about the UU way. "Epistemic" means having to do with knowledge, thus "epistemic humility" is modesty about what we claim to know. Epistemic humility is pretty firmly etched into Unitarian Universalist DNA. This doesn't mean that there aren't some UUs who act like know-it-alls. I just mean that our institutional culture encourages modesty about what we can claim to know.

Many of us identify as agnostic, and even if that’s not our identity, we’re pretty comfortable not knowing. We recognize the limitations of our own perspectives. Some of us left the church of our childhood because it seemed to claim as certainty statements of which we just couldn’t be certain and weren't comfortable pretending to be. We found our way to a Unitarian Universalist congregation and noticed that it doesn’t deal in dogmatic certainties.

Instead, here, we heard things like, “We see things not as they are, but as we are.”
And: “Revelation is not sealed – we don’t know final truth. Our understanding is ever evolving.”
And: “All of us are smarter than any of us.”

Perhaps we became part of a Journey Group and noticed the importance that Unitarian Universalists place on hearing each other’s voices, rather than attending just to some voice of authority. The ingrained epistemic humility of the Unitarian Universalist way was refreshing, and felt right, and so: we stayed -- eventually signed the membership book and became Unitarian Universalists ourselves.

From our not-perfect-but-pretty-solid grounding in epistemic humility, we can build the attitudes a general wholesome humility. Your particular combination of skills and talents; knowledge, memories, and insights; quirks and preferences; habits and hopes; the sound of your voice; that way you move your hand; the things that make you laugh; the things that make you cry; your face – these have never existed before all together in one person and never will again. And here you are to bring all of who you are to this world we share. Not in order to leave your mark. The world is marked up enough. Yet here you are now in your wonderful and precious uniqueness – here to be forgotten later but here now to add your love to the onward flow of all things; to transfer forward the nutrients that made you, and filter out some of the toxins you’ve also absorbed. You’re here to add your creative new ideas, your reiteration of favorite old ideas, your soaring dreams, and your careworn anxieties to the ongoing regenerating and evolving of life.

May it be so.


UU Minute #78

Unitarians and Slavery: Lydia Maria Frances Child

Lydia Maria Francis, born 1802, and her brother Convers Francis were raised by a strict Calvinist father, yet both of them became Unitarian. In 1819, Convers became the Unitarian minister serving our congregation in Watertown, Massachusetts. The next year, Lydia, age 18, joined the Unitarians.

Lydia was a writer and activist. Her first novel came out when she was 22. At age 26, she married David Lee Child.

In 1833, after having written about a dozen books – novels, histories, household management, poems – she wrote An Appeal in Favor of that Class of Americans Called Africans. It was the first anti-slavery work printed in America in book form. It argued – as did William Lloyd Garrison -- for immediate emancipation of the enslaved people without compensation to their legal owners. Analyzing slavery from a variety of angles—historical, political, economic, legal, and moral – she showed that Africans were intellectually equal to Europeans and that emancipation was practicable.

Her book brought social ostracism, but she only expanded her anti-slavery efforts. She became an organizer in anti-slavery societies. In 1839, Child was elected to the executive committee of the American Anti-Slavery Society and became editor of the society's National Anti-Slavery Standard in 1840. Her editorship, including the columns she wrote, made the National Anti-Slavery Standard one of the most popular abolitionist newspapers in the US.

She was also writing a number of short stories, exploring, through fiction, the complex issues of slavery. Later, living in Wayland, Massachusetts, the Childs provided shelter for runaways from enslavement trying to escape the Fugitive Slave Law.

Unfortunately, not all Unitarians of the time were as abolitionist as Lydia Maria Francis Child.

NEXT: Unitarians and Slavery: William Ellery Channing


Humility, part 1

The March theme here at Community UU at White Plains, NY, is humility. We Unitarian Universalists aren’t great with the humility thing. We tend to be a bit suspicious of it, for a number of reasons.

What I’ll do, today, is go through a list of those reasons. One by one, we’ll consider five difficulties with the idea of humility. And then we’ll look at a kind of humility that I think Unitarians actually have taken to heart and embody – a humility, I’d say, that is at the essence of Unitarian Universalism.

Humility as Putting Oneself Down

The first difficulty is the idea that humility means putting yourself down. This is the simplest one to dispense with: that’s not what we’re talking about. Humility is not exemplified by someone who’s always putting themselves down. They might be doing it because they really have low self-esteem. Or maybe they’re very insecure and need you to contradict their bad assessment and tell them they’re fine. Either way, that’s not humility.

Putting yourself down is not humility because it’s still focused on you. Prideful, boasting arrogance is one way to be focused on yourself. Abasing yourself is another way to be focused on yourself. These apparent opposites – having a very high opinion of yourself and having a very low opinion of yourself -- share a preoccupation with the self. They both put the self at the center. Humility is about decentering of the self – focusing on others, shifting focus away from oneself and toward the situation at hand, toward the present needs, toward the task, toward serving. “Humility,” as C.S. Lewis nicely put it, “isn’t thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.”

A self-centered life is barren and sterile. A saying that’s been circulating in various versions for over a century is that a person all wrapped up zirself makes a small package. Humility is not denying that we have worth and value. It’s simply a focus on serving others rather than on what others think of us.

Humility as Superfluous; Not a Virtue

Even when we grasp clearly that humility is not about thinking you don’t matter, but about being unconcerned with mattering and just responding to the needs of the situation, Unitarians may remain unconvinced that humility has value. By all means, some of us might say, let us value service and compassion, being respectful, considerate, and kind. But if we value and practice those things, then it is enough to value and practice them. We don’t need an additional value called “humility.”

