EARTH DAY State of The World

April 21, 2013

Ken Ettlinger

I have this dream.  Actually, it’s more of a nightmare.

The world is coming unraveled, society is breaking down, there is anarchy and mayhem …everywhere.  All of nature has been been transformed into an endless Walmart parking lot.   It is the apocalypse!

Do you have those dreams?  …No?

I became a Unitarian just about a year ago …around the time the dreams began. I thought there must be a connection.  Maybe I’m wrong.

Or maybe it is …because of the dreams, I figured that it is time that I ought to find a religion.

Ever since I was very young when other kids asked me my religion; I said, “I have none.”  My parents figured that I could choose my religion myself some day …so they spared me the religious dogma that sometimes defines and confines a person.   My childhood was rather blissful, but I have always… longed to be part of something bigger.  A congregation.

So I searched for a spiritual fit.  Unitarians are optimists, there is no chapter entitled “Revelations” in our hymnal.   I looked.   Did you ever read the Book of Revelations.  About the beast from the sea with seven heads and ten horns?  Eeww, I shudder. I am glad… that …was not a part of my childhood.

The UU’s have no vengeful god. I like that.  No original sin; no Hell.  It’s like John Lennon said, just the brotherhood of man.  I may be a dreamer… but I have found friends among the UU’s and therefore…I know that I am not the only one.

What’s not to like about being a Unitarian? 

So I took the UU pledge, I turned my back on the Jehovah Witnesses …who continue to this day, to drop off the latest Watchtower at my door.  It’s not that I don’t appreciate their offer of salvation…  I just don’t know what I would do with it.

I cannot figure why people become Jehovah Witnesses.

It can’t be that they like doors slammed in their faces or people shouting,  “I am Episcopalian… go away”.  In my observations, the witnesses  are always smiling;  always more than glad to quote the bible …standing at the door …in the rain.

“We are living in the last days of a troubled world,” they tell me …with a kind of jovial anticipation.  In my pragmatic mind, they are way…way too happy about the end of the world.

I can’t share their apocalyptic glee.  Not me.  Especially now.  In these uncertain times.

I watch for the next fiscal cliff.   After all, I haven’t learned to pay my taxes by bartering yet.

News channels now offer endless commentary from angry people, often lies that incite conservatives and anger liberals.  There is needless analysis just to fill air time.  And I think, who has time to “fact check”?  I just want the news.

The world seems tense; the Mid East, the Far East, RedStates…Blue.  Why can’t people just agree to disagree.

I am fatalistic about my future, I know that my life is as finite as global petroleum reserves.

America seems to be arming themselves in their homes and on the streets anticipating the worse in each other.  I am not too proud to say… I own a machete.   We are hoarding supplies like MRE’s bought from places like “”.

We even have lock down drills on the campus where I teach and I worry …a little about the person who doesn’t look like he belongs …carrying, I don’t know, is that a guitar case?

How is it …that such a high percentage of our congressional representatives can be so completely useless… when it comes to making our lives… a bit safer?

Fertilizer plants that smell of corporate arrogance, explosive devices, mutilations, death, manhunts, lies.  It’s hard to find enough heart-felt grief …to feel anymore.

Is it just me?  Am I the only one that needs a security blanket?

And…I have this foreboding sense about this home of ours.  This place we call Earth.

Earlier in the semester I was talking to my class about the KT boundary.  I teach Geology.  The Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary is marked globally with a thin band of iridium-rich clay.  The clay is 65 million years old and shows up at the end of the Cretaceous and not coincidentally, during the last days of the dinosaurs.  The layer of iridium is a layer of cosmic dust …and could only have been caused by an extraterrestrial event.  A meteor.

In reality, not only did the dinosaurs become extinct …but no large animals survived the KT boundary.  Plants perished and marine life was decimated. Up to 90% of all life on Earth was lost.   That was the state of the world 65 million years ago.

I told my class that I sometimes stay awake at night fearing such a meteor impact such as that which ended the Cretaceous with a bang.  Perhaps I should not have said I stay awake worrying about meteors.

Because the next day my students were abuzz.  Shortly after the previous class, a fireball had showered the Earth over Siberia with thousands of meteor fragments.  The streak of light and sonic boom was seen and heard in dozens of Youtube videos.  NASA reported that the meteor was the largest known celestial body to enter Earth’s atmosphere in 100 years.

I… was suddenly the prognosticator of bad news on campus, kind of like Phil the groundhog.   If I appear a bit sleepy or I am not myself at the blackboard my students will ask apprehensively, “did you stay awake last night…again?”   “Tell us what you think”.    This is grand, my students never ask me to tell them what I think.  I usually have to flick the light switch on and off a couple of times just to get their attention.

So, now I work my fatalistic tendencies into class routinely.

I say that I am sleepless because I am worried about the thermal plume beneath Yellowstone; you know, the super volcano destined to spread ash across most of North America and wipe out the mid-west.

I say to them, “I stayed up last night fretting about the next Polar Reversal.  We are way, way overdue for a reversal of our magnetic field… and frankly, I believe the GPS was invented just in time since I’ve already tossed my boy scout compass.  We won’t be needing them.”  I tell them to read the section of their text on… The Magnetic Field of the Earth …and I know they will.  They are mesmerized by my apocalyptic rantings.

“The hole in the Ozone Layer is not going away”,    “I was tossing and turning in bed last night and I figured I should warn you to continue with the sun block, SPF 40… at least.   Sure, we banned CFC’s, but there was so much we released… that the largest amounts are still making their way to the stratosphere.  It will get worse before it gets better.”

…and then just last week, there was the lesson on Tsunamis.

I started the class, “Boy, I’m glad I had caffeinated coffee this morning…  I fear for Long Island… if there is an earthquake that destabilizes the Canary Islands, we could have a 300 foot tidal wave on our hands”. … They are speechless.

I have done the unimaginable: there was a time that I used to take my students deep into the pine barrens… to marvel at how life has adapted to this unique geologic environment.

I used to take them to the winter beach, not so much to learn wave dynamics but to see the incredible beauty …that is there.

I took them into the nature that I love… because I wanted them to feel …what I felt.

Now, I turn my nightmares into teachable moments. What are your sleepless moments about I ask my students reversing for once, the running classroom joke of the semester.

“A zombie apocalypse”, this comes from the back of the classroom.  It figures, zombies are very big these days.  They are a funny group, my class of 2013.  I’m glad they share my angst.  In my 40 years of teaching I still enjoy the classroom rapport.   Trends?  Not sure, my students are more diverse, more accepting, more connected… amazing multi-taskers and perhaps because of the times, they seem mature beyond their years.  When asked about priorities, most say, I want a good paying job… as opposed to… a good life.     As with most community college students it is unfair to categorize, they are quite a mix.  But they challenge and inspire me…always.

They are exploring to find out where they fit in; like everyone…searching for their place.   But they are the new generation, they are our next… great… hope; that is what I’ve learned.

For most of my students my class will be the only college science course they take.  It is a part of my job is to make sure that they understand that science is not separate from the everyday world.   It has to relate to their lives.

I try and get them to understand the need to challenge assumptions that are not based on fact.  Sometimes I think some of our students actually get their news from the comedy channel or worse, Fox.   I want my students to be willing to make a stand that may not be popular but makes sense.   I take it more seriously than I used to, because I am preparing them for a different world than I grew up in.

The goal of science is objective, unbiased truth.  As a scientist and a researcher that is my training but as members of a democratic society that is your responsibility I tell them.  You are obligated to look for the truth, nothing less.  And it doesn’t stop there.  You have to become a participant in this democracy of ours, because there are decisions that you will have to make.  And the world, is not becoming simpler.

I asked my meteorology students if they are worried about runaway climate.  I also teach “Weather”.   Suddenly there is a debate over semantics:  Global Warming vs Climate Change.  There are two students egging each other on about the definitions of global warming.  I didn’t figure a student from the sidelines would resolve the debate by quoting her i-phone… on the spot, “Global Warming is the cause and Climate Change is the Effect.”  That’s what SIRI says!

The world is not just getting warmer, in other words; but the result is that climate will be getting more extreme.  Even within the general warming pattern; instability may cause record cold or more powerful, frequent storms.

Do you worry about Climate Change?  A few of my students say, “yes”; then they qualify their remarks, ‘but it probably will not affect us, not our generation.”

Isn’t that like youth.  I too was at one time an optimist.

I believed that we could undo mistakes, we could reverse trends, we could come together against all the odds.

I am after all a product of the 60’s.  I read Rachel Carson, we did ban DDT, starting right here in SuffolkCounty in fact.  I saw the first comprehensive federal laws that tackled issues of air and water pollution.   We began to debate energy and realize that neither fossil fuels nor nuclear power was the answer.   I learned that small was beautiful and appropriate technology would indeed make the world better, natural gas would be our transition to the solar economy and the population bomb would be defused by… empowered women.

Project Apollo showed us that anything is possible and that Planet Earth is our only home; a small orb of blue… alone in the blackness of space.   It was never clearer than those first photos from lunar orbit on Christmas Eve, 1968.

Later, in 1970, I celebrated the first Earth Day optimistically as a student at SuffolkCommunity College where I teach today.

I know that there are things we have no control of.  Mega Tsunamis, Polar Reversals, Super Volcanoes, Meteorite Extinction Events.  It serves no one to lose sleep over such matters.

I have also learned that there are things that you can change.   Things that you can change, when change matters.  Times where you can make the critical difference.

I have this big concern about CO2.  Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas.  We can measure the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere through time by coring through Antarctic ice and analyzing the trapped bubbles of air.  So we know that it took more than 10,000 years for global Carbon Dioxide to increase about 100 ppm.  And we have done just that in only the last 50 years as we continue to burn …our fossil fuel reserves …away.  When I was born in 1950 the atmosphere concentration of CO2 was 290 ppm.  In 1990 it was 350 ppm and today it is close to 400 and that is the cause of my concern.  That is the stuff of real nightmares (point to CO2 chart).

You may not notice the signs of global warming.  After all, there is a certain normal variability in weather.  Yes, it seems that storm surges flood more of the shoreline these days.  We do have more record setting high temperatures.  On my trips across the PonquogueBridge …parts of Dune Road are under water during every spring tide …for a long time I just wrote that off as a result of coming out of the ice age.

Aradhna Tripati, a UCLA professor discovered a new way to measure atmospheric carbon dioxide going back millions of years before the ice age.  She writes in the journal, “Science” about her recent findings using this new approach.   She found that the last time that carbon dioxide levels were as high as they are today…and were sustained at those levels was 15 million years ago.  It was the last time that the Arctic Ocean was free of permanent sea ice and it was a very different world with global temperatures as much as 10 degrees warmer than today and sea level … probably 150 feet higher.  This is way before our species comes on the scene.

Some researchers see all these feedback loops in the prediction models for CO2; and no end to the soaring carbon dioxide levels for some time to come since there is… the lag effect.  The Earth responds slowly to the kinds of quick changes we make, at firs

Even more alarming, the arctic sea ice and permafrost is melting at rates we haven’t ever seen.  Not in human history. We are seeing the beginning of an ice free Arctic… just like 15 million years ago.   Millions of square miles will be releasing methane, a gas that is 23x more powerful than Carbon Dioxide is as a greenhouse gas. There are 5 gigatons of methane locked up in arctic permafrost.  The term “runaway climate” has now been coined to describe a scenario in which the climate system passes a threshold or tipping point after which we can’t return …to what it once was.

The challenge of climate change?   We are already in the midst of a major extinction event.  The first human caused.

Global warming will cause climatic belts to shift with devastating effects on the earth’s ecosystems and agricultural productivity.  There will be more extinctions… and famine.

Global warming  threatens marine life because of ocean acidification and can cause weather to become more erratic.  As ice melts and the sea level continues to rise there will be unprecedented flooding displacing millions of people… as well as expanding drought and raging fires around the globe.  As resources become scarce what will be the human predicament?

Bill Schulz, president of our UU Service Committee and renowned human rights activist says:  Nothing will have more profound implications for the future.  The result of global warming could be paucity and violence on a scale rarely seen before.  He states, “We are stumbling suicidally into uncharted waters.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science is probably the largest organization of scientists in the world; this is their statement:

“Scientific evidence is clear: global climate change caused by human activities is occurring now, and it is a growing threat to society….The pace of change and the evidence of harm have increased markedly over the last five years. The time to control greenhouse gas emissions is now.”

The stark message of every professional scientific group is that …climate is moving out from under civilization rapidly.   Most climate scientists believe that there is already damage that cannot be undone.  That we will have to adapt, no matter what.  And if we are to limit the hardship for those generations to come, we will have to take action soon.

Yet, according to a Harvard study conducted late last year, the number of Americans alarmed about climate change is only about 16 percent.

How alarmed should we be?  It is easy to dismiss what we cannot see.  What we cannot imagine.   It is human to ignore problems that are not affecting our lives now.  Many people scoff at the idea of a rapidly warming world and are unwilling to change their fossil fuel habit. Changing will be challenging economically to say the least.  Global warming may just not be on the personal priority list of our concerns.

Maybe the scientific community is all wrong about climate change.   I mean, we could… do nothing. 

After all to switch from burning coal (probably the biggest source of carbon dioxide and the source of most of our electricity)… will take decades even if we start to take action right now.  There are even deals in the works to export Appalachian coal to deep ports along the west coast and then to China.

Clean coal?  That is just a public relations scam.

Why are we even considering building new pipelines to convey high carbon gunk from theAthabasca tar sands …which needs to be heated along the way just so that it flows?  Allowing a Keystone to be built anticipates additional decades of use …and that is just plain folly.

It would seem like we have a lot more to gain by using some prudence in what should be easy decisions instead of spewing carbon dioxide out of every industrial age orifice.  Because… the scientific community …could be right.

The climatologists’ models for global warming do not address what will happen.  There is much that is subject to interpretation …and scientists leave it to others to do just that.  There are after all a multitude of unknowns. These are statistical models and outcomes are expressed in various percentages of probability.   The biggest being perhaps is how we will respond to a world that by all indications …will change …in unsettling ways.

Stephen Powell is an anthropologist who studies various tribal groups in the southwest.  Almost every society has some sort of apocalypse prophesy. They are important; he states, since they prepare the group for change… which inevitably happens.

He writes, “Like the nature of evolution… without tension and crisis… there is no opportunity for change.  A coming apocalypse offers opportunity.  Our mess becomes our message… our breakdown, the breakthrough.  Apocalypse is foremost a process of growth and expansion, perhaps leading to a more perfect world.  He calls it apocalyptic grace.

I’ve been thinking a lot about our Unitarian Universalist Principles and how they fit in to my life these days.   The principles are no more than a modern day code of moral values that we share with people of many faiths the world over.  They define us when we are at our best.  I read them to regain my optimism, my hope.  I think it is the reason that I find myself …at this place …at this time.

We believe in the inherent goodness of every person, that kindness, generosity and love will prevail over anger and hate, that reason will take precedence over ignorance.   Our faith allows us to continually work toward a society based on ethics and justice …even in the worse of times.

We plant new roots to create a greener economy and live more sustainably.  We live simply so that others can simply live. We contribute to our neighborhood and our local businesses, our farms and our schools with our hearts …and our hands.  We are humanists and when resources are scarce, we will share.

This religious community allows us to seek our own spiritual path, but we know that all life is sacred and that we are a part of… that interconnected web of all existence.  We are obligated, it is our sacred responsibly to care for this Earth, this home.

We cannot do all things …but we can do our thing.

We can listen, we can read and then we can choose to act.   Our thoughts, our words and our deeds have the power to transform society toward the greater good.

There is no doubt, the world seems more scary, and does sometimes appear to be unraveling.  There will be many challenges ahead for all of us.   But in unsettling times… it matters to me that I am a part of …this spiritual community …and that we are here on our journey with and for one another.  When I joined this congregation I knew I would be joining kindred souls.

Our religion reminds us that the values that we share and cherish defines us …and gives us hope.   In the simple actions we choose to make each day and the kind of life we aspire to live…  the world becomes a better place.

I believe in this… and that this faith will allow us to approach all of our nightmares…with apocalyptic grace.

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on EARTH DAY State of The World

Original Blessing Chalice Lighter

Original Blessing Chalice Lighter
Sermon  September 23, 2012 Rev. Ian White Maher ©

1 Good morning non-believers, people of little faith

That is what they say about your, right. Deluded and brainwashed by the feminists and the homosexuals. I mean you have even been called anti-Christian because you said, “I believe Jesus lived on this planet as a man. Why does he have to be God to have any meaning to me? Can’t he just have meaning because he was a human being?

But that is the talk of a non-believer. You don’t think about Jesus the way they do so you can’t talk about him at all. If you don’t call him God, then, non-believer, you have lost that right to call on him period.

And non-believer, you dare to question the direction of our nation, which means you don’t support our troops. Or you remember a time when our government had some fiscal responsibility and unemployment was under 4%. But you had better not question too loudly. Because if you question, if you act on your fundamental human principle to be curious, to be inquisitive, to be independent someone is going to call you out as Godless. And if you are Godless, then you don’t count.

