Spiritual But Not Religious

Dear SBNR (Spiritual But Not Religious) person,

Lillian Daniel, the minister at First Congregational Church (UCC) in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, has gotten some attention for waxing somewhat snarky about you. Have you seen her remarks? Her briefer, snider piece is here, and the longer piece is here. Give them a look and see what you think.

I, too, sometimes meet you, and you tell me you are "spiritual but not religious." One difference between Rev. Daniel and me is that she runs into you on airplanes -- which, for me, seems to be the place for running into Baptist assistant pastors, Presbyterian organists, and Methodist youth directors. I run into you more often in church. It doesn't occur to me, as it does to Daniel, to suppose that you think you are sharing "some kind of daring insight . . . bold in its rebellion." I think you know that you're part of a hefty crowd. Daniel is encountering SBNRs who, apparently, don't go to church (or synagogue, temple, mosque, sangha, etc.), whereas my SBNRs are often in church. When you've told me you were "spiritual but not religious," you might have meant to convey to me any of a number of highly variable possibilities: (a) "You might have noticed I don't attend that often. Don't expect me to." or (b) "I disagreed with something in your sermon." -- or, sometimes, most perplexingly, (c) "I just love being a Unitarian Universalist; I'm so glad to be a part of this thing that isn't a religion."

Also like Rev. Daniel, I hear regularly from folks who say they see God in sunsets, or experience the divine in the woods, or on a beach. I think that's great. In fact, ecospirituality is central to my spirituality, and I offer a service of Ecospiritual Practice -- usually outdoors in a wooded setting -- once a month (check it out: click here.) I have to tell you, though, I think Daniel is right to point out that we need to have a community of accountability if we're going to learn, grow, and deepen our spirituality.

At the same time, I also think you're right to be wary of the kind of religious institution that demands uncritical acceptance of authority, where "faith" means "just believe what the authority figure tells you to believe, and pray what the authority figure tells you to pray." This sort of religious institution is nothing like my church -- and it's nothing like Lillian Daniel's church. (I've heard her preach, and she described something of her congregation -- plus, I went to a UCC seminary myself where we were taught that the function of authority is to guide critical engagement, not demand uncritical allegiance. Indeed, the joke I heard from a UCC fellow seminarian was that UCC stands for "Unitarians Considering Christ." Of course, I wouldn't tell Daniel this joke lest I become the subject of a sarcastic column about how tired and bored she is of UU ministers who tell that joke thinking they're saying something devastatingly witty.) Indeed, fewer and fewer churches match the picture of a church that you seem to carry around in your mind.

You're right to recognize that truth is within us. You're right to reject anything that would turn over the authority of your individual conscience to an external source.

But that's only half the story. The truth is within you all right. It's in all of us. And so is a lot of self-deceived ego.

We don't need authoritarian, ask-no-questions, do-as-I-say church. We do need communities of accountability for sharpening and deepening our religious insights, for calling us on our stuff, for holding up the mirror so we can see ourselves when we hit those places -- as we inevitably do on the spiritual path -- where we can't tell the difference between genuine wisdom and the ego's love for deluding itself with a story about how wise we are. As Daniel put it:
Being privately spiritual but not religious just doesn't interest me. There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff, or heaven forbid, disagree with you. Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig deeply into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself.
If I'm serious about spiritual depth, I need the humility to place myself in a relation of accountability to a long and rich tradition -- a tradition of many people who have wrestled with what I'm wrestling with, who have, like me, been fooled into thinking they "got it" and "had arrived" and "were as holy or enlightened as it's possible to be," but who eventually came, through connection with a community of fellow spiritual travelers, to see through that delusion to a deeper wisdom.

In the longer piece, Daniel tells about a man who tells her:
"I worship nature. I see myself in the trees and in the cicadas. I am one with the great outdoors. I find God there. And I realized that I am deeply spiritual but no longer religious."
Number one: If being in the woods is a spiritual experience for you, then please do make sure you get out in the woods a lot. Maybe you do. But I have met people who say the "great outdoors" is their religion, and when I ask them when was the last time they were out in it, they have to think, and then they say something like, "about six months ago." Ecospirituality is wonderful, vital, and important. But like every spirituality, you've got to practice it. Daily, in some form. Weekly, in a more extensive and immersive form.

Number two: If nature is your grounding, where are you going/growing from that grounding? As Daniel asks:
"God is in the sunset? Great, I find God there too. But how about seeing God in cancer? Cancer is nature too."
Daniel doesn't mention what her own theology of cancer is. But if you're using spirituality to turn your back on pain and suffering, or numb it with the aesthetic bliss of sunsets, then not only are you not religious, but you're only half spiritual. The spiritual path calls for facing and embracing the cancer too. If you find beauty, wonder, and divinity in the woods, that's a wonderful starting place. Now use that grounding to move toward seeing beauty and wonder in people, buildings, kitchen appliances, traffic jams, toxic waste dumps -- and cancer. Spirituality is about working out our peace with all of life, not just the pretty nature scenes. For that, you need the resources of a community that embodies a tradition of practices and texts and the habits of using them to make meaning.

So, dear SBNRs: Let me say that you are off to a wonderful start. I'm delighted with the spiritual satisfactions that you are finding. I suspect you'll find that your "S" won't be very deep, won't extend very well beyond its immediate stimulus, and won't equip you so well for the hard times of grief and loss and stress, without some "R." I hope you're on a path that will eventually lead from "SBNR" to "S and R," whether the "R" is Christianity, Hinduism, or Religious Humanism. You're off to a great start. Whenever you're ready to think about a little more depth and critical engagement in your "S," come talk to me. I can help. In fact, come talk to me anyway. I like hearing about how great it felt to be on that beach watching that sunset. I know that a number of religious leaders, like Rev. Daniel, are bored and irritated with you. Sorry about that. As my colleague, Rev. Kathy Schmitz, has said:
Snarky, derisive behavior and eye-rolling may sell better, but it does not represent our best selves and it does not represent either community or religion at its best. It certainly doesn’t represent religious community at its best. (click here)
I have to warn you that, whatever religious community you may hook up with, it's going to spend a lot of its time not being "religious community at its best." That's part of the challenge, part of the practice ground for working out your peace with all of life, even the difficult parts. It's worth it. For all their flaws and pettiness -- indeed, partly because of all their flaws and pettiness -- they'll help you see yours. My congregation continues to help me see mine.

Yours faithfully,


The Church We Need Now

Yesterday's Lake Chalice looked at some aspects of Europe. Jeremy Rifkin's description of Europe -- a continent imbued with ecospiritual wisdom where almost everyone is a part of Civil Society Organization that functions like the best possible church -- is provocative. It's a picture worth looking at, even as we must also recognize its distortions. Europe does have strands of the sort of orientation that Rifkin describes, and those strands are a bit thicker than in the US, yet much of day-to-day life is essentially similar. As the US frets about immigration issues, so does Europe -- and European xenophobia about Muslim immigrants is not so different, qualitatively or quantitatively, from US xenophobia about Hispanics. It's not clear that Europe is terrific at celebrating cultural diversity while mitigating assimilationist pressures, nor that the US is much worse at either. Moreover, what Rifkin sees as homey and congenial emphasis on community relationships would feel to many Americans -- as it does to some Europeans -- like a stifling pressure to conform. If honoring and celebrating cultural diversity is a desideratum, what is the optimal level of cultural mobility (the ability of an individual to choose a cultural, or any, identity other than the one they were born into) for a society?

The European example does not, alas, provide us with a final answer on the best way for our postmodern world to address human needs for faith community and spiritual fitness. Given Europe's very low attendance at traditional Catholic and Protestant churches, any of several different hypotheses might be argued:
  • Europeans are not meeting their faith community and spiritual fitness needs -- and that's good. Europe is doing much better than the US on measures of social health, which shows that faith community and spiritual fitness aren't really all that important.
  • Europeans are not meeting their faith community or spiritual fitness needs -- and that's bad. This failure is connected with various social problems and anomie in Europe. (Or: Europeans' civic lives partly meet their religious needs, but a more robust attention to communities and practices cultivating the spiritual values would do them good.)
  • Europeans are meeting their faith community and spiritual fitness needs through a spiritually imbued civic life -- and that's good. That's why Europe is doing so well on measures of social health.
  • Europeans meet faith needs through civic life -- and that's bad. This kind of community formation is harmful to what Europeans most need -- more respect for individual autonomy and less tribal loyalty.
(And what are "faith community and spiritual fitness needs"? See the earlier posts in this "Ecclesiology" series, as well as the "Spiritual Practice" series that begins here.)

