"All those qualities, capacities and tendencies which do not harmonize with the collective values – everything that shuns the light of public opinion, in fact – now come together to form the shadow, that dark region of the personality which is unknown and unrecognized by the ego." --Carl Jung
"Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. At all counts, it forms an unconscious snag, thwarting our most well-meant intentions.” --Carl Jung
“This day our days are diminished by one” a line from a Zen gatha reminds us. The time is precious: every moment of it. In particular, our time together grows short. I’ll be officially your minister until July 31, though I’ll be on vacation for the last part of July. I am planning to be in the pulpit for two summer services on July 2 and July 9. Next week is RE Sunday, the week after that is a Juneteenth service being organized by Jeff Tomlinson and Joe Majsak, and the week after that we’ll be streaming the General Assembly service. So this is my last regular-church-year sermon.

As I come to the end of the time I have been honored to occupy your pulpit, I want to return to an idea I shared with you the very first time I preached here. It was April 28, 2013, and I was not then your minister. I was a candidate to become your minister, pending a congregational vote that would happen a week later.

During times of ministerial transition, there are various currents going through the congregation – and when a candidate actually shows up, there’s a current of sentiment, “this one will do.” And then there’s a different current: one of skepticism. This is all normal and natural. During candidating week, the candidate knows that, behind the scenes, out of hearing, these currents are playing out in conversations. The skeptics will be saying, “he seems brusque” – or “she’s a little smarmy” – or, “there seems to a tendency to impulsivity,” – or “I wish they could be more spontaneous.” And the folks in the “this one will do” camp, say, “look, nobody’s perfect.”

As I stepped into the pulpit on that late April day over 10 years ago, I knew those conversations would inevitably already be rippling through the congregation, just based on the advance circulation of my resume. And I knew they would be going on for the next week before the vote – just as I know now that similar conversations will be going on next year as this congregation again considers a candidate for its ministry.

What I wanted to do on that first candidating Sunday 10 years ago, and what I want to do again now, is urge a re-framing of that conversation. Please understand that it isn’t about nobody being perfect. Begin from the understanding that we are all, actually, in fact, perfect. In this institution for grounding and growing our spirits, we need to be coming from that awareness: that we are whole, perfect, and complete just as we are.

Yes, we all have our shadow. And, yes, some care must be taken to discern who to call into any vocation because, no, not everyone is cut out for every calling. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t all perfect. It means that the shadow is part of the perfection. It also means that discernment of calling takes a community – that even though we are perfect, we cannot, by ourselves, hear our own calling. We need others to help us hear what we are most called to, and sometimes that help comes in the form of being turned down for a position that we really wanted.

The work of your search committee for the next year to select a candidate to be the next settled minister to stand here behind this Spirit of Truth is the work of holy discernment. And your task next spring when another candidating week culminates in a congregational vote on whether to call: that is also a task of holy discernment. But I think it matters that you enter that holy discernment with the understanding that everyone is perfect – rather than that no one is.

The shadow side we all have isn’t just some unfortunate flaw that we wish could be fixed without damaging the gift. The shadow IS the gift, or, at least, is the enabling condition that makes the gift possible. What we can’t do is what makes possible what we can do. If there were no shadow, there would be no gift. What we aren't and don't makes possible what we are and do. I wanted us to know that about the ministerial candidate this congregation was considering in 2013, and I want to re-emphasize the point as you prepare to consider a ministerial candidate in 2024.

And, of course, it’s not just about ministers. It’s a way to understand each other, and understand ourselves: our shadow is our gift. To illustrate this, 10 years ago I related a parable from the great Universalist minister, Rev. Clinton Lee Scott, and I now share it with you again:
"Now it came to pass that while the elder in Israel tarried in Babylon, a message came to him from a distant city saying, 'Come thou and counsel with us. Help us to search out a priest for the one that has served us has gone mad.'
And the elder in Israel arose and journeyed to that distant city. And when the men of affairs were assembled, the elder spake unto them saying, 'What manner of man seeketh thee to be your new priest?'
And they answered and said unto him, 'We seek a young man yet with the wisdom of gray hairs. One that speaketh his mind freely yet giveth offense to no one. That draweth the multitude to the temple on the Sabbath but will not be displeased when we ourselves are absent. We desire one who has a gay mood yet is of sober mind. That seeketh out dark sayings and prophecies yet speaketh not over our heads. That filleth the temple, buildeth it up, yet defileth not the sanctuary with a Motley assortment of strangers. We seeketh one that puts the instruction of the young first but requireth not that we become teachers. That causeth the treasury to prosper yet asketh not that we give more of our substance. Verily we seek a prophet that will be unto us a leader but will not seek to change us, for we like not to be disturbed.'"
You get the point. It’s not about, “well, no one’s perfect.” Rather, what it’s about is: no one simultaneously exhibits contradictory qualities. If your gift is the wisdom of experience, it’s not a fault to not have youthful exuberance. If your gift is youthful exuberance, it’s not a fault to not have the wisdom of experience. If your gift is speaking your mind freely, it is not a fault that you occasionally give offense. If your gift is diplomacy, it’s not a fault that you don’t speak your mind freely. If your gift is being tall enough to dunk a basketball, it’s not a fault that your aren’t small enough to be comfortable in the back seat of subcompact car. Not a fault – but we might say it’s the shadow side of your gift. It’s the thing that you aren’t and don’t that makes possible what you are and do.

So the shadow is not some unfortunate, if forgivable, shortcoming. The shadow, to repeat, is the necessary enabling condition of the gift.

Now let’s go a little further with that. The shadow is not merely what makes the gift possible, but actually is the gift itself. Our broken-ness is itself the very thing that is our strength. That’s the paradoxical truth: the weakness is the strength.

Last night [Sat Jun 3], here in this sanctuary I was so honored and touched by this congregation’s appreciation of our time together. If you weren’t there, the festivities included a version of Bingo, with squares to fill in that were all references to some aspect of our time together in the last 10 years. One of the squares on some of the bingo cards was: “Broken vase – first sermon.” And, indeed, in that sermon on April 28, 2013, I did relate a story, from a book by Rachel Naomi Remen, that used the metaphor of the broken vase.

It was a story of a young man, 24-years-old, whose leg had to be removed at the hip to save him from bone cancer. He was angry and bitter. It seemed so deeply unfair that he had suffered this terrible loss so early in life. Over the course of more than two years, slowly, he began to shift, to look beyond himself, to reach out to others who had suffered severe physical losses, to make visits. On one visit, he was in running shorts, and his artificial leg showed as he entered the hospital room of a young woman who had lost both her breasts to cancer. She was so depressed that she would not even look at him. The nurses had left a radio playing, so, to get her attention, he unstrapped his leg, and began dancing around the room on one leg, snapping his fingers to the music. She looked at him in amazement, and then burst out laughing and said, 'Man, if you can dance, I can sing.'”

That man’s broken-ness was now his gift. Later, as the man was meeting with Dr. Remen, they were reviewing their two years of work together. She showed him a drawing that he had made early on when she had invited him to draw a picture that represented his body. He had drawn a picture of a vase, and running through the vase was a deep black crack. This was his image of his body -- and he had taken a black crayon and had drawn the crack over and over again, grinding his teach with rage with each stroke. It seemed to him that this vase could never function as a vase again -- could never hold water. Now, a couple years later, he looked at that picture and said, ‘Oh, this one isn’t finished.’ So Dr. Remen extended a box of crayons and “said ‘Why don’t you finish it?’ He picked a yellow crayon and putting his finger on the crack, he said, ‘You see, here – where it is broken – this is where the light comes through. And with the yellow crayon he drew light streaming through the crack in his body. (Remen)

That man’s one-leggedness became the way that he was able to shine in this world. The broken-ness is the gift.

Leonard Cohen’s song, “Anthem” reverses the direction of the light. He sang,
“There is a crack, a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.”
So is the light getting in, or is it shining out? Both. Through our brokenness, the light of the world can get in, and also, through that same crack, the light from our souls shines out.

There’s a verse in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, that says:
“From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
a light from the shadows shall spring.”
From the shadow: from the dark recesses, from maybe the parts of you that you think of as flaws, that you don’t like about yourself, the parts that are wrong. It may be from or through those very parts that the light comes forth.

According the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus said,
“If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you.
If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”
Within you, tucked away in that inner dark, is the shadow of the you that you present to the world. The shadow is a little wild, a little crazy. The shadow doesn’t fit with the goals and purposes you have laid out for yourself.