And that is how they undermine our civic voice, that is how they discount our joys and our pains, that is how they marginalize our religious experience. They say we have no faith. That we are a club. That we’re secular. That we’re godless. And we don’t count. You self-satisfied intellectuals, who seem incapable of walking through the forest and realizing that it is too perfect not to have some intelligent being behind its whole design. What do you mean you don’t know where this world comes from, and you don’t know where you go when you die, and you don’t know why sometimes people suffer? That is the talk of someone with no faith.

Now, I understand a person’s desire to know that their life has meaning. “Why am I here?” can be a very lonely question and no one likes to be alone. I want to know that my life has meaning. There is a certain insecurity to our existence. Do I matter? And I understand why people turn to certain religious leaders or movements who tell them there is an answer, there is a way to assuage that insecurity. And they promise an end to the suffering, to the loneliness if you believe, if you have faith in their answer. I can understand why people turn there. I am not going to lie to you. These are mighty scary times and I do want some answers.There are some things I do want to know. I do feel more secure when there are some things I know. But telling me I don’t count, that I am godless, that I’m a non-believer, that I have no faith because I question is painful. It breaks my heart.

Original Blessing Chalice Lighter Sermon
Rev. Ian White Maher ©

2 But what hurts me even more is that sometimes we believe them. Sometimes we repeat those very same comments about ourselves, that we have no faith, that we’re a club, that as a religious movement we don’t matter. It is painful to hear outsiders say we don’t count, but it is crushing when we internalize their view of us.

We are people of great faith. We are people of great faith. In spite of all that we see, in spite of all that we see, wars around the world, starving children left to die, or put into the army or used for concubines, and the corruption of nations selling weapons to these children, leaders handing out no-bid contracts to their cronies, corporations bankrupting the working and middle-class, and in spite of all of this we still believe in the goodness of human beings, we still believe in the potential of human beings.

We don’t need heaven in the sky or heaven here on earth. We’re not after utopia, but we are after respect. They call us people of little faith, but we are people of the greatest faith. I don’t need some historical figure to say he loves me. I need my neighbor to say he loves me. I need my neighbor to say she loves me. And I sure want to say that back to them. That’s my religion, that’s my faith. That’s my religion, that’s my faith. We are the people of the greatest faith.

Our nation is in the grip of some scary forces right now. And lets not be fooled by those who cast a finger towards the Taliban and say we are over there defending women’s rights while these same people are coming after the women in our own community, they are coming after the minds of our children, and we need to figure out how to articulate our faith in a way that keeps not just our community safe, but the people beyond our community safe as well before the women in our nation lose control of their own bodies and our children are taught that science is evil. And before we learn to fear everyone outside our door.

Now I don’t think that anyone in this room is confused about the tragic nature of abortion. But conversation has been hijacked. Even our feminist politicians or our feminist leaning politicians are using language defined and controlled by the anti-woman forces in our nation.

And we have come to define ourselves as pro-choice, and yeah, I’m pro-choice, but I am more than that. I am pro-woman, this is not only about abortion. I am pro-woman and I want the conversation to go back onto why every time women organize for equal rights the reactionary forces in our society demonize the cause and try to bring them under control by limiting their access to birth control. This happened last century. And this is what is happening today. We all know that the suffragists fought for the right to vote, but the suffragist movement was also about access to healthy birth control so women could decide when to have children and how many so she could control her life. And there was a huge backlash lead by the clergy. The clergy were the faces of the forces that wanted to keep women subservient to men. They used faith to justify why we had to restrict access to birth control and limit women’s mobility.

Original Blessing Chalice Lighter Sermon
Rev. Ian White Maher ©

3 We are more than pro-choice, we are pro-woman and we need to reframe that conversation. And we need to reframe that conversation when we are out amongst the world. Because the world needs to hear our message now more than ever. And this is just one of the important issues in jeopardy. The world’s heart is breaking at this moment and we cannot stay locked in our little communities waiting to fend the fundamentalists off.

Now there are some lessons we can learn from these reactionaries. Sometimes they have teachings we need to hear. I mean these folks have extremely powerful religious conviction. They have a lot of trust in their faith. And not just because someone told them it is so, it is not as easy as that. They have a lot of trust in their faith because they practice a lot.

Who is a good writer in here? Why are you a good writer? Who is a good knitter in here? How long have you been knitting?

How about golf? Do you take lessons? Now, don’t be ashamed, how many thousands have you spent on those lessons? Do you see the pattern that I am making reference to? Now who is a good Unitarian in here? Who is a good Universalist? We haven’t practiced very much have we?

So when someone comes along and says you are a person of little faith, in your heart you know they are wrong, that you have the greatest faith, you believe, in spite of everything, in the great human potential, in your heart you are filled with faith, but when you try to say something back, when they say, “well, what does your faith mean to you?” We often stumble don’t we?

For several years I served the denomination as an anti-racism trainer and I would travel the nation leading weekend workshops in our congregations. One of the exercises we used revolved around the power of identity. We asked participants to choose 5 identities that, more or less, represented who they are, then we split them into groups and we force them to take away one of their identities. We force them to give one of their identities up. Now, do you know that only about half of the people choose Unitarian Universalist as one of their main five identities and of those that did they sacrificed this identity every single time…and this happened during a UU training held in a UU church. What does this say? Now I don’t believe they could actually give up their faith as easily as that. Our faith, as much as we take it for granted sometimes, is our rock, it is our worldview. What I think it means is that we have internalized the message that our worldview is worthless, is weak, is unimportant. But it is the greatest faith.

Original Blessing Chalice Lighter Sermon
Rev. Ian White Maher ©

4 I’d like to suggest a little faith program. It takes 60 seconds. But it takes 60 seconds every day. It sounds easy enough. But for 60 seconds, to meditate on what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist. I we don’t have to get complex, we don’t need some systematic theology, or process theology. We only need those two words: Unitarian, one god; Universalist, salvation for everyone. One god, salvation for everyone. There is a battle coming up. The battle is over your right to believe. And we need to do some spiritual push ups. We need to be able to make a legitimate claim on what it means to be a human being, on what it means to be a living creature, what it means to be alive, to be breathing. The world is facing calamity. The environment is changing. There is no turning back, but we do have a choice in how we face this changing world. There will be scary times. Will we be trained enough to handle them or will we acquiese to the forces of fear who, withuot question, will be beating the drum of a God ordained Armageddon. But this is not God ordained. That is only fear talking. We cannot hide from our responsibility any longer as people of faith. The world, the very world, needs us.

Now I want to you to reach out and take the hand of the person next to you. Take their hand. Hold this person’s hand. Now I want you all to close your eyes. Close your eyes and feel their hand in yours. Breathe in through your nose, you are a living being, you are a person of the greatest faith. Can you feel their hand in yours? Breath in, breath out. Are you ready for this responsibility, the responsibility of standing up for life. Can you do 60 seconds a day? We need to bulk up. Breathe in, you are a living being. Breathe out, you are a person of the greatest faith. Breathe in, the whole universe. Breath out, all of life.

Breathe in, the whole universe. Breathe out, all of life. Breathe in, one god. Breathe out, universal salvation. These are your push-ups.  The story of creation is real. We were all born in the furnaces of the stars. We have travelled billions of miles and millions of light years to come to this moment today, to this moment where we are holding one another’s hands. You are cosmic beings, you are regal, you are spectacular, you are infinite. Breathe into your true self and know the meaning of salvation. You may open your eyes.

Amy and I, along with several others, are starting a new congregation and our vision is to transform the lives of the 400,000 people who live in north Brooklyn and Queens. Our vision is not of a well-funded congregation with great salaries. Our vision is to transform the lives of the 400,000 people who live in north Brooklyn and Queens. And we will do it because we have faith in the goodness and generosity of people. We don’t know the answer, but we are sure that we will be transformed in our search. This is why we take the Martin Luther King quote so seriously. We are becoming as we help others become. It is time to leave the pews and go out amongst the people and tell them of a faith that saves because it is grounded in trust, not in fear. It is grounded in love, not in division. It is grounded in hope, not in despair. We cannot hide ourselves any longer thinking the world will somehow right itself if smart people somehow get elected. Being smart has nothing to do with it. We have a spiritual problem and Untarian Universalism is a Original Blessing Chalice Lighter Sermon.

Rev. Ian White Maher ©

5 Spiritual solution…if we are willing to put it first in our lives, if we refuse to sacrifice it at any cost. Live into your full self, into your real purpose. Go forth and save the world.

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Original Blessing Chalice Lighter

Unless A Seed Dies

UNLESS A SEED DIES: A Season of Loss and Gain

Richard Lawless

A Talk for the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the South Fork

Bridgehampton, NY

February 26, 2012


                It’s been a very strange winter, oddly mild and lacking the snow and ice whose bite I seem to feel more acutely the older I get. I don’t know about you, but even the mild version of winter we’ve enjoyed can still get me yearning for warm beaches and warm water to swim in. My version of heaven includes water I can walk into without shivering! The days are indeed getting longer, even warmer, no doubt. But there are still enough gray, cold days and nights left to feel oppressive and that prompt me to muse on the sadder or more difficult sides of life. The dean of my theological graduate school once remarked that climates like ours in the northeast were the most conducive to theological thinking – he mused that being in California where the school was located might water down the quality of our thought because we had it too easy! Going outside my Berkeley apartment one Christmas Day to toss a Frisbee suggested that his argument was a compelling one. Try reading John Calvin or Soren Kiekegaard seriously when you’re that comfortable. Cold, gray winter climes have produced more than a few solid thinkers in the religious and theological arenas. So maybe it is good for us to reflect together on the gifts of this spare time, lean in the creature comforts but perhaps rich in hidden meaning and symbol.

                The gardeners and landscapers among us know this is a season of hidden energy, and a season of expectant waiting. A few months ago, trees and shrubs pushed forward buds that “wintered over” and in the spring and summer those buds will become the blossoms and fruit of the high season. Bulbs need the long, cold and dark “burial” of winter to become the tulips, daffodils, gladioli and irises we love so much. And the seeds that so many plants released last summer and fall “died” in the soil they landed in to resurrect as the children and grandchildren of those original plants.

                In the Gospel of John, the writer portrays Jesus using a similar metaphor about himself and the death he volunteers to undergo:

                                “….unless a wheat grain falls on the ground and dies, it

                                remains only a single grain; but if it dies,

                                it  yields a rich harvest………” (John 12:24)

Written several decades after the events the gospel describes, these words are a part of a tradition of important sayings attributed to Jesus. But more, they are words meant to comfort and inspire the community of believers who were at that time undergoing persecution from the Roman authorities and threats of denunciation from religious enemies. Those hearing that metaphor would have known of martyrs who died for their faith at the hands of hostile secular and religious forces. The brutality of state-sponsored arrests, public punishments, executions and other horrors were fresh memories, or at least readily shared stories, in those precarious early Christian communities. The metaphor of the seed of grain that dies would have likely been a way to help them cope with what was hardly bearable. How does one make sense of horrors? How do people heal from wounds to the psyche and spirit that cut so deeply as those reports of events must have? How do we heal from the worst that life can throw at us?

                Many of us are of an age where our own health issues command our attention and often have more psychological weight for us than the larger political or social moral questions. The realities of our aging physical bodies can quickly put us in anxiety and fear when this or that symptom or test result appears and reduce other concerns accordingly. When we or a loved one gets a diagnosis that’s serious, we often rally quickly and go into survival mode – but sometime afterwards the grim weight of such news makes itself felt hard — and cold fear threatens to take us over. What helps? Three things help, in my experience. Information: the more we know, the more powerful we can feel, especially if different options present themselves as part of the information. Time: even bad news loses the original punch it first had as time passes. And perspective: in the light of morning, we often say, things don’t seem quite so bad, and we learn that even limited options can be lived with. The day before my 82 year-old Irish grandmother died, my mother told her to hurry up and get well, “so we can take a trip to Paris.” Not missing a beat, my grandmother said “Sure, and I’ll buy a bikini!” Remembering her wit and attitude helped ease the grief we all felt over her death. 

And perhaps faith helps. Our life experience often suggests that bad things pass; good may come out of bad; and that sadness diminishes, even if does so only bit by bit. Is there reason for our faith and hope that losses aren’t the last word? In the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, I taught a class at Fordham entitled “Faith and Critical Reason.” I used to tell each new group of students that I had a governing assumption with which I approached the readings and topics of the course. Simply stated, I said, “faith is not non-sense.” I said that faith, encompassing such things as belief in some kind of higher power as well as what we usually mean by hope, made better sense to me than many alternatives such as atheism and secular humanism. In our readings, we weighed the perspectives of believers, non-believers and agnostics. I remember, in particular, commending the worldview of The Humanist Manifesto as a credible and honorable path intellectually, morally and spiritually, although I didn’t find the natural world to automatically exclude a supernatural dimension as that powerful statement asserted. In my experience many people in those camps unfortunately caricature each other– a deep reading of most serious statements about what people think is ultimate will usually generate respect, in my opinion, if people are open to it. Atheists don’t have to put down theists or vice versa to buttress their own deepest convictions. I assured the students that they didn’t have to agree with my perspective whatever their beliefs and worldview. The point was to try to have a meaningful conversation about those beliefs. I gave them my best account of why faith made sense to me. And I asked that they give me their best account of whatever made most sense to them. As we wrestled with Plato, Thomas Aquinas, Descartes, Nietszche, and Bertrand Russell, I asked them to invest themselves in a search for clarity and conviction.

A college course is a bit of a hot-house environment, rarefied in atmosphere and tone, not quite like the booming, buzzy stuff of everyday life. So let’s look
at a more typical scenario of daily life to see what it might yield by way of wisdom and insight into the stuff of faith and belief.

Here’s one of my favorite stories:

An exhausted father is awakened in the wee hours of the morningby his
crying and frantic five-year-old son coming out of a kiddie nightmare.
“Everything’s going to be all right,” the father says soothingly, as he hugs
the distraught child and rubs his back gently. After a few minutes, the
father, desperate for sleep, says. “OK, now, son…time to go back to sleep.
I’m going to tuck you in and turn out the light and go back to bed.” The
boy immediately bursts back into tears and says, “No. No, don’t shut off
the light, I’m afraid of the dark! I don’t want to be alone!” Near the end
of his patience and definitely on his last nerve, the father pulls out one of
the Big Guns of parental rhetoric, “You’re not alone, son……God is with
you.” The little boy looks up at his father and says, “Where’s God? I don’t
see God!” Praying for patience and hoping against hope, the father says,
“Of course you can’t see God, son… He’s invisible.” The son looks
skeptically up at his Dad and says……”I want a God with skin on!”

                I’ve used this story to make different points at different times. Today I want to focus on the first thing the father said upon entering his crying son’s room… … “Everything’s going to be all right.”

                In his book A Rumor of Angels, Peter Berger takes a version of that story and freezes right on that very statement. Is the father telling the boy the truth, Berger asks, when he tells him everything is going to be all right? Is he speaking responsibly, or trying to sell the boy a bill of goods to quiet him so he can return to sleep? Is the Dad’s statement right up there with the story of Santa Claus, to be discarded as time goes on as a childish fancy? Berger, a liberal thinker in the Lutheran lineage, thinks the Dad can make such a statement with integrity. From his perspective of faith and given his life experience, Berger asserts that the statement “everything is all right,” has some truth value and is a conviction that fits an open reading of life experience much of the time. The father may have mixed motives in trying to soothe his son’s fears, but his basic assertion can reflect a deep faith that such things as setbacks, atrocities and downright failures of decency are not the last word about life.

                Wait, you might say… That doesn’t sufficiently take into account unspeakable horrors like the Nazi holocaust of Jews and others they labelled sub-human. Or the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Or the decades-long systematic wars on poor Latin Americans by American political and corporate forces. Or the knee-jerk anti-Westernism that fuels the murderous acts of radical Islamists. Or the lynchings of black Americans by Klansmen and other terrorists. And perhaps the most painful truth on the personal level – how many ordinary, good citizens like ourselves were needed to cooperate with those levels of evil for the handful of really bad actors to succeed. Can we look at such truths without flinching, and still maintain that everything is all right?

                 How do I put the horrific acts and systems of so much of the world into perspective without the kind of cheap, feel-good, happy-happy, joy-joy words that mask evil or fit it into some kind of Pollyanna strait-jacket? And where do my personal feelings become irrelevant or unimportant in the face of larger negative realities? And, a classic question, where if anywhere might “God” be in all of this, and what does that mean anyway?

                Peter Berger, among many others, suggests that if anything like God or Higher Power is to be believed, it makes sense that there are what he terms “signals of transcendence” to be uncovered in our ordinary experience. These would be clues or at least suggestions that there exists a structure or order of things within which hope for reversing or transforming evil would be possible and grounded. One such accessible signal, I would maintain, comes in the experience many of us have had of life after loss. After losing a loved one, we go through a period of grieving that’s different for each of us, but also exhibits some common elements like anger, denial, depression and acceptance. At some point in our journey through grieving, the load begins to get lighter and our taste for living comes back to a greater or lesser extent. I suggest that such experiences are clues or signs that life has healing power at its heart.  

