Sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Loudoun (Virginia), August 6, 2017
Call to Worship
You are welcome in this sanctuary this morning,
Welcome to bring your whole self here.
You are welcome with your pride
…your dark thoughts and your light ones
…your self-doubt and your satisfaction with yourself.
You are welcome to bring your whole self into this holy and safe space.
From George Carlin: People are wonderful. I love individuals. I hate groups of people. I hate a group of people with a “common purpose.” ‘Cause pretty soon they have little hats. And armbands. And fight songs. And a list of people they’re going to visit at 3 am. So, I dislike and despise groups of people but I love individuals. Every person you look at; you can see the universe in their eyes, if you’re really looking.
Some otherwise kind and loving people dreamed up a harrowing list of topics for this summer’s lay-led services — things like heaven and hell, redemption, the nature of evil, and what it means to be human. But I jumped at that last one as soon as I saw it, because I had a head start. Two books I read more than a year ago have influenced me, and this sermon, so I’d like to acknowledge them at the start.
One was Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, written by Israeli scholar Yuval Noah Harari. He’s a historian but views the past of our species through biological and anthropological lenses, too. Harari is a fascinating individual, who went to Canada to marry his husband, because they couldn’t do it in Israel, and who practices Vipassana, also know as insight meditation.
For the scientific purists among us, I’ll make clear that he, and I in this sermon, use homo sapiens as equivalent to human, excluding extinct human species such as neanderthals.
The other book is also the UUCL Book Club current selection and was written by another fascinating academic, Jonathan Haidt. He’s a social psychologist who started out doing research for the Democratic Party but has moved toward centrism, feeling that a wide range of viewpoints is necessary for human survival. His book that was such an influence was The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.
But let’s start not with history, biology, anthropology, or social psychology, but with the Bible. Using the Common English version, Genesis Chapter 1 verses 26 through 28 — in the first of the two creation stories — reads like this:
26 Then God said, “Let us make humanity in our image to resemble us so that they may take charge of the fish of the sea, the birds in the sky, the livestock, all the earth, and all the crawling things on earth.”
27 God created humanity in God’s own image, in the divine image God created them, male and female God created them.
28 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and master it. Take charge of the fish of the sea, the birds in the sky, and everything crawling on the ground.”
The King James version has those pesky words “dominion over,” and the bad news is, in this 21st Century, whatever your concept of God and the Bible, that passage is beginning to sound like a prophesy. We humans do seem to be mastering, or taking dominion over, the rest of the world’s beings with god-like control.
According to Harari, what makes us human has indeed enabled us to succeed so well at competing for resources that we are taking charge of the earth. He sees us as being on the verge of ending natural evolution, and it’s all because of that same quality that enabled us to out-compete the neanderthals and all of our other genetic siblings, cousins, and ancestors.
So here’s the secret ingredient that makes homo sapiens so dominant. Harari says we were able to take control of the earth’s resources because our brains have the imagination to create stories and myths.
Why is that so important?
Only beings with stories and myths can weave a cultural tapestry, and it’s through that cultural tapestry that we can bind larger groups together. Without a shared culture, Fred Flintstone might be able to trust Barney Rubble to do a fair share of the work in return for a fair share of the food, but he can’t rely on Thuggo who lives a few caves over.
When we were simple hunter-gatherers, we got by just fine working with our families, and Harari says we were happy. But when we became farmers, things got more complex. We needed systems for land ownership, dispute resolution, buying seeds, selling produce, and so on. As it worked out, as far as we can tell, only our species had the imagination to create religions and governmental structures so that larger and larger groupings of homo sapiens could pursue their livelihoods with trust for each other and for the system. Of course, those within a given system tend to “otherize” those outside of it.
Polytheistic religions and local leadership did the trick at first. My god doesn’t need to be supreme over your god unless I have vast territorial ambitions. But agriculture gave way to industrialization and eventually imperialism, so our species needed monotheism. My god is the one true god. And that god even told me to take charge of the fish of the sea, the birds in the sky, and everything crawling on the ground.
If you think that, in this age of technology, god and monotheism are dead, Harari believes that our new religion, our new god, is capitalism.
And he goes on to paint a bleak future from here, with our technology becoming powerful enough to to control evolution itself. Just about every week, we read of advances in the engineering of genes and in artificial intelligence. Harari feels that one or the other, or maybe a combination of both, will replace that good old-fashioned evolution, and in his opinion, based on our history so far, that’s not a happy ending.
I can hear the humanists among us saying, “Wait a minute! What about humankind’s ability to use reason to guide our journey?”