Religion came to early humans as both a blessing and a curse. Faith community provided a feeling of connection, of at-home-ness, of being with our people, and in a world that made sense, just where we belonged. This blessing made early communities cohesive, and that cohesiveness proved essential to survival. At the same time, the US-ness of tribal identification also entailed a THEM-ness of antipathy toward those outside one's community. We need the blessing today as much as ever: overcoming alienation with community belonging and overcoming stress and greed with greater spiritual awakening. At the same time, we need forms of religion that minimize the concomitants of tribalism: intolerance and distrust of outsiders. The situation in Europe offers us some clues, but no ultimate blueprint.

Religion Must Now Transcend Its Origins

"Ecclesiology" is the branch of theology that deals with the origin of the church, the church's proper role in human life, what it is needed for, and what form it should take (governance, leadership, organizational structure) to best meet its purpose. This Lake Chalice series on ecclesiology has been looking at the light that anthropology and evolutionary psychology shed on the purpose and challenge for "the church" -- broadened to include any form of faith community -- in the 21st century. From the standpoint of biotheology -- that is, an approach to religious questions grounded in and integrated with our understanding of ourselves as revealed in the biological sciences -- what sort of ecclesiology is called for? A relatively new clarity is available to us now about the need and value of faith community, but we are just beginning to discern some clues about what forms of faith community best amplify religion's blessing and best mitigate its curse.

Seeing the origin of religion, it’s easy to see how religion can become evil – how the yearning for a shared story becomes a commitment to absolutes. But the future holds to us the possibility of expanding the circle. We can learn to take our sense of US-ness that evolution wired into us, and keep expanding it until it takes in . . . well, everything. And there is no THEM left.

Just as nature wired into us a need for faith community, so it wired into us a propensity for going further with that capacity. Our inherited structures that made us able to bind together for war are available to be appropriated to connect us to live in peace and justice, without domination, or mastery, or hegemony. What evolution created for one purpose can now be put to a new purpose. This is nature’s method of transcendence, and the history of life on this planet is full of examples.

Mammalian forelimbs turned into bat wings – or, going another direction, into dolphin fins. Insect antennae turned into mandibles. A jaw bone in dinosaurs, fish, and reptiles was appropriated and made into an auditory bone in mammals. An ancestor of wasps and bees had an ovipositor (egg-laying tube) that was appropriated and made into a stinger. Before there were land animals, certain fish developed a swim bladder, which they could fill with gas, usually air. This allowed the fish to stay at a given depth without expending energy on swimming. The swim bladder probably was, in some species, also helpful for stability, and maybe also as a resonating chamber to produce or receive sound. The swim bladder evolved into the lung of the earliest lungfish – and from there into the lungs of land animals. Something that evolved for one purpose or set of purposes (buoyancy, stability, sonic resonance) was appropriated for a very different purpose (breathing air). A device for staying at a given depth in water turned into the essential step for moving onto land!

Structures that served one purpose get put to very different purposes. Happens all the time. The fact that we evolved with a given structure or tendency does not obligate us to continue the purpose for which that structure or tendency evolved. Genetic evolution is under no such constraint; if it were, then swim bladders would never have turned into lungs, and we’d all still be fishes.

Building upon its inheritance, the lungfish transcended that inheritance and became a new thing on this earth. Bats and dolphins, mandibular and stinging insects, mammalian auditory systems -- and, one way or another, ultimately every complex feature of every species -- built upon its inheritance to transcend that inheritance and become a new thing on this earth.

Let us do likewise. Transcend our inheritance: put the wiring that enabled cohesive war-fighting to a new use, building peace. The wiring that finds such comfort and delight in the company of friends, the wiring that gets active during spiritual experience, orients us to live in peace within our group. That same wiring is available for being universalized beyond our group. With a little training of the neural structures of social orientation that are already there, we can keep expanding our perceived circle of "us" until there is no “them.” Building upon our inheritance, we can transcend that inheritance and become a new thing on this earth.

Our spiritual perception can plumb more deeply, can see more than just what selective pressures once needed our ancestors to see. My awareness can be trained to know, more thoroughly than cognition alone can know, that all humans are I, all sentient beings are I; all bugs and plants, all amoebas, paramecia, bacteria, and fungi are I; all rocks and dirt, rivers and oceans; air and fire; sun, moon, and stars are I.

Church, huh? What is it good for? “Arms to hold us when we falter. A circle of healing. A circle of friends. Someplace where we can be free.” And strength that joins our strength to do the work of building “a land that binds up the broken, where the captive go free, where justice shall roll down like waters, and peace like an everflowing stream.”

What is it good for? Absolutely everything.

* * *
This is part 5 of 5 of "Ecclesiology: What Is Church Good For"
Previous: Part 4: "How's Europe?"
Beginning: Part 1: "Church! Huh! What Is It Good For?"

Audio (with some nice slides) of an edited excerpt of an earlier version of "Ecclesiology." Thanks to Shelby Havens for putting together the slides and creating this Youtube video:


How's Europe?

Jeremy Rifkin
The emergence of religion was a vital functional adaptation that met necessary human needs. We need community, connection, and contexts of accountability, all bound and held together by ritual (because the mind believes and better remembers what it sees the body doing) and narratives of purpose and meaning. We need faith community.

Our world, however, is no longer the one for which religion was originally such a crucial adaptation. Many of us belong in various ways to a number of "tribes" -- and our survival does not depend on cohesive loyalty with just one. High levels of religiosity now correlate with low levels of social health and well-being by such measures as homicides, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD rates, teen pregnancies, abortions, and imprisonment rates.

Europe scores lower than the US on measures of religiosity and higher than the US on measures of social health and well-being. In Europe, a lot fewer people are in prison and a lot fewer people are in church. This begs the question: How do Europeans meet the need for moral and cohesive community, interconnection, and transcendence?

Jeremy Rifkin's book, The European Dream, contrasts Europe's with America's dream of unbounded consumeristic indulgence.
“The European Dream emphasizes community relationships over individual autonomy, cultural diversity over assimilation, quality of life over the accumulation of wealth, sustainable development over unlimited material growth, deep play over unrelenting toil, universal human rights and the rights of nature over property rights, and global cooperation over the unilateral exercise of power.” (Rifkin 3)
Wow. That's my agenda. Those are the values I try to preach, with my lips and my life. It's a very Unitarian Universalist agenda. Rifkin's book gives the impression the whole continent of Europe is like one big Unitarian Universalist congregation with 455 million members.

Rifkin says the European dream is to
“connect the human race to a new shared story, clothed in the garb of universal human rights and the intrinsic rights of nature – what we call a global consciousness.... What becomes important in the new European vision of the future is personal transformation rather than individual material accumulation. The new dream is focused not on amassing wealth but, rather, on elevating the human spirit. The European Dream seeks to expand human empathy, not territory...For Europeans, freedom is not found in autonomy but in embeddedness. To be free is to have access to a myriad of interdependent relationships with others.” (7, 8, 13)
Rifkin's language is ecospiritual. He speaks of re-participating in the body of nature, of the Earth as an organism consisting of interdependent relationships. This is spiritual, theological talk.
“We are on the cusp of the third great stage in human consciousness – the stage where we make a self-aware choice to re-participate with the body of nature....European intellectuals, scientists, and visionaries...increasingly view the world as an indivisible living entity deserving of respect and care....The Earth is a living organism made up of interdependent relationships and...we each survive and flourish by stewarding the larger communities of which we are a part. The solution to our dilemma lies in integrating the life instinct and death instinct in a new unity....We can't really begin to live until we first accept the fact that one day we will die. How do we come to terms with our own death and make the choice to live? By making a self-aware decision to leave the death instinct behind, to no longer seek mastery, control, or domination over nature, including human nature, as a means of fending off death. Instead, accept death as part of life and make a choice to re-participate with the body of nature. Cross over from self to the other, and reunite in an empathic bond with the totality of relationships that together make up the Earth's indivisible living community....The life instinct can be rekindled only by really living life, and living life means deep participation in the life of the other that surrounds us.”
If religion is, as Unitarian Universalist minister Forest Church says, our response to the twin realities of being alive and having to die, then Rifkin is describing a religion when he speaks of learning to live by accepting the fact of death and seeking not mastery or domination, but re-participation with nature, reuniting in an empathic bond with the totality of relationships. Truly “living life,” he said, “means deep participation in the life of the other that surrounds us.”