There also exists the experience of friendship, one of the most powerful and yet readily accessible signs that trust in what’s positive and good may prevail in the face of loss and diminishment. Last year, during my own serious illness, long hospitalization and longer recuperation, a core of friends stood beside me and my wife. They spent long hours with us in the hospital, and offering their gifts of time and presence and hope that lifted us and that contributed so much to my physical and psychological healing. In the classic sense, our friends demonstrated that friendship is a sacrament, an embodied living and rich sign of Love that exists in the midst of ordinary living… and that friendship is therefore most powerful and life-changing.

The experience of metaphor, for me, is another signal of  transcendence or grace. As long as women and men have sung songs, made poetry and told stories, metaphors have been a means of communicating truths that are otherwise elusive and hard to grasp, such as the seed metaphor referenced in the Jesus saying in John’s gospel. When we take an experience and see a deeper meaning in it, are we just being imaginative or does that meaning somehow exist within it?  The seed that “dies” and then multiplies is based on real plant biology, but in our minds, the metaphor offers a whole universe of loss and rebirth, suggesting quite profound wisdom and perspective from some very ordinary experiences. Seeds…babies…political and social movements… the connections are endless in possibility. Might that connection suggest a deeper reality than what my imaginative mind can conjure? Might that deeper reality I glimpse, if I allow myself to access it, be seen as the work of some kind of Higher Power?

A powerful metaphor I see working in many lives I touch is that of the addicted person “hitting bottom.” People in recovery from addiction’s grip can and do testify to a debilitating powerlessness in which free will is compromised beyond the ability for a quick fix. The image of hitting bottom captures the beginning of recovery where one is tapped out, so beyond the point where self-generated change can make things better. In the lack of power to “fix” addiction is the needful opening to a power beyond oneself, such a power needed absolutely to deliver the person from the inability to make it better. What’s the nature of this higher power? It doesn’t matter, say recovering addicts – as they quip, “the only thing you need to know about higher power is that there is one…and you’re not it!” If I hit bottom, the metaphor goes, I have nowhere to go but up…and I need some kind of assistance in getting and staying up. Mediating that power, they report, is the shared experience of people who have been in recovery a little longer; the group of drunks (aka G.O.D.) often serves as the functional higher power for many newly recovering folks. Previous travelers on the recovery road function as beacons and guides for newcomers. What’s interesting is how often that leads to an appreciation of a deeper reality undergirding that experience. Does love, indeed, “steer the stars” as they sang in “HAIR”? And don’t we catch glimpses of that love in the people and circumstances that raise us out of despair and the shackles of things like addiction? God with skin on, indeed.

In the latter years of his life, Albert Einstein suggested that THE most important question we ask is always, “Is the universe safe?” Can I trust that life will not only break my heart sometimes, but also may mend it? The metaphor of the title of this message and the scripture it draws from says that without some kind of death and diminishment, new life will not come. That metaphor functions on several levels, from most literal to highly abstract. From physical entropy  (winding down) on the cosmic level to psychological/spiritual disintegration at the personal level, experiences abound that say brokenness can lead to wholeness and reintegration, and that good can come from the worst of things.  Elie Weisel, the uncompromising witness to the horrors of the Holocaust, became a human rights advocate for peoples all over the world. Real evil exists, and is genuinely terrible. But as the lives of people like Gandhi, Mandela and Rosa Parks remind us, evil can also inspire courage, commitment and change that far outweighs the worst that evil can devise when it is named, accepted and resisted in love and truth.

The signal of transcendence that matters most, I am suggesting, is the one we experience when good is unaccountably drawn from evil, when grace trumps tragedy. Some of us are comfortable with naming that which enables something positive to be produced out of evil  higher power, or the divine, or God. Others are not so comfortable with such names. To me the differences that might keep us from agreement on these points are far less important than the way we live and act on whatever makes most sense to us when faced with the worst news or the most terrible prospect. At such moments, can we stand for one another on the important points? Are we there for each other in those extreme moments? Do we have enough empathy for all people caught in pain to act differently and perhaps make some kind of justice and peace in our small corner of the world? The ancient Hebrew prophets had a word from Yahweh that said the ceremonies of religion meant nothing if the weakest in the community like widows and orphans went unprotected. Regardless of how I imagine ultimate things, such needy people demand our best response.

On a more personal level, regardless of my particular beliefs, if I am not addressing the pain and suffering within myself, I can’t be there as effectively for others and I may do more harm than good when I try. In my profession, we call it “doing the work,” and by that we mean the hard work of self-awareness, self-examination and confronting some of the unloveliest parts of ourselves to prepare ourselves for change. (My use of the “us” word there is intentional – any therapist worth his or her salt had better be prepared to do the work themselves, or risk an inability to effectively connect with a patient by ignorance or short-sightedness.) The take-away from that for the rest of us may be that self-empathy is the best foundation for empathy with others. Work on my own healing from whatever needs work seems required if I seek to help another and perhaps glimpse a deeper reality.

Along that line, some Buddhist wisdom seems relevant, as offered by American Pema Chodron:

                When you begin to touch your heart or let your heart be touched, you  find it’s bottomless, that it doesn’t have any resolution, that this heart is huge, vast and limitless. You begin to discover how much warmth and gentleness is there,  as well as how much space. Your world seems less solid, more roomy and spacious. The burden lightens.

                                                (START WITH WHERE YOU ARE – Pema Chodron)


Is “everything going to be all right?” Perhaps the answer to that lies within ourselves and our deepest experience rather than outside of ourselves. And I suggest that a positive answer to that question may intelligently and meaningfully include a recognition and affirmation of a power greater than ourselves… that at the heart of the universe and at the heart of my own personal experience lie signals of transcendence, signals of care and signals of grace. It’s my choice, certainly, to call those signals by whatever metaphor or name makes sense to me, but I’m very grateful to have such signals in a pretty tough world.

We come full circle to the metaphor of the title, the grain of wheat that Jesus images in the passage from John’s gospel. In context, it’s an image that lends meaning to something very negative, in fact quite horrible: the impending violent and unjust public execution of an innocent man, and more broadly, similar acts of violence against Jesus’ followers in the decades after his death. As the buried seed becomes a stalk of wheat that makes more grains, so, too, the passage implies, these deaths will transform a rag-tag bunch of easily pushed around followers into a community of faith and purpose that changed the world. From death came life.

In our experience, finally, winter always gives way to spring. That’s worth a little “alleluia” even if Easter hasn’t quite yet arrived. I can’t wait… ALLELUIA!




Posted in Sermons | Comments Off on Unless A Seed Dies

Rejoicing and Dreaming

UUCSF Board members, February 5, 2012

To be sensual, I think, is to respect and rejoice in the force of life, of life itself, and to be present in all that one does, from the effort of loving to the making of bread.
– James Baldwin

Dreams are the touchstones of our character.
– Henry David Thoreau

We are a spiritual community.                                  Margaret Pulkingham
In thinking about this phrase I dipped into my experience and pulled up a few memories to help me express to you what it means to me personally.

I recall my father kneeling at his bedside daily praying and reading from a selection of prayers and meditations as well as saying the rosary. In this context spirituality had something ritualistic, quiet, private and “other worldly” about it.

In second grade in a parochial school, my teacher, a youthful nun took our class into the sanctuary of the church as she had a task to perform on the altar. Instead of the usual genuflection, signing of the cross and bowing of the head that I was taught and accustomed to, she ran up to the altar waved her hand high and shouted “Hi God.” From this I gleaned, with a smile, that spirituality involved relationship and glee.

In 8th grade I was contemplating the idea of becoming a nun. My mother (even though she was not Catholic and not in favor of the idea, she didn’t want my head to be covered with a veil) lovingly took me to a convent to investigate the idea as a possibility for further down the road. What attracted me was a group of people set aside for a common purpose. This seemed “spiritual” to me.

For more than a decade I was a member of The Community of Celebration, a nondenominational religious community under the auspices of the Anglican Church in Great Britain. That is a story all unto its own. For today’s purposes, this was an intentional community living out life differently than the mainstream. We had a common purse and worked out a vision for our life of service together reviewed annually through a week of conversation, meditation and fasting. This gave me a vision of spirituality involving commitment and permission to walk to the beat of a different drummer, as well as an example of what working in communion with others can do. There is power and comfort in numbers.

In another decade I was cofounder of Pathways Wellness Center in Galveston, Texas. Among other things, I practiced and led guided meditations and facilitated workshops about conscious, mindful living. Once again spirituality meant reflectively walking a different path in service to others.

About 6 or 7 years ago on a Sunday I walked into this sanctuary and was washed in yellow light and knew immediately that this was part of my next step on a spiritual path. What struck me then was the light, the sharing of common concerns and joys and the mindful attention given to how to “be” in this world. The words shared from the podium were both intellectually stimulating and in service to the heart (A necessary combination for me). With continued attendance I found a place where one could explore one’s own spirituality within a supportive context. At the time, I was in the midst of a family of teenagers and so wanted them to have such a place. Through their religious education classes, Coming of Age preparation and OWL I believe UUCSF made significant inroads in the discovery of their evolving selves.

So, in closing…. The statement “We are a spiritual community” means to me …
An intentional group of people set aside to be:

*in gleeful relationship with one another
*marching to a tune of a different drummer
* visionaries in service to others modeling a different way of life based on thoughtful intention and commitment, leaving behind mediocrity.
This is my dream for UUCSF in the years to come.

 We honor every individual’s search for truth and meaning.       Imke Littman

UU’s have a long history of religious tolerance, where the first edict of religious toleration was declared in 1568 during the reign of the first and only Unitarian king, John Sigismund. This is still one of the cornerstones for UU mission and principle statements. The freedom to express ones believes and thoughts in public, in our case, to a congregation and not be ridiculed or punished for it. 

Out of this tolerance our denomination has stood up for many discriminated groups such as LGBT, fighting racism by welcoming and including multicultural all people regardless of race or religion and affirm everyone’s search for truth and meaning. Indeed, one of our mission statements says the following:
“We honor every individual’s search for truth and meaning” OR multiple truths and multiple meaning, as I see it. 

I am struggling with the concept of truth and meaning. It is one of the most complex and versatile concepts mankind has always struggled with and still does.  But before we honor the “individual’s search” I think we should know what truth and meaning might be.

Truth is a hard concept; it depends on each person’s perception.  It sounds so black and white and I will leave it behind.

Meaning, again each person’s perception of it, seems elusive, but I can relate to it.  My life’s tragedies and I know we all have had our unfair share, have made me more pensive.   Let me state right here:  I truly love life! I have outlived my entire immediate German family and that is the problem.  Why were they taken by illness and war and not I?  Why is it I who is hiking the Sabino mountains in Tucson and not them. Why is there so much suffering which nobody is able to alleviate?  For me, meaning of life has become random events.  Randomness has supplanted meaning.

One of the things, I think, that we do well in our congregation is our various book discussion groups.  I try to attend most, and even if they do not necessarily answer the issues of meaning and truth, they often address these issues in different ways, open up my mind and give me a sense of serenity at times.  It is these discussions and some of the Sunday’s worship sermons which I ponder on my long walks along the ocean with the world’s best dog.

Coming back to King Sigismund and his declaration of religious freedom and thought, I had my own epiphany as a young teenager.  Attending Lutheran confirmation classes, the fatherly pastor declared at one point that God is not necessarily in heaven, but that he can be found in the root of tree.  As our congregation continues to evolve, this freedom of thought and being allowed to do my own search for meaning, probably lead me in my adult life to the UU denomination and its empowering mission statements.

We act against exclusion, oppression, and violence.   John Andrews

 I’d first like to thank Chris Epifania for some helpful insights that went into this.  

 As we look around us today, we have many opportunities to strike a blow against exclusion, oppression, and violence. The problem isn’t lack of opportunity. On the contrary, there are so many wrongs that need righting that it’s easy to be overwhelmed and end up doing nothing.

As individuals we can donate to causes that tug at our hearts. As a congregation, we can lend support to the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee and the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office. It seems to me, though, that as a faith community we need to do more. And although supporting far-away causes is very worthwhile, I think we need to do something right here on eastern Long Island.

Do we have exclusion, oppression, and violence in the Hamptons? Of course we do. Think of immigrants facing expressions of hate. Think of victims of domestic violence. Think of African Americans who, for all the progress our country has made, still face discrimination.

But these groups, although they experience exclusion, oppression, and even violence on a day-by-day basis, are usually able to find some faith community that welcomes them. That’s not so true for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. They find that the doors of faith are often—I guess I’d say usually—closed to people who so identify unless an essential aspect of who they are is hidden.    

We Unitarian Universalists of the South Fork undertook a process to become recognized by our denomination as a Welcoming Congregation. It seems, though, that once we got that purple plaque on our wall, we mostly adopted a “been there, done that” stance. Are we accepting? Are we welcoming? I think we are. But most of us—including myself, I’m afraid—haven’t taken the critical step toward becoming effective allies. 

The difficulty of taking the step from acceptance to alliance should not be minimized. To be an ally is to be identified with those we’ve joined in alliance. We take on any stigma that others project onto them, and, even worse, any stigma that still resides in the recesses of our own unconscious. For a straight person to become an ally can be as much of a struggle as for a gay person to “come out.” For this reason, the very idea of alliance often meets with resistance, which can take the form of not participating in events that address gay concerns or annoyance when the issue is brought up.

The fear has not gone unexpressed that if we were to attract many lesbian and gay members, we’d become known as the “gay church.” Could that pose difficulties? Yes it could. But it’s a problem I’d love to have.

We nurture the health of the earth.   John Andrews  (standing in for Myrna Truitt)

It’s been a long journey. In 2008, Chris Epifania and I attended a week-long UU retreat where Alison was one of the presenters. There the idea was born to establish a Futures Team in our congregation. To collapse a lot of history, that resulted in our mission/vision statement. It was a huge effort, but the statement we have, which today our Board is honoring with these reflections, is a beautiful expression of aspiration and hope.

Yet even as we were crafting our statement, our social justice work was getting stuck. This congregation, which in past years had earned a reputation for standing up for justice and peace, seemed to be losing lift. 

That’s why, last summer, our Board established the Living our Unitarian Universalist Values Team, or LUUV Team for short. Its purpose was to see how we could bring renewed life into our efforts for social justice, which by no coincidence takes up half of our mission/vision statement. Throughout the fall, Tip Brolin, Ken Ettlinger, Marianne Koerner, Diana Lindley, and Myrna Truitt, along with Alison and me, met and corresponded by email.

First we surveyed the congregation to determine where our interest and passion lay. No single issue dominated, but environment stood out as the most common concern. That seemed too general and unfocused, though, to serve as a basis for concerted action, and so after further discussion we selected water as the specific theme. We chose the name Water Justice for this initiative, and we concluded that it should emphasize both local and global aspects of water as an essential requisite for human flourishing in a healthy environment. 

On March 25 the LUUV Team will conduct a service on this initiative. There’ll be a congregational conversation afterward, to see what specific projects draw enough interest and commitment to predict results worthy of the effort. We’ve outlined four potential projects, two local and two global, and are open to additional suggestions. Details will be forthcoming soon. 

With the Water Justice initiative, our congregation will have the opportunity to honor with action the sentence in our mission/vision statement that says, “We nurture the health of the earth.”

We strive for peace in our hearts and in the world around us.   Kent Martin

The song goes “Let there be peace on Earth and let it begin with me”.  Our identity statement reads “We strive for peace in our hearts and in the world around us”.  There is a sequence in each of these sentences.  First comes peace in our hearts, then peace in the world follows.  As I reflect on peace in my life, our family’s getting-ready-for-school routine comes to mind.  It is often rushed and with a fair share of yelling.  We try to counter these moments with civil dinner table conversation but once in a while yelling happens there as well.  One of the best things I as an individual, and our family does, that encourages peace is outdoor activity – a walk to the beach, a hike to Penny Pond  or a bicycle ride – even shoveling snow.  Occasionally I carve out time for a brief meditation before the work day – I’m sure many of you have your own practices that bring inner peace.

Stress and anxiety strike me as the opposite of personal peace.  Can the simple act of breathing bring inner peace?  Andrew Weil, doctor and pioneer in natural healing techniques discusses what he has found to be a great de-stressing technique.  After missing a flight to a speaking engagement he finds that taking a deep breath, holding it for 6 seconds, then slowly releasing and repeating this process three times pulls the stress out of your body. I’ve used this technique in the middle of a stressful work day when competing demands come together with a common deadlines.

Peace in the world around us also manifests in the way we greet our neighbors and even strangers.  A “how are you?” to a retail or grocery clerk, or a simple “hello” as one passes a stranger on the street allows each of us to feel valued and respected, building a feeling of goodwill and peace as we move through our day.  This may be especially challenging when we’re in a hurry and behind the wheel – an opportunity for growth for me.  It has been my experience that email communication with colleagues or strangers, or posts on a blog, can be misunderstood if the sender is hurried.  It helps me to reread each email I send to make sure I strike the tone I want.   A card or an email can also be a powerful tool to build peace in sharing care and love for each other.

Our Unitarian Universalist tradition helps us build peace in ourselves and the world. Our national organization, the Unitarian Universalist Association, offers tools for congregational peace work. Our congregation recently held a workshop on Nonviolent Communication – another aspect of our peace work.  I am inspired by my fellow congregation members as we march together in the 4th of July parade bearing witness to the insanity of war.  I struggle to write my congressional delegation and state legislators more often.  Being a peacemaker entails fighting for justice and truth with our pens and our presence at town hall and on the mall in Washington DC.  Our government needs to hear from us.  What if simply envisioning peace in Palestine and other troubled areas is helpful?  I try to reflect on this in periods of meditation when I can.

