Saturday, April 22, 2017

In honor of Earth Day and the Science March

In honor of Earth Day, I participated in Chicago's Science March.  An important time to stand up for the environment and declare, "Everyone is entitled to their own opinion but not their own facts."

In addition, I share a past sermon entitled "Faith and Darwin."


"Faith and Darwin" delivered at Unity Temple Unitarian Universalist Congregation

In 1925, John Scopes, a biology teacher, was taken to court for teaching evolution in the classroom. The state of Tennessee had recently passed a law forbidding evolution education, and a group of Dayton progressives wanted some publicity for their town. They got it. Journalists swarmed to the trial. 

For years tension had mounted between traditionalists and modernists, and now a showdown erupted. The great Unitarian lawyer, Clarence Darrow, provided the defense, proclaiming, “Scopes isn’t on trial. Civilization is on trial.” William Jennings Bryan, the three-time Democratic presidential candidate, served as prosecutor, declaring “If evolution wins, Christianity goes.” Jennings was a populist who led a fundamentalist assault to banish Darwin’s theory of evolution from the classroom. The beloved prosecutor, used a fascinating line of inquiry that basically went: “These are simple people. They work hard. They want to believe something beautiful in life. Why do you want to take that away from them?” 

What became known as the famous monkey trial did, only after appeal, succeed in throwing out the Tennessee law banning evolution, but it persuaded textbook publishers and state boards of education to stop teaching evolution altogether. Not until the 1960s would evolution become standard curriculum. It took the Russian launched Sputnik to scare Americans into beefing up science education. Interestingly, That era had their own “equal-time” laws which required the genesis narrative to be taught alongside evolution, but they were struck down by the courts in 1968 for violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. 

Upon entering the 21st century, along with many other educated folks, I assumed that Darwin’s theory of evolution was a battle won decades ago by science and the enlightenment mindset of western civilization. I thought controversies over evolution theory were passé and only the focus of religious zealots. But a recent pew forum poll found that 42 percent agreed that “living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.” Nearly two-thirds of Americans currently believe “intelligent design” ought to be taught alongside evolution in public schools in science classes. 

The way some people talk about Charles Darwin, you’d think he must have been a monster. House Majority Leader Tom Delay, once the most powerful lawmaker in the land, said awhile back that the Columbine High School shootings happened “because our school systems teach our people that they are nothing but glorified apes who have evolutionized out of some primordial mud. Guns don’t kill people,” he argued, and I quote, “Charles Darwin kills people.” 

Charles Darwin happens to be one of my favorite historical figures, and I am compelled to address the truth about Darwin the man, his famous theory, and the implications it has on authentic religious faith. Charles Darwin, in his day, was known to be one of the most respectful, sensitive men in his society. A number of people claimed he was overly sensitive, always refraining from offending anyone, and often anguished about the suffering of others, even when he didn’t know them. He grew up in a Unitarian home and was encouraged to study with an open mind. Yes, Charles Darwin was raised a Unitarian, until his mother died and he was put in an Anglican boarding school. He pursued studies to be an Episcopal priest, not so he could be a clergyman, but so that he could study nature, for some priests back then dedicated themselves to natural theology. Darwin never donned the cloth, for he got a remarkable opportunity—to be the naturalist aboard a ship that would take a five year voyage. By the end of the second of those five years, Darwin saw how evolution works. It was very simple, the theory of natural selection. When organisms reproduce, they never reproduce exact replicas of themselves, instead there are always variations in hereditary characteristics. Those organisms that have characteristics most suitable to survival and reproduction live and their characteristics become more widespread in a population while the others fade out. That’s it. Darwin summed up this most influential idea in western thought in ten words: “[M]ultiply, vary, let the strongest live and the weakest die.” He knew that ‘strongest’ didn’t mean ‘brawniest.’ but rather an organism’s ability to have offspring that could survive, whether that meant having stripes, or an elongated neck, a bigger brain, more perceptive ears, a heartier digestive system. 

