Humility: The Art of Knowing What We Don’t Know

From Benjamin Papa  ·  August 20, 2006

A common misconception about the Unitarian side of our Unitarian Universalist history is that the Unitarians left the Congregationalist tradition of which they were a part because they rejected the doctrine of the Trinity – the notion that they were Unitarian as over and against Trinitarian. It’s certainly true that most Unitarian Christians, then and today, emphasize Jesus’ humanity rather than the more orthodox emphasis on his divinity. However, the biggest bone of contention that the early Unitarians had with the Calvinist Congregationalist establishment of which they were a part was not about whether or not Jesus was divine, but rather was related to the value of human beings. A core Calvinist tenet was “the utter depravity of humanity.” The idea that humans are worthless – nothing without the redeeming grace of God to clean us up and make us whole. Unitarians rejected this notion so vehemently that they ultimately were transformed themselves from being the liberal branch of the Congregational tradition into a separate denomination altogether, the Unitarians.

The practical results of this shift in theology were both wide and deep. There was explicit and widespread appreciation for human endeavors – art and especially science. In fact, Unitarians placed such a high value on humanity’s ability to uncover “truth” through intellectual rationality and the scientific method that, over time, many Unitarians began to reject their Christian heritage altogether in favor of a more secular, humanistic vision of the world. In the early part of the twentieth century, when the formal Humanist movement was in its heyday, the Unitarians, and to a lesser extent, the Universalists, played major roles in the creation of the Humanist Manifesto and other hallmarks of the movement.

The Unitarians of history and the Unitarian Universalists of today take human beings very seriously. One of the clearest and most talked about manifestations of our belief in the basic goodness of humanity is our seven Unitarian Universalist principles, especially the first one that affirms the inherent worth and dignity of every person. And I thank God that we do dare to affirm every person. Far too much of the time in our world, whole categories of people are demonized and written off as unimportant, immoral, or even evil. There are so many forces in society that rob us of our self-esteem, that I believe the strong humanist strain in Unitarian Universalism is one of our greatest strengths as a movement.

But there is another spiritual quality that serves as the yin to the yang of humanism’s confidence. I am referring of course, to the trait of humility. By humility I mean the attitude to be willing to be critical of oneself and open to the Spirit’s guidance even when it differs from our own preconceived concepts. Humility goes hand in hand with traits such as meekness and modesty. It requires sincerity, honesty, and introspection. Perhaps most important of all, humility asks us to listen to one another and to the universe. To believe that we have a great deal to learn and that we will never know everything. Humility.

Many of you know that in addition to being a candidate for Unitarian Universalist ministry, I am also an attorney and mediator. I love my mediation work because it allows me to pull together my skills as an attorney and as a minister to help individuals and groups who are in conflict to work together toward a fair resolution to whatever dispute they are experiencing. I have spent much of this summer attending training seminars around the country and doing other work related to my mediation practice. All of these hours of meetings and seminars have reminded me that a core presupposition of mediation is the idea that true conflict transformation and even interpersonal healing can come only when we are willing to listen to one another – especially those with whom we disagree. Different from the litigation system, the parties in mediation do not rely on a judge to make their decisions for them, but rather the mediator facilitates discussion in such a way that the parties are empowered to make their own decisions.

I have seen in my practice over and over how crucial the act of listening is to conflict resolution. When we are in the thick of an interpersonal or other type of dispute, we feel a strong need to be heard. We want to make our point. We want the other person to know how much they have hurt us, to know that they are missing the point, misunderstanding our position, maybe even being downright mean. But I am coming to learn in my own life, both in my personal life as well as through my work as a mediator, that we will only bridge the gap between ourselves and those with whom we disagree when we step back, calm down, and listen. When we are humble enough to know that what we have to say and what we think is only one piece of a larger puzzle.

A couple of years ago, my partner Brad and I attended a weekend couple’s enrichment workshop in Houston, Texas. We, along with about six other couples participated in a program that followed the Imago model of human interactions, which is based on the work of Harville Hendrix in his wonderful book,Getting the Love You Want. I highly recommend that book and any of Hendrix’s books for a model of how to think about and participate in relationships. One of the core exercises that all of us at the workshop in Texas engaged in over the weekend is called the Couple’s Dialogue. The central feature of the Couple’s Dialogue is, even in the midst of an emotional disagreement, to learn not only to listen to your partner, but to reflect back verbally to him or her exactly what he or she is saying.

Now I don’t mind telling you that I was skeptical. I am not a particularly touchy-feely person and I was less than thrilled by the prospect of spending three days repeating back to Brad how he was feeling about one thing or another, especially the ways in which he was frustrated with me. But I also have to say that participating in the workshop made a believer out of me. You see, Brad and I are very much alike. When we disagree about something, our modus operandi is to try and convince the other one of the validity of our particular position. We are both very good at crafting logical arguments and turning phrases just so in order to try to get each other to see the error of his ways. Over the years we have spent hours making our case to one another in ways that would make my high school debate coach cry tears of joy. But too often the true underlying conflict was never resolved because at the end of the day, we had never truly listened to one another.

The beauty of the Couple’s Dialogue model of communication is that it made us, when we were in the listening role, to put all of responses – the “yeah, but”; and the “that’s not what I meant” – on the shelf. Our sole responsibility was to listen. To understand what the other person was feeling. To humble ourselves enough to know that all of our well thought out responses and logical counterarguments are not what is called for. What is called for is humility. Listening. Openness.

Like many of you, I have been disheartened on an almost daily basis by the vitriolic, patronizing, and short-sighted rhetoric that seems to flow endlessly from officials of the United States government these days. Something is deeply wrong with how our society conceives of itself when our President and Secretary of State insist publicly that, no matter the level of tension, we refuse even to speak to countries with whom we disagree, such as Iran or North Korea. Not even to speak? Why in the world not? How can we ever expect to resolve our differences if we are not even willing to have a conversation? What do we think we have to lose by talking with one another and learning more about each other’s perceptions and ideas? We might find that we are all reasonable human beings who love our families and countries. Why do we seem to be so intent on waiting until we can justify a bombing raid in the name of the seemingly endless “war on terror”? I pray for the day when interpersonal conflict doesn’t automatically mean we sue each other and conflict between countries doesn’t necessarily mean we kill one another.

The world’s religions, both major and minor, have a great deal to say about humility. A traditional African proverb states that “It is humility that exalts one and favors him against his friends.” Jesus taught in Matthew 5:5, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” The Koran, the holiest book of Islam, tells us “Successful indeed are the believers who are humble in their prayers…” Hinduism’s Bhagavad-Gita tells us to “Be humble, be harmless, have no pretension…” And I could go on and on. As a religious person, I have to take seriously the fact that so many wise people over so many millennia, across so many continents taught such a similar lesson. There is value in humility. In knowing what we don’t know. In listening.

Some of us sitting in this room today believe in God or some other form of a higher power. Others do not. Some believe in life after death. Others do not. The fact of the matter is that none of us in this room can say for sure that what we believe about these questions and others like them is objectively true with a capital “T.” We simply do not know. The good news is that we can act from a place that realizes that we don’t have all of the answers to all of the questions. Instead, the whole world, and Unitarian Universalists in particular, make up a vast matrix of ideas and beliefs – a beautiful patchwork quilt of many colors and patterns. And we can listen to one another. If our inclination is always to be led by our heads, maybe we can try to develop our intuition and also try to follow our hearts more of the time. If we are more often led by our emotions and instincts, we can grow by learning to take seriously scientific research and academic learning. But more than anything, I hope all of us can balance our affirmation of the inherent worth and dignity of every person against the fact that no one person or group of people has cornered the market on truth. May all of us know what we don’t know, open our hearts and minds, and learn the art of humility. Amen.

Miracles: A UU View of Miracles

A sermon by Rev. Scotty McLennan, Community Minister, Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, CA. Given on April 27, 2008.