I look forward to learning more about peace from each of you.

When fear strikes, we stand on the side of love.   Mark Potter

Two years ago my wife and I decided to avoid the interstate freeways and drive to the Adirondacks over blue highways. This took us up a winding route along the Housatonic River, then north on Route 22 to Lake Champlain and the mountains. We passed through dozens of forgotten towns and small cities–diners, factories and homes right from the pages of a Norman Rockwell calendar.

Somewhere in one of these cities, waiting on a corner outside a phone booth, was a lady in a burka. We were at a stop light, so I had time to think about her and the man in a soiled dark suit talking in the phone booth.

My first reaction when I saw this woman was to consider a lecture about the rights of women in a free country… Where did this thought come from?

When we speak of fear in our mission statement, I don’t think we are talking about fear of heights, or fear of the dark, or fear of driving the Long Island Expressway. I think we are talking about the fear of other people, people who don’t behave like you and me.

Each of us has a different fear button. For some it may be a group of young men clustered outside a bar at midnight, for others it may be a line up of immigrants looking for work outside a 7-11, or a squeegee man thrusting a dirty rag onto our windshield, or a homeless person sitting among his treasures.

It is easy to rationalize these fears and easier yet to deny they exist in ourselves.

Fear blinds us to a stranger’s humanity. We forget that behind the clothing and peculiar accent is a human being who loves, reasons and fears just as we do ourselves.

Over the next year, my dream is to see our congregation work to understand and reduce these fears wherever we find them…in ourselves and beyond the walls of the congregation. Perhaps we can become more closely involved with Maureen’s Haven, or help troubled men and women integrate into the community. Or perhaps we can influence our politicians to call back the mandatory sentencing laws.  I am confident we can do more.

An article in last week’s New Yorker informed us that we have more African-American men imprisoned today than were in slavery before the Civil War. I can’t help but wonder what will our great grandchildren think of us?



Posted in Sermons | Comments Off on Rejoicing and Dreaming

The Courage to Change

Rev. Alison Cornish, January 22, 2012

There is a certain relief in change, even though it be from bad to worse; as I have found in traveling in a stage-coach, that it is often a comfort to shift one’s position and be bruised in a new place.
– Washington Irving

No mirror ever became glass again;
no bread ever became wheat.
no ripened grape ever became sour fruit.
Mature yourself and be secure
from a change for the worse. Become the Light.
– Jalal al-Din Rumi

Reading     excerpt from “Women and Nature,” Susan Griffin[1]
The… woman who was wicked in her honesty asked questions of her mirror. When she was small she asked, “Why am I afraid of the dark? Why do I feel I will be devoured?”  And her mirror answered, “Because you have reason to fear. You are small and you might be devoured. Because you are nothing but a shadow, a wisp, a seed, and you might be lost in the dark.” And so she became large. Too large for devouring. From that tiny seed of a self a mighty form grew and now it was she who cast shadow. But after a while she came to the mirror again and asked, “Why am I afraid of my bigness?” And the mirror answered, “Because you are big. There is no disputing who you are. And it is not easy for you to hide.” And so she began to stop hiding. She announced her presence. She even took joy in it. But still, when she looked in her mirror she saw herself and was frightened, and she asked the mirror why. “Because,” the mirror said, “no one else sees what you see, no one else can tell you if what you see is true.” So after that she decided to believe her own eyes. Once when she felt herself growing older, she said to the mirror, “Why am I afraid of birthdays?” Because,” the mirror said, “there is something you have always wanted to do which you have been afraid of doing and you know time is running out.” And she ran from the mirror as quickly as she could because she knew in that moment she was not afraid and she wanted to seize the time. Over time, she and her mirror became friends, and the mirror would weep for her in compassion when her fears were real. Finally, her reflection asker her, “What do you still fear?” And the old woman answered, “I still fear death. I still fear change.” And her mirror agreed. “Yes, they are frightening. Death is a closed door,” the mirror flourished, “and change is a door hanging open.”
“Yes, but fear is a key,” laughed the wicked old woman, “and we still have our fears.”  She smiled.

 My mother – and, so our family – is going through Change with a capital C.  Mom is moving out of the house that she and my father bought in 1959 when my brother was six years old, and I was less than a year.  In those 52 years, there’s been a lot of living and no shortage of changes for all of us, and to the house as well – an addition here, a wall taken down there, a new garden over there.  But the biggest change was my father’s death 2½ years ago, making the care of the house and yard all my mom’s. The proverbial last straw seems to have been October’s unexpected snowstorm which dumped over a foot of snow on central Connecticut, snapping limbs and even whole trees still in full leaf, pulling down wires and caving in roofs.  Mom, and the house, came through OK, but the backyard of mature oaks took a beating and it was almost like camping with the power out for nearly a week.  So during the Thanksgiving holiday we looked at a condominium across town; before the weekend was over, her offer had been accepted, and the move was set in motion.

As quick and smooth as that initial decision was, what has followed has been far more challenging, even painful.  How do you begin going through a lifetime of possessions, so many of them interwoven with stories and memories and people you love, many of whom are now gone?  Where do you find the energy and patience to give or throw away what you don’t carefully pack, label and lug to a new, and smaller, home? Where do you put things that have always been right at your fingertips, but now, there’s no drawer or cupboard in that same, habituated place?  In our phone calls and e-mails, I hear my mother’s frustration and how overwhelming this time feels to her. 

Change – whether thrust upon us by outside forces and circumstances, or chosen by us (and our family’s Change has some of both) – is a constant in life. We know this, even if we are mystified by why it must be so. The Buddhist teacher Sogyal Rinpoche says it like this: “Why is it that everything changes? And only one answer comes back to me: That is how life is.”[2]  But no matter how many times we are reminded of this truth, we, for the most part, do not live easily with it. More often than perhaps we’d like to admit, we do not welcome change.  How many of us feel empathy with poor Mr. Bud, deeply satisfied with his predictable and steady-state life, and, like him, are – at least at first – less than pleased by the Zorros that come into our lives? I have to say, even though I haven’t lived in the house my mother is leaving for more than 30 years, I am struggling a bit with the enormity of this change even as I know the result will bring ease to my mother. 

All change includes an element of loss.  Sometimes what is lost looms large – a family home for more than half a century, a beloved father and dependable husband.  Other times, as with the changes brought by age and time, loss may be more subtle and even mixed with benefits, which nonetheless, still affect us.  Children arrive (greeted hopefully with joy), (finally) grow up, strike out on their own (hopefully) and leave a (not easily filled) hole behind.  Even when change is for the good it is still a move away from the status quo, and with that shift, some bit of our identity gets bounced about. Change rattles, shakes things up.  It goes like this.  We are who we are.  Then something changes.  We adjust, adapt.  We get comfortable. We know who we are now. Then there is more change.  We lose certainty, assuredness, until we can find our footing again.  And on and on it goes, which is actually a much better description of reality than how we tend to think of it – as mostly static, with change being the anomaly.  Stanley Nuland writes, “A stable system is not a system that never changes. It is a system that constantly adjusts and readjusts… Stability demands change to compensate for changing circumstances. Ultimately, then, stability depends on instability.”[3]

Understanding, even accepting this does not ensure that we are any more ready to embrace change.  In fact, we are quite adept at resisting change, as this wonderful story illustrates: 

There was a man swimming across a pond. He had a rock in his hand and as he tried to swim, he was sinking both under the weight of the rock and because he could use only one hand to pull himself through the water. People gathered around the pond and they watched him as he began to dip under the water, coughing as he emerged.  “Drop the rock!” someone shouted. But the man just kept lurching through the water, splashing and beginning to sink. “Drop the rock”” someone screamed more loudly, in case the man hadn’t heard. But the man didn’t drop the rock and he started to go down and stay down. “Please,” everyone shouted. “Please, drop the rock or you will drown!” The man looked once at the shore and right before he disappeared from sight forever, he answered, “I can’t! It’s mine.”[4]


One writer, Liz M., reflecting on this story, says:

I will swallow many mouthfuls of water before I am willing to change. The easiest changes for me are the ones in which fate lands on top of me like some metaphoric piano and my job lies simply in accepting and adjusting.  Motherhood happened that way, unplanned but unparalleled…

But when it comes to making a voluntary change, I will endure the worst circumstances, suffer the most miserable fools, swallow the bitterest anger, nurse the sharpest resentments. I will wear clothes a size too small, glasses a prescription too weak, shoes beyond the cobbler’s aid, just to preserve my comfort with the devil I know.  I’ll make a contract with misery if there is just a whiff of the promise that I can control the outcome of events.

Until I can’t.  The day inevitably comes when the part of me that wants health more than sickness, or joy more than sorrow, or serenity more than turmoil wakes up and demands I pay attention…[5] 

Change demands that we pay attention.  And it also summons courage.  That is what I believe change calls forth from us. We often hear that it takes courage to change – the title, in fact, of my reflections this morning.  But I want to suggest that change may lead us to courage – that perhaps a more apt title would be “The Courage Born of Change.” Change, when accepted, even embraced, brings with it the means to tap into powers we forget are within us all.  In fact, if it were not for change, we might never know courage, nor know what we are capable of, or soar above and beyond who we thought we were. 

Think about the courage that you each know as the strength to endure in the face of what the fates bring us – the aforementioned “metaphoric pianos” of life.  No one in this room has escaped these changes, sudden or gradual, large and small both.  You who have experienced the death and the birth of someone beloved … who are living with an illness that has changed the way of life … who has picked up and moved, and moved again, and perhaps will once again … who changed jobs … lost a job … retired … come out of retirement.  In short, who here has not found themselves swept along by a life that demands nerve just to wake to the day, to pull a body and soul together, and do what needs to be done? Not only do we need a constant supply of courage to face each and every day, it’s also through these daily encounters with Life and Love that we develop the skills and endurance we need for those changes we choose to make – the courage to take action in the face of fear, danger or hardship – the courage of the serenity prayer, “the courage to change the things I can.”

Courage is not something we find outside of ourselves.  It’s something that grows within us.  Its seed is planted when we draw our first breath outside the womb.  It is nurtured by the circumstances of a human life.  It is tested by events beyond sometimes even our wildest imaginings.  It is strengthened by those who walk together with us in love and solidarity.  Here is the truth:  each of us has within a well of courage to be drawn upon when we face our own demons and the darkest nights of our souls – when it comes time to set aside the bottle, leave an abusive spouse, take a stand against the crowd, apologize, forgive, reach out, face a diagnosis, start anew on a path yet to be trod – even to accept the things we cannot change.

Right now, at this point in our collective history, cultivating courage may be the most important spiritual practice with which we can engage because it seems to be the consensus view that the very nature of change – is changing.  How is change different as we move deeper into this century?  First, the tempo of change is ever faster. The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead noted that, in the past, “the time-span of important change was considerably longer than that of a single human life…” Most people inhabited a world whose contours were recognizably the same when they were old as when they were young …”Today the time-span is considerably shorter than that of a human life…” and it has continued to accelerate.[6] 

Second, what was once contained and localized change now occurs on a global scale – just look at the rapid fluctuations of the financial markets or the spread of viruses that whip around the globe regardless of international boundaries or time zones. 

And third, as the events of 2011 amply demonstrated – from the Arab spring to the severe weather conditions in the U.S. – change is now happening in less predictable ways.  We are living in what one writer calls “a millennium of perpetual novelty,” which is changing the very nature of the human animal – Dr. Theodore Rubin notes, “Nowadays a great many people are developing personalities that almost require constant change in order for them to feel comfortable.”[7]  That is, the long-held human values of stability and continuity are being challenged (and at times overrun) by a pace of change that, for some, exceeds our ability to respond and adapt to it, and for others, is like an addictive drug that some people can’t live without.

The nature of change is changing.  It’s faster, bigger, and less knowable. And it’s reshaping the human endeavor. Indeed, great courage is needed – courage to resist being swept into fast moving currents of change whose implications are not yet fully understood, and also courage to break away from the old, ineffective ways of doing things.  We need courage to face a world of changed circumstances, of fewer resources ripe for our picking, and so too, the courage to make difficult sacrifices.  We need courage to fix our failing democracy. 

Perhaps this is a good moment to pause, breathe, and speak, inwardly or out loud, that well-known and so necessary prayer. 

God (or higher power or Spirit of Life)
Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

I suspect that if I told my mother that I see her having great courage in making the decision to move, she would demur.  No, she would say, it’s a lot of work and heartache and bother and upset.  And, she would add, I’m not at all sure that the result is going to be something I even like.  No, it’s just something to get through.

And what might I say? That all her life she has been building up a reserve of courage – as a refugee, beginning life here in the U.S. with nothing; as a woman determined to have a career as well as a family; as a cancer survivor; as someone who, for 83 years, has borne her share of challenge.  That’s the courage she now draws on for this move, but also when she volunteers to be with the youngest children in the poorest of the town’s schools; when she writes letters to state and national officials promoting justice and equity; as she faces the inevitable changes that come with ageing – arthritis and cataracts, and the loss of dear friends and a husband of 55 years. 

And then again, maybe I’ll just give her the book “Say Hello to Zorro!” – and wish for her that there are yet some unexpected and joyful surprises to come with the Change.

[1] Susan Griffin, “Women and Nature,” in Marilyn Sewell, ed., Cries of the Spirit (Boston: Beacon Press), 1991, p. 23.
[2] Sogyal Rinpoche, “The Truth of Impermanence,” in Dennis Wholey, ed., The Miracle of Change (NY:  Pocket Books, 1993) p. 81.
[3] quoted in Peter L. Steinke, Healthy Congregations  workshop 2, p. 28.
[4] Liz M., “Trust the Process,” in Wholey, op cit, p. 33.
[5] ibid., pp. 33-34.
[6] quoted in Jonathan Sacks, The Dignity of Difference (NY: Continuum, 2002), p. 26.
[7] Theodore Rubin, “Our Culture is Spinning,” in Wholey, op cit, p. 36.

Posted in Sermons | Comments Off on The Courage to Change

A Multitude of Covenants

The Rev. Alison Cornish, January 8, 2012.
There is no life apart from one another… The question is not whether we are social, connected beings. That is a given.  The question is how we shape our modes of being with one another and with the sources that uphold and sustain life.– Rebecca Parker

Today’s message has its beginning many years ago when I was officiating at a wedding of two seminary classmates of mine.  They were young, and very much in love, and had gathered their family and friends at a somewhat unusual venue.  You see, the groom had been for several years a Buddhist monk at a monastery in Rhode Island.  After leaving the monastery to attend seminary – yes, you heard that right! – he met his bride-to-be, and together, they had continued a relationship with the Zen center.  So they chose to be married at the monastery, and I was asked to co-officiate with the groom’s teacher, a somewhat formidable and imposing monk. 

I had just come to the part of the ceremony, after the couple exchanges their vows, when I invite those in attendance to take a few moments of silence to contemplate, to touch in on, their own vows, their own promises made in love, to partners, family, friends.  And in that moment I looked up and saw the rows of monks looking back at me, and realized, with a start, that we were gathered in the presence of some very different vows – the vows these monks had taken when they entered and made their commitments to the Buddhist community. I quickly added to my list of vows and promises “and those made in and to community” to those I had already noted.  Perhaps I imagined it, but I thought I saw a few monks smile at the acknowledgement – a nod, as it were, to the presence of a multitude of covenants in that room.

Although that is the last wedding I officiated at a monastery, I have continued to use the words of the wedding ceremony that I hastily amended that day in each wedding I perform.  After the couple exchanges their vows, and as part of the prayer that follows, I say, “May we also use these moments to remember our own sacred bonds, our own commitments and vows made to primary relationships, family members and friends, and communities.  As our shared silence embraces these two people, may it also rekindle the pledges that ground each of our own lives.”  I don’t know what people might make of it, calling out the explicit and perhaps implied promises that form the sea in which we swim each and every day.  But the ceremony would now feel incomplete to me without that recognition.

In fact, I suspect we too rarely have an occasion when we, individually or collectively, have an opportunity to reflect on the covenants, the “promises made in love,” that form the relationships of our lives, which is particularly unfortunate for Unitarian Universalists because our faith is, at root, a covenantal one.  Our religion is a modern incarnation of this ancient concept: We promise to walk together in love.  By creating congregations around this core idea, we establish what might be called “nurseries for values that are key to a satisfying life.”  When we promise to walk together in love, we build trust – between one another, and, over time, a whole wellspring of trust that is sustaining to the congregation – and to its members – over time.  When we promise to walk together in love, we create a place where each of us can experience bonds of belonging, one to another, not for interest or advantage, but of care.  When we promise to walk together in love, we generate loyalty, the ability to stay together even in hard times.  Too often, I think, the idea of covenant is too abstract, too distant – but when we begin to talk about it as trust, belonging and loyalty, then it is no abstract notion.  Covenant is embodied, lived, real.