A classic example of evolution in action occurred in an England forest among butterflies. The population of pale white butterflies increased because, sitting on pale tree branches, birds could not spot them easily. When a factory was built nearby and the smoke pollution darkened the tree branches, the near white butterflies stood out against the branches and were easy targets by the birds. But mutations occurred among the population, as Darwin’s theory hypothesizes, and as those light colored butterflies reproduced, most of them were born the same color, while a few, by chance, were even whiter—easy food. Other butterflies, also by chance, were born greyer than their parents, and these young butterflies blended into the polluted tree branches and they lived long enough to have plenty of offspring. Within a few years, almost every butterfly in that forest was grey. 

Darwin’s simple theory reverberated through western society, calling upon people to re-assess their religion and morality. The implications of his theory were devastating for traditional religious belief. And because of this need for reassessment, evolutionary theory threatens a lot of people who see themselves as the center of the universe and insist on affirming fallacies that science demonstrates as implausible as the sun revolving around the earth.

There’s no way getting around it, Darwin’s idea undermines traditional notions of God. The best argument of his time for the existence of God suddenly was called into question. It is called Paley’s argument. If you come across a stone, you need think nothing of it. If you come across a finely crafted watch with all of its intricacies, you know it must have had a creator. It just didn’t materialize out of nothing, but it took time and attention to put it together. Similarly with plants, animals, and humans. All of these are so well put together, with an amazing amount of diversity, that clearly there must be a creator, and so God must exist. Darwin’s theory of natural selection, later supported by the discovery and research of genes and DNA replication, offers a far less mysterious explanation for the development of life than biblical stories.

For our faith tradition, critical inquiry is a core religious value. Science makes use of critical inquiry as a lens to better understand our world through testing hypotheses. Good theories are simply stories, stories that work. As our understanding about the world deepens with scientific discovery, the story sometimes changes and sometimes gets longer. But it will never reach finality, just as faith cannot reach finality. 

You may say ‘what about the story of intelligent design—isn’t that a story that works?’ Actually, no, not as a scientific theory. Intelligent design theory isn’t really a theory at all because it can’t be tested. There’s nothing to show that it works. Instead intelligent design theory is speculation, not science. Anybody who says so fails to understand the basic fundamentals of science. Faith stances won’t ever be science and should never be a part of science classes. Blurring faith and science leads to poor science which then ultimately weakens authentic faith. I don’t understand why many Americans have difficulty with this. One way or another, most Christian denominations throughout the world have managed to reconcile belief in God with belief in the mechanisms of natural selection. Stephen Jay Gould notes that if a French, German or Scandinavian politician who called for students to entertain as a reasonable deduction from existing evidence the proposition that Earth is at most 10,000 years old, the politician would be bundled off to a mental hospital. As he says, “No one looking at the physical record would determine that dinosaurs and humans coexisted, that fossils represent the creatures drowned in Noah's flood and so on. The only way those notions would even occur to you is if you considered the Bible an unerring historical document.” There’s the problem.

Some people claim that the theory of evolution negates religion. Actually, for religious liberals it clarifies and makes urgent for a liberal religious perspective. Gould puts it beautifully in A Glorious Accident: “Through no fault of our own, and by dint of no cosmic plan or conscious purpose, we have become, by the grace of a glorious evolutionary accident called intelligence, the stewards of life’s continuity on earth. We have not asked for that role, but we cannot abjure it. We may not be suited to it, but here we are.”

Science and faith are not mutually exclusive. Science can be used to complement and hone faith rather than contradict it. Biology professor, Kenneth Miller of Brown defends his own faith in God. When students ask what kind of God, he struggled answering until he responded with what has become the name of his book, “Darwin’s God.”

So lets reflect some on what evolutionary theory teaches about faith, the faith of a Darwinist. As for the morality or values exemplified by nature, the process of natural selection is ruthless. Evolution occurs with the extinction of creatures with less adaptive traits. Darwin, himself, suffered interminably with the implications of his theory. Life is harsh. 