That’s where Jonathan Haidt comes in. He sees the part of our brain that reasons as like a rider on an elephant. The elephant is the more primitive part of our brain that reacts faster than our reasoning mind. The elephant is the part of our brain that makes instant judgments not only about danger and safety but also about following our moral, ethical, and even political norms. The elephant leads us along the paths with which we and our ancestors are most familiar, the paths carved by genetic as well as cultural influences.
So guess what role the rider plays — the reasoning part of our brain. Almost invariably, we use our reasoning to support the decision the elephant has already made. The more educated we become, the better we are not at seeing other options but instead at defending the choices we’ve already made. As Thoreau said, “How deep the ruts of tradition and conformity!”
So, for example, we in the West put a high value on individual liberty and freedom of choice, while many Eastern cultures put responsibility toward the family or the group first. The conflicts that arise from those two perspectives can’t be worked out in a Skype call. If you were here last Sunday you heard Allan Bentkofsky talk about scientist Robert Sapolsky, a neuroscientist and MacArthur Fellow who says we have no free will at all — that our behaviors are determined by our frontal cortex, our genetics, our hormones, and the environment.
And let’s throw in here what we’ll call the “George Carlin factor.” When people form groups they sometimes become extreme — with little hats, armbands, fight songs, 3 am visits…and eventually…lynchings, genocide, and other forms of terrorism.
Even if things don’t get that bad, groups still make stupid decisions, tyrannize the minority, oppress the weakest, and go to war. One would think that, as a group, we can control our elephants better, but it doesn’t seem to work that way. Sometimes the elephants get vicious when they get together.
So, congratulations! Take a deep breath. You’ve made it through the bad-news part of the sermon. Now I’ll turn to what gives me hope. And I’ll start in a place where people wear little hats and armbands and sing fight songs — the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly held this year in New Orleans in late June. Once again, I want to thank you for contributing to my registration and expenses so I could be this church’s onsite delegate.
As some of you know, I went with some conflicts, but the overwhelming feeling I left GA with was one of love for individual UUs. This is the community of people I choose to be with, and one-on-one conversations are the way to break down the tallest walls. We, too, do some nutty things in group governance, but I am committed to the people who make up the UU community.
I’ll leave the personal side of GA there, but the business of GA did touch on the theme of this sermon — what it means to be human — so I’ll give a brief report on that. The delegates made a start on examining what it means to be a UU. We fast-tracked a change to make us more inclusive of people who identify as neither male nor female. So, if the next GA agrees, one of the sources from which we draw, a part of our principles and purposes, will no longer be: “Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion and the transforming power of love.”
Instead, if the next GA agrees, that source will begin: “Words and deeds of prophetic people…,” with no gender binary.
That change had overwhelming support, but changing the first principle from a covenant to affirm and promote the “inherent worth and dignity of every person” to “inherent worth and dignity of every being” did not have as much support and was voluntarily tabled. A study was launched to look anew at the complete covenantal language in our bylaws, perhaps redefining the expression of what binds UUs together.
A time will come over the next year or two when we’ll be asked to participate in that discussion. I think it’s important for all voices to speak out when that time comes.
I’ve omitted any reference to the UUA’s anti-racism program. The delegates tended to be enthusiastic about it, but we delegates didn’t have any decisions to make about it. Those had already been made by the Board of Trustees, and that issue goes beyond the scope of this sermon except to say I believe that race is a cultural phenomenon often keeping us from, to paraphrase George Carlin, seeing the universe in each other’s eyes.
That’s where I find hope — seeing the universe in each other’s eyes. I believe that starts with seeing the universe in ourselves and then engaging others one-on-one. Robert Sapolsky, the scholar Allan referred to last week, says we have no free will at all. I’d put it a little differently, invoking the Hindu and Buddhist idea of karma.
In my own practice, I define karma as a combination of my biology, my genes, my environment, and my own past behavior. But at every moment, alongside that karma, is some degree of free will. That’s where hope resides. That’s where we get to change the elephant’s direction. That’s where we get to guide our spiritual and ethical path.
You can put it in your own theistic, polytheistic, pantheistic, non-theistic, atheistic, agnostic, or humanist terms. (I hope I haven’t left anyone out.) It’s in our free will that we find hope.
So what does it mean to be human? Scholars have an answer, but for me the spiritual side of the answer lies first in our individual brokenness and then in our free-will ability to help each other overcome our brokenness. Our free will to work for the common good.
I’ll close with a brief anecdote that I had forgotten until this May, when I read about the three men in Portland, Oregon, who came to the defense of a Muslim teenager on a commuter train. My story had a happier ending than theirs. Mine happened in the late 1980’s when I lived in New York City and rode the Number 7 subway home every night.