Unitarian Universalist congregations, of course, are not the only places we find covenants. Explicit and implied, there are covenants in marriages and families, friendships and communities, congregations of other faiths and voluntary associations of all kinds.  Jonathan Sacks, who wrote the book “The Dignity of Difference” that our reading group recently completed, wrote this about covenant: 

Covenantal relationships [are] where we develop the grammar and syntax of reciprocity, where we help others and they help us without calculations of relative advantage…[1]

And then he writes, even more plainly and powerfully [Covenanted communities] are the larger groupings where we develop our identity – the We in which we develop our I.[2]

Written, and heard, in this way, covenantal communities sound good, don’t they? Almost idyllic … places where commitment is treasured, trust can thrive, loyalty as a cornerstone to healthy, enduring relationships.  But although all these are possibilities, they are, we know well, not always manifest.  For being a covenanted community does not automatically protect, or insulate, from forces that do not uphold and sustain life.

Setting aside, for the moment, families, marriages and other communities, let’s take a look just at religious communities that have harbored actions and behaviors that have created mistrust.  I think of the continuing unfolding of the sex abuse scandals, most prominently in the Catholic church, but present as well in other faith communities. I think of religions that have used fear and intimidation to oppress women, gays and lesbians, nonbelievers and children.  I think of churches, synagogues and mosques that are places of exclusion rather than a generous welcome.  There are too many faith communities that are not perceived as places of love and trust, but of broken promises, danger, hypocrisy and abuse.  It is no wonder, then, that there is a continuing increase in what is known as “religion alone,” or as many people say it to me – “I’m spiritual, but not religious.  I want spirituality, but not organized religion.”  Liberal and progressive people in North America and Europe are particularly mistrustful of religion. 

It is an ongoing challenge to build a case for religion – and, in the case of Unitarian Universalism specifically, a case for covenanted congregations – the core of who we are.  But that is what I hope to do this morning, in part, because I think that is our calling, our vocation, just as it has been since the mid-17th century when our first American spiritual ancestors began “walking together in love.” And, if we do this – and do it well – I believe that we will have an effect much, much larger than our actual numbers.

Returning, for a moment, to Jonathan Sacks’ work, Sacks makes the case that key aspects of modern life – particularly the institutions of democracy and capitalism – are dependent on other types of institutions which teach, build and create reciprocity, moral obligation, duty toward community and trust.  In his view, all these are needed by the giant engines of market and state that are so much a part of the planet’s life, but are actually not able themselves to produce these qualities.  Then where do they come from?  Sacks’ answer: “From families, communities, friendships, congregations, voluntary associations … wherever people are brought together not by advantage of wealth or power but by commitment to one another or to a larger cause they serve in common.”  The challenge? The market and state have actually weakened these trust-creating institutions.  And without those ancient covenantal institutions, the bonds that connect us have begun to fray, and the sense of identity and belonging that once grounded our lives has become ever more tenuous.  There are different names for these qualities that are so necessary to life – sociologists call it trust; economists, social capital; sociobiologists, “reciprocal altruism;” and political theorists, civil society. But they all say basically the same thing – that life is about more than a series of market exchanges, more than contracts and preferences and temporary, one-time encounters designed for mutual gain.  Those attributes that covenantal communities create, support, generate and spread – trust, loyalty, belonging – are essential to the wellbeing of institutions far larger and more powerful than our own.[3]

I have spoken in the past about how much I believe that faith communities have always been, and must continue to be, communities of resistance.  It is a hard road to be true to values that are not necessarily honored in the society where many of us spend most of our days. Whether that’s the inclusion of all people, regardless of sexual orientation, or resisting the forces that would demonize women and men born in other countries searching for work on our shores, or raising children to be spiritual seekers rather than indoctrinated by creedal belief, or any other of the multitudinous ways people who seek justice and spiritual freedom go against the grain in support of love and life, someone has to do it. And, I know and you know, from experience, these roads are difficult, sometimes impossible, to walk alone. Together, we support one another, encourage each other, laugh and play and cry and pick one another up after a tumble or defeat.  Faith communities, I believe, will always be the places this work is first and foremost.

Rebecca Parker offers another case for religious communities, and most particularly liberal, covenanted congregations, just like ours. She refers to them as “an embodied experience of freely-chosen, life-sustaining interdependence.”[4] Which is a fancy way of saying “we need one another,” and “I need you.”  But let’s not skip over her elegant language too quickly, because deep inside it is that essential component – “freely-chosen.”  Our congregations are formed by the will of the people themselves, and governed by the members – rather than a hierarchal church, authorized by tradition, governed by priests and so forth.  Why is this so important? Well, I believe it is when we have full freedom in a spiritual setting, such as that found here, that we can best learn what we need to about ourselves. This is the place where each of us can find our “I” in the midst of “We.”  And that puts all of us in very good stead when we need to live and work and even confront the other places in our lives where we are less likely to have such openness and freedom. 

These are just three ways that I see our covenanted faith communities as essential to life in the 21st century – we create and sustain the values and practices that are needed by other institutions, such as the market and the democratic state; we are the necessary communities of resistance where the fires of justice are stoked; and we are communities gathered in and for freedom, for the full expression of human potential.  But before I close, I want to offer just a couple of thoughts not about why we should exist, but how we walk together in love; that is, in the words of Rebecca Parker found at the top of your Orders of Service.  “There is no life apart from one another… The question is not whether we are social, connected beings. That is a given.  The question is how we shape our modes of being with one another and with the sources that uphold and sustain life.”

Perhaps you remember a bit about James Luther Adams who made an “appearance” at our December 11th service when he was advocating for the desegregation of First Unitarian Church of Chicago? Well, JLA, as he’s familiarly called, was famously an enormous champion of covenant. But, he would say, there must be some correctives in order for covenants to be effective.[5] The first, he said, is that a covenanted community must be dedicated to the thriving of all beings and all life, not just those within the covenant. That is, the agreements, the bonds, that draw people together in covenant must not be so exclusive as to apply only to some, to themselves, but must somehow seek to uphold and sustain life beyond its own borders, its own members.  In a way, this is what is meant by “think globally, act locally.” Or, more prosaically, it’s never all about us. 

The second, Adams said, is that covenanted communities must hold themselves accountable to something or someone beyond their own group.  Now before you think that I’m invoking a deity here – Adams himself was quick to say “not necessarily.”  A community could hold itself accountable to those most at risk of harm – think, for example, about the biblical injunctions about widows and orphans that would ask, what would we do differently if their wellbeing was the first of our priorities?  Or think of the American Indian principle of Seven Generations – to consider how any decision made will affect the next seven generations of descendents – not only their own, but that of the flora and fauna as well.  This question of accountability is one, I believe, much under-explored in Unitarian Universalist congregations, because I think we confuse it with authority.  But it is a place of richness and possibility.

Finally, I believe there is another necessity to life in a covenanted community – forgiveness.  John Buerhens says it poetically – “we are the promise-making, promise-breaking, promise-renewing animal.”[6] This is the reality of the human condition.  We make promises, one to another, in good faith and sound intention. And it doesn’t always go as we planned, hoped or dreamed, in relationships, in families, or in congregations. In fact, one UU minister, writing a word for new members, spoke a hard truth when she said “you will not truly be a member here until we disappoint you, and you find it in your heart to forgive us, and keep walking together, in love.”  That is the point, really, of those words that I use in every wedding service – a pause in the headlong rush of life for each person to reflect on the promises made, promises broken, promises to be renewed.  So let’s, in closing, do just that. May we take a few moments of quiet to remember our own sacred bonds, our own commitments and vows – promises made, promises broken, promises renewed – to primary relationships, to family members and friends, and to communities, including this congregation.  As our shared silence, here in this space, embraces these images and names, may it also rekindle the pledges that ground each of our own lives.

A Tangerine Communion
Adapted from Robert Fulghum, From Beginning to End: The Rituals of Our Lives[7]

The members and friends of all ages, all walks of life, of this congregation – you and I – we – are tangled up with one another – woven together in a unique fabric called the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the South Fork. Sometimes we understand why we are here together. Sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we will talk about our being in this place together. Sometimes we can’t. But we keep showing up here on a pretty regular basis. Because there is something here, and more of it here than anyplace else for us. And that something is essential to our well-being. That something is community – religious community. Common concerns, common needs, common principles – these bind us together as an extended family.  And the ties which bind should be celebrated from time to time. This is communion, an ancient tradition, an occasion when those who trust and care for one another share food together. Often we do this after our service – or between services – but those times can be a bit chaotic, or rushed, or even chatty.  So let’s, this time, do it at the heart of our time together.  Communion is an act of spiritual community.

This morning we will share a tangerine – a fruit of midwinter. Small yet bright – like our best hopes and dreams. Both bitter and sweet – like life itself.  Nourishing – as we wish our relationships to be.  Plucked from a tree, it is a dead thing – like yesterday. But look at it closely – it contains seeds – like today. Planted, the seeds contain great possibilities – like tomorrow.

So, here are baskets of tangerines. Now, there are only enough for about a third of us to take a fruit.  Those who take a tangerine must peel it. Someone else will take the fruit and divide it so that everyone will have a piece.  And a third of us will be responsible for the peels and seeds. Sharing the tasks is an act of community as well. When everyone has a few pieces of tangerine, I will say a blessing, and together we will savor these fruits.

We share this as an act of community;
As a sign of the covenant we have made with one another;
To sustain, support, encourage, and love one another.
May this place ever be the workshop of our finest endeavors,
And the cradle of our highest hopes and noblest dreams.

[1] Jonathan Sacks, The Dignity of Difference (NY: Continuum, 2002), p. 151.
[2] ibid.
[3] Sacks, p. 151-157.
[4] John A. Buehrens and Rebecca Ann Parker, A House for Hope: The Promise of Progressive Religion for the Twenty-first Century (Boston: Beacon Press, 2010), p. 38.
[5] Buehrens and Parker, p. 42.
[6] Buehrens and Parker, p. 49.
[7] Robert Fulghum, From Beginning to End: The Rituals of Our Lives (NY: Villard Books, 1995), p. 84-85.
Posted in Sermons | Comments Off on A Multitude of Covenants

How Is It That We Are Evolving?

The Rev. Alison Cornish and Dr. John Andrews

(A sermon in celebration of Evolution Sunday, January 31, 2010)

Alison: For the third year in a row, John and I are honoring a national celebration of “Evolution Weekend.” We have used these services to explore the intersection of religion and science. In the first year, we looked at how science and religion seemed to become adversaries, particularly around the time that Charles Darwin published his On the Origin of Species. Last year we focused on how some of the dissention between these parties was continuing to play out in our current times. This year, we are taking yet another step down the path we have been walking. Though science and religion definitely have their discrete and unique areas, we feel we have well established that the two areas need not be in conflict, and, in fact, are each incomplete without the other. This year we want to look particularly at these important junctures in a reflection that we are calling “How is it that we are evolving? And, can any of that evolution be considered “spiritual?”

John: Before we take another step, Alison, I think it’s important to recognize that any use of a religious word like “spiritual” is likely to lead to misunderstanding. Many people, I think, use the word spiritual as a reference to some unseen ghostly substance that is totally different from ordinary matter and which is the basis of our conscious life.

I consider this theory to be terribly misguided, for reasons that would take too long to go into here. Nevertheless, I use the word “spiritual” without apology. I believe – for good philosophical reasons – that there are aspects of reality that are beyond the reach of scientific language and logic. It’s in the gap between the reach of scientific knowledge and the way things really are that I look for the spiritual. However, I also believe it’s a mistake to adopt an alternative set of equally technical – and equally inadequate – theological terms. The great theologian Paul Tillich has written persuasively of the need for symbols in religion as the only way out of this trap.

Alison: I would agree, John, we could spend all our time here trying to define this slippery term. I like your view very much – a scientist saying, essentially, there’s more “out there” than can be named by scientific language … I would add, from a religious perspective, that for me, spirituality has always involved something much larger than myself – God, the universe, mystery – and the feelings that arise in experiences of connection with that larger, even ultimate, reality.

We both know that passing around the microphone would bring many more thoughts on the subject, but for now, we beg your leave to talk of the spiritual without being shoehorned into the traditional theological mold.

John, we’ve talked together about a sort of tripartite view of evolution. There’s biological evolution, how species the world over, including Homo sapiens, have come to be. That’s the evolution that most of us were taught in school, and still read about in the newspapers as new discoveries are pondered over – such as the story this week that looks a possible missing link around feathers and flight. Then there’s the evolution that’s more specific to our species, cultural evolution, which considers how civilizations, societies, and other human-wrought institutions have developed over time. And finally, there’s the evolution and change that’s a part of each of own lifetimes, our own experiences of being the unique individuals that we are. And though we might see these three “evolutions” as distinct from one another, they intertwine and profoundly affect one another. Perhaps we could sketch them as different points on the shared circle of life – or, if we think of them actually evolving in a positive sense – even perhaps a spiral. Would you like to pick up on the first aspect of this spiral – the implications of biological evolution?

John: Sure, Alison. Biologically, our species evolved over several million years from a common ancestor we share with modern apes. That produced our underlying human nature – what is essentially hard-wired. It’s unlikely that this has changed much in the last 2,500 years. That’s why the Greek philosophers, the Hebrew prophets, and the Eastern sages are still relevant today in areas like ethics and the quest for meaning, even though their physics has long since been rendered obsolete.

There’s another aspect of biological evolution, though, that is proceeding all too rapidly. That is the alteration of the biosphere we see all around us, caused by human activity. Extinction of species caused by global climate change and mutations of pathogenic bacteria caused by overuse of antibiotics are just two examples. This, I think, is a key element in understanding our evolutionary situation now.

You mentioned another form of evolution, though, that is not caused by genetic change. Cultural evolution – which within a human lifetime – our lifetime! – has gone into warp speed. This is based on the competition of ways of thinking, speaking, and acting in social contexts, with a natural selection process winnowing out ideas that just can’t compete. Science itself evolved because it conferred power on those who used its results to further their own ends. In general, though, ideas propagate for many reasons, most of which have little to do with whether they make any sense.

Alison, I’m curious to hear what you would say about cultural evolution – the idea that humans have found different ways of living in relationship with one another, as well the ways we have found to express ourselves. I’d especially like to hear your take on a peculiar characteristic of cultural evolution, which is this. Even though culture evolves independently of genetic change, our ability to create a culture in the first place evolved in the usual way. It did so because it helped our ancestors survive. However, even if an adaptation has overall survival value, it may nevertheless have negative side effects. In the case of culture, genetic evolution has in a sense created a monster. Bits of culture, which mind scientists often refer to as “memes” by analogy with genes, can propagate from mind to mind even at the expense of the reproductive chances of the individuals who spread them. Think of the meme of martyrdom, for example. Closer to the bone, think of the possibility that our culture might cause us to destroy ourselves entirely.

That humanity’s notions of the nature of reality and of the proper ways of behaving with one another have evolved over time is, I think, obvious. What is less clear is whether our thoughts in these areas have, on the whole, improved. Even if one thinks the answer to that question is “Yes,” is there any reason to think that this is due to anything other than chance? Are we evolving on that front?

Alison: That great cultural age you referred to – that millennium or so that some have called the “Axial Age” – includes the establishment of Buddhism, Confucianism, Christianity and Islam, and the lives of some of the prophets of Judaism. As you say, the teachings from this age are still informing our present, for they established much in the way of ethics and meaning-making. But, take a closer look: the writings these traditions left to us most often emphasize a way of life characterized by love and compassion over fear and dominance – an enormous development, as far as we can understand, over the tribal and indigenous traditions that proceeded them. Have we managed to universally manifest their ideals? Not at all. And in some areas of life, particularly when we have admitted the inbreaking of human reason, we have moved past them. But as for positive cultural development take, for example, the institution of slavery, which was an accepted practice in both the time of the birth of these great religions and the time of the Enlightenment. It was a cultural norm until very recent history – we are less than 150 years after the Emancipation proclamation in our own country. The vast majority of the world’s cultures now condemn slavery, and though it has not been completely erased – nor have the conditions which allow it continue in bleak corners of our world – most country’s laws, peoples and practices are firmly united against slavery on moral grounds. And, quite honestly, I don’t think we’ll ever go back on that. That argument is won and done, and I don’t think that its ultimate success was about survival. It was an evolutionary “turning,” of being able to see our fellow sisters and brothers in the faces of those formerly viewed simply as “property.” Did reason play a role? Perhaps. But ultimately I think empathy played a larger one.

Teilhard de Chardin wrote “man is nothing else than evolution become conscious of itself.” It seems to me that his words move past what is science, or spirituality, or reason, or emotion, which is a good thing. Because, with all aspects working together – reason, spiritual values, the power of connecting with one another – we, our species, might even “feedback” into the biological cycle. For example, once we understand (scientifically) the dynamics of extinction, and our hearts are moved by understanding our kinship to fellow species, we might be able to come together and act to change the biological trajectory. John, how about the individual – you, me, everyone here this morning – how do each of us have our own “experience” of evolution?