Some people claim that Darwin’s theory abolishes the meaning of life. Actually, Darwin’s theory puts an extraordinary amount of meaning into life. For it saddles human beings with the responsibility of what we do or do not do with this life. My colleague Mark Belletini puts it poetically: “Gingko trees don’t express a sense of fairness.  Human beings do.  Perch do not write love sonnets, storks do not express compassion, eels do not wriggle in tenderness when their children laugh.  The natural world outside humankind has instinct, and the higher mammals even express elementary forms of love, but the grand ideas of justice and compassion evolved for the first time with clarity within the human heart.” In other words, humanity has developed a moral compass and honed that compass over millennia, even if it isn’t consistently followed, it is there. 

Darwin’s theory illuminates the truth that everything alive is changing. Everything is evolving. With Darwin, we cannot live under the illusion that there is anything living that is unchanging. The same goes for knowledge and understanding, including religious knowledge and understanding. In science, ever new insights emerge. And in religion, revelation is never sealed, ever new insights emerge. More than that, we can’t know in what way things are changing or exactly where we are going. Some religious worldviews believe that something specific will happen in the end times, but Darwinian theory calls upon a faith that discounts any claim of finality.

Evolutionary theory even posits something like original sin. Each and everyone of us has the propensity for greed, lust, envy, hatred, jealousy, and prejudice. According to evolutionary theory, these selfish proclivities run deep in us, so deep that we often are unaware how self-serving our behaviors are, nor how useless or destructive they are. We are designed to think that we are the most special person in the world. To come to believe that you are not the center of the universe takes some maturity. To behave as if you are not the most special person in the universe, takes a great deal more maturity. 

Charles Darwin believed that life evolved for the greater good—the “good of the group” and that also goes for human beings, that human morality has evolved. In 1882, he said, “As man advances in civilization, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all the members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him. This point being once reached there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extending to the men of all nations and races.”

I want to believe with Darwin that it takes mere reason to be good and that there is only an artificial barrier that prevents us from being compassionate towards all people the world over, but research done in the field of evolutionary psychology strongly suggests this barrier is far from artificial. (Not to mention how many peoples of the world treat other peoples). Instead this barrier is very real, caused, according to evolutionary psychology, by our instinctual desire to pass on our genes. We are hardwired to be selfish, self-serving, and self-absorbed. But this stamp from nature isn’t the end of the story. The genetic mandate, that inner macho bugle call to move in the interest of the survival of the fittest into war and brutality gets challenged time and again by the prophetic call of peacemakers who serve the larger interest of the common good. To transcend the effects of the selfish gene, we have an inner call and capacity to develop and adhere to a moral code, to have it awakened, even fully operational. This takes self-examination, personal scrutiny, and self-honesty. It is our basic, or should I say base, human nature that prevents us from being sympathetic to people who are different, and it is a part of our human nature that we have the capacity to transcend our self-centeredness. 
In this time of providing relief to those displaced by Hurricane Katrina, we are witnessing a cultural battle between those who believe in responding to the call to love and those who believe the public should not be expected to sacrifice for others.

Another way liberal religion has been shaped and transformed by Darwin and his theory of evolution is by affirming the priority of justice over doctrine. As moral animals, doing what is right is more important than thinking what is right. In theological language, orthopraxy, ethical action, is far more vital than orthodoxy, having the right beliefs. Love trumps opinions for Darwinians. As hurricane survivors fan out across the country, and as people’s lives have been destroyed by this catastrophe, what matters so much more about what you think about it all is what you are doing about it. And that goes for us as a congregation. What shall we do? If you are compelled by conscience to help respond, let me or a board member know. We’re meeting tonight, so its good timing. We’ve already collected over $8300. Do we want to do more? It’s our call.

Here at Unity Temple, we are gathered as children of the Enlightenment, as inheritors of Darwin’s faith; while we recognize that we are hardwired for selfishness, we come together to nourish those values that make us uniquely moral animals.

I have faith in our capacity to find sustaining joy through the transcendence of our animal instincts. As we become aware that happiness does not come from constant striving for pleasure, constant striving for wealth, or constant striving for status, we can forge our own moral knowing—and that knowing comes from the peace that comes with taking steps to right livelihood. Those steps are best taken in the company of others who share the same dedication to free ourselves for the sake of love.