That's what we Unitarian Universalists preach, and what we try to practice. It's our faith.

Relatively few Europeans darken the doorstep of their local church or synagogue. They form other CSOs: Civil Society Organizations: not-for-profits and non-governmental organizations. Civil society is a third socio-political force, co-equal with market commerce and government. For Europeans, it seems, CSOs are basically church.
“The civil society is the meeting place for reproducing culture in all of its various forms. It is where people engage in 'deep play' to create social capital and establish codes of conduct and behavioral norms....In a globalized economy of impersonal market forces, the civil society has become an important social refuge. It is the place where people create a sense of intimacy and trust, shared purpose and collective identity. The civil society sector is the antidote to a world increasingly defined in strictly commercial terms.” (Rifkin 234-35, 238)
Members of such a CSO share a faith. They come together in community, generating social cohesion through shared practices and stories, and maintaining a moral order of “codes of conduct and behavioral norms.” There seems to be a spiritual ethic there of re-participation with nature as a means of interconnection transcending ego and personality.

In Europe, there seem to be ways of doing Unitarian Universalism without calling it that. In the US, however, Unitarian Universalism happens to be the place to be to affirm our connectedness, feed our spirits, and build a land of peace, justice, and reverence for earth.

* * *
This is part 4 of 5 of "Ecclesiology: What Is Church Good For?"
Next: Part 5: "The Church We Need Now"
Previous: Part 3: "When Religion Goes Bad"
Beginning: Part 1: "Chuch! Huh! What Is It Good For?"


Memorial Day

I am remembering and offering my heart's thanks to those who made it possible for me to be, and to be here.

The poster says, "There are only two words that describe the meaning of Memorial Day. 'Thank you'." I know that our backgrounds in connection to the US military are highly varied, and our attitudes about Memorial Day are diverse. If the idea is to remember in gratitude the soldiers who fought and died in wars because they gave their all for our freedom, some of us are really on board with that. Others of us have a hard time seeing US war-fighting as having any connection with any freedom other than the freedom of US companies to make exorbitant profits.

Indeed, our Unitarian Universalist faith entails commitment to Peacemaking. We selected “Peacemaking” as our Study action issue at the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly in 2006. We select only one issue every two years. After four years of study and action and reflection on that action, crafting and revising a statement of where we stand, we approved a Statement of Conscience titled “Creating Peace” at our General Assembly in 2010. We committed ourselves to address the roots of violence, support mediation and reconciliation, and to create a culture of peace.

One thing that grows really, really old and wearisome really, really quick is carnage and killing. In our sadly belabored world of war, most of us yearn for laying down all swords and shields, and studying war no more. Even as we commit our words to the value of peace, and even as we commit our time, energy, and resources insofar as we are able to the cause of building peace, let us be mindful that our hearts are pulled in other directions, too. This isn’t about us good-guy peaceniks versus those bad-guy war mongers. The dividing line runs right through each of our hearts.

I would bid my fellow peaceniks to consider the plot of the 2010 science-fiction novel, Peace Warrior, by Steven Hawk.
“Hundreds of years have passed since Earth’s last war. The planet’s citizens are tranquil laborers who have achieved a utopian existence. Peace and harmony are the norm. Into this perfect world descend the Minith, a vicious race of planetary invaders. Their goal: to ransack Earth’s resources and enslave its population. Unable to defend themselves from their alien oppressors, Earth’s leaders, and a small group of scientists, labor to resurrect a fallen soldier from an earlier time — someone who can rid their planet of the Minith and save the human race.”
What do you think? Yes, that’s a highly unlikely scenario. If the danger of space aliens were the only reason for keeping armies and arsenals around, any rational assessment would say get rid of them. The heart doesn’t care about rational assessments. It blows risks out of all proportion. Even so... Does the heart (or is it the gut?) not react that way because it senses that if we really did become an utterly peaceful species, something would be lost? I don’t know. Would something be lost?

Let's look not to an unrealistically imagined future, but to an actual past. This example was presented in my seminary "Old Testament" class. We had been reading the parts about the Israelites marching off to war, most of the class was tut-tutting about this belligerence from a tribe calling themselves "God's people." Our professor slipped a cassette tape into the a tape deck. She told us: "This is 'Sweet Honey in Rock,' an African American women’s a capella ensemble. You’re going to hear them singing words that Sojourner Truth wrote, using the same tune that Julia Ward Howe used for 'The Battle Hymn of the Republic.' Sojourner Truth wrote these lyrics for a colored regiment from Michigan that fought in the Civil War."
We are the valiant colored Yankee soldiers
Enlisted for the war
We are fighting for the union
We are fighting for the law
We can shoot a rebel further than a white man ever saw
As we go marching on.

Look there above the center
Where the flag is waving bright
We are going out of slavery
We are bound for freedom’s light
We mean to show Jeff Davis
How the Africans can fight
As we go marching on.

We are done with hoeing cotton
We are done with hoeing corn.
We are colored Yankee soldiers
Just as sure as you are born
When the Rebels hear us shouting
They will think it’s Gabriel’s horn
As we go marching on.
(Hear it: click here)

In the stunned silence when the song ended, I realized I felt entirely supportive of what these soldiers were doing. I realized that this peacenik’s heart is not so hard that I didn’t want them to fight.

Peace and justice must go together, and where there is no justice, the only peace there can be is the temporary peace of suppression and enslavement. When it comes to oppressed peoples fighting against an unjust system, my heart is stirred with support for them. A campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience was not an option -- it wasn't something that US blacks in 1860 would have had any way of conceiving or organizing. Could victims of more modern genocide have responded with Ghandi-like civil disobedience? Maybe sometimes. Always? I only know I don't have the heart to blame an oppressed person for fighting back with the only means they can think of: violent force.

So thank you. Thank you, fighters. Thank you for being unwilling to accept domination passing for peace. You died or risked death because you feared death less than you loved hope. Your example shows the rest of us that we, too, can risk self.

Abstractions like “country” and “freedom” are the terms we hear from people far from the battlefields when they talk about what the fighting was for. Those in the midst of such battle have little thought of such abstractions. They are motivated in the moment by concrete and immediate loyalty to the mates fighting beside them, not to the large ideals they will later invoke, if they survive. Thank you, fighters, for embodying the value of concrete connection to the people around us right here and now.

We today are what we are because of fighters. Just as the comic says, "I'm in favor of sex. I come from a long line of people who had sex” – so, too, we must also acknowledge that we come from a long line of victors in battle. The victors generate more descendants than the vanquished – and even the vanquished are around to be vanquished because they succeeded as a people in previous fighting. Thus each of us has an ancestry made up of those able to fight and win. We all come from a long line of warriors – and we wouldn’t be here without their ability and willingness to fight.

Thank you, fighters. You entered situations more fearful than anything permanent civilians like me can imagine, yet you did not let your fear control you. You showed us what courage is, that we could bring courage to our peaceful pursuits.

The phrase “warrior mind” refers to a state of being concentrated yet relaxed, smoothly sizing up a situation and deploying strategies to overcome obstacles and challenges. Every time we confront difficulties rather than fleeing from them, we are drawing on the skills of our warrior ancestors – skills which today’s warriors continue to embody. Thank you, warriors.

Let us also remember this on Memorial Day. If Memorial Day can be described in two words, "thank you," it can also be described in another two words: "I’m sorry." Some of the deaths in war were not much about nobility and courage, let alone freedom. Sometimes politicians and generals made unfortunate choices when better alternatives were available. Some of that killing and dying served no purpose at all. Good people died, familes were bereft, and I’m sorry.

Beyond the gratitude, beyond the regret, Memorial Day is simply remembering. Ultimately, the meaning of Memorial Day is described not in two words, but in one: Remember. The dead say: “We are young. We have died. Remember us.”

For all who died in warfare or as a consequence of the war, tears.


Saturdao 21

Dao De Jing, verse 13b

16 translations.