The shadow makes us uncomfortable with ourselves. But that shadow has a light to shine. As Carl Jung said, “to confront a person with his shadow is to show him his own light.” If you bring forth what is within you – bring forth your shadow – then what you bring forth will save you, said Jesus, per the Gospel of Thomas.

Maybe you don’t bring it forth in the midst of your work-a-day life. Maybe the professionalism you have carefully cultivated to serve you well is appropriate for large parts of your life. But there needs to be somewhere -- some aspect of your life -- where the shadow can be acknowledged and welcomed as a part of your wholeness – your perfect, complete wholeness. “If you don’t bring forth what is within you, what you don’t bring forth will destroy you,” said Jesus.

If it isn’t brought into consciousness, it will operate unconsciously – and the return of the repressed will not be pretty. Writes Jo Farrow:
“If we cannot bear to bring our unacknowledged fears or feeling into the light of consciousness, we shall continue to need ‘enemies’ onto which we can off-load the suppressed self-hate or fear of being overwhelmed which is simmering below the surface of our lives.”
The shadow might be the part of you that you learned in childhood to tuck away as you adapted to parental expectations. Or, as with the young man who lost his leg, it might be a limitation suddenly and surprisingly imposed. Either way, it’s something about yourself that you don’t like. It’s the demons you haven’t yet learned to embrace.

Returning to Rachel Naomi Remen, she writes:
“Wounding and healing are not opposites. They're part of the same thing. It is our wounds that enable us to be compassionate with the wounds of others. It is our limitations that make us kind to the limitations of other people. It is our loneliness that helps us to find other people or to even know they're alone with an illness. I think I have served people perfectly with parts of myself I used to be ashamed of.”
We are perfect, just as we are. But we have a hard time believing that we are. Failure weighs on us. We failed – or something failed. Our bodies failed, our relationship failed, our job failed, our brain failed. There was a failure of something in ourselves or in our world to be what we were so sure it should be, was supposed to be. Brokenness, the blessing of our affliction, arrives as failure, arrives as the breaking of our "should."

Somewhere in growing up our lives became as a vase, shellacked with “should” until opaque. And the light within us does not shine out until something breaks us. Some very important “should” fails, and we crack. We break open. And a little more of our perfection hatches. It was always there – we were always perfect – but a bit more of our perfection gets brought forth and shines out.

If I hadn’t been cracked, if I hadn’t failed, if things had gone as I was once so sure they “should,” I might still be teaching philosophy, still living in my head, still assessing everything other people said as either something I agreed with or something I had an argument against, rarely simply present to the beauty and fascination of another person – concerned only with whether they were right, rather than with where they were coming from.

I’d have been perfect then, too, but I wouldn’t have known it – and I wouldn’t have known perfect you and this perfect congregation.

I still don’t entirely believe that I’m perfect, but I try every day to honor the part of me that does know that all of me, and all of you, are perfect, whole, and complete just as you are.



You cannot defeat darkness by running from it, nor can you conquer your inner demons by hiding them from the world. Bring forth what is within you, and be saved and saving. There is always more that is waiting to see the light – waiting to become the light. Go in peace.



When I first heard the term, "astrotheology" a couple weeks ago, I knew I had to jump in and find out some more about that -- I also knew, without knowing more than the word itself, that there had to be something there that I'd want to share with you!

"Astrotheology," it turns out, is an interpretation of astrobiology. It's theology about astrobiology. The term astrobiology was first proposed in 1953. In the 1990s, when microbial life was discovered in extreme environments on Earth, astrobiology got a boost from the idea that harsh conditions on other planets might not prevent life. We began to develop new methods to detect biosignatures.

The contemporary form of astrobiology emerged early this century -- and I first heard of it some 6 or 8 years ago. It struck me as funny -- both funny odd and funny ha-ha. How can there be a science of the life on other planets when we haven't yet found any life on other planets? But astrobiology is mostly a way of studying life on earth focusing on the conditions under which life emerged and under which it could have emerged and thus under which it might emerge somewhere else.

I want to start off, however, with some words about spirituality -- and go from there to what theology is -- and then we'll be ready to take a look at astrotheology, theology about astrobiology.

1. What Spirituality Is

Our sense of meaning and belonging: that’s what I’m talking about when I say spirituality. A healthy spirituality, a well-developed spirituality, is resilient: it provides one with an abiding sense of meaning and belonging in the face of life’s ups and downs. Spiritual development provides us with a measure of stability – perhaps even equanimity – when everything falls apart.

For most of the last 2,000 years of Western Civilization, it was understood that relationship to God was what provided such spiritual stability. Spirituality was assumed to be about a supernatural part of you resonating with a supernatural force of the universe. But if you take away the supernatural – if that drops away – there’s still the matter of what a person can do to cultivate the sense of life having meaning, the sense that we belong.

2. The Narrative and the Experiential

There’s a narrative component of spirituality – there’s a story that you have about who you are and what you’re doing here. That story might, for instance, start with the Bible. Some Christians say the Bible is the Greatest Story ever told. It feels to them like a great story because that story lays out the context within which life has meaning. It describes a world in which people can belong.

There’s also an experiential component of spirituality. There’s the words of the narrative we have about our lives, and then there’s the wordless awe and wonder.

It is in the interplay of story and experience – of words and the wordless – that our spirituality develops. That interplay is the source of whatever sense we have that life is meaningful, and that we belong.

In that interplay, at some points we find our narrative seeming to resolve some of the mystery. The story makes things feel less mysterious, more explained. (I say it feels more explained because nothing is ever really, objectively explained. We call something explained, or we tell ourselves that we understand it, whenever we’re simply tired of asking more questions about it, or we can’t see any further questions as likely to be fruitful.)

Narrative at some points eases the sense of mystery -- but at other points the narrative itself heightens our sense of mystery. When Carl Sagan’s 13-part PBS television series, "Cosmos" aired in 1980, he told a powerful story that heightened viewers sense of vast mystery.

Part of the Unitarian Universalist project is to attend to the findings of science as we put together our narrative about who we are – where we come from and what are we. It means our story is constantly changing as science changes.

3. How Old is Reality? How Big?

How long reality has existed is something religious narratives have generally offered some answer to. Our scientists understand the available evidence to pretty clearly establish that the universe is 13.8 billion years old.

This contrasts, on the one hand, with the Hindu Vedas, which put the current age of the universe at 155 trillion years. The Vedas depict history as a occurring in very large cycles, and enough of those cycles have happened to add up to 155 trillion years.

On the other hand, some forms of Christianity put the age of the universe at about 6,000 years. Our narrative from science puts the universe at 13.8 billion years old: a lot older than 6,000 years, and a lot younger than 155 trillion years.

In addition to the age of reality, religious narratives may also convey some sense of how big it is. For most of Western thought, there was the earth, and there were the heavens – up there, some leagues away. We now inhabit a universe we understand to be much, much bigger than that: about 90 billion light years across. How could it be 90 billion light years across when it’s only 13.8 billion years old? That’s because the universe is expanding faster than the speed of light (which, I didn’t know, but I learned that at our Science and Spirituality group). No object in the universe can move faster than light, but the space of space is getting larger at faster than light.

4. Stories, Like Space, Have Edges

And speaking of the edge of space, there’s an edge to our narrative, too. One of the fascinating features of this narrative – the story that imparts the sense that things make sense – most things, most of the time – and that we belong – is what we decide to leave unexplained. Our narrative universe of meaning and belonging has to have a boundary, just like our physical universe has an edge. The story has to have edges beyond which it doesn’t venture.

For traditional theism, we meet the edge of the story if we ask well, where did God come from? Traditional theism simply doesn't go there. The science narrative also has its edges.

Isaac Newton mathematically described the way gravity works. Attraction due to gravity is proportional to the mass of the objects, and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them. Boom. Drop the mic.

And people were like, but why? Why should mass be attracted to other mass – and if it is, why should that attraction be proportional to the amount of mass and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them? We’re just not going to go there, said Newton. He famously said, “hypothesis non fingo” – Latin for, “I feign no hypothesis.” I have nothing to say about that.

Centuries go by, and Einstein says that mass curves space, and gravity attraction is simply a matter of objects following that curve. OK, but why should mass do that? It just does. Why it does, we’re not going to go there.

Stories have to have a beginning, a middle, and an end – they have to have some stopping point. The science story, just as the traditional theist story, has its ending points.

5. What Theology Is

The large-scale narrative in terms of which we understand our life’s meaning, and our belonging, is theology. That’s what theology is: it’s the overall story from which we get a sense of meaning and belonging. Originally, theology was logos about theos – words about God. But that was when God was the central feature of everybody’s large-scale narrative. Theology today is any activity of constructing and revising our account – our story, our narrative – of meaning and belonging.