I have several dozen books about Unitarian Universalism in my home office. I looked through them all in preparing this sermon, and only three of them have any kind of entry in their index or table of contents for “miracles.” In one the index reference is to “miracles, impossibility of,” and the associated text takes a scientific perspective. 1   A second book, on the history of Unitarian Universalism, relates the question of miracles to three nineteenth century ministers: Andrews Norton, William Henry Furness, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. 2   By the twentieth century no Unitarians or Universalists seem to care enough about miracles even to discuss them. The third reference is found in a chapter entitled “How Miraculous Are Miracles?” in a 1987 Beacon Press book by a Unitarian Universalist minister named Peter Fleck. 3   He ends up saying that miracles don’t exist in the sense of a violation of a law of nature by God. Not a terribly auspicious start for a sermon on Unitarian Universalist view of miracles. I could simply stop now and assert: “There are no miracles for Unitarian Universalists. Period.”

But actually I don’t think that’s true. Our tradition has had a dramatic impact on all of Protestant Christianity’s understanding of miracles in the modern era. That impact continues right up to the present day, and I think it’s worth our exploring. So I’ll forge on.

The Bible is full of miracle stories, of course. The Red Sea parts for the escaping children of Israel and then drowns the pursuing Egyptians. 4   The prophet Elijah stretches out his hand and a lamenting widow’s son comes back to life. 5   Jesus does the same for Lazarus and others 6   — along with walking on water 7   and stretching a few loaves and fish to feed 5,000. 8   What can we modern, rational, logical, scientific people make of miracle stories like these? I suppose we could say that there might have been a dry season followed by heavy rains when the Israelites escaped from Egypt to the Sinai desert across a swampy sea of reeds. Perhaps the widows’ sons and Lazarus were simply unconscious or in a coma, and then they came back to full consciousness. Maybe Jesus was seen in a mirage at a distance on a hot day, and it looked as if he were walking on water. Perhaps his disciples organized some impressive potluck dinners of loaves and fish, where the food just kept coming. Or, we could claim that these were simply legends created by followers of prophets like Elijah and Jesus to demonstrate their divine powers. We might remind ourselves that stories of people coming back from the dead were common in those days, not only in Israel but also throughout the Graeco-Roman world. 9

There are two classic Christian positions on miracles that have continued to be debated up to the present time. Thomas Aquinas of the thirteenth century understood a miracle to be something that occurred completely outside of the order of nature. 10   Miracles are literally supernatural in the sense that they are events which happen, as he put it, “outside the ordinary processes of the whole of created nature.” 11   Nine centuries before him, Augustine had taken a different stance. For him there was only one miracle — creation itself. All of nature and all natural processes are miraculous because they reflect the creative nature of God. Miracles aren’t contrary to the laws of nature; they’re simply outside of what human beings know of nature. They are activities which produce an effect on the human beholder of wonder or awe. 12   We moderns then might say, “Wonder and awe until they are explained scientifically, so that we can then see exactly how they align with the laws of nature.” Or we might say, “Wonder and awe are actually enhanced for me through scientific explanation: How wonderful — how awesome — is this creation, this natural order, in which I find myself! Hallelujah!”

Protestant reformers took a different tack, starting in the sixteenth century. They agreed that miracles — in the sense of particular divine interventions in the natural world — had occurred in biblical times, but then they claimed that miracles had ceased to occur anywhere in the world or anytime thereafter. As Martin Luther wrote, all claims of miracles happening in his time were a “tom foolery” of the devil devised for “chasing people hither and yon.” 13   Protestants stressed the importance of the biblical text — sola scriptura (only scripture) — in the Christian life. Most reformers agreed with John Calvin that believers’ confidence should rest on God’s promises in the sacred text of the Bible alone and not on any kinds of signs and wonders that they might claim to have experienced personally or that were testified to by their contemporaries. This became known as the cessationist view of miracles. Miracles had ceased at the end of the biblical era. 14

For over three hundred years, from the sixteenth century well into the nineteenth, Protestants were in near consensus on this view that miracles had ceased to occur. 15   This outlook was bolstered by the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution. The philosopher David Hume has been credited with giving a fatal blow in a 1748 book to any claim that miracles can be founded on evidence. 16   Scientists denied that miracles could co-exist with the natural laws of the universe. They began to offer scientific explanations for many miracles described in the Bible. Meanwhile, theologians developed understandings of religion that made the idea of miracles religiously irrelevant. 17

And then along came the English Romantic poets and the American Transcendentalists of the nineteenth century whom Unitarian Universalists hold in high esteem. William Wordsworth (As you’ll see in reading #499 in the back of your hymnal) wrote that he had personally “felt a presence that disturbs me with the joy of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused.” 18   Coleridge described a “beauty-making power” that had personally freed him from “dejection,” from “Reality’s dark dream.” 19

Unitarian minister Theodore Parker, over in America, was particularly hard on the Protestant understanding of miracles as having ceased with biblical times. He explained that was twice wrong: first that human beings had been “senseless clods until instructed by miracles” in the biblical age, and second that God had now been removed from active engagement in the world, leaving us only to read our Bibles. That would mean that the present generation is “to have no sense of the presence of God in the world” relying only on “past relics of the divine presence.” 20   As Parker scoffed, this view meant that people of the nineteenth century had been Ôborn in the latter days and dotage of mankind, and can only get light, by raking amid the ashes of the past, and blowing its [embers] … now almost extinct.” 21   Since this Protestant understanding of miracles had made God absent from the world, it was not surprising to Parker that there was a crisis of faith among modern believers. 22   Instead, Parker called for “a religion which, like sunshine, goes everywhere; its temple, all space” (As you’ll see in reading #683 in the back of the hymnal).

Unitarian minister Ralph Waldo Emerson was even harder on both the cessationist view of miracles and also on philosophical and scientific critiques of miracles as not being founded in evidence. For he found the power of religion to come not from sterile analysis of a biblical text but from personal intuition. In his famous “Divinity School Address” at Harvard in 1838 he explained that “[Jesus Christ] spoke of miracles; for he felt man’s life was a miracle, and all that man doth … But the word Miracle, as pronounced by the Christian churches, gives a false impression; it is a Monster.” That was for two reasons: First, because the church assumed an absence of God from the world after the biblical era. Second, because those who saw God as still intervening from time to time in the natural order radically misunderstood how God is present. God is not a watchmaker who then periodically tinkers with the creation he long ago established. Instead, God is one with all that exists: Miracles are “one with the blowing clover and the flowing rain.” The great miracle is the energizing force of the universe itself. In Emerson’s words, “One mind is everywhere active, in each ray of the star, in each wavelet of the pool.” 23

The Protestant world never recovered from the Romantic-Transcendentalist challenge. The cessationist view of miracles collapsed, and by the twentieth century sharp conflicts had arisen over questions of miracles. On the one hand, there were those in the church who rejected miracles entirely, including the claim that there had been miracles during the time of the Bible; they spoke of Christian identity as being tied to the character and moral teachings of Jesus, not to his allegedly miraculous acts. On the other hand, faith healing took off, as many Christians now claimed not only to have experienced miraculous cures and divine interventions in their own lives, but also to be able to produce medical miracles themselves by divine forces working through them. A recent Time magazine poll has found that just under 70% of all Americans now believe in miracles currently occurring in the world. The modern age has the dramatic crosscurrents of the Jesus Seminar whittling away at the gospel miracles, while at the same time respected medical journals publish studies on the effect of prayer on healing. 24

My personal preference regarding miracles is to see them in the realm of poetry, not in the realm of history and science and logic. I prefer the Augustinian view of seeing the miraculous in the regular processes of nature itself, rather than the Thomistic view of miracles happening outside of or contrary to the order of nature. I resonate to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s notion (in reading # 531 in the back of the hymnal) that “the Highest dwells within us,” although we’re not usually in touch with that reality. “There is a deep power in which we exist and whose beatitude is accessible to us … It comes to the lowly and simple; it comes to whosoever will put off what is … proud; it comes as insight; it comes as security and grandeur.” Emerson does not assume that all of us will know this life force all of the time, or even some of the time. Yet, it can come through spiritual disciplines like meditation and prayer and through moral disciplines of character building. Then, when it comes, it seems miraculous: “When it breaks through our intellect, it is genius; when it breathes through our will, it is virtue; when it flows through our affections, it is love.” But it is always there for us to draw upon, as Emerson affirms poetically, “Within us is the soul of the whole; the wise silence, the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal one.” 25