To answer William Jennings Bryan’s plea to John Scopes, why do you want to take something beautiful away from those who believe in an antiquated myth, I respond, as human beings we are called to a profound love, we are called to our nobility as a truly moral animal, there is great beauty and joy that comes with transcending our animal nature, and doing so opens up a door to the brilliant possibilities we have as human beings. 

Why would anyone want to take this possibility that comes with cultivating a faith as deep as Darwin’s?

Blessed be. Amen

Friday, April 7, 2017

Longing for a New Spirit

My sermon last Sunday is dedicated to all people who live with addiction, whether in recovery or still longing for a new spirit. Here is more-or-less what I shared along with the readings.
Love with Courage,

First Reading: from The Spirituality of Imperfection by Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham

If we can accept the reality of our imperfection, the fact that we are put together funny, that we are, by our very nature, limited and thus do not have absolute control over our lives, we are taking the tentative steps that are all that we can take on the pilgrimage that is spirituality. Once we accept the common denominator of our own imperfection, once we begin to put into practice the belief that imperfection is the reality we have most in common with all other people, then the defenses that deceive us begin to fall away, and we can begin to see ourselves and others as we all really are. 

A spirituality of imperfection is always aware of the inevitability of suffering. As Simon Tugwell noted in his analysis of the Ways of Imperfection, ‘The first work of grace is simply to enable us to begin to understand what is wrong.’ And one of the first things that is ‘wrong’ is that we are not ‘in control;’ we do not have all the answers. The reality of that lack of control, the sheer truth of our powerlessness in the face of it, makes available the fundamental spiritual insight that insists on the necessity of kenosis, the ancient Greek word that signifies ‘emptying out.” Expressed in modern vocabulary, kenosis points to the need for ‘surrender,” or, in the language of Alcoholics Anonymous, ‘hitting bottom.” In the process of kenosis… comes the realization that by ourselves, we are lost.

Second Reading: from The Inward Journey by Howard Thurman 
At times when the strain is heaviest upon us,
And our tired nerves cry out in many-tongued pain
Because the flow of love is choked far below the deep recesses of the heart,
We seek with cravings firm and hard
The strength to break the dam
That we may live again in love's warm stream.
We want more love; and more and more
Until at last, we are restored and made anew!
Or so it seems.
But when we are closer drawn to [the source of our love],
And in its radiance stand revealed,
The meaning of our need informs our minds.
“More love,” we cried; as if love could be weighted, measured, bundled, tied.
As if with perfect wisdom we could say—to one, a little love; to another, an added portion;
And on and on until all debts were paid
With no one left behind.
We can see the tragic blunder of our cry
Not for more love our hungry cravings seek
But more power to love.

For 25 years I’ve witnessed how friends, colleagues, and parishioners have struggled with the ravages of addiction. And for 25 years, I’ve witnessed how many friends, colleagues, and parishioners who are in recovery all share in a profound community of wisdom and support that characterizes the recovery movement. 

I believe the recovery movement has a lot to teach about spirituality. I am grateful for Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham of today’s reading for clarifying a lot for me. As they note, spirituality involves not just talking, not just reading or considering, not even just doing something: it involves actually experiencing life in a new way. Spirituality makes possible—makes one capable of—specific kinds of experience. Experiences of release, gratitude, humility, forgiveness, and deep peace, in a word, experiences of transformation.

This month we are exploring what it means to be a community of transformation. A few weeks ago when I began reflecting on transformation, I found it difficult. I was feeling stuck in the winter of the soul. Sleeping through the night hasn’t been easy to do consistently. During one of those sleepless nights I fretted about whether I’d have anything meaningful to say about transformation, and a voice said, “Pray. Pray for transformation.” And in that instant, my breathing deepened and I said, “Yes, that’s the first step towards transformation.” It is to be honest with where we are at, what we are struggling with, identify what we need to pay attention to, and let go, pray, surrender. Often, transformation is preceded by a journey through the dark night of the soul. It is a natural part of the human journey to feel lost or despairing, especially in this era. I’d say it is a necessary part of the journey.