1. James Legge:
And what is meant by saying that honour and great calamity are to be (similarly) regarded as personal conditions?
What makes me liable to great calamity is my having the body (which I call myself); if I had not the body, what great calamity could come to me?
Therefore he who would administer the kingdom, honouring it as he honours his own person, may be employed to govern it, and he who would administer it with the love which he bears to his own person may be entrusted with it.
2. Archie Bahm:
Why should our inner peace and distress be our primary concerns?
The inner self is our true self; so in order to realize our true self, we must be willing to live without being dependent upon the opinions of others. When we are completely self-sufficient, then we can have no fear of disesteem.
He who wisely devotes himself to being self-sufficient, and therefore does not depend for his happiness upon external ratings by others, is the one best able to set an example for, and to teach and govern, others.
3. Frank MacHovec:
What is meant by “The creative and the destructive exist equally in the mind”? Tension exists because we have a mind, a self, with dual purposes. If we can be selfless, indifferent to the mind, how then can tension exist?
Thus, one who views the world as he views himself is best suited to govern the world; one who loves humanity as he loves himself can be entrusted with the world.
4. D.C. Lau
What is meant by saying that high rank is, like one's body, a source of great trouble?
The reason I have great trouble is that I have a body.
When I no longer have a body, what trouble have I?
Hence he who values his body more than dominion over the empire can be entrusted with the empire.
He who loves his body more than dominion over the empire can be given the custody of the empire.
5. Gia-Fu Feng
What do you mean by “Accept misfortune as the human condition”?
Misfortune comes from having a body.
Without a body, how could there be misfortune?
Surrender yourself humbly; then you can be trusted to care for all things.
Love the world as your own self; then you can truly care for all things.
6. Stan Rosenthal
“Unmoved and Unmoving”
The ordinary man seeks to make himself the centre of his universe; the universe of the sage is at his centre.
He loves the world, and thus remains unmoved by things with which others are concerned.
He acts with humility, is neither moved nor moving, and can therefore be trusted in caring for all things.
7. Jacob Trapp:
"Without Fear or Favor"
The good ruler never bestows
Rank or favor as a bribe,
Nor makes the fear of losing them a spur.
The man to be entrusted with a kingdom
Respects the people under him
As though they were his own body.
8. Stephen Mitchell:
What does it mean that hope is as hollow as fear?
Hope and fear are both phantoms
that arise from thinking of the self.
When we don't see the self as self,
what do we have to fear?
See the world as your self.
Have faith in the way things are.
Love the world as your self;
then you can care for all things.
9. Victor Mair:
What is the meaning of “Being honored is an affliction as great as one’s body”?
The reason I suffer great affliction is that I have a body;
If I had no body, what affliction could I suffer?
When a man puts more emphasis on caring for his body than on caring for all under heaven, then all under heaven can be entrusted to him.
When a man is sparing of his body in caring for all under heaven,
Then all under heaven can be delivered to him.
10. Michael LaFargue:
What does it mean,
“High rank does great damage to your self”?
What is the source of the great damage done me?
It is because I have a self.
If I had no self, what damage could be done me is what it means,

“high rank does great damage to your self.”
A valuing of one’s self that regards the self the same as the world –
This means one can be entrusted with the world.
A loving of one’s self that regards the self the same as the world –
This means one can be given the world.
11. Peter Merel:
The object of hope and fear is the self -
For, without self, to whom may fortune and disaster occur?
Who distinguishes himself from the world may be given the world,
But who regards himself as the world may accept the world.
12. Ursula Le Guin:
What does that mean,
To take the body seriously
Is to admit one can suffer?
I suffer because I’m a body;
If I weren’t a body,
How could I suffer?
So people who set their bodily good
Before the public good
Could be entrusted with the commonwealth,
And people who treated the body politic
As gently as their own body
Would be worthy to govern the commonwealth.
13. Ron Hogan:
What does
"confidence can mess you up
just as much as fear" mean?
Fear can keep you
from getting the job done,
but confidence
can get you in over your head.
Walk tall, but don't get cocky.
Know your limits,
and nothing can ever hold you back.
Deal with what you can.
The rest will follow.
14. Ames and Hall:
What does it mean in saying “Value your gravest anxieties as you do your own person?” The reason we have grave anxieties is that we are embodied persons. If we were not such persons, what anxieties would we have? Thus those who value the care of their own persons more than running the world can be entrusted with the world. And those who begrudge their persons as though they were the world can be put in charge of the world.
15. Yasuhiko Genku Kimura:
Undue significance is attached to such tribulations
As though they were matters of life and death,
for people think the physical self is real.
If people realize the unreality of the physical self,
how can they attach significance to such tribulations as honor or disgrace?
Therefore, only one who values the world as oneself is fit to tend the world;
Only one who loves the world as oneself can be entrusted with the care of the world.
16. Addiss and Lombardo:
The self embodies distress.
No self,
No distress.
Respect the world as your self:
The world can be your lodging.
Love the world as your self:
The world can be your trust.
* * *
Lines from a TV show years ago,
From Claire Danes in "My So-Called Life"
She's a teenager negotiating her emerging sexuality, brooding,
"I couldn't stop thinking about it -- the like, fact of it. That people have sex. That they just have it. That sex was this thing people have. Like a rash, or a Rottweiler."
This thing people have.
Just say "have" out loud until it sounds funny.
Then say: Things I have -- am susceptible to having:
Sex. A rash. A Rottweiler. A pension plan. Too much wine. A vote. A circadian rhythm. An idea. Bills to pay. A dark past. Habits.
Which is to say:
A self, a body. That is, an embodied personhood.
And therefore this:
Go with that.
Trouble. More trouble. Vexing, bothersome trouble, and a lot of it.
In fact, you have
All the trouble in the world.
When you have "all the trouble in the world," every bit of it,
Then you're free.
That manacle is a bracelet.
Just there.
No self, and no more of this silly having.
No separate, definite body-self.
This is the path.
From "you, at the center of the world" to "the world, at the center of you."
Troubles lose their troublesomeness
if you only don't have them
Like a rash. Or a Rottweiler.

Later that episode, our heroine gets it:
"People always say how you should be yourself. Like yourself is this definite thing, like a toaster or something. Like you know what it is, even. But every so often, I'll have, like, a moment when just being myself, and my life, like, right where I am, is, like, enough."
* * *
See: Saturdao Index


When Religion Goes Bad

We Have Religion Because We Had War

Religion gives us a sense of US-ness. The dark side is that it also gives us a sense of THEM-ness – a feeling that those who don’t participate with us in our rituals and story-telling are different, are other, and dangerous. In other words: We have religion because we had war.

War, whether you're attacking or defending, places a premium on group cohesion, and “religion” is our name for the rituals and sacred story telling that produced what was needed. War! (Huh!) Church! (Huh!) What are they good for? Each other, apparently.

Thus, human history is filled with wars over religion. This fact once seemed to me, as perhaps to you, strangely and deeply perverse. Why do people have wars over religion, when the religion on both sides teaches peace? In the light of recent thinking in evolutionary archeology and psychology, religious warfare is exactly what we would expect. It's hardly surprising that an adaptation for succeeding in war would play a role in prompting us to go to war.

When Religion Goes Bad

Faith community meets real human needs. It feeds people spiritually. But people can be fed by way of fortifying them for destructive activity. We see that in the active religiosity of some terrorists. In fact, what goes by the name of religion these days is more often unhealthy than healthy.

A recent study in The Journal of Religion and Society did a large-scale cross-cultural comparative analysis, taking into account key indicators of societal well-being for 800 million people in the U.S., Japan, and western Europe. The study found that higher levels of religiosity correlated with lower levels of social well-being. The U.S., where church attendance is high, has had more school shootings than all of Europe and Japan combined. The study found:
“in general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy, and abortion. The most theistic prosperous democracy, the U.S., is . . . almost always the most dysfunctional of the developing democracies, sometimes spectacularly so. The view of the U.S. as a ‘shining city on the hill’ to the rest of the world is falsified when it comes to basic measures of societal health.” (Gregory S. Paul, “Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies,” The Journal of Religion and Society, 7, 2005. View complete article: click here.)
“...Spending on health care [in the US] is much higher as a portion of the GDP and per capita, by a factor of a third to two or more, than in any other developing democracy. The U.S. is therefore the least efficient western nation in terms of converting wealth into cultural and physical health.” (Gregory Paul)
Religion reinforces a moral code, binds members into community through ritual and story, and triggers our brains to perceive a transcendent, interconnected whole beyond and more deeply satisfying than the concerns of personality and ego. But sometimes it does so in a way that is counter-productive to other values.

What the researchers in this study counted as “religiosity” is apparently not the form of faith community that the 21st century needs. We do need to meet those human needs for moral and cohesive community, for interconnection and transcendence. But the Protestant or Catholic church, in the forms that were typical through the 20th century, appears not to be the best way to do it.