So Astrotheology, in particular, constructs an account placing contemporary space sciences within our story of meaning, purpose, and belonging. Astrotheology, as noted, piggy-backs on astrobiology – which examines life – bio – in the universe. Astrotheology is an interpretation of astrobiology.

6. Astobiology

Astrobiology’s first task is to define what life is, so we know what we’re looking for out there. But this turns out to be quite difficult. One of the key parts of our story about who we are, what it means to be us, is that we’re alive. What is that? What is life?

We don’t know. We can list some characteristics – we can say, well, life includes reproduction, growth, energy utilization through metabolism, response to the environment, evolutionary adaptation, and an ordered structure of anatomy. OK, that’s what life does. But what is it? Also, nonliving things do these things.

Life has structure and it grows. Crystals have structure, and they grow. Ah, but life reproduces. Does that mean if you’re not reproducing, you aren’t alive? Oh, but you COULD reproduce. Maybe not. Mules can’t reproduce, but they’re alive.

Life metabolizes – but so does your car – it breaks down fuel to release energy. Life reacts to its environment, but doesn’t everything? A mercury thermometer responds to its surrounding. A thermostat even responds to the temperature in the room by turning on the heat or the AC to CHANGE the temperature in the room.

Some have tried to define life using thermodynamics – for instance, Eric Schneider says life is a “far from equilibrium dissipative structure that maintains its local level of organization at the expense of producing environmental entropy.” OK -- but a fire also fits that description.

So: we don’t really know exactly what we’re looking for out there. We don’t know if we’ll know it when we see it. But we hope we will. And so we look. For the ancients as well as for us moderns, the stars light up the sky and the soul.

Is life a freak chemical event? Or is it a cosmic imperative – an “obligatory manifestation of matter, written into the fabric of the universe”? I don’t know.

7. Stephen Webb's Argument

Over a year ago, on Sun Mar 27, I preached a sermon called "Biology and Spirituality." I’ll review one of the points I made then, and then see if we can go the next step. I shared with you then the argument made by science writer Stephen Webb. Webb thinks that we’re alone in the universe – maybe not alone in terms of being alive, but alone in terms of having technological civilization. He says: There are 100 billion stars in our Milky Way galaxy. If we quite generously assume 10 planets per star, that would be 1 trillion planets.
Assume that 1 out of a thousand is habitable (has liquid water). Now we're down to 1 billion planets.
Assume that 1 out of a thousand of those has a stable climate over a long enough period for life to develop. Now we're down to 1 million planets.
Assume that on 1 out of a thousand of those microbial life gets started. Now we're down to a thousand planets.
And if 1 out of a thousand of those develops complex life? Now we're at just one planet in a galaxy the size of the Milky Way.
If 1 out of thousand of those develops sophisticated tool use, we're down to one planet for every thousand galaxies.
If 1 out of thousand of those develops science and mathematics, we're down to one planet for every million galaxies.
If complex societies and language develops that would be necessary to coordinate activities at the level of having a space program, we're down to one planet for every billion galaxies.
And if only one planet in a thousand manages to avoid disaster -- like a major solar flare, or a sizable asteroid, not to mention the inhabitants destroying themselves -- then we have only one out of a trillion galaxies. And since we estimate that there are only 200 billion galaxies in the observable universe, chances are, we're alone.

So goes the argument. Stephen Webb finds this a positive, even inspiring conclusion.
"For me, the silence of the universe is shouting, 'We're the creatures who got lucky. All barriers are behind us….’ And if we learn to appreciate how special our planet is, how important it is to look after our home, and to find others -- how incredibly fortune we all are simply to be aware of the universe, humanity might survive for a while. And all those amazing things we dreamed aliens might have done in the past, that could be our future."
There's a certain awe and wonder to contemplating the vastness of space, the trillions of stars, and imagining ourselves the only ones able to be aware of the detail of this vastness. But there's also awe and wonder in contemplating that maybe we aren't alone after all.

8. Reconsidering Webb

Webb laid out his argument five years ago. I don’t know whether more recent discoveries would change his calculations. As of Wednesday, the count of confirmed exoplanets (planets around a star other than our sun) in the Milky Way was at 5,383. There are another 9,432 exoplanet candidates – that is, we have preliminary indication that there might be an exoplanet there, but we haven’t confirmed it yet.

Our Milky Way has about 200 billion stars, about one-tenth of them, 20 billion, are sun-like stars. NASA says about half of the sun-like stars have rocky planets in the habitable zone – that is, they could have liquid water. Some more optimistic NASA scientists estimate 75% of sun-like stars have habitable planets. So making it across the first barrier – habitability – we’ve got 10-15 billion exoplanets in the Milky Way. Stephen Webb thought we were already down to 1 billion at this stage.

The second barrier is stability – and it is remarkable that our Earth has the perfect sized moon at just the perfect distance for holding our axis stable. Planets such as Mars, for example, have an axis that wobbles all the way from horizontal to vertical, but Earth’s axial tilt varies only a little over 20,000 years, because of our moon. And this keeps our planet’s climate fairly stable – which is important for complex eco-systems to develop. But if we’re just talking about simple prokaryotic microbes, we don’t have to have stability. ere on earth, we’ve found microbes in extremes: from minus 35 degrees Celsius – way below the freezing point of water – all the way up to temperatures almost to the boiling point of water. So for life to just get started, a planet doesn’t need stability.

From what we’ve learned so far, there’s a good chance that there is microbial life on other planets. I’m not a biologist or an astronomer, but that’s what I piece together from reading people who are.

9. How Freakish Humans Had to Be to Develop Technological Civilization

But technological civilization seems, gosh, about infinitely less likely. Biologist Stephen J. Gould argues that humans are “a wildly improbable evolutionary event.” Earth has endured 5 mass extinctions that wiped out 70 to 95% of species then extant. The first mass extinction was 440 million years ago, and since then, there’s been one, on average, about every 100 million years. After each mass extinction, new and very different life forms emerged into the ecological space left behind. That recycle might have repeated a million or a billion times without ever producing the sort of species humans are.

We humans are pretty freakish. We are, basically, pretty intelligent on our own, but we make ourselves effectively many orders of magnitude smarter by our hypersociality. It's our ability to link our brains together in the fantastically complicated ways that we do that allows us to build civilizations.

Remarkably, crucial to this linkage is our agreement to share in certain fictions. Money is a fiction. It’s just pieces of paper – and not even that, these days – just electrons in your bank’s computer. But because we agree to treat it as real, it becomes real. Because we agree that such fictions as money, and corporations, and legal codes are real, we can coordinate our activities in ways we never otherwise could to build this civilization.

So we needed to have some individual intelligence, combined with a powerful social need to link brains together, combined with a willingness to just make stuff up and decide to collectively believe it. So maybe it's very unlikely that there is any other technological civilization, even in 200 billion galaxies averaging 200 billion stars each.

Or maybe there are other technological civilizations out there. We don’t know. We have a Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence program – and when we say intelligence we don’t just mean intelligent like chimps or dolphins, or even like humans would be if we were just a little less hypersocial. They mean intelligence that can link up to greatly magnify itself – that can, through writings left behind, link even with brains that are dead – and that can agree to believe in fictions – and can thereby come at last to technological civilization.

If we discovered such Extra Terrestrial Intelligence, would it radically reshape what we think of ourselves? Would it undermine all our traditional religions? Some people think it would, but Ted Peters writes, “as soon as confirmation of ETI [Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence] is announced, we can forecast that church basements will be readied for a covered dish dinner to welcome aliens into our space neighborhood.”

10. The Theological Lessons

We don’t know what life there might be on other planets, and we probably won’t know within any of our lifetimes. But there is something we learn from this unfolding story -- some very important theological points from the current state of astronomy and biology.

One, it’s possible. Even if technological civilization on another planet is highly, highly unlikely, it is not impossible. Just that maybe is a decentering of human life. We decentered Earth: since Copernicus we've understood the Earth is not the center of the universe. Then we decentered our Sun: we learned that it's just one of billions of stars in our galaxy, and it's actually closer to the edge than to the center of the galaxy. Then we decentered our galaxy: we learned there were billions of other galaxies. We keep on decentering ourselves. This means that the meaning of our lives, our sense of belonging, cannot derive from being cosmically central. We've had to find other grounds of meaning and belonging.