“Holy the Firm” we might call it. That’s the title of a book by Pulitzer prize-winning author Annie Dillard. In it she writes about Julie Norwich, a seven year old whose face is burned off in a small plane crash. This is a little girl in need of a miracle: “Little Julie is mute in some room at St. Joe’s now, drugs dissolving into the sheets. Little Julie with her eyes naked and spherical, baffled. Can you scream without lips? Yes. But do children in long pain scream?” 26   Dillard’s perspective is that all of us human beings “are sown into time like so much corn, that we are souls sprinkled at random like salt into time and dissolved here, spread into matter, connected by cells right down to our feet.” 27   She also has a particular view of the divine: “God is spirit and worlds his flimsiest dreams: but the illusions are almost perfect, are apparently perfect for generations on end, and the pain is also, and undeniably, real.” 28   Dillard knows “it as given that God is all good. And I take it also as given that whatever he touches has meaning, if only in his mysterious terms.” 29

But then as Dillard’s reader, I’d ask, “What can we say about Julie and God?” She writes: “The question is, then, whether God touches anything. Is anything firm, or is time on the loose?” 30   Her answer is that beneath all of creation, “occurring beneath salts and earths in the waxy deepness of planets” is a substance called Holy the Firm. 31   Dillard distinguishes two strains of thought that have long existed in Christianity: a world far from God, a world infinitely other than God, on the one hand, or a world that emanates from God — where “God is in the thing, and eternally present here … God has a stake guaranteed in all the world … God … is holy and he is firm, spanning all the long gap with the length of his love.” 32

But, again, what of Julie Norwich: “Who will love her now, without a face, when women with faces abound, and people are so? … You might as well be a nun,” Dillard writes. “You can serve or you can sing, and wreck your heart in prayer, working the world’s hard work. Forget whistling: you have no lips for that, or for kissing the face of a man or child.” 33   So, where are miracles for Julie Norwich?

At the very end of the book Dillard gives her answer: “Julie Norwich; I know. Surgeons will fix your face. This will all be a dream, an anecdote, something to tell your husband one night: I was burned. Or if you’re scarred, you’re scarred. People love the good not much less than the beautiful, and the happy as well … You’ll dress your own children, sticking their arms through the sleeves. Mornings you’ll whistle, full of the pleasure of days, and afternoons this or that, and nights cry love. So live.” 34

So live, Dillard says. Is that it? Is life itself the miracle? Is there really a holy and a firm, spanning all the long gap with the length of its (or her or his) love? Is God really eternally present here and now? Can we experience a sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused? Is the soul of the whole within every one of us — the universal beauty to which every part and particle is equally related? Can it break through our intellect as genius, breathe through our will as virtue, and flow through our affections as love? Is this a better understanding of the word “miracle” than hoping for periodic interventions in the natural order by an all-powerful person?

Yes, for me. Definitely. Isn’t the real miracle the fact that there is something in the cosmos rather than nothing? Isn’t the real miracle creation itself? Isn’t the real miracle the fact that there’s an order to the universe, natural laws that are discoverable, and unconditional love to be shared in the human realm?

If so, then “Joyful, joyful, we adore thee, God of glory, God of love:” And Elijah will say to a mother, “See, your son is alive.” 35   If so, then “Melt the clouds of sin and sadness; drive the pain of doubt away:” “When Jesus saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, ’Do not weep.’” 36   If so, then “Giver of immortal gladness, fill us with the joy of day.” 37   “Mornings you’ll whistle, [Julie Norwich], full of the pleasure of days, and afternoons this or that, and nights cry love. So live.” 38

1 Mason Olds, American Religious Humanism (Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 1977), p. 64.
2 David Robinson, The Unitarians and Universalists (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1985), pp. 40, 77-79, 264.
3 G. Peter Fleck, The Blessings of Imperfection (Boston: Beacon Press, 1987), pp. 31-36.
4 Exodus 14.
5 I Kings 17: 17-24.
6 John 11: 1-44 and Luke 7: 11-17; 8: 40-56. See also Mark 5: 21-43.
7 Matthew 14:22-27; Mark 6:45-52; John 6:16-21.
8 Matthew 14: 15-21; Mark 6: 32-44; Luke 9: 10-17; John 6: 1-13.
9 The New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), Vol. IX, p. 157.
10 Robert Bruce Mullin, Miracles and the Modern Religious Imagination (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996), p. 12.
11 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, part I, question 110, article 4, as cited in Mullin, Miracles, p. 12.
12 Mullin, Miracles, p. 11.
13 Martin Luther, Sermons on the Gospel of St. John, as cited in Mullin, Miracles, p. 13.
14 Mullin, Miracles, p. 13.
15 Ibid., pp. 1-2.
16 Michael Levine, “Miracles,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2005 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL =
17 Mullin, Miracles, p. 2.
18 William Wordsworth, “Tintern Abbey,” (1798)
19 Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “Dejection: An Ode” (1802)
20 Mullin, Miracles, p. 27.
21 Theodore Parker, A Discourse of Matters Pertaining to Religion (Boston, 1907) as cited in Mullin, Miracles, p. 27.
22 Mullin, Miracles, p. 27.
23 Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Divinity School Address” (1838) as cited in Mullin, Miracles, p. 26.
24 Mullin, Miracles, pp. 262-263.
25 Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The Oversoul” (1841) as cited in Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993), #531.
26 Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm (New York: Harper & Row, 1977), p. 36.
27 Ibid., p. 41.
28 Ibid., p. 44.
29 Ibid., p. 47.
30 Ibid.
31 Ibid., pp. 68-69.
32 Ibid., pp. 69-72.
33 Ibid., p. 74.
34 Ibid., p. 76.
35 I Kings 17: 23.
36 Luke 7: 13.
37 Henry Van Dyck, “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993), #29.
38 Dillard, Holy the Firm, p. 76.

Atheism: Why Atheists Come to Church

A sermon from Rev. Marlin Lavanhar of All Souls Unitarian in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

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Prayer: Praying With Our Hands

a sermon given on 14 December 2008 by Reverend Gail Seavey of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Nashville, Tennessee.


Many of our beloved holiday stories tell of simple people with few worldly goods wondering what to give those they love: stories of little brothers making trains and balls for their brothers and sisters, of little girls giving handfuls of red flowers, of drummer boys giving their song, of shepherds giving sheep, of Wise Men giving balms to ease the pains of birth and of death. They each give a different presents, but they are all gifts of the heart.

Each Christmas Eve for the last 37 years, my mother takes twelve stoneware flat bottomed bowls out of the cupboard that I made when I was in art school. She ladles oyster stew in them to serve for dinner. Those bowls were gifts of the heart. I was not a good potter. The first stage of throwing the bowls was the hardest for me to do – centering the mound of clay on the potters’ wheel. But the difficulties did not end there. Flat bottomed bowls are much more difficult than round bottomed bowls to make. If the bottom is not perfectly even, they crack while drying or when fired in the kiln. Twelve matching bowls took a great deal of persistence for me the complete. This gift to my mother, from a student who had nothing else to give, were received with such grace by being made part of the annual Christmas ritual, has been a great gift to me.

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Darkness: The Descent of Inanna: Light Yields to Darkness

a sermon given on 2 December 2007 by Reverend Gail Seavey of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Nashville, Tennessee.


In The Descent of Inanna, light yields to darkness and is reborn again. Emily Green choose this ancient Mesopotamian myth, four to five thousand years old, as our sacred text for this month of the Winter Solstice and Advent, holidays that help us spiritually live with the literal overpowering darkness of seasonal long dark nights. This myth may be ancient, but it has touched many contemporary women as living scripture, or words that resonate still with our deepest spiritual longings, longings to be fully healthy, whole human beings. But how can a myth, an untrue story, a fantastic tale, touch the lives of post-modern rational human beings?

Myths can touch us from at least four different perspectives: as metaphors for the processes found in the natural world; as descriptions of religious rituals that enable people to grow spiritually; as metaphors for the processes of human psychological growth and integration; and as reflections of large cultural changes. The Descent of Inanna can be viewed through all four of these perspectives.