John: We as Individuals do, of course, evolve over our lifetimes. Much of the most profound thought in psychology and religion has to do with both creative and destructive ways in which we change in response to experience. Within the constricted time frame represented by even the longest human lifespan, each of us has opportunities to make choices whose consequences may ripple though deep time. A key idea, here, I think, is the fact that these choices can alter the forces that drive our own evolution. We are the only species that has this power. Even though human nature doesn’t change, we can through the exercise of reason set up conditions under which “the better angels of our nature” will win out more often than they would if things were left to chance. We can do this individually and in small groups through spiritual practice. We can do it in the larger society by working to improve our institutions. The tragedy, of course, is that too often we neglect these opportunities.

Alison, you proposed earlier that all three of these “evolutions,” biological, cultural and individual are interconnected. That sounds pretty interesting, and complicated. Would you like to say more about that?

Alison: That’s the really exciting news these days, John. First, through science, we’re learning more about the human brain, or mind (which in itself a fascinating quest – are they the same, or different entities?) all the time. In short, we are learning more about that “hard wiring” you spoke of earlier. There are four major areas of the brain, and many smaller ones we are still learning about – what is sometimes too simplistically referred to as our “reptile brain,” where our reactions related to self-preservation and survival seem to originate; our mammalian brain, where feeling, and connections between ourselves and to others seems to “live;” our neo cortex, the seat of logic, language, images and intuition; and finally, the frontal lobe, from where we seem to generate self-awareness. As new imaging technology is developed, we are learning so much more about what parts of the brain are activated – what “lights up” – by different kinds of experiences. As we learn more about that, we can connect it to our individual and collective experiences, and see patterns that develop. Some of these help us to explain evolution that’s already happened through history, and some, we hope, will also help us to better manage the future. Casting back, author George Vaillant writes:

For selfish reptiles to evolve into loving mammals took genetic evolution that led to the development… of the brain region underlying our positive emotions. For loving, playful, passionate mammals to become creative scientists and intellectual theologians took genetic evolution that led to the development… of the brain region underlying both our science and our religious dogma…. [But] for human beings to have evolved into Samaritans who often place compassion, forgiveness, and unselfish love above a mentality of might-makes-right has required cultural evolution [which is] more rapid and more flexible than genetic evolution… with each passing century, cultural awareness… gains ground and contributes to community survival.

As to the individual, each person in this room has, I am sure, “grown.” One way we’ve spoken about this here in our Unitarian Universalist tradition is to name “used to thinks.” As each of us grows and ages, we have the opportunity to examine those ideas we “caught” as much as we were taught – from our parents, teachers, the world around us – and see if they still serve us, and our vision of a just and loving world. I remember several moments in last year’s “Welcoming Congregation” process when individuals spoke movingly of the biases and prejudices about sexual orientation that they had intentionally, mindfully, and sometimes painfully “shed” over the years.

I see these three areas of evolution – genetic, cultural and individual – as continuously “selecting” for more cooperation, more breadth of tolerance, and more reason. I don’t think it’s any accident that we’re at this point just as the world is more interconnected than it has ever been before, because these are all the attributes that we will need as our population continues to grow, and our problems of survival are less about avoiding being eaten on the savannah, and more about working together across differences to find common solutions – for example, to global warming.

John, I suspect you have more to add, or perhaps to challenge, on this subject of “interconnected evolution?”

John: Alison, I would agree with some of that and question some.

The part that rings true to me is that these different forms of evolution are interconnected. Genetic evolution made culture possible. Culture makes individual evolution possible. Individual evolution affects the ways we engage with and even – in the case of heroic individuals – change our culture. And culture affects the way we treat the biosphere, thereby affecting its genetic evolution. There are causal arrows all over the place, each process feeding back into the others.

The part I’m less sure about is the idea that these evolutionary processes are necessarily selecting “for more cooperation, more breadth of tolerance, and more reason.” Within the time frame of recorded history, genetic evolution hasn’t been selecting for much of anything except extinction. In the realm of culture, we Westerners have been fortunate that the Enlightenment happened on our turf, but I don’t see anything inevitable about that. If one looked at the Mediterranean world a thousand years ago, one would have seen a glorious civilization in Islam and a cultural backwater in Christian Europe.

As for individual evolution, were Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela any more “selected for” than Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot? Perhaps, but if so it’s not obvious, at least to me.

Where there is room for optimism, I think, is in something we touched on earlier. Humans are the only species on this planet that can make conscious choices that affect the direction of its own evolution. Even though we are morally flawed – in religious terms, sinners – we can through the use of reason arrange things so that in the future we will be more likely to follow the right path. Twelve-step programs are based on this principle. What our culture needs is the moral equivalent of a twelve-step program, so that our future collective actions will lead in the direction of happiness and peace rather than bloodshed and despair. This requires choices – many small choices and a few great ones – with the outcome hanging in the balance. President Obama referred to this contingency in his State of the Union speech when he cited the many occasions in American history when the future was very much in doubt.

At least that gives us a chance. It makes living in the spirit of justice and love a rational option and not merely an act of defiance. This is where faith comes in. Faith is not the opposite of doubt. As Paul Tillich has said, true faith takes doubt into itself and makes possible the courage to be.

Alison: John, we would perhaps agree that in these past few weeks, the news has presented plenty of evidence for both hope and despair about the prospects of collective spiritual evolution. For example, in the great sadness in the country of Haiti following the earthquake we have seen humans at their best, helping one another in the most dire of circumstances, resilient and generous, hopeful and creative. But the most responsible of our media have also reminded us that the circumstances of the Haitian people are the product of not just natural disasters, but more than 200 years of intentional, international “shunning,” as well as locally-grown corruption, violence, incompetence and oppression – that is “cultural evolution” gone very bad, with plenty of individuals, like Baby Doc, who were abusive with their power. Here perhaps we see all three of our “evolutions” at work, and John, I would agree, at times at cross purposes. As individuals, we carry within us an enormously strong will to survive – we are seeing this in people who have unbelievably been pulled from the rubble alive after being buried for more than two weeks. We have heard stories of benevolent collective action, and also of violence, though the former seems to outweigh the latter. And we have witnessed the work of extraordinary individuals, such as Dr. Paul Farmer, dedicated to the well-being of the Haitian people not just today and tomorrow, but over decades past and still to come. So many have asked if there is a “silver lining” to this disaster. I cannot think of an event so cataclysmic in such Pollyanna-ish terms. But I also cannot think that there a person who is not somehow moved, in some profound way, by both the plight of the Haitian people and also by the lengths which strangers have chosen to be of help – whether those be doctors from the world over traveling to treat victims, or a child sending his allowance to fund assistance.

This should leave us hopeful, John, and I suppose also watchful. Watchful for the opportunities presented to each of us, every day, to engage our “better angels,” in the smallest of choices we make, thousands of times, over and over, each and every day. And yes, I agree with you wholeheartedly, this gives us a chance to live in justice and love, not simply in defiance. For that is the faith that I hold – that love, in the end, will save us. Every great religion has held this as the ultimate truth, and, evidence to the contrary, it is still where I place my faith. May our “spiritual evolution” speed its way in that direction!!

George Vaillant, Spiritual Evolution (NY: Broadway Books, 2008).

Posted in Sermons | Tagged | Comments Off on How Is It That We Are Evolving?

The Origins of Belief

Stuart Lowrie

Sunday, May 3, 2009 – 

It comes as no surprise that humans can be remarkably resistant to new ideas or beliefs. Sir Winston Churchill put it thusly:

“People occasionally stumble across the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing had happened.”

And our own Mark Twain observed another side of this same resistance to change, the power of our beliefs to lead us down blind allies and unproductive byways, when he observed:

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you in trouble, it’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

Something as storied as persistent stubbornness in the face of overwhelming facts deserves to be better understood and more talked about, especially in the religious setting. And in the last decade or more, new scientific methods and better lines of questioning have begun to unravel the reasons for the power of blind belief.

We know by rational examination and through our own experience, for example, that belief in the tenets of any religion is not, in itself intrinsic to the human brain.

No-one is born believing in the trinity. No-one is born believing in the multi-armed goddess Kali. No-one is born adhering to Seven Principles. No-one is born worshipping Yahweh. All that is learned.

As we all know, to quote Rodgers and Hammerstein, “you’ve got to be carefully taught” to follow the belief systems of your peers and parents.

But how come it’s so easy to get “taught” and so HARD to let go of what we were taught?

In an article entitled “Darwin’s God”, and published in the NYT in March 2007, ROBIN MARANTZ HENIG develops this and other arguments and ideas in far greater detail than I can here, and for those of you fast with the pen, I recommend it to you as a primer on this whole question of belief. According to Henig, and the scientists whose ideas she was writing about,

“Children seem to be born with a tendency to believe in omniscience, invisible

minds, immaterial souls — and then they grow up in cultures that fill their minds, hard-wired for belief, with specifics. It is a little like language acquisition… with the essential difference that language is a biological adaptation and religion, in his view, is not. We are born with an innate facility for language but the specific language we learn depends on the environment in which we are raised. In much the same way… we are born with an innate tendency for belief, but the specifics of what we grow up believing — whether there is one God or many, whether the soul goes to heaven or occupies another animal after death — are culturally shaped.”


A recent article in Natural History magazine casts a little light on this question of the “stickiness of belief” in the context of Darwinism and creationism.

According to this study, among 40 industrialized nations around the world surveyed for belief in Darwinism vs creationism, this country ranked second from last, ahead of only Turkey… not even 40% of Americans polled were willing to assert that the basics of Darwinism are “true.

Surprisingly, the article notes that whether you believe in creationism or side withDarwinism, it makes little difference if you’re smart or well-educated – neither is a reliable predictor of which approach to biology you’ll believe.

But here’s the most peculiar part of the results of this study:

When researchers asked subjects to explain the theory of natural selection and descent with modification, explanations from adherents as well as those who rejected it, were equally poor.

The difference between adherents and detractors of Darwinism, according to the article, likely comes from HOW we actually learn about the world and settle on what we believe to be true, according to the authors of the study,

“Some of our beliefs emerge from personal experience… some beliefs emerge from conscious deliberation, which might apply to views about evolution that a scientist or theologian might hold. But most of what a person knows [or thinks he or she knows] is learned from other people, through hearsay or testimony.”

And much of what we are likely to believe is linked to the source of that testimony. That innate deference to authority and trust of authority dominates our acceptance of and belief in testimony of others.

Evolutionarily, this makes perfect sense – older, more experienced people in the community were more likely to know how to solve problems, manage crises, help the community cope with stress. The human groups that more readily recognized and identified experience and followed the advice of experienced leaders were more likely tobe successful at reproducing over time – leaving behind more offspring who were genetically pre-disposed to listen to experienced adults.

This willingness to defer to the opinions of authorities and experts also helps explain why creationism in this country is so widely accepted. Unlike other developed countries, such as Sweden, Denmark and Iceland where more than 75% of the population accepts the truth of Darwinism, a sizeable vocal and entrenched minority of authority figures (conservative and fundamentalist clergy for the most part) have sway over the opinions of many Americans with respect to matters deemed theological and

controversial. They trust their pastors rather than the white lab-coated scientist or Richard Dawkins.

But beyond this acceptance of authorities and testimonials, the Natural History magazine article hints at the deeper biological basis for credulity. In saying that we may have evolved to defer to authority, the article leaves hanging in the air what heritable features of the human phenotype might be the source of our credulity – our willingness to believe what leaders tell us.


At the top of the problem of belief lies this sordid truth: most of the operations of the human mind happen out of view of its owners, possibly because that’s the way our brain evolved to work initially. And partly because that’s the way that the mind works best, under many circumstances. Without such an efficient, powerful and fast means of understanding and acting on the world around us, it would be difficult to survive. We could be stuck pondering every little decision, such as whether to move our left or right foot forward first.

One consequence of this interior and invisible brain wiring is that we often, perhaps mostly, make decisions intuitively, outside our awareness, based on other features of brain wiring and invisible inputs that influence how that wiring functions.

We are amazingly unaware of this unawareness – and when put to the sticking point – “Explain why you made a particular decision” we often don’t actually KNOW why we made it – because the decision happened outside our ability to access the process of deciding.

Yet, who among us, when caught in such a moment, has ever had trouble finding the “reasons” for a decision, a choice, a preference?

As a parent, it happens to me every ten minutes when I’m with my children. They ask for something, I say “No”, they say “Why not?” (every child is an attorney, after all) and I have to create a reason for an invisible, intuited decision or choice…

And we do, honestly, believe that those reasons offered in the moment are the “real” reasons we made a decision. And we rarely ever answer such questions with, “I don’t know”.

Here’s one project that measures how this works: researchers showed participants in a study photographs of two women and asked them to choose the one they found most attractive. The experimenter then showed the participant the photo he preferred and asked the participant in the study for the reasons for their choices.

In some trials, though, the researcher, through slight of hand, actually showed participants the photograph they found less attractive! You would expect most people to see though this ruse; but 75% did not. And of those 75% who didn’t notice the switch, the vast majority easily came up with reasons for why they picked the photograph that they, in fact, had rejected!

In a scary side-note, the researchers could not find any difference in the kinds of reasons that people used to defend their actual choice of a photograph versus the reasons they used to defend the choice of the photo that they had actually rejected. That suggests that participants actually make up reasons in the moment for either outcome – explaining their actual choice or explaining the false choice perpetrated by the researcher.

This should sound a lot like the creationist vs Darwinist results I mentioned earlier where neither variant could give a cogent explanation of the theory that they claimed to support or reject.

“My mind’s made up, don’t confuse me with the facts!”

What’s at the bottom of this? Two things:

We can’t trust our brains to follow the path of reason and evidence all on their own.


Faces have a special place in our brain wiring. Faces are VERY important to us. They’re important to our survival as individuals and as a species.


We’re hardwired to recognize faces. Our brains literally have pre-assigned circuitry that essentially “takes a picture of a face” and stores it with extraordinary accuracy. Linking that mental picture of a face to the attached name may be problematic for some of us most of the time and for all of us from time to time, but with astounding accuracy, we KNOW if we’ve seen that face before.

So, what does this circuitry do for us in the real world? Foremost, it would seem, we are heavily biased by faces in our assessments and interactions with other people. This plays out in curious ways and contributes to a willingness to “believe”, in the absence (often COMPLETE absence) of any other evidence or information. Take this study described in the June 2005 issue of Science Magazine.

About 70% of the 2004 U.S. Senate races were accurately predicted based on which candidates looked more competent from a quick glance at their faces. This remarkable effect, reported by Todorov et al., likely reflects differences in “babyfacedness” ( A more babyfaced individual is perceived as less competent than a more mature-faced, but equally attractive, peer of the same age and sex ( Although we like to believe that we “don’t judge a book by its cover,” superficial appearance qualities such as babyfacedness profoundly affect human behavior in the blink of an eye.

Most daunting here is that we so trust our facial recognition and processing

circuitry (or discount other sources of information) that we make critical decisions solely on that basis – or as we’ve already learned, we easily justify the interior decision made by our brain circuitry, outside of our conscious awareness, AFTER THE FACT. We believe we know the right answer to a question of concern, based on no real information whatever.

However, if you stop and think about it from an evolutionary point of view, it

makes perfect sense that we’d be wired to trust and have confidence in older

members of our species – the less babyfaced ones of course – since on average they’d be more likely to have the experience needed to allow our tribe, community or other social unit to survive during times of stress. Sort of like the matriarchy that helps elephant herds survive droughts – the older females remember where the reliable water holes were found twenty years ago during that last severe drought.


Following along on this partisan track, (and here presented in words drawn almost directly from the New York Times report ) in 2004, researchers lead by Dr. Drew Westin of Emory University in Atlanta Georgia, recruited 30 adult men who described themselves as committed Republicans or Democrats. The men, half of them supporters of President Bush and the other half backers of Senator John Kerry, earned $50 to sit in an M.R.I. machine and consider several statements in quick succession. The first was a quote attributed to one of the two candidates: either a remark by Mr. Bush in support of Kenneth L. Lay, the former Enron chief, before he was indicted, or a statement by Mr. Kerry that Social Security should be overhauled.

Moments later, the participants heard a remark that showed the candidate

reversing his position. Some of the quotes were doctored for maximum effect, but all were presented as factual.

The Republicans in the study judged Mr. Kerry as harshly as the Democrats judged Mr. Bush. But each group let its own candidate off the hook.

After the participants read the contradictory comment, the researchers measured increased activity in several, areas of the brain. They included a region involved in regulating negative emotions and another called the cingulate, which activates when the brain makes judgments about forgiveness, among other things. Also, a spike appeared in several areas known to be active when people feel relieved or rewarded– the pleasure centers of the brain were stimulated by the brain with endorphins

during the process of rejecting contradictory information about a deeply held

conviction – in this case, the intrinsic “goodness” of a political candidate. Similar to the study that asked participants to pick their favorite photo that I mentioned earlier, the “cold reasoning” regions of the cortex were relatively quiet. The subject was unaware of the mental process that had just gone on in his or her head.

Researchers have long known that political decisions are strongly influenced by unconscious emotional reactions, a fact routinely exploited by campaign

consultants and advertisers. But the new research suggests that for partisans, political thinking is often predominantly emotional.

It is possible to override these biases, Dr. Westen said, but you have to engage in ruthless self reflection, to say, ‘All right, I know what I want to believe, but l have to be honest”.