Two, we don’t have to know. Or even believe. As our physics and astronomy advances, what gradually filters down into the understanding of us nonscientists is an increased capacity to be comfortable in this vast unknown, comfortable not having a belief either way. We are gradually training ourselves to appreciate our life in the mystery, not knowing what’s out there and not needing to know or claim to know.

Three, we’ve begun to learn from the story of species evolution that we have meaning and belonging just because -- somehow, and against the odds -- we are here. We are accidental products of a mindless, intentionless process. That theology inclines us toward an ethic: that all species that are here – or on some other planet -- just by virtue of being here, also have meaning, also belong. It all belongs. We don’t know what’s out there. But whatever it is, wherever it is, whenever it may become known to us – it belongs.

That willingness, that capacity, to apprehend the belongingness of beings even though we cannot imagine them, then reflects graciously back on ourselves. If they belong -- no matter what they are -- then so do we. No matter what.



Transitions. Can be exciting. Can be a little scary. If we are to transition, and not merely change, it’s important that we take our time.

This congregation heads into a transitional year – as do I. As I retire from settled ministry, I’m going to try my hand at interim ministry for a couple years. The interim is necessary to bring an outsider’s perspective to help a congregation see itself clearly as it prepares for a next settled minister. The process of matching congregations in need of an interim with an interim minister culminated this week. I got matched with Des Moines, Iowa – so LoraKim and I will be moving to Des Moines.

But there were more congregations seeking an interim than ministers putting themselves up for interim ministry. We got the news this week, as Board Chair Creighton reported, that CUUC didn’t get an interim minister. I was surprised. This is a wonderful congregation. CUUC is solid on the fundamentals of congregational health – as you have been since before I got here. That’s not true of all our congregations, but it’s true here. CUUC is fundamentally sound. So I was surprised you didn’t get an interim. Who wouldn’t love this gig? Keith Kron, who is the director at our UU Association transitions department sent out a letter on Friday. He wrote:
“A shortage of ministers willing to work with congregations is real. On some level, this is not a surprise. In talking with other denomination colleagues, they report a similar shortage. Every denomination is struggling. It’s not just about ministry. Membership is down. This too is across denominations, with, despite public claims otherwise, the more conservative religions losing at higher rate than the more liberal denominations.

It’s also not just about religion. We see a shortage of teachers, doctors, nurses—all helping professions. In some ways this makes great sense. All helping professions have been expected to absorb a certain amount of society’s frustrations, often at less compensation. The world has been very frustrated these last few years. It should be noted that we really haven’t recognized and certainly prioritized the need to deal with the fact that the world is angry. And human beings did not go into helping professions to quietly absorb this expanding burden of frustrations. We’re seeing an exodus....

The author of the book, Radical Curiosity, Seth Goldenberg writes that we are in “In-Between times.”... What does it mean to be religious now? What does it mean to live one’s faith? What does it mean to be a congregation? A denomination? A minister? A church member? I think in the midst of overly busy lives and an overly busy world, we’re trying to figure that out.

My hope for this in between time is that we can engage in these bigger question conversations.... While this is happening, we still have the shortage and 17 interim congregations in need of help. What we know from previous years is that retired ministers, community ministers, and students with candidate status with Credentialing Office approval are willing to step up.”
Said Keith.

So, in this in-between time for CUUC – this broader in-between time in our country and in our world – I want to talk about transitions, today. We’ll be looking at the transition process in an individual life – though some of what we’ll see plays out in the way larger systems go through transitions. It’s not so much about passing the baton to the successor, but passing the baton from your past self to your future self.

The first thing is to notice the distinction between a transition and simply a change. Change is always happening. It’s inevitable. But it might be superficial. We might not really learn its lessons. We might, for instance, make external changes to avoid to avoid changing ourselves.

I’m thinking of someone who walks out of a relationship because their partner didn’t measure up to the model, and goes looking for someone else who at first appears to fit the model – so the same cycle repeats – as opposed to making internal changes, adjusting OUR way of being in the world. William Bridges writes:
“People who try to deal only with externals are people who walk out of relationships, leave jobs, move across the country, but who don’t end up significantly different from what and who they were before....They storm out of job (“rotten, no good boss”) rather than discover what it is in themselves that keeps finding such bosses to work for. They end another (yet another!) relationship rather than let go of the behaviors, attitudes, assumptions and images of self or others that keep making relationships turn out this way.” (132)
So, yes, change is always happening. But sometimes we change in order to not change – we make changes so we can avoid changing.

It’s like we have an inner cast of characters – the flawless parent, the noble leader, the perfect spouse, the trustworthy friend, and we keep looking for actors to play the parts – regularly switching out cast members, but never realizing that the script in our head is only in our head. That script needs re-writing. Or, better, we need to let go of the idea that we can script our life. I am not the playwright of the drama of life – or even of the drama of my own life – nor are you the playwright of your life. You and I are improv actors, each of us just one member of a troupe of others coming and going on the stage. You don’t even make it up as you go along – not you individually. The whole troupe collectively makes it up as it goes along.

You get to speak lines and be heard and taken into account – and others speak and you take them into account. But if you’re following a script in your head, then you’ll get out of sync with the troupe. You can leave them and join another troupe – and, if you’re still looking to play out your script, the cycle just repeats. Changes are happening, but you’re not being changed.

So we need a vocabulary to reflect this difference between surface changes and actual growth. I propose that we use the word transition for actually changing ourselves. I know this is not always how the word is used. Transition, as a noun, is regularly used as simply a synonym for change. But it’s going to be helpful to draw a distinction between learning, growing, maturing and merely clinging to the same script with a different cast.

My suggestion today is that we follow the author William Bridges’ way of articulating that distinction as the difference between change and transition. (I do, by the way, find it delightful that a man named “bridges” has made his name by leading workshops and writing books about transitions.) He writes:
“Our society confuses [change and transition] constantly, leading us to imagine that transition is just another word for change. But it isn’t. Change is your move to a new city or your shift to a new job. It is the birth of your new baby or the death of your father. It is the switch from the old health plan at work to the new one, or the replacement of your manager by a new one, or it is the acquisition that your company just made. In other words, change is situational. Transition, on the other hand, is psychological. It is not those events but rather the inner reorientation and self-redefinition that you have to go through in order to incorporate any of those changes into your life. Without a transition, a change is just a rearrangement of the furniture. Unless transition happens, the change won’t work, because it doesn’t take. Whatever word we use, our society talks a lot about change, but it seldom deals with transition.”
You can change partners, change cities, change jobs, change churches, but if you’re using the same strategies to pursue the same purposes, you haven’t made a transition. A transition means that new purposes have emerged for you – and new purposes entail new strategies. So, as Bridges puts it,
“One of the most important differences between a change and a transition is that changes are driven to reach a goal, but transitions start with letting go of what no longer fits or is adequate to the life stage you are in.” (132)
Transition begins with an ending. Then there’s some time being in neutral. And only then comes the new beginning.

First, the ending. Ending requires some dissing – not as in disrespecting, but as in disengagement, dismantling, disidentification, disenchantment, and disorientation. I will enumerate them, but they don’t come in any particular order.

1. Disengagement. We need to disengage from the life that we have had – from the person we have been. In traditional societies, a young initiate is removed from the family, taken into the forest or the desert. For us – us denizens of the WEIRD world – that is, the Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democracies -- there will be no initiation master to ring the bell one morning and say, “your time has come.”
“But all the same, we do find ourselves periodically being disengaged either willingly or unwillingly from the activities, the relationships, the settings, and the roles that have been important to us.”
When this is forced upon us, it can be very distressing.
“The person who has just been fired, or lost a parent, or had a heart attack is not in the frame of mind to”
see this or think about this as a transition. It just hurts. Maybe years later they can see it differently, but at the time to suggest that a time of personal transition is beginning is pointless and may even be cruel.
“Divorces, deaths, job changes, moves, illnesses, and many lesser events disengage us from the contexts in which we have known ourselves....As long as a system is working, it is very difficult for a member of it to imagine an alternative way of life and an alternative identity. But with disengagement, an inexorable process of change begins. Clarified, channeled, and supported, that change can lead toward a development and renewal.” (115-16)
2. Dismantling
.“Disengagement only stops the old signals and cues from being received. It leaves untouched the life infrastructure that you’ve constructed in response to those signals. The disengagement can take place in a moment: 'I’m leaving! We’re finished! Good-bye!' But the old habits and behaviors and practices that made you feel like yourself can only be dismantled. They have to be taken apart a piece at a time.” (116).
Ritual periods can help:
“for three days you keep a vigil over the lost one; on the thirtieth night after the death, you have a ceremony; you wear only black for a prescribed period, and you hold a remembrance ceremony on the anniversary of the death. And as you do these things, you slowly dismantle or unpack your relationship or identity that you have lost” (117).
3. Disidentification.
“In breaking your old connections to the world and taking apart the internal structures required by those connections, you also lose your old ways of defining yourself.” (118).
Maybe there’s the loss of role that prescribed your behavior and made you readily identifiable.
“One way or another, most people in transition have the xperiene of no longer being quite sure who they are.” (118).
That’s disidentification.
“The old identity stands in the way of transition – and of transformation and self-renewal” (120)
– but losing an identity is uncomfortable.