The Descent of Inanna was a metaphor for rhythmic processes found in the natural world. Inanna was literally the morning and evening star that we now call the planet Venus. That star shines as the evening star for 250 days, descends below the horizon and then rises on the other side of night as the morning star for 236 days. Every year light literally yielded to darkness.

Inanna was associated to other natural processes as well. She was know as the Grain Storehouse, the innovation upon which the Mesopotamian city of Uruk was built upon. Her Descent has been likened to the dwindling and replenishment of the storehouse as the grain was used up, grown, harvested and stored again. These natural rhythms of the stars and agriculture vary from place to place on the globe, but every place moves with natural rhythms of the sky, with its patterns of light and dark, and the land with its patterns of growth from fallow to harvest, that we all relate to. In this place, in this time, we relate the descent to the natural rhythm of the summer light overcome by winter dark, and autumn abundance overcome by winter dormancy.

The Descent of Inanna was a description of a rite of initiation. In the history of Western religion a long tradition of ‘Mystery’ religions refer to the initiates passing through a series of gates or stations where they give up their worldly ideas and are given knowledge of the ultimate reality, including the inevitability of suffering, death and rebirth. From this knowledge comes wisdom. Inanna is the first initiate into the mysteries of death and rebirth. The stations of the cross that Catholics walk during the holy week before Easter is a more modern incarnation of these mystery rites. This ritual has also permeated our culture at its most secular levels. For instance, you may want to watch the movie ‘Apollo’ again someday just to observe how the script writers structure the journey to the moon and possible death around the closing of seven very technological gates, watched over by the gate-keeper, Ed Harris at mission control in Houston.

The Descent of Inanna is a metaphor for the process of human psychological growth and integration. In the Descent to the Goddess: A Way of Initiation for Women, Jungian analyst Sylvia Brinton Perera shows how the symbols in the ancient myth arise in the dreams of modern women who have been taught by a woman-hating culture to repress much of who they are as too ugly, irrational, dirty, bitchy and scary to acknowledge. As these women of the light make a journey inward to their unconscious, leaving behind all the trappings of their success in a male centered world, they meet the scary repressed female who, like Ereshkigal, writhes in pain. When the unacknowledged parts of the woman are finally listened to, the woman rises again, whole and with enormous energy.

I saw this happen while I was in Divinity School when I was taking a course with the feminist theologian, Carol Christ. Carol began every class by showing archeological evidence of goddesses from a variety of cultures around the world. Many of the women in the class reacted with painful distress. I had to work with some of them for a whole year (supervised by Sharon Welch) to understand what was happening. The women who were so profoundly upset by the ancient images of women had all grown up in religions that taught them that their female bodies, in and of themselves, were evil, the originators and bearers of sin. They were taught that they had to transcend their bodies and become spiritual, which was understood as dualistically opposed to their bodies. They painfully repressed most of their physical reality. When these women looked at ancient sculptures of women, naked, fleshy, bodies of all shapes, ages and sizes, often pregnant or nursing or giving birth, female parts clearly shown, they saw images of evil and shame. When their professor told them that these images of female bodies were idealized as Goddesses, holy and sacred, they were plunged into chaotic confusion. These daughters of dualistic light met up with Ereshkigal for the first time and they were in profound pain. Some of them felt like they were plunged into dark chaos and were dying. Yet, with help, they faced their repressed traits, integrated them and learned to love themselves, body and spirit as one.

The Descent of Inanna is a reflection of large cultural changes. The story originally was written when the very separate city states of Sumer, each with their own city god or goddess who supported their own kings and queens, where building regional alliances, moving toward a unified political entity. In the stories of Inanna we can observe political tensions between the gods and goddesses of different cities that may reflect very real tensions between the different city priests, priestesses, kings and queens. When Inanna returns to heaven she rises full of anger and surrounded by demons. She finds her consort, Dumuzi, instead of grieving her death, sitting on her throne, rather enjoying taking over her rule. She orders the demons to take him to the Great Below.

Many second-wave feminists felt just this way when they became more psychologically whole and started to challenge the culture that had taught them to limit and repress much of their humanity. Boy, were we angry. And in our anger, we demanded that those who expected us to continue limiting our humanity go to the underworld, face their own repressed selves, do their own work. Many of those people did, and they became mutual equal partners capable of loving their full self and the fullness of the women in their lives. And through darkness and light yielding one to the other, another culture began to change.

I have told this story many times and from all four perspectives. I have told it as a story that invites us to participate in the natural rhythms of darkness and light yielding one to the other, helping me become less afraid of the dark and more awake to the beauties of the night. I have observed this myth at retreats as a religious ritual that enabled people to grow spiritually.

In my feminist theology class at Harvard (Sharon again) we invited the class of 200 people to participate in the ritual of the Descent. I enacted Inanna – with a foam Statue of Liberty crown. About five years later, and 1,500 miles away at the World Council of Churches’ Conference on Women and Religion, a whole convent of nuns started running towards me, one of them pointing – “That’s Inanna!” She was one of my classmates, a nun who took this story back to her convent. There they continued to tell the story of the Descent with the natural rhythm of darkness and light yielding one to the other.

I have told this story as a metaphor for the processes of human psychological growth and integration. In my own life I have entered the psychological darkness of the unconscious, acknowledged another scary part of my nature, killed off another lighted delusion of my ego, and come back more integrated, with the cyclical rhythm of the seasons: as the storehouse of grain dwindles, the seed is planted in the dark soil, grows into grain, is harvested, and replenishes the storehouse yet again.

I have told this story as a reflection of large cultural changes; at battered women’s conferences, lectures on contemporary women’s art, and classes on liberation theology — places where what was once culturally despised and repressed can be held up to the light again.

And what I have learned from telling this story is that Erishkigal and Inanna are sisters that need one another. The darkness and light of the sky and the earth must yield to one another for the natural world to continue turning in its cyclical rhythms; the light of the ego must yield to the darkness of death for wisdom to be born; the dark of the flesh and the light of spirit must yield one to the other for the holy to incarnate, the pains felt in the dark by culturally repressed people must yield to the light to give birth to peace.

In this season of long dark nights, we wait for the light. But if we ignore the dark, we wait in vain. For darkness and light need one another. Let them yield one to the other, each distinguished, unique and cherished.

Atonement: A Sermon by Rev. Gail Seavey


a sermon given on 9 April 2006 by Reverend Gail Seavey of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Nashville, Tennessee.


Reading: from the “Treatise on the Atonement’ by Hosea Ballou

Hosea Ballou spelled out the definitive Universalist theology for the 19th century overturning the tables in the Temple of Orthodox Christianity. The aim, of Hosea Ballou was to demonstrate, by the application of reason and examination of the Scriptures, the falsity of three ideas: “That sin is infinite, and that it deserves an infinite punishment; that the law transgressed is infinite, and inflicts an infinite penalty; and that the great Jehovah took on himself a natural body of flesh and blood, and actually suffered death on a cross, to satisfy his infinite justice and thereby save his creatures from endless misery…

The Doctrine of Atonement – the belief that the great Jehovah was offended with his creature to that degree, that nothing but the death of Christ, or the endless misery of mankind, could appease his anger, is an idea that has done more injury to the Christian religion than the writings of all its opposers for many centuries…”.

With these words Ballou turned the Doctrine of Atonement upside down stating that it is not God that needed to open his heart to humanity, its is humanity that needs to open its heart to love. “Viewing (people) in this state of un-reconciliation to God and holiness, it appears evidently necessary that (people) should receive an atonement productive of a renewal of love to (their) Maker. Without atonement, God could never be seen as…is; all lovely without exception and loving, without partiality.”


My older son called to tell me that he is finishing his college career by writing a senior essay on horror films and Christianity. Caleb is a fan, student and writer of horror movies and gothic literature, so I wasn’t surprised he was writing about horror. His work in this area has helped him creatively integrate child hood experiences of terror and trauma, including two murders of people close to him. However, I couldn’t help but ask my Buddhatarian son, “What do you know about Christianity?” He replied, “Just what I’ve seen in the movies. It’s very scary.’ So it was no surprise when he called a few weeks later and asked, “What’s this thing about Christianity and the redemptive power of suffering and death?”