When we reject information that contradicts our beliefs and feelings about the wider world around us, we actually trigger the release of endorphins in our brain. It gives us direct pleasure through the stimulation of brain cells themselves to reinforce the rejection of ideas that conflict with our belief.


New research demonstrates that habits of so-called magical thinking — the

belief, for instance, that wishing harm on a loathed colleague or relative might make him sick — are far more common than people acknowledge. I’m sure that virtually all of us have a secret “Lucky pebble”, tee-shirt, or other behavior or object that gives us comfort and that, at some level, we grant power to…

Magical thinking, a close cousin of faith and the tenets of religion, underlies a

vast, often unseen universe of small rituals that accompany people through

every waking hour of a day.

The appetite for such beliefs appears to be rooted in the circuitry of the brain,

and for good reason. The sense of having special powers buoys people in

threatening situations, and helps soothe everyday fears and ward off mental

distress. In excess, it can lead to compulsive or delusional behavior. This

emerging portrait of magical thinking helps explain why people who fashion

themselves skeptics cling to odd rituals that seem to make no sense, and how apparently harmless superstition may become disabling.

The brain seems to have networks that are specialized to produce an explicit,

what we might call “magical” explanation in some circumstances, said Pascal

Boyer, a professor of psychology and anthropology at “More articles about Washington University” Washington University in St. Louis. According to Boyer, such thinking was “only one domain where a relevant interpretation that connects all the dots, so to speak, is preferred to a rational one.”

Children exhibit a form of magical thinking by about 18 months, when they begin to create imaginary worlds while playing. By age 3, most know the difference between fantasy and reality, though they usually still believe (with adult encouragement) in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. By age 8, and sometimes earlier, they have mostly pruned away these beliefs, and the line between magic and reality is about as clear to them as it is for adults.


Magical thinking is directly tied to our perceptual experiences with the outside world. And it’s greatly aided by our willingness as a species to “count the hits and forget the misses” – we remember WELL the times that our magical thinking appears to have been rewarded, but preferentially forget the MANY MORE times that our magical thinking had no apparent relationship to outcomes experienced. And this tendency to count the hits may be related to another feature of the human brain –

Our brain is wired to respond to actions and activities. That wiring tells us that, if something is moving, when we see a bush burning, a ripple in a pond, a tree branch waving on an otherwise still tree, there is a “mover” or an actor or agent (either seeable or not seeable) responsible for that activity.

A classic experiment from the 1940s by the psychologists Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel suggested that imputing agency is so automatic that people may do it even for geometric shapes. For the experiment, subjects watched a film of triangles and circles moving around. When asked what they had been watching, the subjects used words like ”chase” and ”capture.” They did not just see the random movement of shapes on a screen; they saw pursuit, planning, escape.

So if there is motion just out of our line of sight, we presume it is caused by an agent, an animal or person with the ability to move independently. This usually operates in one direction only; lots of people mistake a rock for a bear, but almost no one mistakes a bear for a rock.

Not you, the conscious being, you don’t make a decision that there is an agent out there moving the branch. Your brain does. By the time you become consciously aware of something happening, your brain has already decided “there’s something out there that needs to be watched”. This hyper-alert early warning assessment system in our brains is highly adaptive. Poisonous snakes, attacking predators, moving cars, falling branches can all be avoided more quickly if we note and respond to them fast.


The traditional psychological view has been that until about age 4, children think that minds are permeable and that everyone knows whatever the child himself knows. To a young child, everyone is infallible. All other people, especially Mother and Father, are thought to have the same sort of insight as an all-knowing God.

But at a certain point in development, this changes. (Some new research suggests this might occur as early as 15 months.) The ”false-belief test” is a classic experiment that highlights the boundary. Children watch a puppet show with a simple plot: John comes onstage holding a marble, puts it in Box A and walks off. Mary comes onstage, opens Box A, takes out the marble, puts it in Box B and walks off. John comes back onstage. The children are asked, Where will John look for the marble?

Very young children, or autistic children of any age, say John will look in Box B, since they know that’s where the marble is. But older children give a more sophisticated answer. They know that John never saw Mary move the marble and that as far as he is concerned it is still where he put it, in Box A. Older children have developed a theory of mind; they understand that other people sometimes have false beliefs. Even though they know that the marble is in Box B, they respond that John will look for it in Box A.

Daniel C. Dennett recently published “Breaking the Spell’” a no-holds barred investigation of religion as just one among many natural phenomena… I did not have time to read it prior to preparing this presentation, however, I call it to your attention here.

Michael Shermer, a regular contributor to Scientific American, wrote a review of this book recently. He summarizing Dennett’s main points this way:

“Humans have brains that are big enough to be both self-aware and aware that others are self-aware. This “theory of mind” leads to a “hyperactive agent detection device” (HADD) that not only alerts us to real dangers, such as poisonous snakes, but also generates false positives, such as believing that rocks and trees are imbued with intentional minds or spirits – since we know that other people are aware of themselves, it’s an easy step to project that kind of conscious awareness onto inappropriate objects. “The memorable nymphs and fairies and goblins and demons that crowd the mythologies of every people are the imaginative offspring of a hyperactive habit of finding agency wherever anything puzzles or frightens us.” This is animism that, in the well-known historical sequence, leads to polytheism and, eventually, monotheism. In other words, God is a false positive generated by our HADD.

I’ll let this dense paragraph settle in with you for a second. But suffice it to say, Dennett would assert that there is nothing remarkable about a belief in God – nothing that ultimately cannot be examined as one would examine any natural phenomenon. And by extension, Dennett would assert that religions themselves, as totally human constructs, are natural phenomena and subject to the same process of scientific inquiry as any other kind of human behavior.

I find this open and scientific approach to belief refreshing. Some of us may have to apply ruthless self-reflection to get past the arbitrary in our world of belief – but I think, for the future of our species, it’s worth the effort.


So here’s my heresy for today:

Sophia Fahs got it all wrong. Well, not entirely wrong – it does matter what we believe.

But it doesn’t matter so much WHAT we believe. Some kind of belief, a belief divorced from facts, is inevitable. And even the most ruthlessly self-reflective individual among us may be able to choose his or her beliefs far LESS than they are chosen FOR them by their brains.

The rapidly expanding body of evidence from science is clear: our very biology at the most profound depths compels us to believe – as quickly as you can say “hyperactive agent detection device”. We will surely and certainly believe ideas and notions and theories whether we will it or NOT. And we will have, at the ready, sage and apparently well-crafted explanations of these beliefs – thanks to the inner invisible power of our decision circuitry.

Even greater as a challenge: received wisdom from scientific studies says that it’s REALLY hard to change your mind, it’s really hard to detach your self from old beliefs and fully inhabit a new idea, a new way of looking at the world, a new belief – and it’s REALLY, REALLY hard to let go of a cherished and carefully nourished belief held over a lifetime – no matter how wrong it may be upon the most basic and simple inspection….

Science says that the reasons these things are SO HARD has little to do with us as individuals struggling to do the right thing in an ambiguous world – it has EVERYTHING to do with our own biology, our brain circuitry and hard wiring.

Our brains, operating outside of our conscious ability to inspect and apply quality control, manufacture these states of belief and even help us defend them, pleasurably, in the complete absence of our awareness, reason, evidence or good sense.

If the idea of God is an artifact of a hyperactive agency detection device, then sustained belief in that God, once we and our peers identify her as a causal agent, is an artifact of how our brains are wired and how our biology re-enforces prejudice. We WILL believe things – crazy things, wrong things, weird things, complex ideas that have no sustaining evidence, no matter how we may struggle to avoid it.

No belief should be above questioning, criticism and doubting, none should be above learning, above skepticism nor, most of all, abandonment. Even the tenets of Science and the scientific method itself should be rigorously reassessed and doubted.

Yet we are wired to approach belief in exactly the opposite manner.

We have to be ever aware that any effort to be reasonable about our beliefs requires “ruthless self-reflection” – remember that our brains have already made up our minds for us based on an automatic assessment of information, outside of our conscious awareness.

What does it matter if a grad student believes that a lucky stone in her pocket will help her get a better grade on an exam, so long as she continues to study and work as if it were NOT true?

It matters HOW we believe.

What does it matter if you believe in a great white God in the sky who metes out justice with a rod of iron and who created the whole of the universe in 6 days while I believe in no god and see the universe as a work in progress now about 13.7 billion years old and still going strong, so long as we both serve all humanity with love and respect without concern for who’s truth (if either) is actually right?

It matters HOW we believe.

What does it matter if you believe that your candidate for office is vastly superior to mine, and I believe the opposite, so long as we both strive for inclusivity, fairness and diversity in government?

It matters HOW we believe.

It is possible for people with widely differing beliefs to stand together on critical issues of fairness, sharing, and civil rights. Indeed, that is the model that Unitarian Universalism so remarkably, hopefully optimistically puts out there – and that ought to be the standard that guides us all in our free and responsible quest for truth and meaning.

May it be so!

Posted in Sermons | Tagged | Comments Off on The Origins of Belief

Easter Sunday: Visiting with Jesus

The Rev. Alison Cornish

Sunday, April 12, 2009 – 

Now, I don’t know if it happened this way or not, but I know this story is true.

– A Native American storyteller’s start to a story …

“Visiting with Jesus” The Rev. Alison Cornish

I had a dream a while back. Jesus came to visit. Yep, right here, right to this very congregation, this exact place.

By the time I got over my shock at being in a dream with Jesus, he had already arrived, so I don’t know exactly how he got here. It could be that he was up all night, telling stories over at Ziggy’s across the street, ambled out into the morning dawn, and sat on our doorstep until someone showed up. Maybe he’d been wandering in the wilderness of the Long Pond Greenbelt – he was, of course, fond of the great outdoors, had some of his keenest insights out there. I definitely don’t think he arrived by car, because then we’d have to go through the “What Would Jesus Drive?” exercise, and that would totally distract us. Personally, I’m thinking he came by the Suffolk County blue bus, even though it doesn’t actually run on Sundays – I think he’d have the most fun on the blue bus.

Anyway, however he got here, here he is, a stranger on the doorstep. A stranger you say? Yes, a stranger. Because I’m dreaming, I know that Jesus knows he’s unlikely to be recognized at a UU congregation – but still, he’s curious. Of course, he’s read up on us on the web, he knows he’s entering a swarm of skeptics and doubters. But he’s curious.

Jesus is warmly greeted by the two volunteers who press him to fill out a visitor card and put on a sticky, temporary name tag. He politely declines both, thinking it unwise to so identify himself just yet.

There’s time before the service begins – as I dream – and so Jesus wanders about, seeing what manner of place and people this is. He peruses the bulletin board, and sees the poster “Find Us and Ye Shall Seek.” He smiles at that. “Sounds like something I would say,” he thinks to himself. An invitation yes, but one that, like any good aphorism, turns perceptions upside down. And he’s always thought of himself as a seeker, really, on a sort of a religious “quest.” He’s beginning to relax a bit.

Maybe he’ll like these people just fine.

Someone has pointed out to Jesus that this building is a meetinghouse (perhaps to pre-empt any reference he might accidentally make to a church, or more likely, a synagogue), and he’s figured out that means that all manner of things take place here.

Maybe it’s a bit like Jerusalem’s temple, he thinks – it seems a busy place – he wonders perhaps if he should look around for the money changers … surely they are here, somewhere.

Next, Jesus wanders into the kitchen, drawn there by the smell of fresh coffee and the sound of laughter. This is familiar territory. He even thinks he glimpses Mary and Martha working side-by-side (he’s glad they seem to have made up). But even as the warmth of the kitchen and the chatter of conversation draw him in, he wonders where the meal will be served. There doesn’t seem to be a table anywhere large enough for everyone to sit down together and share food. How will this work, he thinks? After all, he’s already invited his friends: the tax collectors, prostitutes, aliens from foreign lands, and those folks he met last night possessed by demons – where are they going to all sit and break bread together? That’s a bit of a worry.

There’s a family headed downstairs, and so Jesus follows them. He’s quite taken by all the rainbows everywhere, reminds him of Noah, and so he’s surprised to find children there instead of animals. But, never mind, what better way to feed the spirit then to hear what children – yet untouched by the cares and distractions of the world of adults – have to say?

As I dream on, Jesus returns upstairs. As the gathering grows larger, some people talk, others hug one another as if they’ve traveled miles to be here (little does he know).

Still others are sitting by themselves, alone with their thoughts. Jesus slips into a seat virtually unnoticed, picking one where he can see the trees beginning to leaf out, a perfect view in case whatever happens next is a little bit boring.

As he looks around the room, Jesus wonders to himself, what kinds of lives do these people live? What are their hurts and fears, their struggles and joys? Turns out, it’s not so easy to tell, even for him. He receives some hints when the microphone thingy makes its way around the room and the candles are lit – now that’s a nice touch he thinks! He’s beginning to sense that behind the politeness, the niceness, there are real lives being lived – some in happiness, but others in pain. Someone haltingly tells a hard truth about themselves, and it is a mask slipped for a moment, let themselves be just a bit more real. He notes how quiet the room gets, even the wiggly children. Yes, he thinks to himself, this is people feeling with one another. It’s not about the head, but the heart.

Jesus sits politely and listens to a story, which he likes a lot, since he is of course like the best storyteller in the whole universe (or, so he’s been told). And he likes the music, too, even though it’s unfamiliar. It gives him time to let his thoughts wander, forming pictures in his mind’s eye. He can feel the music’s delight and sorrow move him deep inside. Maybe, he thinks, he should put some of his own thoughts together with music.

That seems like an interesting thing to try.

Now there’s a time of prayer and meditation, and Jesus begins to settle in, glad for the familiar cues. But before he’s even focused on that still small voice within, the time is up! Good lord, he thinks to himself, how on earth can you hope to touch – and be touched by – the sacred, the spirit, in two minutes? He begins to think about, to remember, those 40 days wandering in the wilderness, that vision quest. Now that’s prayer, he (rather boastfully) exclaims to himself.

But now there’s talking going on again, words, words, and more words. Jesus wonders about all these words. He listens carefully. He listens for signs, for clues. He’s listening, watching.

Jesus wants to know what’s at the center of the lives of the people in this room.

He’s remembering the people he ministered to, preached to, taught. They were good people. They were trying to find meaning and satisfaction in their lives. But they kept turning to what he came to think of as the 3 “A’s” – appearances, achievements, and affluence. No matter where he turned in his world, he felt surrounded, engulfed by a culture that was consumed by the cares of the material world. His own religious search led him to a new understanding of God. He knows, he knows in his bones, that the quality of God that is most key is compassion. And he’s also realized that compassion is the heart, the center point of community, around which all else revolves.

He looks around. This place, these people, it certainly seems a community, an inclusive community, one just like he’s always yearned for. Look, there are two men holding hands. A child on a parent’s lap, and they don’t even have the same color skin.

Someone walks with a cane. Another leans on a shoulder for support. Someone doesn’t see well, someone else can’t hear. There’s someone, he senses, who doesn’t remember much at all. Another can’t sing (but sings anyway). There are people who don’t have a spare penny. There are people who have plenty. Some, he sees, are hungry; others, he gathers, have never been without food, and share what they have.

Jesus rejoices, though inside and quietly, in the ingathering of all these diverse people.

And he wonders, is this the way things really are now? What about outside this meetinghouse, this space? What happens when these people leave here? Have the divisions, the hierarchies and boundaries between people – have they truly been erased? Does the spirit of this place flow out, like ripples on the water?

Jesus ponders all these things in his heart. He remembers that, in his day, in fact for the whole of his ministry, all of his preaching and teaching and healing was, to him, to point to another path, a different way, an alternate vision of human community to the one he lived with – and under. Could it be, might it be, that someone, somewhere, listened? Or, he wonders, is there still a struggle against a prevailing, narrow vision of the world? Perhaps he can talk to someone …

But the gathering is breaking up. Someone approaches Jesus, wanting to say hello, to welcome him to the community, invite him for coffee. They ask again, are you sure you don’t want a nametag, a visitor card, a DVD? They seem, well, a little anxious about whether or not he’ll return, quickly saying, “come back next week, it’s never the same twice here.” And he senses that the wish, and the concern, is deeper, perhaps, more than just if he himself will come back. It’s about something larger … more profound.

And then Jesus does the most amazing thing of all. He sits down in one of those rocking chairs out in the fellowship space, and he tells a story. For real. People put down their coffee cups (really), and quiet down (I kid you not), and they listen to this story. He begins:

This is a story about a monastery that had fallen upon hard times. It was once a great order, but because of persecution, all its branch houses were lost and there were only five monks left in the decaying mother house: the abbot and four others, all over seventy in age. Clearly it was a dying order.

In the deep woods surrounding the monastery there was a little hut that a rabbi occasionally used for a hermitage. Through their many years of prayer and contemplation, the old monks had become a bit psychic, so they could always sense when the rabbi was in his hermitage. “The rabbi is in the woods, the rabbi is in the woods again” they would whisper. As the abbot troubled over the imminent death of his order, it occurred to him to ask the rabbi if by some possible chance he could offer any advice to save the monastery.