* * *
This is part 3 of 5 of "Ecclesiology: What Is Church Good For?"
Next: Part 4: "How's Europe?"
Previous: Part 2: "Gossip, Agency, and the Lesson of Communes"
Beginning: Part 1: "Church! Huh! What Is It Good For?"


Gossip, Agency, and the Lesson of Communes

The Origin of Morality

Religion has always been intimately connected with the promulgation of moral systems. In a context of competition between bands and tribes, the survival of a complexly social primate species depends on communicable rules that function to keep most of the members more-or-less in line. If too many members of a group are lying, cheating, stealing, or murdering within the group, then that group won't be unified and able to defeat the pack on the other side of the hill.

These selective pressures turned our ancestors into the sorts of beings with a facility for learning moral rules. Language allowed us to keep tabs on more and more of each other, which let us maintain a larger group, which allowed a more cohesive and larger fighting force and a better chance of defeating rival groups.

Our ancestors learned a technique that we readily recognize and still use, though sometimes we say we don't like it: we call it gossip. That is, our ancestors met in small groups to monitor others' behavior and moralize about it. Gossip emerged among early humans because it worked. Through gossip, a group kept track of who was trustworthy, reinforced both the social ties of the gossipers and the moral rules of the tribe. There are good reproductive reasons why we humans are attracted to gossip and gossiping. It’s a part of the system of maintaining the social order.

There is, however, a limit to how far gossip can go. Researchers find that moral rules reinforced through gossip can maintain unity up to about 150 members. Larger groups need to be held together with something else. That's where religion comes in.

Religion, argues William Irons, anthropologist at Northwestern, facilitates cooperation among a group's members by serving to reinforce commitments to each other in a recognizable way. Participating in a group's rituals psychologically reinforces your actual commitment to the group and also lets the group know you're committed to them.

Eugene Aquili's research shows
“participation in a ritual tends to alter individuals' brain states and to cause them to feel emotions of identity with a group more strongly and to hold this feeling more firmly in memory.” (The Spectrum of Ritual, 1979)
Reciting and listening to sacred stories works the same way.
“People who frequently participate together in religious rituals achieve a feeling of community that enhances their ability to cooperate and avoid conflict. Even though they may not be conscious of it, they also are able to monitor one another for the sincerity of their commitment, thus making participation in religious rituals a credible signal of commitment.” (William Irons, 2001, 364)
That's where religion comes from.

Why Communes Last or Don’t

The power of religion to develop and maintain group loyalty is illustrated in our experiments with communes in the 19th and 20th centuries. Richard Stosis studied communities that hold property in common. If you were a young adult in the 1960s, you may have some direct experience of this: communes often do not last long. They tend to fall apart because the level of trust and cooperation required is just so difficult to maintain.

Stosis found that “communes that base their existence on religious ideals tend to last roughly four times as long on average as do those that base their existence on a secular ideology.” Groups with shared rituals and sacred stories cohere better.


The previous sentence characterized religion as composed of two elements: shared rituals and shared sacred stories. There's a third element of primal religion. If I asked you to guess it, you might guess belief in supernatural beings and forces. That's close, but I don't think that's the best way to put it. Early peoples  didn't have the distinction that has come to be so central to modern religious thinking: the distinction between an account of reality that includes "the supernatural" and one that denies "anything supernatural." Modern people are divided on whether there are any supernatural forces or entities, but both sides tacitly regard the natural-supernatural distinction as coherent. The two sides each assume they know what they are disagreeing about. Those who affirm as well as those who deny the existence of "the supernatural" assume that "supernatural" is a meaningful, coherent concept (or else why would anyone bother either to deny or to affirm that there was such a thing?) Early humans made no such conceptual distinction between "natural" and "supernatural." It is, then, a kind of conceptual anachronism for us to speak of the role of "supernatural beings" in the religion of early humans: they didn't have a concept of "supernatural" as distinct from "natural."

While "supernatural" is a vague and probably ultimately incoherent concept, I think "agency" will do the job we want. Rather than saying, "they believed in supernatural forces and entities," let us say early humans attributed a stronger sense of agency than most modern humans do to trees, rivers, mountains, animals, sky, and, perhaps, "reality as a whole." They understood these features of their world to have beliefs, desires, and various means for effecting their desires. Trees and rocks and sky, in their understanding, were watching them. This probably triggered the same parts of the brain that account for gossip's effectiveness. Feeling watched made them more likely to "stay in line." Early human "religion" (what we would call "religion," and which, for them, was not separable from the kind of knowledge we'd call "factual," "empirical," or "scientific") provided the feeling of a relationship of accountability even when no other humans were around.

Why, then, do communes based on "religious ideals" last much longer than those based on "secular ideology"? What do a group of Christians or Muslims have that a group of Marxists or Skinnerian Behaviorists don't have? The religious group has:
  1. Shared rituals, including music, drumming, and dance, and a variety of ritual behaviors to perform and watch others perform.
  2. Shared narratives that support the group's moral code and reinforce the group's identity.
  3. An understanding of extra-human agency to which members stand in a relationship of accountability even when out of sight of people.
These are powerful factors in generating group loyalty and conformity. Religion is an adaptive strategy fostering group cohesion in larger groups than gossip can manage. After all, the very word religion is from the Latin verb, religere, meaning to bind together.

* * * * *
This is part 2 of 5 of "Ecclesiology: What Is Church Good For?"
Next: Part 3: "When Religion Goes Bad"
Previous: Part 1: "Church! Huh! What Is It Good For?"


Church! Huh! What Is It Good For?

Absolutely Nothing?

In 1970, in the midst of the Vietnam war, Edwin Starr made the charts with a protest song: “War (What is it Good For?)”

“Absolutely nothing,” was the song’s answer.

Suppose we ask the question about church. For what is it good? Might the answer be the same? As we shall see, there are some surprising connections between war and church (or synagogue, mosque, temple, sangha, vihara – faith community in any form).

What Yency Said

For what is church good? In 2005, when we were living in El Paso, I asked Yency that question. Yency’s church is Pentecostal. He said church helps you feel better. You feel happy. You feel better with God, he said – which one might interpret as meaning better adjusted to life’s conditions. He said, “You don’t have to be all the time alone in your house.” Wise words.

What Religion is About

Religion is not about what you believe. Your religion is about three things:
  • How you live: the ethics and values that guide your action; 
  • Community: connection with others by and through sharing of practices and rituals;
  • Experience: the "direct experience of transcending mystery and wonder."
Faith communities are for bringing these three functions together, presenting and awakening them in such a way that each of those three functions reinforces the other two. As the old “Cheers” theme song said:
“Sometimes you wanna go where everybody knows your name,
And they're always glad you came.”

Or, as Starhawk said:
“Somewhere, there are people to whom we can speak with passion without having the words catch in our throats.
Somewhere a circle of hands will open to receive us,
eyes will light up as we enter,
voices will celebrate with us whenever we come into our power.”
We have a need for some way to come together so that “I” can become “we”; “me” can become “us.”

Getting Wired for Religion: Competition Fuels Cooperation

We are wired to have this need. Religion has always included stories that told us things like where we came from, what is our role in the universe – and why we get together with others to practice our religion. If we draw on evolution for our story, then we begin with the emergence of society itself among early primates.

The process begins with reciprocal altruism. My survival chances were enhanced if I did favors for associates who would later do favors for me – although, if I went too far, allowed myself to be taken advantage of by doing favors for associates who would never reciprocate, then my survival odds diminished. In order for a reciprocity system to work, we had to have brains
“capable of carefully tracking the behavior of the other organisms with which [we] interact.” (William Irons, “Why Are Humans Religious? An Inquiry into the Evolutionary Origin of Religion.” Currents in Theology and Mission 28: 3-4, 2001, 359)
The selective pressure to develop cooperation networks was made much, much greater than it otherwise would have been by competition between groups. It may seem paradoxical, but competition fuels cooperation. Individuals had to cooperate to form a group that could out-compete other groups. Bands of primates, generally males, competed violently with other bands for food, for territory, for access to females. We see that going on in chimps today – and on campuses. This group-group competition, as Richard Alexander has detailed in The Biology of Moral Systems, was a powerful force driving us toward formation of larger and better-united groups.