Caleb, raised a UU, had never really taken in the orthodox Doctrine on Atonement, the belief that Jesus suffered and died to redeem a sinful humanity from damnation. More than one of his Sunday School teachers planning for Easter came to me in indignation, “I just can’t teach the idea that God sacrificed his own son. That’s like promoting child abuse!” Those teachers were more Universalist than they knew. Their disgust at a doctrine that they had learned elsewhere was the same feeling that motivated the Universalist heresy and our break from Christian orthodoxy. I am annually reminded by such reactions that how we interpret the story of Easter is not some distant intellectual pursuit. It matters profoundly now, in how we respond to the tragic elements in our lives. Easter demands that we ask what destroys us body and soul and what saves us.

The orthodox theological story that some of us heard in the Catholic and Protestant churches of our youth goes like this. Once upon a time God created Adam and Eve and placed them in a perfect world. They disobey God and he demands that they pay for that sin by lives of suffering: pain, hard work and death. Each person born since has inherited their sin. God is torn between love and justice, his desire to both forgive and punish human kind. To resolve this tension, He sends his only son Jesus into the world to pay the ultimate price that humanity owes, to bear the punishment that all of humanity deserves.

This interpretation of several Bible stories evolved over centuries as theologians struggled with the questions, “Why do we all suffer and die? Why do bad things, like the worst kind of torture and death, happen to good people, even to people as saintly as Jesus?” For instance, The Biblical Letter of First Peter was most likely written at the time Nero, the emperor of Rome who was persecuting the first Christians. “For what credit is it, if when you do wrong and are beaten for it you take it patiently? But if when you do right and suffer for it you take it patiently, you have God’s approval. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps…Rejoice in so far as you share in Christ’s sufferings.” The idea that Christ suffered for humanity, leaving good people the example of martyrdom arose from the daily climate of fear and trauma.

Anselm of Canterbury set the stage for ‘substitutionary atonement theology’ in the 12th century in the context of organizing early Crusades. He taught that people (like Jesus or a crusader) could sacrifice their own life for someone else’s (like God’s or a sinful relative’s) honor. John Calvin developed this idea 400 years later by stressing God’s anger and punishment. In his ‘Institutes’ Calvin wrote, “Not only was Christ’s body given as the price of our redemption, but he paid a greater and more excellent price in suffering in spirit the terrible torments of a condemned and forsaken man…He bore the weight of divine severity since he was ‘stricken and afflicted’ by God’s hand and experienced all the sign of a wrathful and avenging God.”

These theologians interpreted Jesus’ prayer on the cross as a struggle against his assignment to be a substitute. ‘Father, let this cup pass from me.’ But, unlike the disobedient Adam and Eve, Jesus then obeyed his Father crying out, ‘Let thy will, not mine, be done.’ These theologians end their new take on an old story by interpreting the resurrection as the sign of God’s reversal of the punishment of death with the possibility of life after death.

But even as this story was evolving, other theologians cried out in protest. In the 13th century Abelard questioned it in his ‘Exposition on the Epistle to the Romans’ in words that could have come out of one of our own Sunday school teachers’ mouths. ‘Who will forgive God for the sin of killing his own child? How cruel and wicked it seems that anyone should demand the blood of an innocent person as the price for anything, or that it should in any way please him that an innocent man should be slain – still less that God should consider the death of his son so agreeable that by it he should be reconciled to the whole world!”

I doubt that the American Universalist theologian Hosea Ballou ever read Abelard’s words. He had only 3 years of school and was untrained in theology. When he studied the Bible with the eyes of a free man living in the flush of a new American democracy, he could not imagine a God so cruel as to require suffering from any of his children. He saw a benevolent God who wanted nothing but happiness for human kind. He taught that it was humanity who misunderstood God when they painted him as vengeful or angry. Ballou stressed that it was human kind that had problems with anger and could be vengeful and cruel. Such behavior was sinful and brought people nothing but misery. Jesus showed very human ways to overcome sin by his loving behavior, not by his painful death.

Ballou did not believe in the Doctrine of Atonement. He did not believe that God had closed his heart to humanity because they sinned. God did not need anyone to sacrifice themselves to atone for sin and open God’s heart. Ballou’s God was pure, unconditional love. The only hearts that were closed were human hearts. Ballou taught that it is human beings that need to let go of their hard hearts and cruel behaviors, it is human beings that need to turn toward God and Atone, to become At-one with Love. Love redeems us – buys us back from our misery, saves us for happiness. Ballou turned the Doctrine of Atonement upside down.

This Universalist Doctrine is meaningful to us today, whether or not we call Love “God” or “compassion”, whether or not we call Jesus ‘The One Path to God’ or “one of many teachers”.

Love redeems us, sacrifice does not. We are saved by the lessons of Jesus’ life, not his death on the cross. The Doctrine of Atonement taught that self-sacrifice was the highest kind of love. In the name of holy sacrifice, people have offered themselves to be tortured by parents or killed by abusive partners. But Jesus taught us to Love God with all our heart and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Ballou took seriously the part about loving ourselves. He wrote, “A person acting for his or her own happiness, if he or she seek it in the heavenly system of universal benevolence, knowing that his or her own happiness is connected with the happiness of his or her fellow men, which induces him or her to do justly and to deal mercifully with all people, he or she is no more selfish than he or she ought to be.” Many of us willingly sacrifice our time and energy for those we love but it is not redeeming to sacrifice our very body and soul. Self love can be a seed of redemption.

Love redeems us, suffering does not. The way of the cross taught that suffering made us at-one with God. In the name of holy suffering, for instance, people have told grieving parents that ‘It was God’s will that your child was killed, someday you will see the good that will come from it.’ But Jesus taught, “Blessed are those who mourn.” We can remain at-one with the spirit of love when we keep our hearts open even as we grieve. I think everyone’s heart shuts down for a while when faced with loss, especially loss that is sudden, cruel or violent. To open our heart again feels very painful. Only love can save us. Some of us, like Jesus, eventually feel Universal Love hold us in our pain, but we may need our neighbors to hold it for us till we can open to love again. It is often very hard to sit with pure pain without trying to fix it or justify it. How often have we run from the pain of someone we care for? I wonder if the Doctrine of Atonement was a direct result of early Christians’ inability to keep their own hearts open in face of the trauma of Jesus’ terrible death. Holding pure suffering with an open heart can be a seed of redemption.

Love redeems us, martyrdom does not. The Doctrine of Atonement justifies Jesus’ death by saying it was God’s will. But Jesus was executed by an oppressive Empire using the most heinous torture reserved for people who were enemies of the state. Jesus probably became an enemy of the state when he overturned the tables at the temple, one of Rome’s favorite urban renewal projects at the time. But his torture did not lessen oppression. His surrender did not change the hearts of his torturers. His death did not bend the world towards justice. No, his nonviolent resistance to the evil acts of oppressive people moved the world towards justice, in spite of his death. The ability of some of his followers to open their broken hearts and heal from the trauma changed the hearts of some oppressors, in spite of violence. Resisting evil with an open heart can be a seed of redemption.

Today begins the Christian Holy Week. We join our orthodox neighbors by celebrating a great teacher who taught us to love God, our neighbors and ourselves. He resisted evil and challenged his followers to do the same. During the week we may remember that teacher’s last meal with those he loved, his betrayal, agony, execution and death. This story may help some of us open our hearts to love as we remember personal losses, betrayals, agonies and injustices that we have suffered. May such memories remind us as well that we are heretics who have found a better way to interpret a great story. For we are not redeemed by sacrifice, by suffering, nor by evil. We are saved in spite of them. We are saved by love.


Beauty is Truth

Beauty is Truth

a sermon given on 24 February 2008 by Reverend Gail Seavey of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Nashville, Tennessee.