4. Disenchantment. This is
“the discovery that in some sense one’s world is indeed no longer real.”
Recall, for instance, the disenchantments of childhood:
“That there is no Santa Claus; that parents sometimes lie and are afraid and make stupid mistakes and like silly things; that best friends let you down....The lifetime contains a long chain of disenchantments, many small and a few large: lovers who prove unfaithful, leaders who are corrupt, idols who turn out to be petty and dull, organizations that betray your trust. Worst of all, there are the times when you turned out to be what you said (and even believed) that you were not.
These stages don’t always follow the same order. Sometimes a significant transition will begin with disenchantment. Our culture
“tends to view growth as an additive process. We did not have to unlearn the first grade to go on to the second, for example.”
As a result, we may expect we don’t need to give up old beliefs in order to mature, but we do. Disenchantment is the letting go of what used to seem true.
“Reality has many layers, none wrong but each appropriate to a particular phase of intellectual and spiritual development.”
Importantly, disenchantment does not mean disillusionment.
“The disenchanted person recognizes the old view as sufficient in its time but insufficient now... On the other hand, the disillusioned person simply rejects the embodiment of the earlier view.”(124)
The disillusioned person sees some significant other person differently. The disenchanted person understands herself differently. Someone disillusioned with this partner, or this job, or this boss will go after a new partner, or get a new boss – but retain the same enchantment with what a relationship should be like, or what a boss or a job should be.
“The disenchanted person moves on, but the disillusioned person stops and goes through the play again with new actors.” (124)
5. Disorientation. The reality that is left behind was one in which we felt we knew which way was up and which way down, which way forward and which way back. It orients us. But in a transition,
“the old sense of life as going somewhere breaks down, and we feel like shipwrecked sailors on some existential atoll.... Disorientation is meaningful, but it isn’t enjoyable. It is a time of confusion and emptiness when ordinary things assume an unreal quality. Things that used to be important don’t seem to matter much now. We feel stuck, dead, lost in some great, dark nonworld.” (125)
After some form, in some order, of disengagement, dismantling, disidentification, disenchantment, and disorientation, generally comes some time in the neutral zone. This may not be as uncomfortable as the endings – or it may be just as uncomfortable. We would rather see transition
“as a kind of street-crossing procedure. One would be a fool to stay out there in the middle of the street any longer than was necessary; so once you step off the curb, you move on to the other side as fast as you can. And whatever you do, don’t sit down on the center line to think things over.” (137).
Yet some time to just be, to settle into the fact that the old self is gone, is just what’s needed.
“Without quite knowing why, people in the middle of transition tend to find ways of being alone and away from all the familiar distractions.” (137)
We need to get away for a time. Not really to think – at least not in any way that produces definite results.
“Instead, we walk the beaches or the back streets. We sit in the park” (138)
– gaze at the clouds. We might feel a little defensive about not being productive, but we need such a
“moratorium from the conventional activity of everyday existence....Only in the apparently aimless activity of your time alone can you do the important inner business of self-transformation.”
In the neutral zone,
“we aren’t sure what is happening to us or when it will all be over. We don’t know whether we are going crazy or becoming enlightened, and neither prospect is one we can readily discuss with anyone else. For many people, the experience of the neutral zone is essentially one of emptiness in which the old reality looks transparent and nothing feels solid anymore.” (141)
Remember that
“the process of transformation is essentially a death and rebirth process rather than one of mechanical modification” (143).
The process of disintegration of reintegration is the source of renewal, and it’s gonna take a minute. Or a year.

We need our neutral zone
“just the way that an apple tree needs the cold of winter” (144).
The way out of the neutral zone is to plunge all the way into it. The way out is in. Accept that you need this time in neutral. Find regular times and places to be alone. Begin a log of your neutral-zone experiences. It may be very helpful to take this pause in the action of your life to write your autobiography. And reflect on what you really want. As the old purposes and meanings fall away, what really do you want?Only after some time will you begin to begin again.

I have described the neutral zone as a goo phase. The caterpillar goes into its cocoon, and it doesn’t simply begin sprouting butterfly wings. It dissolves into goo – the goo you would find if you opened a cocoon halfway through its period. Out of that goo, a butterfly begins to take form. But you can’t skip the goo.

These are in-between times – for CUUC, for our whole society – and maybe in your personal life. It can all feel a bit gooey. No need to rush to get things settled. In fact, there’s a need not to rush. If we are to transition, and not merely change, it’s important that we take our time.


Whether the details about disengaging, dismantling, disidentifying, disenchanting, or disorienting make sense or mean much to you, please remember two things. First, life is not always about being a better caterpillar. There are deeper transformative possibilities than that. Maybe you have gone through such a transition, and emerged a new person from the cocoon. And that leads to the second point: Even the butterfly is not the final stage – not for us humans. There are further transformations that await.

Go in peace.



Commensality. I introduced this word four weeks ago, on Easter, and I wanted to reflect about it with you further today. It’s from the Latin root for table. Commensality refers to the fact that who we take meals with, and how, is socially structured and recapitulates the overall social structure. I cited anthropologists Peter Farb and George Armelagos who wrote:
“In all societies, both simple and complex, eating is the primary way of initiating and maintaining human relationships…. Once the anthropologist finds out where, when, and with whom the food is eaten, just about everything else can be inferred about the relations among the society’s members....To know what, where, how, when, and with whom the people eat is to know the character of their society.”
Jesus taught a way of being – and being together – in which everyone had a place at the table, everyone would be fed, and equal.
“Open commensality is the symbol and embodiment of radical egalitarianism, of an absolute equality of people that denies the validity of any discrimination between them and negates the necessity of any hierarchy among them,”
writes the New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan.

In that Easter sermon, I mentioned two illustrations from the New Testament of Jesus teaching and exemplifying open commensality. One is the story of the loaves and fishes. Jesus takes the bread, gives thanks for it (i.e. blesses it), breaks the bread (i.e. prepares it for sharing) and gives. I imagine most of those assembled had hidden away in bags or sleeves a little food for their own use, and under the influence of Jesus’ teaching example, they bring out what have and share it around. As Jesus models taking, giving thanks, preparing for sharing, and then sharing, those gathered then follow his model. Thus community of abundance is created, replacing fearful scarcity thinking. There is enough for everyone – abundantly – when we can but learn to trust its supply and pass it around. The miracle of the feeding of the multitude is the miracle of neighborliness, of our human power to form community. And in this case it is a community of radical equality: everyone equally giving and equally receiving.

As Crossan writes:
“Took, blessed, broke, and gave have profound symbolic connotations and may well stem from that inaugural open commensality itself. They indicate, first of all, a process of equal sharing, whereby whatever food is there is distributed alike to all. But they also indicate something even more important. The first two verbs, took and blessed, and especially the second, are the actions of the master; the last two, broke and gave, and especially the second, are the actions of the servant. Jesus, as master and host, performs the role of servant, and all share the same food as equals....Far from reclining and being served, Jesus himself serves, like any housewife, the same meal to all including himself.” (181)
The second illustration I mentioned is the parable Jesus tells about a man who sends out his servant to invite people to his banquet. ‘Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.’ Such a dinner would be highly disruptive of the stratified society of Jesus time – but radical equality is the point.

We may now add that Jesus’ commitment to equality also shows up in his itinerancy. The more common model in those days for a healer and teacher would be to stay in one place, set up shop, as it were, and let the sick, and those to wished to hear his teaching, come to him. Thus he could have established a small center of power and influence. We recognize today that there is a power imbalance between teacher and student, and between doctor and patient, and it is important to recognize that that power is there, so that we can also be vigilant against abuse of that power.

But Jesus takes steps to minimize that power imbalance. He stays on the move. He goes to the people rather than having them come to him.