* * *
This is part 1 of 5 of "Ecclesiology: What Is Church Good For?"
Next: Part 2: "Gossip, Agency, and the Lesson of Communes"


Festival of Homiletics

To my Christian friends and parishioners: I'm on your side. To my atheist friends and parishioners: I'm on your side. Aside from a few quibbles here and there that I think turn out to be wholly semantic, the only significant point on which I disagree with either of you is the one point on which you both seem to agree -- to wit, that it's not possible to be on both sides at once.

It is, and I am.

The tribal Christians, who would like to defeat atheism, and the tribal atheists, who would like to defeat Christianity, will both be disappointed in me for my report on my experience at the 2012 Festival of Homiletics. Let us all pray, and/or meditate, and/or go to therapy to get over ourselves. Here's the report.

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This year's "Festival of Homiletics" was the "20th anniversary" (does that make it the 21st such Festival?), and this year it was in Atlanta, GA, from Monday evening to Friday noon, May 14-18. The event drew about 1200 pastors, almost all of them from mainline Protestant denominations (Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Episcopal, and Congregational/UCC) to Peachtree Road United Methodist Church and the Festival's additional venues: the restored historic Buckhead Theatre, and, on Wednesday, Ebeneezer Baptist Church (of which Martin Luther King Sr and Jr were once pastors). Attendees included at least eight Unitarian Universalist ministers, including myself and my Florida neighbor colleagues Kathy Schmitz of Orlando and Ron Hersom of Jacksonville.

I like the way the Christian tradition retells old stories and weaves new stories out of them. For example, here's one old story I heard retold. Mark 9:14-29:
When they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and some scribes arguing with them. When the whole crowd saw him, they were immediately overcome with awe, and they ran forward to greet him. He asked them, “What are you arguing about with them?”Someone from the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I brought you my son; he has a spirit that makes him unable to speak; and whenever it seizes him, it dashes him down; and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid; and I asked your disciples to cast it out, but they could not do so.” He answered them, “You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him to me.” And they brought the boy to him. When the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. Jesus asked the father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. It has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him; but if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.” Jesus said to him, “If you are able! —All things can be done for the one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief!” When Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You spirit that keeps this boy from speaking and hearing, I command you, come out of him, and never enter him again!” After crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, “He is dead.” But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he was able to stand. When he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, “Why could we not cast it out?” He said to them, “This kind can come out only through prayer.”
I heard Anna Carter Florence preach on this passage. Question: So if “this kind” can come out only through prayer, where was the prayer? Jesus doesn’t appear to have prayed. He says, “I command you, come out of him.” That's not a prayer. If there is a prayer in this passage, it would have to be the father’s, when he cries out, “I believe. Help my unbelief.”

Cool. We are and we are not. I am strong, so help me in my weakness. I am wise, help me in my folly. I am young (or old), help me in my dotage (or infancy). Prayer flows from the recognition that we are simultaneously both sides of every contradiction. Our selves and our world are undefined, and we feel a desire for clarity, expressed by saying "help me." Prayer is presence to our conflicted, contradictory, and yearning nature. Not exactly what A.C.F. said, but, I think, kinda. Anyway, there are lots of ways to arrive at presence to our conflicted, contradictory, and yearning nature and I'm ready to listen to how Mark offers a way to do that, just as I am to hear how Walt Whitman or Mazu Daoyi or Sigmund Freud offer ways to be present to who and what we are.

Another example. A couple days later, Barbara Lundblad preached on 1 Samuel 3: 10-18:
Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” Then the Lord said to Samuel, “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle. On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. For I have told him that I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them. Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering forever.” Samuel lay there until morning; then he opened the doors of the house of the Lord. Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli. But Eli called Samuel and said, “Samuel, my son.” He said, “Here I am.” Eli said, “What was it that he told you? Do not hide it from me. May God do so to you and more also, if you hide anything from me of all that he told you.” So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him. Then he said, “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.”
Lundblad used this vehicle to comment on the dwindling of mainline Protestantism, particularly among 18-35-year-olds. The church is graying, dying off. Yet something new to connect people and nurture spirits is bound to come along ("emerge"?) In this passage, we see that Eli does not argue with God to preserve the priesthood as he has known it. When Samuel pronounces Eli's doom, Eli simply says, "It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him." The churches are dying. Like Eli, we can accept that death, trusting that an appropriate new form will arise. And, in the meantime, this is a wonderful time to be a pastor because the few people that do come are coming from choice rather than any social pressure.

If Unitarian Universalism were to pass away like Eli, then there wouldn't be people who get their tribal identity, as I do, from seeing themselves as the successors of Channing, Emerson, Parker, Henry Bellows, the Iowa Sisterhood, et al. But the resources those figures provide -- along with every other spiritual resource -- will continue to be available to everyone. We can learn from Theodore Parker, for instance, -- and there will always be people who do -- without wrapping our identity in him. And some form of liberal religion -- albeit a form not identified with a specific strand of 19th-century New England history -- will call people to it as long as there is religion. I love our heritage -- and I love calling it "our" heritage, and supporting the communities that will continue to call that heritage "ours." But the truth is that religion of freedom, reason, and diversity does not require an unbroken line of institutional connection either to William Ellery Channing or to John Murray. If the time comes for that line to break, then break it must. It is the times. Let them do what seems good to them.

The hip, young, tattoed, emergent church Lutheran minister, Nadia Bolz-Weber did tell us: "The holy spirit is not a metaphor because the holy spirit can mess you up." I have no idea why she thinks that ability to mess us up establishes nonmetaphoricality.* I mutter, "yes, it is, too, a metaphor, and metaphors can, indeed, mess you up." There is such a thing as direct, nonlinguistic, immediate experience that isn't a metaphor, but as soon as you open your mouth to call it something -- "holy spirit," for example -- you have re-entered language, and language is always already metaphorical. We have, as it is, precious little idea what anyone is talking about when they say "holy spirit." If it weren't a metaphor, we'd have no idea at all. If you want to transcend metaphor, forget about homiletics (and blogs), and shut up and be still in silence.

But this is a quibble. Mostly, she's charming. Hip and tattoed, as I mentioned, and she tells us she plans to have her memoir published under the title, God's Bitch. What's not to like?

I am bemused by four straight days of examples of what one can do with a fixed canon. One speaker says that the stories of fantasy -- Lewis' Narnia, Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, Lucas' Star Wars, Rowling's Harry Potter -- are all fundamentally about God's striving to redeem us through love. I take this to mean that these other stories would serve as well as the Gospels do -- but no one else seems ready to make that inference (except the other seven UU ministers who found each other for lunch the second day). Those other stories might work if they were in the canon. But they aren't. And the canon is fixed and closed. I saw these preachers go to an amazing variety of places, but they got there by picking a vehicle from the canonical fleet. Where they go in the vehicles they select is as wide-ranging and diverse as where UU preachers go. They just get a little bit better gas mileage because of the community's adoration of the vehicle. The difference this makes is the difference between me preaching on a passage from Harry Potter to my UU congregation (which I can easily imagine doing) versus me preaching on that same passage to the local chapter of the Harry Potter Fan Club, with the congregation all in costumes, lightning-bolt tattoos on half the foreheads, wands in half the hands, and a setting designed to look like the main hall at Hogwarts. Only, to make the comparison closer, it would have to be some future Harry Potter Fan Club, consisting not only of people who were diehard Potter fanatics, but whose parents, and parents' parents had also been. Even those members of this hypothetical future "school of witchcraft and wizardry" who had their doubts about the moral I drew would love that I was devoting such energies to their story. Not all parishioners are always ready to go where their pastor seeks to take them in the course of a Sunday sermon, but even if they reject the conclusion their preacher declares, preacher and congregation have re-affirmed a bond of loyalty to a particular and fixed canon. That's a potent bond -- one that I cannot help but admire, and from which I cannot help but recoil.

I was pleasantly surprised to hear how often, and how forcefully, many of speakers spoke about the need for churches to be more open and accepting of gay men and lesbians. I don't recall that anyone actually said, "Let's get to work to change our respective denomination's rules that block the ordination of openly gay women and men," or, "Insist on your right as clergy to officiate at same-sex weddings," but a number of speakers sure seemed to be implying both. That's good news. The mainline Prots have come a long way, and I'm happy for them.

I heard such prima facie icky texts as "no one gets to the father but by me" (John 14:6) explained as "no one gets to god but by love." I take that as: No one gets to wholeness and healing but by love. That'll preach -- in my church as in theirs.