“The entire qualification one must have for understanding art is responsiveness.”
– Susanne K. Langer, Feeling and Form: A theory of Art Developed from Philosophy in a New Key


“Where is our holy church?
Where race and class unite
As equal persons in the search
For beauty, truth and right.”
Hymn #113

The words of this old hymn may sound out-of-date. They refer to the values of religious ancestors inspired by the Romanic poetry of Coleridge, Wordsworth and Keats, who wrote in Ode On A Grecian Urn:

“When old age shall his generation waste
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’, that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

In today’s complicated world, where race and class are still very far from united, we all need to know a lot more than looking at an old piece of crockery can show us. In today’s Unitarian Universalist (UU) churches, I have seen us searching for truth and right action, but I rarely see us unite in the search for beauty. At best, beauty does not interest us. At worst, we express an open hostility toward beauty, rationalizing our stance as politically correct or economically responsible. As we thumb through the newspaper and see full page ads displaying expensive clothes on women with airbrushed pores scattered amongst graphic news photos of poverty, war and ecological destruction, we can’t help but wonder what truth and right have to do with beauty.

The first UU church I joined did not have a flaming chalice. Since I was a sculptor at the time, I made their very first one out of clay. When I presented it to them, the elderly president stood in the back and muttering, “It’s a bit Popish.” I could imagine him marching with the men of Zurich in 1524, led by reformation minister, Zwingli, methodically stripping each and every city church of art. They smashed stone sculptures, burned wooden icons, whitewashed the walls and destroyed the organs. Protestants were the most enthusiastic and literal of iconoclasts, and our UU churches, of Protestant descent, still delight in smashing icons.

Zwingli smashed art because he knew well the power of beauty. He was aware that people were distracted from the words he preached by the visual and musical beauty around them. And the words were the essence of Protestant worship – as they are in most or our own churches today.

Yet we generally encourage one form of visual beauty: the appreciation of nature. Long before I read Emerson, Longfellow and Thoreau, who gave us permission to do so, my father taught me to look for beauty. Every summer when we were visiting my mother’s family in Vermont, he would point at some scenic vista saying with awe in his voice, “Look at that. Isn’t it beautiful?’ I looked out and felt the mountains reach in and touch me at the core of my being. What I felt was larger than myself, more expansive than the mountains. And with awe I thought, “Yes, this is beautiful.”

But I started to wonder about beauty even them. My Mom saw no beauty in those mountains. She was raised on them. To her they were but the backdrop of violence, poverty and backbreaking labor. My Dad was raised in the city. He had been taught by the art in museums and stereoscopes – by the culture around him – to look at landscapes and to admire what he saw: for what we see is never simply that which is out there.

When I studied the biology of sight, I learned that this is literally true. By the time our brain registers a visual image, in the very instant of perception, the message brought in from our eyes has already flowed through a complex network of interlocking loops connecting it to all our other senses, our emotions, and our interpretation of the environment, conditioned by survival and cultural needs. Each and every time we look out at the world, we are choosing where to look, what to focus on, what to notice and remember, and instantly interpret that information in terms of our present and past experiences.

What we SEE is literally an interaction of our inner world with the outside world. When we seek beauty in nature we are using our biologically innate function (what some would call our artistic imagination) to scan and interpret – to make sense of our environment. We find something beautiful when the forms we see reflect something we have felt – any thing we have felt. When my mother looked at the mountains she never saw her true feelings in them, so she did not see their beauty at all.

My mind’s eye was further educated in our culture’s idea of beauty when I attended art school. Since beauty is a function of feeling, my teachers unwittingly tried to teach me how to feel. There I was taught a hierarchy of beauty. At the top was Fine Art, made by educated European artists. Descending in order of worth were Folk Art, Primitive Art, craft and hobbies – made respectively by peasants, tribal people, workers, women and children with no training in the Western tradition of beauty. Fine Art, I was taught, was in conversation with the rest of Western culture and history; it referred always to itself.

With my fellow art students, I struggled to make art that referred to my world and feelings. Our pots were smashed, our watercolors washed away. Some responded to the brutal socialization with cynical humor. Our motto was: “Hey, I don’t know for art but I know what I like.” Others of us responded politically. Artists involved with the civil rights and the women’s movements came to understand that the first necessary right of any newly liberated people is the freedom to express them selves, to show the worth of their lives. We discovered that aesthetic judgments were used to silence whole cultures. Anything oppressed people made to communicate their own experience was called bad art. We developed a politics of aesthetics.

To understand the politics we have to first define art. As I already noted, beauty is expressive form. Beauty has as many forms as there are feelings. According philosopher Susanne Langer, art is the creation of forms symbolic of feeling – not just emotions, but all our feelings: the feelings of moving through space, the heart beating through time, the feelings of thinking, of cultural rhythms, of how it feels to live and how it feels to dream.

Not only do humans scan the natural world for expressive form, we make art to take the invisible rhythms of life and make them concrete for all to see. Good art is not about good feelings; good art it that which truly expresses any human feeling. Bad art is not about feeling bad; bad art is a false expression. It lies. Poor art is unsuccessful at making concrete the feelings of human experience, and if there is no intent or impulse to express feeling, then it is not art at all. Good art is always beautiful because it shows us the truths of human existence.

Zwingli stripped churches of images that showed the truth of the medieval ecclesiastical hierarchy. He hoped to create a new religious truth that did not systematically oppress the people of his culture. But even as he had a few gold-leafed inscriptions painted on the walls, art was being made in the service of a new hierarchy that has been tied to the systematic oppression of people in western culture ever since.

In Medieval Europe there were no separate categories for art, craft, folk art, or hobby. People made things. Some of those things showed the truth of human feeling at that time and place. Those things were called beautiful. During the Italian Renaissance a new economic class developed with the invention of banking. These first middle class professionals wanted to advertise their new power as individuals. They commissioned sculptures and paintings of themselves to be included in the religious art that they paid for. The aristocracy followed suit. Portrait art became an integral part of the power struggle between the emerging middle class and the fading royalty.

The middle class started to glorify the painting and sculpture craft guilds since they best suited their desires for individual status symbols. At the same time, they were developing the educational idea of liberal arts to train this new class of rulers. They rationalized the new status given to painting and sculpture by including them in with the liberal arts, which they defined as ideas generated from abstract thinking, separate and superior to working with mere materials, where all the other crafts were relegated.

It took me a while to see that this hierarchy of beauty was systematically tied to the same cultures’ hierarchy of oppression, but the clues were all around. For instance, an art book I read about the history of collage attributed its invention to Picasso and Braque. It mentioned incidentally that folk artists, women and children had cut and pasted paper for decorative purposes, since paper became available. Unspoken was the assumption that it was not until a white European male placed the technique into commercial culture that it was “invented.” The class of people who controlled the flow of money also controlled the definition of beauty – calling products “art” – only if the products’ makers were worthy of their respect. For 400 years only the feelings of the ruling class were declared to be true and beautiful.

The English words for art and craft reflect the success of uniting hierarchies of beauty with class. When the Renaissance reached England, the peasants were Anglo-Saxons and the rulers were Normans. To this day Norman words are considered ‘high-class’ or polite and Anglo-Saxon words are considered ‘low-class’ or rude. Pork, beef, feces, coitus and art are Norman words. Pig, cow, the s and f words (that are still considered too rude for me to say here), and craft are Anglo-Saxon words. Tying a hierarchy of art forms to class works. It works because it controls what we see, which shapes how we feel. We who are educated learned to see what those who identify with wealth and power wanted us to see.

When people insist that we look at their art as part of their liberation, they are doing a revolutionary thing; they are asking us to see in a new way. We are trained to see beauty created in the service of the moneyed classes: to sell products and to entertain. Our cynicism about beauty in the church is healthy, if beauty is only about hierarchy and wealth.

Yet as any of you who has ever had the urge to create knows, art CAN be more than that. Art is a basic expression of human communication and connection. Art can be created and received in the service of our own religious values.

We can simply start fresh like the reformers tried to do, by keeping our walls empty and our buildings stark. Or we can learn to see in new ways. Different cultures literally SEE the world differently. We find it difficult at first to see the beauty in the art of a culture unlike our own. When we look at something radically new, our brain’s interpretive lobes scream “run, this in not safe,” or “this does not compute.” Both reactions can illicit fear and anxiety. It is easy to project that anxiety onto the art piece itself.