Compare and contrast Jesus approach to another school of itinerant teachers in those days – a school of Greek philosophy called the cynics. This school began with Antisthenes, who had been a pupil of Socrates in 5th century BCE. For the Cynics, the purpose of life is to live in virtue, gaining happiness by rigorous training, rejecting wealth, power, and fame, in favor of a simple life free from possessions. Cynicism began to decline after the 3rd century BCE, but it experienced a revival with the rise of the Roman Empire in the 1st century CE, so Jesus and his followers would have been aware of them. Cynics could be found begging and preaching throughout the cities of the empire, and the influence of this tradition can be seen in Jesus and in early Christianity.

The cynics traveled around with nothing but knapsack and staff, symbolizing their complete self-sufficiency. “The Jesus missionaries, in contrast, are told precisely to carry no knapsack and hold no staff in their hands,” writes Crossan. He then asks,
“Why this striking difference? Since a reciprocity of healing and eating is at the heart of the Jesus movement, the idea of no-staff and no-knapsack is symbolically correct for the Jesus missionaries. They are not urban like the Cynics, preaching at street corner and marketplace. They are rural, on a house mission to rebuild peasant society from the grass roots upward. Since commensality is not just a technique for support but a demonstration of message, they could not and should not dress to declare itinerant self-sufficiency, but rather communal dependency.”
In contrast to the cynics itinerant self-sufficiency, the Jesus movement modeled itinerant mutual dependency.

After Jesus’ death, the open and equal table was ritually re-enacted as the eucharist, the communion of wafer and wine. But the eucharist ceremony reflects and reinforces hierarchy and authority, as a sacrament that comes only through priestly authority. Thus, writes Crossan, “open commensality has been ritualized, which was probably inevitable, and ruined, which was not.”

All of this does connects to our theme of the month for May, which is happiness, and to that connection we now turn.

What you’ll find in this month’s issue of “On the Journey” is “The Reflection” by Christine Robinson and Alicia Hawkins, which stakes out happiness as the intertwining of mood and meaning.

Mood is one of the factors. Sometimes we’re in a happy mood – and that feels good. Some of us are genetically predisposed to a sunny temperament, and are in a happy mood almost all the time. Others of us are genetically predisposed to inhabit more pensive or sadder moods. Those who aren’t so constantly happy, maybe, sometimes, find those people who are annoying. Actually, though, having cheerful people around usually helps us feel more cheerful. The more common response is to be attracted toward cheerfulness. We like to be around a little sunny optimism.

On those relatively rare occasions when cheerfulness may be annoying, I suspect that would be because a sunny outlook feels like a challenge to the more dour outlook with which we have come to feel identified. There is more to happiness than a happy mood, and maybe sometimes some of us can get a little resentful of a someone else having a relentlessly happy mood if the other factor of happiness is not evident.

The other factor of happiness is meaning. A happy life is one of meaning. Meaning comes from a sense of contributing to a whole greater than ourselves. Fellowship and community – connection with others – is a crucial part of our well-being, and not just because of what we receive from others, but from the chance to contribute to them, to the whole of which we and they are a part.

Consider for instance Robert F. Kennedy’s words from his 1968 campaign:
“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.’”
That was 55 years ago, and maybe these days it’s harder to see contribution to nation as very important in life’s meaning – and that is a loss. With that source of meaning diminished, it’s harder to feel satisfied, happy – and, indeed, our politics today is consequently dominated by anger and rage. (Of course, there was anger and rage in 1968, too, and that was connected to people being shut out from the chance at dignified employment at decent pay and the chance to be a welcomed participant in our country’s great public ventures. The dearth of contributive justice – honoring everyone’s right and need to contribute to some big “us” – plays out in a rather different dynamic today, but generates frustration and anger just the same.)

With less role for national identity, we look to other ways to contribute to something bigger than ourselves – family, faith community, possibly work community.

If a pill were to become available, as cheap as aspirin, and not addictive, without any negative side-effects, and simply by taking this pill once a day, you would be blissfully happy, would you take it? I might try it – if the evidence were pretty solid that it really was safe. But the prospect of living that way – taking the happy pill along with my daily vitamin every morning – does not appeal to me -- as long as I wouldn't need such medication to fend off depression.

I want my happiness to be real – and what “real” means when it comes to happiness, is that component of meaningfulness – that component of contributing to something bigger than me. I don’t want to be blissfully or ecstatically happy while the world falls apart around me. If the world is falling apart, I want to be engaged in shoring it up. I’d feel ashamed if I thought I was turning my back on everyone, withdrawing into a private bubble of my own bliss.

We need meaning, we need to be able to contribute. We need respect – which, in its best form, is the recognition that we are meaningfully contributing as we are able to the good of others. So happiness cannot be a matter of the pharmaceutical companies finding a more perfect anti-depressant.

On the one hand, yes, serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins are crucial, but we can’t really be happy unless our lives are real, not self-centered, self-enclosed. To be really happy we need to feel there’s a reason to be happy – a purpose we are serving, a greater good to which we are contributing – and to which our very happiness itself helps us contribute.

And that brings us back to the model of commensality, of the open table, of serving and being served. You see, what I’ve been leading up to this whole time is this: we just had a pledge drive. Rather than hoarding our treasures, we have trusted their supply and passed them around. We have manifested abundance, and manifested community, for community IS abundance.

Our annual canvass is concluded – though you can still get in your pledge, or revise it – the forms are in the lobby. And we are celebrating today the way that we come together and sustain ourselves as a community. We’re having a literal open table today at the brunch after the service, and we thereby embody together serving and being served. And the literal welcome table we lay serves for us as a symbol representing everything about us: how we sustain each other, how we stand to each other in a relation of equality, how here we contribute to something bigger than ourselves. And we know this contribution is meaningful, because we are also the recipients of others’ similar contribution, so we feel directly how meaningful each contribution is, and that must include our own.

One other thing I mentioned four weeks ago on Easter was that John the Baptist was into fasting, while Jesus was more into feasting – and the open table, for him, showed us the way to feast. Fasting is what you do to prepare – to spiritually prepare for some revelation or dispensation or post-apocalyptic vision. Feasting is what you do to celebrate what is already here. Indeed, Jesus did tell us that the kingdom of God – the kin-dom of God – is here now. The kin-dom of God is within you and among you, he said.

We meet then at the welcome table in recognition of the fact that we have never truly been anywhere else. Therefore, as it is writ in the Gospel According to Wayne’s World: "Party on, Wayne." "Party on, Garth."



UU Minute #117

Reese Shocks the East

When John Dietrich and Curtis Reese met – at the 1917 annual meeting of the Western Unitarian Conference – they got to talking and discovered that each had been exploring the idea of religion without God. Dietrich called it humanism, and Reese called it “the religion of democracy” because it did away with an autocratic ruler god. Eventually, it would be Dietrich's term that would win out.

Historians point to that 1917 meeting of Dietrich and Reese as the beginning of American Religious Humanism. In the years to follow, as Dietrich and Reese preached and wrote their humanist gospel, they gained adherents and opponents.

In summer 1920, Reese carried back to the stodgier East the kind of liberal thinking that was becoming common in our more western churches. At the Unitarian Harvard Summer School of Theology, Reese delivered an address, “The Content of Religious Liberalism.” For the Easterners, it was disturbing.

"Why? What did he say?"

He said: “Historically, the basic content of religious liberalism is spiritual freedom. Out of this basic content has come the conviction of the supremacy of reason, of the primary worth of character, and of the immediate access of man to spiritual sources.”

"I’ll cut him some slack for the sexist language. Otherwise, nothing controversial so far."

Reese continued: “Always religious liberalism has tended to replace alleged divine revelations and commands with human opinions and judgments; to develop the individual attitude in religion; and to identify righteousness with life. The method of religious liberalism has always been that of reflection, not that of authority...."

"I feel like he’s building up to something."

Reese then said: “Liberalism is building a religion that would not be shaken even if the thought of God were out-grown.”

"Oh, no, he didn’t!"

Oh, yes, he did.

"Well, that’s gonna call for an outrage graphic."




UU Minute #116

How John Dietrich and Curtis Reese Met

The great collaborative friendships in Unitarian history include:
Ferenc David and Giorgio Biandrata,
Theophilus Lindsey and Joseph Priestly,
Eleanor Gordon and Mary Safford.

To that list must be added John Dietrich and Curtis Reese. It began like this.

In 1911, John Dietrich, a Reformed Church minister facing defrocking, resigned from that denomination, became a Unitarian, and began serving the First Unitarian Society of Spokane, Washington. Through long and meticulous sermons, he developed an approach to religion without Jesus, God, hell, heaven, or even souls. By 1915, he was calling this approach, “humanism.”