This morning I’d like to focus on what we can learn from the profound transformation that addicts of all kinds have discovered through the recovery movement. 

Addiction is a pernicious reality of life. Between 10 and 25% of all Americans will suffer addiction depending on whose measuring. Addiction isn’t just with alcohol or drugs, it also emerges in gambling, sex, and pornography. And not only do addicts suffer but so do the families and close friends of those who compulsively engage in self-destructive behaviors, refuse to recognize their problem, and develop emotional dysfunction and lose interpersonal relationships. 

Addiction is literally a brain disease that is a function of how the brain is wired. Fortunately the brain is an extraordinary organ capable of new pathways being developed. And this requires relationships that invite real honesty, a community of transformation and often medical attention if not intervention. This morning I’d like to share the history and wisdom of the recovery movement as both an illustration and purveyor of transformation.

Alcoholics Anonymous was founded by Bill Wilson and Robert Smith in 1935 or as they are referred to in AA circles, Bill W and Dr. Bob. It all began when Bill’s former drinking buddy Paul Ebey came to see him at his New York City home and Ebey refused the glass of whiskey Bill poured him and instead assured Bill that it’s possible to get off the bottle. And so Bill accompanied Ebey to the religious services of what was called the Oxford Group led by a Lutheran minister. There was a lot of praying and preaching and crying, and there was a clear message that to overcome alcohol addiction you need religion. But it was the informal gathering afterward that Bill found more helpful. Four or five of these ex-drunks headed to a diner to talk for hours. There he could see, they could share honestly. They could tell one another the most horrendous accounts of their drinking and then laugh unashamedly, recognizing they shared profound imperfection. This taste of community provided something they could not do alone: to stay sober.

I’m inclined to say that Alcoholics Anonymous truly began when Bill was on a business trip in Akron, Ohio when a business deal fell through. He was in the Mayflower Hotel with only ten dollars in his pocket. He paced back and forth in the hotel lobby past the door that led to the hotel’s bar. As he paced, he saw a glass-enclosed sign next to the pay phone. The sign was a local church directory with the names of churches and ministers and church times. Bill chose called one minister at random. Rev. Walter Tunks answered and Bill explained he was an alcoholic from New York City and to keep from drinking it was vital that he talk with another alcoholic. Rev. Tunks gave him then names and numbers. The first nine calls went nowhere, but on the tenth, a woman answered and promptly gave him instructions to the home of Dr. Robert Smith, a prominent Akron surgeon whose drinking had ruined his reputation. 

When Bill Wilson met the alcoholic doctor, he immediately explained that he was not there to help Smith but to help himself, that he needed someone who could understand his situation. He shared his story and described the obsession that had forced him to go on drinking. He shared his fears that his alcoholism was leading him to insanity or death.

It wasn’t long before Dr. Bob was speaking as frankly and unashamedly. When they parted late that night, they knew something had radically changed in them both. Bill was struck that when he shared of his own imperfection, he had no judgment of the other. This was so different than being in the religious group where he and he was sure others felt judged when being preached to. Instead this discovery of mutual sharing with compassion led them to accept one another and invite others into what they had discovered with one another.

Within a year, 100 alcoholics were in their ranks, from Ohio and New York. The following year Bill Wilson wrote a book about the principles of AA that first outlined the twelve steps of recovery. There’s a poignant passage in talking about the ninth step. The ninth step is to make amends to all those one has injured wherever possible, except where to do so would harm them or others. This passage is often referred to as the promises. It reads:

If we are painstaking about this phase of our development, we will be amazed before we are half way through. We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness. We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it. We will comprehend the word serenity and we will know peace. No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others. That feeling of uselessness and self-pity will disappear. We will lose interest in selfish things and gain interest in our fellows. Self-seeking will slip away. Our whole attitude and outlook upon life will change. Fear of people and of economic insecurity will leave us. We will intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle us. We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.
Are these extravagant promises? We think not. They are being fulfilled among us—sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. They will always materialize if we work for them.

To know this kind of transformation takes radical self honesty, and this kind of honesty is what is cultivated in the open sharing of stories among people who know the same demons. 

