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.


UU Minute #120

The 1933 Humanist Manifesto Highlights

Some highlights from the Humanist Manifesto of 1933:

Religion must be shaped for the needs of this age. To establish such a religion is a major necessity of the present. We therefore affirm:

The universe is self-existing and not created. Man is a part of nature and has emerged as a result of a continuous process.

The nature of the universe depicted by modern science makes unacceptable any supernatural or cosmic guarantees of human values. Religion must formulate its hopes and plans in the light of the scientific spirit and method.

Religion consists of those actions, purposes, and experiences which are humanly significant. Nothing human is alien to the religious. It includes labor, art, science, philosophy, love, friendship, recreation–all that is in its degree expressive of intelligently satisfying human living. The distinction between the sacred and the secular can no longer be maintained.

Religious emotions are to be expressed in a heightened sense of personal life and in a cooperative effort to promote social well-being.

Existing acquisitive and profit-motivated society has shown itself to be inadequate. A socialized and cooperative economic order must be established to the end that the equitable distribution of the means of life be possible. Our goal is a free and universal society in which people voluntarily and intelligently cooperate for the common good.

Humanism will affirm life rather than deny it; seek to elicit the possibilities of life, not flee from them; and endeavor to establish the conditions of a satisfactory life for all, not merely for the few.

Man is at last becoming aware that he alone is responsible for the realization of the world of his dreams, that he has within himself the power for its achievement. He must set intelligence and will to the task.

NEXT: People With Different Beliefs



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.


UU Minute #119

Humanism vs. Theism, part 2

In our last episode, we were in Detroit for the 1921 Unitarian General Conference. Rev. John Dietrich and Rev. William Sullivan spoke back-to-back – Dietrich for humanism and Sullivan for theism.

Sullivan believed that his own faith was traditional Unitarianism, that the church stood for something theistic, and that if one had lost this faith, then, in the name of truth, one should move elsewhere. Sullivan was an eloquent and powerful speaker, but he miscalculated by launching into personal attacks against Dietrich.

The attacks backfired. The theist faction was ready with a resolution that the conference should formulate a Unitarian statement of faith, a kind of creed that would at least assert belief in the existence of God, but seeing that they did not have the delegates to win, they never submitted the resolution.

What happened that fall of 1921 in Detroit was decisive, for the opportunity to pass a statement about belief in God would never be greater. The controversy was not over, for at times over the ensuing years, strong feelings erupted. But as the years passed and humanists and theists worked together, they generally found the small Unitarian denomination large enough to embrace both points of view.

From there, humanist ideas spread within and outside Unitarian circles. In 1928, a group of students at the University of Chicago organized the Humanist Fellowship and began publication of a journal, the New Humanist. It was this group which, in 1933, produced the Humanist Manifesto.

The Manifesto had 34 signatories – prominent thinkers who had involved themselves in the drafting and re-writing of the manifesto. Fifteen were Unitarian ministers, and these included John Dietrich and Curtis Reese. One was a Universalist minister. Several others were lay Unitarian leaders.

For more about this Humanist Manifesto, be sure to catch our next thrilling episode.

NEXT: The 1933 Humanist Manifesto Highlights


UU Minute #118

Humanism vs. Theism, part 1

Curtis Reese brought humanism to the 1920 Unitarian Harvard Summer School of Theology. Reese said, “Liberalism is building a religion that would not be shaken even if the thought of God were out-grown.” One periodical that covered Reese's address reported the audience reaction: "The strong were indignant and the weak wept." Religious periodicals were still discussing – and usually denouncing – Reese’s address for years afterward.

In August 1921, in Chicago, the humanist-theist controversy hit the floor of the Western Unitarian Conference. Reese, the conference organizer, invited his friend Dietrich to address the conference on “The Outlook for Religion.” Dietrich, predicted that religion would have no outlook unless it could harmonize with modern thought and relinquish the idea of a divine being in control of the universe yet telling humans they are the masters of their own destiny. In other words, religion had an outlook only if it became humanistic.

The dispute over creed that a generation earlier had been resolved in favor of creedlessness broke out all over again. The theists acknowledged that liberty was important, yet they felt we must be able to assume a common faith in God among Unitarians. They understood that belief in God was not to be formally stipulated, yet the theists had never expected it to be denied. The theists mustered their forces. Two months later, October 1921, at the General Conference in Detroit, John Dietrich and Rev. William Sullivan spoke back-to-back: Dietrich representing the humanists and Sullivan the theists. Hopeful that their side would win the debate, the theist faction was prepared with a resolution that the conference should formulate a Unitarian statement of faith, a kind of creed that would at least assert belief in the existence of God.

What happened? Be sure to catch our next thrilling episode.

NEXT: Humanism vs. Theism, part 2



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."


NEXT: Humanism vs. Theism, part 1