In 1916, after 5 years in Spokane, Dietrich accepted a call to serve the First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis where he continued to develop and build his case for humanism.

Meanwhile, Curtis Williford Reese had encountered biblical criticism in seminary, and it planted seeds of doubt. His first pastorate had been at a relatively liberal Baptist church in Ohio where he could and did say what he believed – but couldn't and didn't say what he didn't believe. He didn't believe the infallibility of the Bible, nor the virgin birth, nor redemption through Christ, nor eternal damnation. Eventually, Curtis Reese switched over to the Unitarians, because they accepted his nonbeliefs as well as his beliefs and because they embraced the social gospel movement, which saw social justice as an imperative. Reese accepted a call to serve the Des Moines, Iowa, Unitarian Church.

In 1917, the annual meeting of the Western Unitarian Conference was held in Des Moines, with the Des Moines minister, Rev. Curtis Reese, serving as host and Rev. John Dietrich, down from Minneapolis, attending. So that is where John Dietrich and Curtis Reese met.

And that meeting was the beginning of a friendship, and the beginning of the movement called American Religious Humanism.

NEXT: Reese Shocks the East


UU MInute #115

Origins of Unitarian Humanism

Humanism. The word was used for a Renaissance revival of interest in ancient Greek and Roman works. The humanist movement in the early 20th century also emphasized authorities other than scripture or priests. The latter movement, however, put its faith not in antiquity, but in science, and progress, and human reason to work out all problems, technological and social.

At the 1908 American Philosophical Association meeting at Cornell University one of the talks was by Rev. Frank Doan – a Unitarian minister on the faculty of Meadville Theological School. Rev. Doan introduced his philosophy, which he called “cosmic humanism.”

It was essentially a liberal Christianity, but Doan insisted upon starting with the human in his search for the divine. That 1908 talk was the first time – as far as anybody's been able to tell – that a Unitarian minister used the term "humanism."

John Hassler Dietrich, 30 years old in 1908 was a minister in the Reformed Church and not present for Doan’s talk, but Dietrich on his own was beginning to inch in the same direction. By 1911, the Reformed Church accused Dietrich of heresies including denying the infallibility of the Bible, denying the virgin birth of Jesus, denying the deity of Jesus, and denying the efficacy of the atonement.

Compelled to resign his ministry, Dietrich became Unitarian, and accepted a call to serve the First Unitarian Society of Spokane Washington. From the Spokane pulpit, Dietrich continued to evolve and develop his theology, leaving traditional theism farther and farther behind. In his fifth year at Spokane, he announced he was adopting the term “humanism” as a good name for his interpretation of religion, in contrast to theism.

Meanwhile, at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, an earnest young man named Curtis Williford Reese, was preparing for Baptist ministry.

NEXT: How John Dietrich and Curtis Reese Met


What Evil Is

Why is there evil?

The question has provoked religious and theological speculation and debate for time out of mind. The question, “Why is there evil?” seems to conjure dark and mysterious forces at work in human affairs – so dark and mysterious that the question is unanswerable.

Evil has for so long been a religious issue, though not so much because religion gives an intelligible answer to why there is evil. More because religion affords some ways of coping with, of making our peace as best we can with this dark mystery at the source of our pain and loss.

If we ask instead, “Why is there cruelty?” the question has a different feel – the feel of something that is not an impenetrable mystery, but a matter on which researchers have shed some light, and are at work devising ways to shed more.

I preached here about evil before – nine and half years ago, in October 2013. I said then that the word “evil” functions as a thought-stopper. We say something’s evil, and we’re off the hook to look into the matter any more deeply. "It’s evil – End of story." End of thinking. If we call someone “evil," we’ve given ourselves something that feels like an explanation but actually explains nothing at all. A person calling something evil probably doesn’t want an explanation, doesn’t want to understand, but just wants the thing destroyed – because what follows from, “it’s evil,” is “it must be destroyed.”

In that sermon, I went on to talk about sociopaths – what sociopathy is and some ways society might best deal with having people like that among us. Today, we’ll explore cruelty that comes from normal people. By “normal,” I mean people who have normal levels of empathy. Empathy is how we avoid cruelty, and psychological conditions such as borderline personality disorder, psychopathy, and narcissism are characterized by empathy deficits. But people who have average levels of empathy, may also sometimes be induced to behave cruelly. We’ll look at the sociology instead of the psychology of cruelty – how empathy can get misdirected rather than how empathy may be absent.

I need to clarify what sort of empathy I’ll be talking about. Sometimes people may speak of empathy as a “feeling with” in an enmeshed, unboundaried way. That’s not the form of empathy I’m talking about. I’m talking about empathy as
“our ability to identify what someone else is thinking or feeling and to respond to their thoughts and feelings with an appropriate emotion.” (Simon Baron-Cohen, The Science of Evil, p. 17)
It means suspending single-minded focus on oneself and adopting a double-minded focus of being also concerned with other people’s interests. It need not mean that we can’t keep our interests and others’ interests separate, or that we don’t have appropriate boundaries.

The double-minded focus of empathy allows us to keep an eye on self while also attending to another – identifying what someone else is thinking or feeling, responding with an appropriate emotion. For most of us, empathy is what steers us away from cruelty, and without it we much more easily slide into cruelty – more oblivious to unintentional cruelty, and more prone to intentional cruel.

The thesis that empathy is the solution to cruelty is generally true. If we cultivate the skills of picking up what others are thinking and feeling, which goes hand in hand with knowing what we ourselves are thinking and feeling, and the desire to connect with, care about, and be helpful to others – then we are doing our part to make the world less cruel.

There are two caveats or challenges to this thesis: (1) What about people who lack empathy yet aren’t cruel? And, (2) what about people who have normal levels of empathy, yet still commit acts of cruel harm?

To the first point: It’s true that not all low-empathy people are susceptible to cruelty. People on the autism spectrum are low on empathy, but they are not evil, and are not cruel, notwithstanding the hurt feelings their social faux pas might provoke. People with Asperger’s Syndrome – which is not an official diagnosis, but more an informal name for a certain range on the autism spectrum where the symptoms are less severe than other kinds of autism spectrum disorders – can’t read people. They can’t tell if you’re upset, but if they are told you’re upset, it matters to them, and if there’s something they can do to help you feel better, they are ready to do it, if they know what it is.

Without empathy, which draws us into a shared world, people with Asperger’s may seem to be in a world of their own. So, they talk about themselves mostly and tend to zero in on a single subject. They dislike change. Clinical psychologist and Cambridge professor Simon Baron-Cohen says that this type of person has
“a mind constantly striving to step out of time, to set aside the temporal dimension in order to see – in stark relief – the eternal repeating patterns in nature. Change represents the temporal dimension seeping into an otherwise perfectly predictable, systemizable world.... They may become aware of the dimension of time only during events that contain novelty and that therefore violate expectations.” (Baron-Cohen, p. 156)
For them, change is very frightening, and they are drawn to predictable patterns. For that very reason, people with Asperger’s may make huge contributions to society. They are great systemizers, and can suss out patterns that the rest of us never recognize because we’re too busy attending to our own and each other’s feelings and moods, and going with the flow of time and change rather than trying to step out of it.

So, as we reflect, it’s important to bear in mind that there are ways to be a good person, and make very valuable contributions to society, without empathy.