I appreciate how the American Psychological Association summarizes the twelve step program as a process that involves:
admitting that one cannot control one's alcoholism, addiction or compulsion;
recognizing a higher power or something beyond one’s own will that can give strength;
examining past errors with the help of a sponsor (experienced member);
making amends for these errors;
learning to live a new life with a new code of behavior;
helping others who suffer from the same alcoholism, addictions or compulsions.

Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham wrote what is a most important book. It is called The Spirituality of Imperfection. The subtitle is Storytelling and the Search for Meaning, but it is essentially a celebration of the profound wisdom of the recovery movement that is also expressed in ancient traditions. As they note: “To listen to members of Alcoholics Anonymous telling their stories is to hear described—but more importantly to witness and even perhaps to experience—three levels of the experience of release. First and most obviously comes release from the addiction itself, from the obsession with the chemical and its effects. Second comes release from what Alcoholics Anonymous refers to as the root of our troubles: self-centeredness. Lives centered wholly on the self begin to shift perspective and look outward, reaching out to the other people with genuine generosity. And third comes release from denial, from the fear and dishonesty of self-deception, from the dire realization that one does not even know who one is. Lives dominated by self-deception begin to discover the reality of a self that is real but limited, limited but real.”

It is important to note that alcoholics and addicts are not the only people who experience release, nor are they the only ones who need this experience. We are all susceptible to obsessions, self-centeredness, and self-deception. Opening up to release, surrendering to something larger than our own ego, each and everyone of us can experience transformation. But here’s the thing, such opening is catalyzed by connection and most frequently human connection. As adherents of AA have discovered, the telling of their own stories and listening to the stories of others is a potent way of opening up to the possibility of real transformation. 

Here’s another crazy thing: release begins to happen when we lay aside the idea that we can plan our own spirituality or transformation or plan for the spirituality or transformation of anyone else. Each of us has got to open up to it. I believe transformation begins when we recognize that we are in need of surrendering ourselves to something larger than our own will, larger than ourselves. I believe that I cannot will myself to transformation and neither can you. A rigorous self-help regimen can hone your skills of personal mastery but ultimately for us to know the experience of release, release from our craving selves, and the accompanying deep gratitude and humility and deep peace, for us to know these life-saving experiences, we must make way for what I’d call grace, amazing grace. 

No matter what we may identify as the source of grace, what is clear is that grace happens. And when we shift our attention and get real about our own imperfections and limitations, we increase the odds of grace happening. 

As we begin the month of April, if you’re not feeling connected to the source of transformation, know that you are not alone. It is natural to feel lost or despairing especially in this day of age. But also know there’s spiritual work you can do. Get real about your own struggles, your limitations, your imperfections and listen closely to others who have come to terms with theirs. After the service people if you or someone you love struggles with addiction, I encourage you to visit the table of our Mental Health Awareness Team where members here can share their experience of recovery with alcohol, drugs, and pornography. You’ll recognize them by their hats. They’re called MyHAT!

Every Sunday night at Gale House, Gale House is the green house next door to Unity Temple, there is a Quad A meeting, Quad A stands for Alcoholics Anonymous for Agnostics and Atheists. They, like many of us, don’t affirm a supernatural god, and yet they recognize the need for surrender for the sake of release and transformation. 

The wisdom of the recovery movement provides a spirituality that transcends theology. It is in the practice of honest storytelling that we come to accept the imperfections of both ourselves and others. As noted earlier, “If we can accept the reality of our imperfection, the fact that we are put together funny, that we are, by our very nature, limited and thus do not have absolute control over our lives, we are taking the tentative steps that are all that we can take on the pilgrimage that is spirituality. Once we accept the common denominator of our own imperfection, once we begin to put into practice the belief that imperfection is the reality we have most in common with all other people, then the defenses that deceive us begin to fall away, and we can begin to see ourselves and others as we all really are.”

May this congregation function as a community of transformation where our shared spirituality opens us up to experiences that allow us release from our base cravings and where we wake up to the reality that it is not more love our our hungry cravings seek but more power to love.

Blessed be. Amen.