But then, toward the end of the 90-hour festival, it seemed,...I don't know. Was it getting a bit more doctrinaire and exclusivist? Or was Christian fatigue making me a little grumpier about the bumps in the road encountered by metaphor vehicles on which, earlier in the week, I'd have happily ridden? Hard to say. One speaker on the last full day vented a little spleen at the Gospel of Thomas. He ridiculed it as "California scripture," and said "there's a reason the 27 books of the New Testament were selected and the others excluded." He said nothing about the political agendas and wranglings that went on for 300 years before the more powerful and insistent band of bishops succeeded in fixing their preferred canon. Whatever "reason" it was that left the Gospel of Thomas out (and left the Gospel of John in, which Elaine Pagels has argued was a gravely unfortunate move) seems to me to have nothing to do with which texts, on their merits, are more helpful to faithful living. Is Thomas-bashing doctrinaire (or "canon-aire") and exclusivist?

Then, later that night of the last full day, we had an Ascension Day Worship Service in which, amidst a truly impressive display of pomp, pageantry, regalia, and ritual, Lillian Daniel preached a rather peevish sermon. "You know what I'm tired of?" she asked, sounding tired and annoyed indeed. Turns out she's tired of just about anybody who isn't as committed as she is to attending and supporting a mainline Prot church. Was it just me, or was that leaning toward an exclusivist narrowing and away from radical welcoming of any person, including the attitudes they bring with them?

- - - - -
*I can't claim to have invented the word "nonmetaphoricality." Gerald Burns used the word in his Maurice Blanchot: The Refusal of Philosophy, 1997 (thank you, Google). But doesn't it make you want to chime, "expialidocious"?


Odyssey, part 3: Mr. Bear's Lover of Leaving

Come, come, whoever you are. Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving — it doesn't matter.
Ours is not a caravan of despair. Come, even if you have broken your vow a hundred times.
Come, come again, come.

- Rumi

A really companionable and indispensable dog is an accident of nature. You can't get it by breeding for it, and you can't buy it with money. It just happens along.
- E B White

Me and Mr. Bear, ages 7 mos and 5 mos, respectively
Mr. Bear was the family dog. Half German Shepherd and half Saint Bernard, he was large and tawny, strong and beautiful. He was born just two months after me and was soon much bigger.

The "lover of leaving" would be me. I am prone to wander. Family lore has it – I remember nothing of this myself – that when I was two-years-old I wandered out into the street and stopped a bus. We were living in Richmond, Virginia, where Mom and Dad were both graduate students at the University of Richmond. (Mom’s field, as I said, was physical chemistry. Dad’s was English.) One morning it seems Mom was down at the lab. I was home with Dad, who may have been trying to get through Chaucer or Beowulf. In any case, I toddled out the front door without being noticed, made my way across our small patch of front yard and on to the city street. Dad heard the honk-honk-honking of a bus, and came to the front door to see me standing in the middle of the street gazing up in wonder at the enormous and fascinating bus. Mortified, he, of course, dashed down and snatched me up.
From our infancies, Mr. Bear and I were close.
He shared his food with me . . . 
I’ve also stopped a train. More about that later.

Mr. Bear would have also been about two-years-old at that time, and he would have matured much faster than I did. I think that he sensed that something had gone wrong, and being equal parts herder and rescuer (German Shepherd and Saint Bernard), he took me as his assignment from that moment on. It was clear that someone had to.

The great chain of being, as Mr. Bear understood it, was that my Dad was responsible for and took care of Mr. Bear, and Mr. Bear was responsible for and took care of me. He didn't always know how to rescue me, or which way to herd me, but he stuck with me and did what he could.

A few months after the bus incident, Mom and Dad marched together to get their respective Masters’ degrees. The following fall we moved west a couple hours to Charlottesville, where they started Ph.D. pursuits at Mr. Jefferson’s University – also known as the University of Virginia.
. . .  and I shared mine with him.

At the Copeley Hill Nursery School I was hitting the books pretty hard myself. Until a kindly teacher showed me how to open them.

After three years in Charlottesville we moved to Pinetops, North Carolina. The two years in Pinetops, where I attended kindergarten and first grade, were days filled with, as Kalidasa says, “the glory of action” and “the bliss of growth.” It was idyllic, small town Southern life in the mid-1960s.

Pinetops is still the only non-college-town I have ever lived in, and we lived there because it was equidistant between Rocky Mount, where Dad was teaching at North Carolina Wesleyan, and Greenville, where Mom was teaching at East Carolina. Each campus was about 35 minutes’ drive from our home.

The Unitarian Universalist minister Robert Fulghum famously wrote that All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. This truly was my world:
Share everything. Play fair. Don’t hit people. Put things back where you found them. Clean up your own mess. Don’t take things that aren’t yours. Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody. Wash your hands before you eat. Flush. Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you. Live a balanced life – learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some. Take a nap every afternoon. When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together. Be aware of wonder. Remember the little seed in the Styrofoam cup: The roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody really knows how or why, but we are all like that. Goldfish and hamsters and white mice and even the little seed in the Styrofoam cup – they all die. So do we. And then remember the Dick-and-Jane books and the first word you learned – the biggest word of all – LOOK.
For me, it was the first grade in Pinetops, North Carolina, rather than in kindergarten, that I learned to read out of that big book. I well remember the first word in that poster-sized book, “Look.”

A six-year-old in a small town in the mid-60s, unlike today, could pretty much go where he wanted after school. I had run of the whole town. At age six, I could take off on my own and follow my own whims from one end of town to the other, and on into the outskirts. After school, and on weekends, I’d say I was going out, and I went. No one asked where – just, “Be back by dinner.” My friends and I had run of the entire town. Some of our games were so expansive they covered many city blocks. Other times, I’d strike out on my own and roam around the town – or into the wooded areas on its outskirts.

These were the days before children’s faces began appearing on milk cartons, before the fear of pedophiles lurking behind every bush drove parents to keep their kids inside where the damage now done nationwide by increased obesity and diabetes is much greater than the damage from stranger assault or abduction ever would be.

Which is not to say that there aren’t child sex abusers out there. There are. And Pinetops had at least one. He was a young man – probably late-twenties. On two or three occasions he spotted me out by myself, took me with him to an abandoned house. But then I told my parents. I remember my father going to the phone and his voice speaking firmly, “You leave my son alone or I’ll call the police.” I was never accosted that way again. I was able to speak up. I was heard. I was believed. The adults in my life made it stop. So I have not suffered from trauma or deep shame from those incidents.

In my ramblings about town, I might encounter other kids and play with them. Some had "peach" skin (the crayon color we used for people of European descent), like mine. Some had brown skin. I didn’t think in terms of blacks and whites. To me, we were peach and brown. I noticed that brown people lived with other brown people – in houses together and in neighborhoods together. I didn’t have tools for thinking of this as a good or bad thing; I took it in and wondered. On a few occasions, I’d have picked up a friend for the day, and lunchtime would come, and I was invited in to join the family for sandwiches. On one occasion I was a guest of a brown-skinned playmate whose house had a dirt floor. I thought this a marvelous idea, and proposed to my parents when I got home they we should have our floors taken out to let the ground beneath be our floor. They were at something of a loss.

I encountered racism in an overt way that even my six-year-old self couldn’t miss when a kid on the school bus, a big third-grader, asked me if I liked President Johnson. I shrugged. What did I know about President Johnson? I had learned to read “LOOK,” but hadn’t learned to see injustice. Then the kid said, “I don’t like him ’cause he lets” – and here he used the N word – “go to our school.” I took in this, too, and wondered.

On all my wanderings and wonderings, Mr. Bear was usually there. He couldn’t come to school with me, and he wasn’t allowed in the house, but there were a lot of nonschool hours when I was outside, and then he was always there. He couldn’t protect me from abuse, or racism – neither of us understood how wrong those were – though he did protect me from a pig farmer once.

Early on, before I’d gotten thoroughly familiar with the town, I got lost. At least, the policeman who stopped to ask me if I was lost thought that I was. I couldn’t tell him my address or which way to go to take me home. The officer, though, figured my dog knew the way home. So I climbed in the squad car and we just sat for a minute, not making eye contact with Mr. Bear. After a few minutes, Mr. Bear started trotting back toward home, and the police car followed him home. That’s how I got home that day.