Now consider the reverse: people who have normal empathy, yet behave cruelly. Where does their empathy go? It’s not gone. It can get hijacked – misdirected. Hannah Arendt coined the phrase “banality of evil” in writing about the trial of the Nazi Adolph Eichmann. Per Arendt, Eichmann wasn’t evil in the sense of intending to do harm. Rather, he was evil in the sense failing to think about the crime he was committing. Evil, in Arendt’s account,
“is perpetuated when immoral principles become normalized over time by unthinking people. Evil becomes commonplace; it becomes the everyday. Ordinary people — going about their everyday lives — become complicit actors in systems that perpetuate evil.” (Jack Maden, “Hannah Arendt On Standing Up to the Banality of Evil,” philosophybreak.com, 2020 May)
Along these lines is the famous Stanley Milgram study. Milgram, a professor at Yale, recruited nearly a thousand volunteer subjects.
“Arriving in pairs, they would draw lots assigning one [subject] to the role of ‘teacher,’ and the other to that of ‘learner.’ The teachers were seated in front of a large device which they were told was a shock machine. They were then instructed to perform a memory test with the learner, who was strapped to a chair in the next room. For every wrong answer, the teacher had to press a switch to administer an electric shock. In reality, the learner was always a member of Milgram’s team, and the machine didn’t deliver shocks at all. But the teachers didn’t know that. They thought this was a study on the effect of punishment on memory and didn’t realize the study was really about them. The shocks started small, a mere 15 volts. But each time the learner gave a wrong answer, a man in a grey lab coat directed the teacher to raise the voltage. From 15 volts to 30. From 30 vots to 45. An so on, no matter how loudly the learner in the next room screamed, and even after reaching the zone labelled DANGER: SEVERE SHOCK. At 350 volts the learner pounded on the wall. After that, he went silent.” (Rutger Bregman, Humankind, p. 161)
Milgram found that
“65 percent of the study participants continued right up to the furthest extreme and administered the full 450 volts. Apparently, two-thirds of those ordinary dads, pals, and husbands were willing to electrocute a random stranger. Why? Because someone told them to.” (Bregman)
Published in 1963, as the world was processing the recent fact of Nazi atrocities, Milgram's study appeared to have answered the question, “What kind of person was capable of sending millions to the gas chambers?” And the answer Milgram’s study suggested was: all of us. It turns out there’s more to it than what has usually been mentioned in accounts of Milgram's experiment.

Arendt’s book on Eichmann came out the same year, 1963, further explicating evil as ordinary – indeed, banal. But I want to say to you today that we humans are better than Milgram and Arendt made us out to be.
“David Cesarini argues that Hannah Arendt stayed only for the beginning of the trial, when Eichmann wanted to appear as ordinary as possible. In fact, had she stayed longer, she would have seen how he had exercised creativity in the murders. He was not just blindly following orders.” (Baron-Cohen)
The story isn’t that Eichmann was a normally empathic person whose empathy was over-ruled by his also normal proclivity for blind obedience to authority. Rather, the full story indicates Eichmann had well-below normal levels of empathy. His failure to think about the crime he was committing was actually an inability to think from someone else’s perspective. It was a failure of empathy.

Eichmann had declared back in 1945,
“I will leap into my grave laughing because the feeling that I have five million human beings on my conscience is for me a source of extraordinary satisfaction.”
Rutger Bregman writes:
“Reading through the thirteen hundred pages of interviews, teeming with warped ideas and fantasies, it’s patently obvious that Eichmann was no brainless bureaucrat. He was a fanatic. He acted not out of indifference but out of conviction.” (p. 171)
The subjects in Milgram’s experiment did have normal levels of empathy – and they actually did a better job of resisting evil than Milgram’s reporting of his results let on.

When, about 12 years ago, Gina Perry learned that archives of Milgram’s audio recordings in his study were available, she was keen to hear them. She learned that that
“man in the grey lab coat – a biology teacher Milgram had hired named John Williams – would make as many as eight or nine attempts to get people to continue pressing higher switches. He even came to blows with one forty-six-year-old woman who turned the shock machine off. Williams turned it back on and demanded she continue. ‘The slavish obedience to authority,’ writes Gina Perry, ‘comes to sound much more like bullying and coercion when you listen to these recordings.’” (Bregman, p. 165)
Additionally, although Milgram had written that “with few exceptions subjects were convinced of the reality of the experimental situation” – that wasn’t true. Think about it.
“Were people seriously expected to believe that someone was being tortured under the watchful eye of scientists from a prestigious institution like Yale?” (Bregman, p. 166)
Eleven years after his 1963 article which had such impact, Milgram’s 1974 book, Obedience to Authority, in the last chapter, includes the information that a questionnaire participants were sent when the study was over showed “that only 56 percent of his subjects said they believed they were actually inflicting pain on the learner.” So that means 44 percent of subjects had doubts about whether the shocks were real. That would account for most of the 65 percent of subjects who pushed the buttons for the maximum shock.

“A never-published analysis by one of Milgram’s assistants reveals that the majority of people called it quits if they did believe the shocks were real.” (Bregman, p. 166)
Still, that leaves at least 21 percent of participants who believed the shocks were real and still continued to the maximum. That’s a lot. And it’s also true that “psychologists the world over have replicated [Milgram’s] shock experiment in various iterations with minor modifications.” They get similar results.

But look. People volunteer for the study because they want to help. They arrive feeling helpful. They want to be of service to science. The man in the gray lab coat had a script of prompts to encourage people to keep going, and the most successful prompt was, “The experiment requires that you continue.” It’s for the sake of science, and learning, and human advancement, and better lives for us all.

This motivation to be helpful also played a role in the famous Zimbardo prison experiment in which students role-played at being guards and prisoners, and the perfectly normal students randomly assigned to play guards turned into raging sadistic abusers of the prisoners. Turns out they did so because they’d been explicitly instructed to do so, and were just trying to be helpful for contributing to scientific understanding. The story isn’t one of a failure of empathy, of an inability to see what someone else is thinking or feeling and coordinate ourselves with it. The story is that the participants were empathetic to the researchers and they sought to coordinate themselves to what appeared to be the noble project of research.

As Rutger Bregman concludes from all this:
“In other words, if you push people hard enough, if you poke and prod, bait and manipulate, many of us are indeed capable of doing evil. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. But evil doesn’t live just beneath the surface; it takes immense effort to draw it out. And most importantly, evil has to be disguised as doing good.” (p. 170)
We are most tempted to evil when it masquerades as good. It’s because we are so very pro-social that we can be sometimes be manipulated into doing harm.

We aren’t monsters, and we aren’t mindless robots. What we are is joiners. And that can sometimes get misdirected. Once we know that, we can resist attempts at misdirection. The empathy that steers us away from cruelty can be trained to not be tricked into instead steering us the wrong direction.
“In 2015, Matthew Hollander reviewed the taped recordings of 117 sessions at Milgram’s shock machine. After extensive analysis, he discovered a pattern. The subjects who managed to halt the experiment used three tactics. (1) Talk to the victim. (2) Remind the man the grey lab coat of his responsibility. (3) Repeatedly refuse to continue.”
These can be generalized into our guidelines:
  • Talk to the injured.
  • Remind the authorities of their responsibility.
  • And repeatedly refuse to comply with systems that are doing harm.
“Communication and confrontation, compassion and resistance. Hollander discovered that virtually all participants used these tactics – virtually all wanted to stop, after all – but that those who succeeded used them much more. The good news is: these are trainable skills. Resistance just takes practice. ‘What distinguishes Milgram’s heroes,’ Hollander observes, ‘is largely a teachable competency at resisting questionable authority.’” (Bregman, pp. 174-75)
That’s what I am urging today. Cultivate empathy. Pay attention to what other people are feeling. This includes having empathy for yourself. Coordinate with other people’s feelings – while being self-defined and boundaried.

Overall, we become more joyous people, and our world becomes brighter when we can do that. And keep an eye out for the possibility that coordinating with other people’s feelings might take you toward rather than away from cruelty. Where that’s a possibility: talk to the injured, encourage authorities to be responsible, and repeatedly refuse to continue.

So may it be.



UU Minute #114

Noncreedalism Victorious

Unitarianism started out as noncreedal – and for many of us in the early 1800s, being noncreedal was fine as long being Christian could safely be assumed. Sixty or so years later, around the end of the Civil War, when a few Unitarians began to identify as nonChristian, that assumption was no longer safe. The Conservatives among us then felt that an official declaration positioning Unitarianism within Christianity was necessary after all.

So, starting in 1865 at the first Unitarian national conference, the conservatives, who wanted Unitarianism to declare itself Christian, and the radicals, who didn’t, were at odds. Finally, after almost 30 years, at the 1894 General Conference in Saratoga, New York, a compromise was reached that was acceptable both to Henry Bellows’ “Broad Church” conservatives and to the Free Religious Association radicals. The new statement made reference to the religion of Jesus, but asserted that this religion reduced to “love of God and love to man.” It emphasized our congregational polity, and cordially invited to “our fellowship any who, while differing from us in belief, are in general sympathy with our spirit and practical aims.”

Two years later, in 1896, the conservative Western Unitarian Association folded – just ten years after it had begun and despite having initially had all the backing of the national body. The radical Western Unitarian Conference had prevailed.

We had come back to the noncreedal principles from which we began, and the Free Religious Association had played a key role in bringing about the shift. The F.R.A. included some nonUnitarians, but its main function was to keep the Unitarians true to noncreedalism. That function now fulfilled, the F.R.A. began to fade – though it continued 20 more years before dissolving in 1914.

The ground was laid for the emergence of Unitarian Humanism.

NEXT: Origins of Unitarian Humanism