Let me give you an example. When I was in art school I made sculptures of women that expressed feelings of enormous creative power trapped. They made my misogynistic teacher so anxious, he stopped coming into my studio. One day he sent the only woman teacher in the sculpture department, a grad student, to have a heart to heart with me. She explained that my work was primitive, that it had already been “done” and that it wasn’t art. Then she added an amazing story. When she was visiting Paris, she went to the Ethnographic Museum to see the primitive artifacts of non-European people. There was displayed the “Hottentot Venus”. My work reminded her of that.

So I went to the library to look up the “Hottentot Venus”. She was not an art work at all, but a real woman, Saartjie Baartman, born in 1789, a slave in South Africa. She was displayed like a freak in England and like an animal in France where she died in 1815. Her skeleton, preserved genitals and brain were then put on display at the museum. I felt sick hearing about the treatment of this trapped woman. But yes, I thought, Saartjie Baartman could have been the inspiration of my art.

When Europeans first saw African people and their art, they thought it was all ugly. They gathered their art into ethnographic museums out of scientific curiosity; but they didn’t call it art. Then creative lookers like Braque and Picasso gave the African artifacts a second and yet a third look that broke through their education and prejudices. They referred to the ‘African objects’ in their art works in the same way they referred to historical western art, inspiring others to take the time to look past their anxiety.

And because seeing is a relationship between the inner and outer worlds, and because the outer world has common points of reference familiar to all, and because our inner worlds are shaped by the same biology, there is the possibility of seeing the beauty in a another’s experience, no matter how different it is. As Western viewers contemplated the African objects they learned to see the shape of human feelings that were expressed. They started to understand that they were looking at the truth of human experience; indeed, they saw the beauty that was always there; they saw that they were looking at art. Much change and growth in the world of Western fine art for several hundred years has depended upon such creative interaction with cultures other than its own.

But it has not been only the art objects that have changed. Some viewers have also been changed. Some western observers of African art began to intuit that being human included truths beyond their own experience, that these “so called savages” had feelings too: that they too were human. Some observers were even moved to understand feelings within themselves that they had never before been aware of, new beauties within their old tired souls.

This interaction can be imperialism at its worse if we continue to stack people and their art into hierarchies of worth. But creative interchange between equals who value the inherent worth and dignity of each person can teach us to see in ever new ways that expands our religious ideals. Then the process of art can be a holy act. When we become part of the creative god-process – making our own true feelings – our beauty – visible to the world and seeing the beauty made visible by others – we enter into a profound communion that helps us transcend our limits a little, mutually expanding our visions of beauty, truth and right.

As long as our churches maintain the blank whitewashed walls of Zwigli’s church we will be slaves to the powerful attraction of beauty in our society’s most manipulative and commercial forms. With an understanding of beauty’s power to educate our feelings we can honor the power art has to expand our sense of value through the religious discipline of creative interchange and help create a church “where race and class unite as equal persons in the search for beauty, truth and right.”

Darkness: The Darkness Inside by Rev. Michael Leuchtenberger

The Darkness Inside

a sermon by Rev. Michael Leuchtenberger

Given Sunday, January 9, 2011, Unitarian Universalist Church of Concord, New Hampshire

“I saw what love might have done, had we loved in time.” I had tears in my eyes when I first read this poem.

Perhaps it was the image of the young, blue-eyed, hopeful father degenerating so completely, with even the least of his dreams frozen inside. I am a young and hopeful father.

Perhaps it was the imagine of the grown-up child so afraid to open the door because of what would happen if the father entered the home. I am a grown-up child.
Perhaps I had tears in my eyes because I cannot imagine to look into the eyes of a loved one and find them blank and devoid of the love I crave. I am a lover. It is love that brings light into my life.

We don’t know the story behind the lower lip swollen with bitterness, leaving us wondering what regret, what disappointment, what loathing may be to blame.

We don’t know why he is returning, returning on the darkest of nights knocking wildly at the door, leaving us to wonder where he is the rest of the time?

We don’t know and, yet, many of us recognize that knock because we’ve heard it before, on our own dark nights, knocking on our own doors, causing us to lose sleep again and again as we try to ignore what cannot be ignored.

Here is a story about St. Francis and the Wolf of Gubbio based on a version by storyteller Bob Wilhelm.

The people of the little Italian town of Gubbio are understandably very proud of their beautiful home. Then one night a shadow comes out of the nearby woods and prowls the streets. In the morning the people of Gubbio find a mangled and gnawed dead body. This happens again and again. Finally an old woman says the she has seen a wolf on the streets at night. The terrified people decide to ask a holy man who has a reputation for being able to talk to animals for his help. They send a delegation to get St. Francis.
They have very specific ideas on what St. Francis should tell the wolf. First, he should preach to him and remind him to obey the commandment against killing (and perhaps throw in a word about the inherent worth and dignity of every person) and to follow Christ’s commandment about loving God and neighbors. And then, just in case, since a wolf is, after all, a wolf, he should tell the wolf to move to someone else’s city.

Francis goes into the forest to meet the strange shadow, addressing it as “Brother Wolf.” Then he returns to the town square. “My good people of Gubbio, the answer is very simple. You must feed your wolf.” The people are furious, especially with the suggestion that this uninvited beast in their midst is somehow to be regarded as “their wolf.” But they do feed it, and the killing stops.

Most of the stories we read to, or watch with our kids are stories of good versus bad. The pattern is quite predictable. Someone good is treated unfairly which results in a struggle of long odds between a group of good and bad characters. As the story unfolds, we are taken for an emotional rollercoaster ride as evil threatens to overpower good until, just before the end, we are emotionally released as good triumphs once again.

The world is back to how it should be, peaceful, governed by trustworthy and virtuous decision- makers. The wolf, or its equivalent, usually ends up dead, in prison, or in the zoo, safely away from us, the good people – until the release of the sequel.
I love those stories, and, as I have been told, seeing the world in black and white is entirely age appropriate – until about age twelve to fifteen. That’s when our ability to understand multiple perspectives allows us to place our moral decisions in context. That’s when our ability to understand multiple perspectives forces us to see that moral dilemmas create shades of grey and that the world is full of moral dilemmas.

Telling stories when we identify with more than one side of the story becomes more challenging, yet it also becomes more real. What is threatening about this way of telling our stories is that it brings us closer to the dark side, the side we are afraid or ashamed to acknowledge, the “wolf” we would prefer to move to someone else’s city.
I remember watching a documentary in the mid-1980s about a person who had graduated in a decade before from the same German high school I was attending at the time. He was the son of a school teacher, well-liked, bright, a student leader, deeply concerned about injustice and exploitation, interested in politics, history and philosophy. The more I heard about this person, the more I felt a kinship. I imagined we would have been friends had we attended our school at the same time. I felt we were on the same trajectory in life.

I was watching this documentary, because this potential friend of mine was now one of the top terrorists threatening the safety of the West German establishment. His group, the Red Army Fraction, had been involved in the killing and kidnapping of a number of high level officials and industrialists. His name was Christian Klar, and he had just been sentenced to life in prison.

Somewhere along the way our trajectories did diverge. He was just paroled after 26 years in prison. I became a minister. What made the difference? I can try and laugh this off as a silly question. Yet I do know that seeing the documentary frightened me for the mirror it held up of the potential within me and my friends. Growing up in Germany, I was keenly aware that few are truly immune to the possibility of evil action.

Yet, for most, the darkness inside does not show itself in the temptation of terrorist acts, genocide, mass murder, or torture. The darkness inside shows up as a result of much more everyday activities.

And most likely, it is mixed with plenty of light, so much so that we may not even notice the shadows claiming their spaces here and there.

Perhaps we ate more than our share of chocolates, or perhaps we had more than our share of liquor before getting into our car. Perhaps we spent another evening or weekend at the office, yet again, or we spent the money we did not have on something we did not need. Perhaps we told a lie to cover our lack of dependability, or perhaps we depended on our ability to manipulate a spouse or a friend.