The rabbi welcomed the abbot to his hut. But when the abbot explained the purpose of his visit, the rabbi could only commiserate with him. “I know how it is. The spirit has gone out of the people. It is the same in my town. Almost no one comes to the synagogue anymore.” So the old abbot and the old rabbi wept together. Then they read parts of the Torah and spoke of deep things. When the abbot had to leave, they embraced each other. “It has been a wonderful that we should meet after all these years,” the abbot said, “but I have failed in my purpose for coming here. Is there nothing you can tell me, no piece of advice you can give me, that would help me save my dying order?”

“No, I am sorry,” the rabbi responded. “I have no advice to give. The only thing I can tell you is that the Messiah is one of you.”

When the abbot returned to the monastery his fellow monks gathered around him to ask, “Well what did the rabbi say?” “He couldn’t help,” the abbot answered. “We just wept and read the Torah together. The only thing he did say, just as I was leaving – it was something cryptic – was that the Messiah is one of us. I don’t know what he meant.”

In the days and weeks and months that followed, the old monks pondered this and wondered about the significance of the rabbi’s words. The Messiah is one of us?

Could he possibly have meant one of us monks? If so, which one?

Do you suppose he meant the abbot? Yes, if he meant anyone, he probably meant Father Abbot. He has been our leader for more than a generation. On the other hand, he might have meant Brother Thomas. Certainly Brother Thomas is a holy man.

Everyone knows that Thomas is a man of light. Certainly he could not have meant Brother Elred! Elred gets crotchety at times. But come to think of it, even though he is a thorn in people’s sides, when you look back on it, Elred is virtually always right. Often very right. Maybe the rabbi did mean Brother Elred. But surely not Brother Phillip.

Phillip is so passive, a real nobody. But then, almost mysteriously, he has a gift for always being there when you need him. He just magically appears by your side.

Maybe Phillip is the Messiah.

Of course the rabbi didn’t mean me. He couldn’t possibly have meant me. I’m just an ordinary person. Yet supposing he did? Suppose I am the Messiah? O God, not me. I couldn’t be that much for You, could I?

As they contemplated in this way, the old monks began to treat each other with extraordinary respect on the off chance that one among them might be the Messiah.

And on the off, off chance that each monk himself might be the Messiah, they began to treat themselves with extraordinary respect.

People still occasionally came to visit the monastery in its beautiful forest to picnic on its tiny lawn, to wander along some of its paths, even to meditate in the dilapidated chapel.

As they did, without even being conscious of it, they sensed this aura of extraordinary respect that began to surround the five old monks and seemed to radiate out from them and permeate the atmosphere of the place. There was something strangely attractive, even compelling, about it. Hardly knowing why, they began to come back to the monastery to picnic, to play, to pray. They began to bring their friends to show them this special place. And their friends brought their friends. Then some of the younger men who came to visit the monastery started to talk more and more with the old monks.

After a while one asked if he could join them. Then another. And another. So within a few years the monastery had once again become a thriving order and, thanks to the rabbi’s gift, a vibrant center of light and spirituality.

After he spoke the last words, and finished the dregs of his coffee, Jesus stood up.

He was immediately surrounded by people who wanted to know … what was the meaning of this story – why did he tell it now? …To them? Was it in the Bible? They couldn’t remember … oh, there were so many questions!

But Jesus didn’t answer. He simply put down his cup, smiled, looked the crowd straight in the eye, and said, “Now, I am going to go fishing – in Montauk.” And he left.

And that, friends, is the end of my dream.

This paragraph draws from the work of Marcus Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time (NY: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994).

The Rabbi’s Gift as retold by M. Scott Peck, The Different Drum: Community Making and Peace (NY: Simon and Schuster, 1987).

Posted in Sermons | Tagged | Comments Off on Easter Sunday: Visiting with Jesus

Why Questions About Darwin Just Won’t Go Away

The Rev. Alison Cornish and John Andrews

Feb 22, 2009 – 

I was a young man with uninformed ideas. I threw out queries, suggestions, wondering all the time over everything; and to my astonishment the ideas took like life like wildfire. People made a religion of them.

– Charles Darwin

Alison: Today we honor Charles Darwin, born in 1809, 200 years ago this month, and who published On the Origin of Species in1859, 150 years ago. Yet even before this anniversary year, Darwin is very much a part of our contemporary life through court cases, school boards, and a bevy of books. Much of this public debate tends to oversimplify the subject to ‘religion or Darwin’ or God/No God. Our take on ‘Why Questions About Darwin Just Won’t Go Away’ this morning isn’t about theism vs. evolution. Although the question of whether Darwin’s theory is consistent with traditional monotheism is interesting, I suspect it’s not all that important to most of the people in this room. Some of us are theists, some are not. Of those who do have the word ‘God’ in our personal vocabularies, I would say there’s a spectrum of views ranging from ‘Yes, God miraculously intervenes in human history’ to ‘God is a metaphor, a verb, a name for that which I cannot otherwise explain or understand.’ But I’ve never heard anyone connected to our congregation express doubt about evolution as articulated by Charles Darwin. Yet it is a challenge to live in a society where others think very differently about this subject (as our Constitution guarantees). In other words, this can’t just be about ‘we’re right and they’re wrong.’ It has to be about ‘we agree to disagree, but with respect, understanding, even appreciation even, dare we imagine, some common ground.’ So, John, can you think of ways that all of us the religious conservatives who are discomfited by the conclusions of Darwinian evolution, as well as religious liberals are all somehow touched by the questions that just won’t go away?

John: Yes. It seems to me that three main reasons jump out. The first and perhaps the most obvious is that evolution cuts ‘close to the bone’ psychologically. Most of us really don’t like the idea that we descended from other animals. It challenges the whole idea that we are only ‘a little lower than the angels.’

Alison: Ah, the whole ‘made in the image of God’ issue. But I really think that’s something that disturbs even those who are not theists. I think it applies to all people, whether or not they consider themselves to be religious. I agree, no matter how much Darwinism makes sense as science, most people feel a little queasy about the idea that we descended from animals. I am also intrigued by the idea that some of the religious discomfort about the theory of evolution is really about moving humanity away from the center of the story. Maybe we can touch on that point again later. But you had a second reason to offer Ö

John: The second reason is that many conservatives really do think that evolution is going to destroy something important. They’re convinced that it threatens not just religion but all morality. They fear it will leave us in the clutches of nihilism. From that point of view, evolution had better be false or our civilization is toast.

Alison: Again, I wonder if that concern is limited only to religious conservatives. One has to remember the startling impact of a theory that challenged the popular and long held idea that development of life on earth represents the unfolding of a coherent plan aimed at a predetermined goal. A fundamental assumption of Darwin’s theory was that natural selection worked on random variations, unguided by any central planner. I think this discomfort is still in play, and I don’t think you have to be a conservative Christian to feel uneasy about this. We all like a good story, one where order overcomes chaos, one that has meaning. For some, that means God is somehow in charge. Stated in 19th century Unitarian language ‘upward and onward forever.’ Idealistic, perhaps but also grand, and comforting. And, there is something disturbing about the fact that, if evolution is possible, so is devolution. In fact, Darwin said, rather disarmingly, that ‘death itself is a creative force in nature.’ Ug, no one wants to hear that! But you had yet another reason Ö

John: The third factor is brought in by militants on the other end of the spectrum. They agree with the conservatives that evolution is disastrous for religion, but they revel in the thought of religion’s demise.

Mix these three controversies up, and you have a political witches’ brew. It tends to heat up when we don’t have anything more pressing on our national agenda, such as war or economic depression. I would expect it to stay beneath the radar screen for a while, but it will be back!

Alison: Those are three good points, and we could spend all day on each one. I’d like to add one more for our consideration. Darwin’s theory was used by some social theorists to promote ideas that most of us find reprehensible. ‘Social Darwinism’ may be a misnomer, but it’s easy to see how the idea of natural selection could morph into ‘survival of the fittest,’ a phrase, by the way, that Darwin didn’t invent that’s from the philosopher Herbert Spenser. What Darwin did conclude was that ‘it may be said that natural selection is daily and hourly scrutinizing, throughout the world, every variation, even the slightest Ö ‘ By proposing that evolution worked primarily through the elimination of useless variants, Darwin created an image that could all too easily be exploited by those who wanted the human race to conform to their own pre-existing ideas. We know that there have been those who have taken his words to justify such things as rugged individualism and, more alarmingly, eugenics. John, can you speak directly to this question of ‘natural selection’ in a way that we laypeople might understand it?

John: Sure, Alison. At the outset, it’s important to note that Darwin didn’t discover evolution. What he did provide was a natural explanation for it. The theory rests on three ideas. The first point is that plants and animals produce more offspring than the environment can support. The second is that these offspring are not all identical. The third point is that because of their differences, some members of the new generation are better survivors than others. They are the ones that pass their characteristics on to the following generation. Had Darwin restricted his theory to relatively small changes, it would not have been startling at all. After all, humans have intentionally bred dogs as different as Chihuahuas and Great Danes by artificially selecting and breeding the particular animals that had the characteristics closest to what they wanted. The zinger in Darwin’s theory was that the analogous process of natural selection routinely causes one species to morph into another. This produces a ‘tree of life’ that is not just a classification scheme but a metaphor for real family relationships among all living things. We are all distant cousins.

It’s not hard to see why this sets traditionalists’ teeth on edge. Their dislike for Darwin’s theory, however, doesn’t alter the fact that it is true. That might sound like an arrogant scientist talking, but the evidence is not only overwhelming, it comes from a variety of sources all in agreement. The fossil record, the geographic distribution of similar species, the many instances in biology of what can only be called bad design, and the variations in genetic makeup all support Darwin’s ideas. This is not to say that the theory is complete. Controversies still rage, and it is possible, even likely, that the theory will need to be updated as time goes on. It is extremely unlikely, however, that natural selection as the main engine of evolution will ever be overturned, any more than we will one day discover that the earth doesn’t really go around the sun.

Alison: That’s really helpful, John. But now, how did we get from this rather benign description of a natural process to drawing moral conclusions such as survival of the fittest?

John: This wouldn’t be the first time that invalid arguments have been constructed that used scientific findings to justify social injustice, but it’s unfair to blame Darwin for that. Anti-evolutionists love to lump Darwin in with defenders of rugged individualism and even of slavery, when the fact is that he was strongly abolitionist in his views. He was quite careful not to confuse science with morality. The fact that something occurs in nature does not imply that it is always a good thing. Nor is something necessarily bad just because it isn’t natural.

Alison: Is that the only way that Darwin’s theory has been misused?

John: Not at all. It’s not just that science can’t tell us the way things ought to be. It can’t provide us with a complete knowledge of the way things are, either. Science explains mysterious, complex, higher-level phenomena in terms of more basic phenomena governed by accepted laws. This is what is meant by reductionism. Philosophers of science have long recognized that the reductionist program requires that some things be taken as givens, not themselves explained.

I’m therefore a strong advocate of keeping science within its proper bounds. Those bounds are simply defined. Science uses human experience as the basis for constructing theories capable of predicting other experiences. It is not the business of science either to prove or disprove the existence of beings outside nature. Any attempt to do that requires bringing in metaphysics.

If that’s an accurate view of what science is and has always been as long ago as the Middle Ages (when it was called natural philosophy), then it follows that the findings of science really ought not to be upsetting. So what if we descended from nonhuman creatures? Is that any worse than saying that the billions of cells in my body all descended from a blob of protoplasm?

This may seem cold comfort, but my point is that if you have good philosophical reasons for thinking that there is purpose in the universe, evolutionary science doesn’t disprove that.

Alison: Maybe we should, for the moment, set aside the idea of a purpose of the universe because that gets all wrapped up in the ‘God’ idea. What about the effect that the theory of evolution has on the place of human beings in the grand scheme of things? If we evolved from the lower species, doesn’t that mean that we aren’t, well, the center of it all?

John: Well, in one sense you can say that it’s not just Darwinism but the whole history of science that has relentlessly marginalized our role in the cosmos.

First the astronomers took the earth from the center and put it into orbit around a much bigger sun. The chemists figured out how to make in a test tube substances that were previously thought to be exclusive products of living things. Darwin came along and said we evolved via a mechanism that could be understood entirely in terms of natural causes. Edwin Hubble using the essential and largely unrecognized ideas of Henrietta Leavitt showed that not only are we riders on a small planet orbiting an ordinary star, but that star orbits a huge galaxy that is itself just one among billions in the observable universe. And for all we know, even that may be only a small part of everything that is.

That sounds pretty darn frightening.

It cannot be denied that science has made our universe larger and stranger. It has removed us from center stage. Indeed, it tells us that there is no center stage. Is that not proof enough of our insignificance?

I’m going to tip my hand here and say, No, I don’t think so.

Alison: Well, it could be that a hefty dose of humility might be called for these days Ö do you really think there’s something particular, and unique, about our place in the evolutionary story?

John: This may be good time to bring in Unitarian Universalism’s first principle. The inherent worth and dignity of every person is the cardinal affirmation on which our other six principles depend. In view of all I’ve said, can there be any basis at all, aside from wishful thinking, for asserting it?

I think there is.

We may be small in size, but we are special nevertheless. We have subjective, conscious experience the greenness of grass, the tinkle of bells, the smell of a rose, the pleasure of sex, the pain of torture, the joy of human bonding, the anguish of loss, the ‘aha’ experience when we solve a difficult puzzle. Equally special, we are able to pursue goals that go beyond mere self-preservation.

People may differ on whether there are other beings that share our gifts of consciousness and purpose. Space aliens? Angels? God? Do some of our cousins among the animals qualify? Perhaps dolphins create ballets and symphonies that we don’t yet appreciate. And if there is any other class of purposeful, sentient beings you think might exist, include them in as well.

Because the next thing I want you to do is imagine a universe in which there are no such beings. Such a world would be empty of meaning no joy, no awe, no hope, no love. In such a world however vast, however complex, however charged with energy nothing would matter. It is we perhaps together with other beings of similar or greater capacity who lend importance to events. We are indeed the measure of all things.

We can comprehend the awesomeness of the cosmos, the delightful intricacy of a flower. We can transcend our selfish genes. We can seek, we can approach, we can even, perhaps, sometimes attain the true, the beautiful, and the good. Therein lies our dignity.

Or, as Darwin said at the close of his most famous work, On the Origin of Species: ‘There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.’

I’ve just about used up my time talking about dignity. I’m sure you’d like to come back to morality. On that score, let me simply say that evolution often produces adaptations that are then put to very different uses in the next phase of the process. Our ability to build a culture had survival value, and so it evolved. But culture itself evolves in ways that are largely independent of genes. Out of that came the knowledge of good and evil. With that provocation, I’ll hand the baton over to you. Alison?

Alison: Your description of the role of humans as carrying the consciousness of creation is beautiful. It reminds me of the words of Annie Dillard which we’ve often spoken right here in this sanctuary ‘We are here to abet creation and to witness to it, to notice each other’s beautiful face and complex nature so that creation need not play to an empty house.’

John, I would add to your description of the ‘uniqueness’ of the human species in naming conscience, and that indeed connects with morality. Again, our knowledge may be limited, but as far as we know, we are the only species that has a sense of moral awareness about right and wrong, or of understanding what is actually our responsibility, and the impulses that move us to act. This indeed is a special charge and position, and one which, quite honestly, I think we tend to treat far too lightly or casually. For me, it’s fascinating to read from Darwin’s journals of his epic voyage on the Beagle and see, side-by-side with observations of fossils and plants and geological formations, his very personal responses to the conditions and acts of fellow humans.

In Brazil, Darwin witnessed the preparation of natives to be exported as slaves, and recorded ‘It makes one’s blood boil, yet heart tremble, to think that we Englishmen and our American descendents, with their boastful cry of liberty, have been and are so guiltyÖ ‘ In Chile, he saw miners, each carrying 200 pounds, and wrote ‘I am appalled at their conditions.’ In Argentina, he wrote ‘General Rosas is hired by the government to exterminate the Indians. I am a witness, but can do nothing.’ Each of these notations seems to me a window into Darwin’s deeply held concerns about the fair and compassionate treatment of all peoples, which appear side-by-side with his discoveries in botany, biology and paleontology. Had Darwin lived in another time, he might have been a gifted social anthropologist, combining the study of evolution with human behavior.

We started this exploration with asking if there might be common ground around the questions raised by Darwin’s theory ‘from all corners.’ It’s in John’s conclusions, and the words of Darwin himself, that I find a glimpse of an answer. We all want, I think, to directly experience the awesomely beautiful and complex nature of the world in which we live. And, we all yearn for the grand scheme of things to not just make sense, to have order, but also to enliven our consciences so that we might act for good. And, of this I am sure, we will need generous helpings of both consciousness and conscience in the times ahead.


Bowler, Peter J. ‘Darwin’s Originality,’ Science 323, 223 (2009), available at

Coyne, Jerry. Why Evolution is True. (NY: Viking, 2009)

Coyne, Jerry. ‘Seeing and Believing: The never-ending attempt to reconcile science and religion, and why it is doomed to fail,’ The New Republic, February 4, 2009, 32-41.

Miller, Kenneth. Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul (NY: Viking, 2008)

Sis, Peter. The Tree of Life. (NY: Farrar Straus Giroux, 2003)

Posted in Sermons | Comments Off on Why Questions About Darwin Just Won’t Go Away