The evening rush was always crowded. One night as I was hanging onto my strap, I became aware of an abusive stream of words being shouted by a man. I edged through the crowd to find the source. A white man stood over a seated black man shouting the sorts of insults one hurls to get a fight started. The black man sat calmly, refusing to take the bait. And the white man kept shouting insults.
A semicircle of standees had by this time formed around the source of the noise. I wanted to do something but didn’t know what, so I searched the faces of the people forming the semicircle, hoping to find an ally.
Sure enough, my eyes locked with those of another white man, and without exchanging a word we knew what we world do. We stepped between the two men, facing the abusive white man shoulder-to-shoulder. When the train next stopped, we walked him in front of us off the train and then watched to make sure he didn’t get back on. The abuser never resisted our nudges off the train and onto the platform.
My partner and I each returned to our places without saying a single word. Maybe neither of us would have acted alone, but without even speaking we saw something in each other’s eyes. Maybe that was George Carlin’s “universe.” Maybe that was the spark of free will to make the world a better place. Maybe that’s what makes us human.
The benediction is Muhammad Ali’s Recipe for Life, his answer when asked how he’d like to be remembered:
He took a few cups of love.
He took one tablespoon of patience,
One teaspoon of generosity,
One pint of kindness.
He took one quart of laughter,
One pinch of concern,
And then he mixed willingness with happiness.
He added lots of faith.
And he stirred it well.
Then he spread it over a span of a lifetime.
And he served it to each and every deserving person he met.
May you all find your own recipe for life.
— Mel Pine (Urgyen Jigme)
Copyright 2017 © Mel Harkrader Pine
8 Comments Add yours
I enjoyed your sermon! I was surprised to read what you had attributed to Robert Sapolsky. I took a class with him in graduate school and have heard him speak on several occasions. He is a very compelling speaker and sometimes says things for show, and/or that can be misinterpreted, so I had to go back and look it up. And yes, indeed, he does seem to have said that we have “no free will at all.” I haven’t read his most recent book, but I’m adding it to my list.
I’ve actually thought that for a while, at least since college: that free will is an illusion, or perhaps more accurately a myth, as in a story we tell ourselves about the world in order to make sense of it. But I’m not as pessimistic about the consequences of that belief as I think Sapolsky is. (Still have to read the book though, before I comment further on what he thinks).
It also seems to me obvious that no one has truly “free” will, even within the myth. We are all bound by the laws of physics, psychology, and neuroscience, and some are more bound than others. How “free” is someone really, when all their options are bad, when their only choice is between bad and worse? Even you seem to be saying that, we only have “some degree” of free will. Do you think it’s the same degree for everyone?
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First, to be clear, my reference to Sapolsky came entirely from the guy who did last week’s sermon, who also said he was simplifying and hadn’t read all of the new book. But he was captivated by it, and I guess I ought to put it on my reading list. I don’t know if Sapolsky is pessimistic about the future. The pessimism I expressed comes from Harari, whom I find compelling but not necessarily as a futurist.
OopsI I didn’t mean to send that yet. More coming.
The question of free will is a fascinating one. My rational side tells me that we have little, if any. But — call it faith, if you will — I need to believe in some free will or I have no spiritual life. So, as I told my friend who did last week’s sermon, I choose to believe that we do have some free will, but I also acknowledge that it’s limited. Haidt’s book holds out some hope — ways that we can get better control of the elephant — but they’re not easy to achieve.
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I think I agree with you, as in, I conduct my own life and I act towards others as if I and they have a “degree of free will.” That seems to work well enough for most everyday purposes. But I think it causes trouble if you think of it as binary, as you either have it or you don’t. (That’s my biggest problem with Sapolsky’s formulation as I read about it. It’s not any more accurate to say we have none at all than to say we are completely free). Every human has decisions and choices to make, and they are all limited and coerced in various ways and to various extents. But I don’t think any of them is truly “free.”
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Rejecting the free will defense for the problem of evil (the idea that evil exists because God gave humans collectively the free will to choose evil, and God doesn’t act in any human affairs to prevent evil because he will not violate our collective free will) is what led me out of Christianity and then into UU. There’s so much in that defense that seems wrong and messed up to, starting with the idea that free will is a collective noun that is the same for everyone.
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Maybe to use your metaphor, not everyone is riding the same elephant. Some people have big ornery elephants to ride, and some have cute little babies. And other people are riding wooly mammoths or rhinos. And you can only really know your own elephant. You can’t see anyone else’s elephant.
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I agree on both of your points. Neither the elephant nor the free will are equally distributed. I’d add the hope that spiritual and/or mental and/or physical practices can help strengthen the free will.
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