So that’s the second difficulty: the idea that humility is superfluous – an unhelpful redundancy. If the argument for humility is that it orients us toward service and compassion, then why not focus directly on the service and compassion and skip the humility?

Indeed, there are some strands within the Western philosophical tradition that might seem to suggest we not regard humility as a virtue. Aristotle, for instance, wrote at length about the virtues and becoming a virtuous person, and he does not seem to have regarded humility as a virtue. Aristotle’s idea of the ideal person was someone he called “great-souled." Such a person deserves honors and knows ze deserves honors. For Aristotle, the nine important virtues are:
  • wisdom (theoretical);
  • prudence (practical wisdom, skillful decision-making about action);
  • justice (treating people fairly);
  • fortitude (persevering in the right thing under difficult circumstances or threat of harm);
  • courage (mediating between recklessness and cowardice);
  • liberality (in spending money, mediating between prodigality and parsimony);
  • magnificence (spending large sums in order to bring grand things into the world);
  • magnanimity (eschewing pettiness, facing dangers, pursuing noble purposes);
  • temperance (moderation in the indulgence of pleasures, esp. food, drink, sex).
A person who has those virtues is justified in claiming to have them – no need to be humble about it.

18th-century Scottish philosopher David Hume said humility was a “monkish” pseudo-virtue, along with celibacy, fasting, silence, and solitude. These pseudo-virtues, Hume said, “stupefy the understanding and harden the heart, obscure the fancy and sour the temper.” If you’re great, isn’t it OK to know that you’re great? And not pretend otherwise?

But, again: humility isn’t thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less. The Aristotelian virtues require an orientation toward needs other than your own – so humility would have a role in enabling those other virtues. And Hume did recognize that “impudence and arrogance” were problematic -- and that “a due attention and regard for others” was an important trait.

The thing is: focusing directly on service and compassion doesn’t always succeed. We have egos, and mechanisms to protect and defend those egos – and those are fine when they help us stand up for what is rightfully ours, or help keep us safe. But those ego protections can get in the way, manifest as arrogance, and steer us away from compassionate service, or from any of Aristotle’s virtues. Humility, then, is an “enabling virtue.” That is, paying attention to the idea of humility helps tame the impulse to arrogance so that we can be better oriented toward service, respect, kindness, compassion, and consideration – or toward wisdom, prudence, justice, fortitude, courage, liberality, magnificence, magnanimity, and temperance.

Humility -- along with patience, self-control, and courage – helps us overcome the impulses and inclinations that run contrary to virtue. As such, humility has a crucial role in the development of virtue.

This raises, however, a third difficulty – and that is that humility is so tricky to self-assess.

The Paradox of Assessing One's Humility

If we’re thinking in terms of the development of virtues, then don’t we need to have some sense of how much development has happened at any given point along our path? Accurately assessing how patient you are, say, or how courageous, isn’t exactly easy, but the attempt at least makes sense. There’s no self-contradiction. But humility is different. If you think you’re good at humility, doesn’t that prove that you aren’t? Saying “I’m humble” sounds like a self-undermining joke in a way that saying “I’m compassionate” or “I treat people fairly” does not. When it comes to humility, it seems that realizing you have it somehow spoils it. If you have it, you won’t know it -- and if you think you have it, you probably don’t really!

On this point, I suggest we take our cue from the recovery community. One of their slogans is, “always recovering, never recovered.” Self-assessment of how much progress you’ve made is not, after all, necessary. Just stay on the path. You don’t need to know how far you’ve come. You don’t need to know how much farther you have to go. Just stay on the path.

Whether the pertinent addiction is addiction to ego and to our ego-protection mechanisms, or addiction to alcohol, there is no point of “being recovered” – never a time when you can say “mission accomplished.” There is only staying on the path of recovering. And if you notice that you fell off the wagon, do your best to climb back on.

In Part 2, we'll look at the fourth difficulty with humility common among Unitarians (we're so darn proud of our intellects and education), and the fifth difficulty (we've seen humility invoked in the interests of keeping other people in their place). Then we'll look at how one kind of humility -- epistemic humility -- is, in fact, a core part of the Unitarian Universalist outlook.


UU Minute #77

Likeness to God

William Ellery Channing’s 1819 manifesto, “Unitarian Christianity” embraced the name “Unitarian” for the liberal congregationalists, and laid out principles that remain key to who we are. Channing was the intellectual, moral, and spiritual leader of Unitarianism for 23 more years, until his death at age 62. Ralph Waldo Emerson himself referred to Channing as “our bishop.”

Channing rejected Trinitarianism – the point for which we Unitarians get our name. He also, like Unitarian forebears Fausto Sozzini and Joseph Priestly, rejected substitutionary atonement.

In an 1828 sermon, “Likeness to God,” Channing essentially addressed the question: “Who made whom in whose image?” Channing’s answer was one many of us today would still affirm. He said:
“The divine attributes are first developed in ourselves, and thence transferred to our Creator. The idea of God, sublime and awful as it is, is the idea of our own spiritual nature, purified and enlarged to infinity. In ourselves are the elements of the Divinity.”
Channing went on to say that humans had transcendent moral reason as part of our “higher or spiritual nature that has its foundation in the original and essential capacities of the mind.”

Inscribed on the back of the William Ellery Channing statue that stands in Boston’s Public Garden is a further passage from this same sermon:
“I do and I must reverence human nature. I bless it for its kind affections. I honor it for its achievements in science and art, and still more for its examples of heroic and saintly virtue. These are marks of a divine origin and the pledges of a celestial inheritance, and I thank God that my own lot is bound up with that of the human race.”

NEXT: Unitarians and Slavery: Lydia Maria Frances Child