I wandered often beyond the city limits into the wooded and wild areas outside town. On one such expedition, I came through the woods and arrived at the back of a pig farm. I continued forward until getting stuck in some mud. This was not the sort of industrial affair that pork, ham, and bacon comes from these days. This was a couple acres where an aging widow was managing to get a bit of livelihood for herself raising hogs. Through her back window she saw me stuck in her yard. I had actually stepped over the electrified line and was inside a space with four or five pigs. I had touched the electric line with my knee and felt the tingle – but only a little tingle, you see, because the knees of my pants had, of course, multiple layers of iron-on patch on top of iron-on patch. Mr. Bear, without so much protection, brushed the line, gave a yelp and retreated some ways. When the woman emerged to assist me, however, Mr. Bear circled around, got between us and wouldn’t let her get near me. So, I’m up to my iron-on patches in mud, my faithful companion is preventing my rescue, the pigs are eyeing me, and Mr. Bear won’t be protecting me from the pigs. He loves me, but he’s not going near that wire that I stepped over. Somehow I did manage to extricate myself, but it was looking dicey there for a minute.

Did I mention I’ve stopped a train? More about that later -- in part 6.

When I was 7, we moved to Auburn, Alabama. Too large a city to walk from end to end of, but by now I was bicycling. In Auburn, Mr. Bear got a liver infection and died. I would have been glad of his company for many years more. Nevertheless, I was a big second-grader now, so I wandered on without him.

When I was 9, we moved to just outside Carrollton, Georgia, where there were a lot of woods around our house, and back in those woods, if you went far enough, the Little Tallapoosa River. I went often into those woods, sometimes by myself, sometimes with my friends from next door. Sometimes I, or we, got lost back there – and that was scary. Forced to our own resources to find a way, we found one, and got back home eventually, on our own, filled with the excitement of relief.

There were a few cases of child abduction in the 60s, and some kids had accidents or got hit by cars or drowned in rivers or had search parties called out. Parents worried about these things, and they gave us lectures and instructions on safety. Then they let us go. Parental fears hadn’t reached the heights that they would. The evening news with Walter Cronkite had rather more to do with events meaningfully connected to the direction of the world and rather less to do with sensationalistic stories primarily designed to trigger fear about the world “out there.”

General social levels of fear have been climbing since I was a kid. Robert Putnam’s book, Bowling Alone, detailed how participation in groups (the PTA, civic clubs, political parties, churches, bowling leagues, etc.) has been dropping since the 60s, and we are becoming a more isolated – and alienated – people. Part of that picture is our fear. We stay home, and keep the doors locked. And we watch TV, which tells us stories to make us still more afraid of the world “out there.”

I mourn the effect that all this has on our kids, who absorb our fears and adjust to our constraints and constant watching. I used to suspect myself of sentimental nostalgia. Maybe so, with the part about roving through town. But the part about wandering in the woods isn’t just about my hazy fond recollection of childhood. It’s about the prospects for survival of the planet – about which my own emotions are more sadness than fear.

Our children suffer not just from high obesity rates from being kept indoors under watchful eye, but from something Richard Louv calls “Nature Deficit Disorder” – a condition that results in less interest in environmental protections as well as attention disorders and depression. Getting out in the woods helps us feel better, and develops habits of attention.

Without unsupervised nature experiences, our children won’t learn the attitudes about the environment that will be necessary if we’re going to continue to have one. A study by researchers at Cornell University finds that:
Children who play unsupervised in the wild before the age of 11 develop strong environmental ethics. Children exposed only to structured hierarchical play in the wild – through, for example, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, or by hunting or fishing alongside supervising adults – do not. To interact humbly with nature we need to be free and undomesticated in it. Otherwise, we succumb to hubris in maturity. (Julia Whitty, "The Thirteenth Tipping Point," 2006)
Play unsupervised in the wild before the age 11. What are the chances today’s parents will, in large numbers, let go of their fears enough to let that happen?

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Next: "Odyssey, part 4: Paragon of Loquacious Discourse"
Previous: "Odyssey, part 2: Falling Apples"
"Odyssey, part 1: 1959"


Odyssey, part 2: Falling Apples

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
– German Proverb

Newton himself often told the story that he was inspired to formulate his theory of gravitation by watching the fall of an apple from a tree.
– “Isaac Newton,” Wikipedia

My mother was, and still is at the time of this writing, a scientist. Since her research was at the boundary between chemistry and physics, her teaching career has included some years on the chemistry faculty, and other years on the physics faculty. In 1960, women scientists, and, in particular, mom scientists, were still a novelty. The Richmond, Virginia Times-Dispatch that year ran a human interest story about a mom and her little boy: me, age 15 months.

Along with the brief article the paper ran a photo of Mom, Dad, me, and her electron microscope. The captions says: "Gerald Garmon [Dad], and Steven [my first name; "Meredith" is my middle name] pick mother up at her office. Electron Microscope Mrs. Garmon uses is much bigger than Steven."

My perch is not steady. An electron microscope is not firm grounding. But Dad's holding me, and I am holding on to the microscope. In my short pants and toddler shoes, I'm looking at Mom, and she's looking at me, while she has a finger on the control panel.

Mom looked for truth, in the way that scientists do. With the then-high-tech electron microscope, she looked for tiny, tiny truth to contribute to a grand edifice. She investigated the structure of nickel electrodeposits on copper monocrystals.

Mom wanted to know, to understand – and not just for her own sake. She was called – called by the cosmos, ancient and infinite, immediate and infinitesimal – to toil in orchards where Newton and so many other scientists had plucked fruits of empirical knowledge. Her life has been dedicated to service to future generations, to participation in the processes of unfolding truth so that those who come after will understand this world better than our brief lifespans will allow to us.

As the years rolled by, I grew, a product of my times (see Odyssey, part 1), my parents, and my own predispositions. I went not into science, but into philosophy. For several years of young adulthood my primary interest was in philosophy of science. I explored questions about how science works, what legitimates its claims. Does it discover truth, or invent fictions of ever-increasing convenience? And how would we know?

Scientists, like the rest of us, are apes descended from apes, built to be social animals, learning from each other as we must, and learning biases and prejudices as we do. The direction of science is set by its leaders; they become leaders through some mix of social skills and charisma as well as scientific brilliance. Is this a regrettable condition that we should strive to overcome as much as we can? Or does the scientific enterprise in some essential way depend on the very humanity that "skews" it? (If so, what would "unskewed" even mean?)

Our brains are flukes of evolution. Animal brains are selected for ability to do three basic things: find food, avoid becoming food, and find a mate. Primate brains have the special challenge to do these three things in a fantastically complicated social context that requires, on the one hand, intricate cooperation, and on the other hand, complex intrigue and competition. How is it that a brain thus produced can do theoretical physics? Can build, and peer through electron microscopes? Can discover the structure of nickel electrodeposits on copper monocrystals? In doing these things, are we mirroring reality, or projecting our own brain functions upon nature? And, again, how would we know?

These are some of the philosophy of science questions that captivated my attention for some years as a graduate student. Scientists gaze in wonder through telescopes and microscopes, and I gazed in wonder at the scientists -- just as I gazed at Mom in that Times-Dispatch photo.

Many of us spend much of our adult years coming to terms with our relationship with our mothers: consciously working it out, or unconsciously playing it out. For me, this relationship involved a relationship to the entire scientific enterprise, from Isaac Newton on down.

I came to stand – the apple finally landed – upon the conclusion that science is for controlling and predicting. Mom says science seeks to explain. There are, however, many forms and functions of explanation, and the sort of explanation that is “scientific” is the sort that affords prediction and control – for prediction is the only test of an explanation in science, and ability to control is a product of ability to predict.

The powers of prediction and control, steadily growing from Newton’s time to ours are truly impressive. They made possible our modern world of cars and computers, cell phones and internet, CAT scans, artificial hearts, serotonin re-uptake inhibitors, and food production and distribution that sustain a world population orders of magnitude beyond Thomas Malthus’ wildest imaginings. Yet I want to do more than predict and control my world. I want to befriend it. Our story and picture of reality must be consistent with the well-confirmed conclusions scientists reach, yet provide also for awe and wonder, humility and gratitude, moral grounding and aesthetic bliss. The truth we need is not merely the truth about which observable causes yield which observable effects. We need also the truth that each cause is a sacrament, and each effect a revelation of divinity. We need also the truth of love and connection. We need also the truth that control, along with the ego that believes itself to be in control, is an illusion.

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Next: "Odyssey, part 3: Mr. Bear's Lover of Leaving"
Previous: "Odyssey, part 1: 1959"