The shadows appear when we cause harm, and the shadows appear when we act in ways that contradict our values. Our values shape our identity and who we think we are.
I like to think of myself as someone who would never hit a child. Hitting a child would add a shadow. The darkness inside would spread.

I like to think that I would grieve the death of my mother or father. Not grieving would add a shadow.

I like to think of myself as someone who would take care of his body knowing its physical abuse would impact others. Being careless with my body would add a shadow.
Our values shape who we are, yet our values can come into conflict. Living true to one value may force us to compromise another value. For religious liberals, this is a tension we have to be willing to embrace. Good and bad are not independent forces engaged in a cosmic struggle for control. Good and bad grow out of the same, singular life force. We each have the capacity for both.

This means, we will make mistakes, we will cause harm, we will contradict ourselves, and we will feel the darkness inside.

And this means, we will do good, we will bring joy, and we will feel the light inside. There is a balance to life. Our charge is to do what we can to tip that balance, to nudge it in the direction of goodness and light.

Forgiving ourselves and each other when mistakes have been made is one way to tip that balance. And it appears that we are biologically hardwired with the ability to forgive. Michael McCullough is a professor of psychology at the University of Miami in Florida. On the NPR program “Speaking of Faith,” he explained our capacity for forgiveness as an essential evolutionary trait in species that depend on cooperation for survival. In his words:

“You can’t get organisms that are willing to hang in there with each other through thick and thin and make good things happen despite the roadblocks and the bumps along the way if they aren’t willing to tolerate each other’s mistakes. Sometimes if we’re cooperatively hunting — let’s say we’re some sort of animal [..] that works together to hunt — sometimes I’m going to let you down. And maybe it’s not even intentional, but I’m going to get distracted and I’m going to make a mistake.

And if you take each of those mistakes as the last word about my cooperative disposition, you might just give up and so no cooperation gets done. So, really, our ability, [..] to cooperate with each other and make things happen that [we] can’t do on [our] own is undergirded by an ability to forgive each other for occasional defections and mistakes.”
He does not mean to imply that forgiveness is easy or always possible. It can take time and it can take intentional preparation. We have to be willing to see the humanity in the other person. We have to be able to see the world from more than a single perspective. Seeing the world in black and white is not helpful here. There is always more than one story, more than one way to tell the story, more than one way to hear the story.

And this is true whether the story involves two friends, a family, a church community, a nation, or one, singular person struggling to reconcile his or her conflicting actions and desires. Forgiveness does not make our mistakes go away, yet forgiveness opens the door for us to begin again, and begin again in love.

“I saw what love might have done had we loved in time.” Let us open our doors and our hearts while we have the time.

Balance: The Paradox of Balance

The Paradox of Balance

a sermon by Rev. Michael Leuchtenberger

Given on 17 October 2010 to the Unitarian Universalist Church of Concord, New Hampshire.


Two summers ago our family went to see a performance of Cirque Shanghai at Navy Pier in Chicago. A young boy, perhaps 12 years old, suddenly appeared on stage. On the floor was a piece of metal piping about 8 inches in diameter and a foot long. He rolled it back and forth, then took a board just big enough to stand on, placed it on top of the pipe and carefully stepped on top of the board. He waved his hands and the audience offered polite applause. Not bad for a 12 year old.

Next he took another metal pipe, placed it on top of the first at right angles, added the board and once again began to balance on top of these three moving parts. The applause grew. Not bad for a circus performer.

He jumped down, took another metal pipe, added it to the pile and somehow managed to look graceful as he stepped back onto this impossibly wobbly contraption. His concentration was showing but he remained in control and the audience became mesmerized.
I forget how many more times he upped the ante – but by the end of his act he had to use a ladder just to reach the top of his tower of moving parts. Impossible it should have been, even for a circus performer, especially a 12 year old.

I love such displays of excellence. I find them inspiring, aesthetically pleasing, and somehow deeply satisfying. They seem to surpass ordinary life. Yet while I remain in awe of the balancing skills of this young artist, I recognize that he is not unique in what he is doing.

All of us are involved in many balancing acts each day. Life is at its core an attempt at balancing. We know we need to balance how much we sleep and how much we are awake. We know we need to balance our appetite for food with our ability to metabolize what we take in. We know we need to balance what we wear and the temperature around us.

There is no question that finding the right balance is critical to our wellbeing. Many books have been written to explain to us exactly how we can achieve balance, what we need to have to be balanced, what we need to buy to be balanced.

Balance has become another commodity we would like to acquire and then be done with it. But balance is no commodity. Balance cannot be purchased like a table, a car, or a house. Balance is a skill. It implies motion, motion to adjust to the never ending changes that threaten to throw us and all of life off balance.

Even the performance in the circus offered merely the illusion of static balance. The young acrobat appeared still yet was constantly adjusting to avoid falling down. There is nothing static about balance when you stand on top of a pile of moving parts.
Life is no different. Life is one big pile of moving parts. And we get to stand in the middle of that pile on our board trying to adjust to the constant movement, trying to avoid falling as the board is nudged or even thrown in new and unpredictable ways.
Getting to the point of perfect balance and holding onto it may seem impossible – because it is impossible. Yet balance has to remain the goal despite the understanding that perfect balance can never be achieved, despite our awareness that perfect balance will never last. Such is the paradox of balance, the recognition that we are required to strive for what is impossible to achieve, and we are sure to lose at the end.

Luckily, many of the balancing acts we face each day are forgiving and don’t require perfect balance. They have margins of errors like bowling on a wide bowling lane. Nothing drastic will happen if we miss the point of balance by a little. If we stay awake for a few minutes after we get tired we will not suffer greatly. If we eat another spoonful after our body tells us we are full, we will not suffer noticeably. If the temperature is comfortable and we put on an extra pair of thin socks, we will probably be just fine.

Facing wide bowling lanes instead of razor’s edges – or a tight rope – in our daily balancing acts is what makes life possible. If every small misstep resulted in terrible consequences, few of us would still be around. Yet, the forgiving nature of the balancing we do most of the time can create the illusion that no matter where we step we will remain balanced and will avoid falling. We become complacent. We stop paying attention to how close to the gutter (of our figurative bowling lane) we’ve come.
We take out a little credit to make a particular moment more pleasant or help smooth over a tight spot in our finances. No big deal. We pay it off next month. Then we do it again. And again, only this time we didn’t get to pay off what we owed from before. No big deal.

Yet suddenly, we look at a credit card statement that tells us we owe three months worth of our salary and a few days later that salary is replaced by unemployment payments (if that) and no future salaries in sight.

Suddenly the stakes in our balancing act have become a lot higher and the skills required to remain balanced a lot more complex. Over the past few years, many of us have reached a threshold or tipping point in our own personal lives in how we approach our financial balancing act. And certainly, our society at a large is in the middle of a giant effort to regain a sense of balance economically and financially.

But while the economic crisis of imbalance has captured our attention there are other dimensions of our lives that are equally imperiled by our lack of balancing skills.

For hundreds of years we have treated the resources of our earth like a credit card that carries no monthly fee, charges zero percent interest, and has no spending limit. We know better, of course.

We cannot continue to withdraw capital from the ecological endowment fund that nature has accumulated and expect that it will continue to support our out-of-balance spending habits. If we take clean water from a lake and add pollutants instead, our access to water clean enough to drink will soon be exhausted.

Nature can be forgiving for a while. Most ecosystems have a carrying capacity that allows the system to assimilate change. But once we push beyond the limits of the carrying capacity, the ecosystem will collapse and will take a long time to recover, if ever.

It may be impossible to know and achieve the perfect balance in our interactions with our environment but we must attempt to find a point of balance nonetheless. The paradox of balance, the need for balance despite the impossibility of achieving balance, does not let us off the hook.

Trying to balance a global system of finances or ecosystems may seem overwhelming. But we can and ought to practice our balancing skills right where we are. It begins with an honest look at our responsibilities, our priorities, and how we spend our time and energy.

In the mid-1990s I was working as an environmental consultant in the Washington, DC area. I had no wife or kids yet, but I had a good group of friends and a number of hobbies. One day I was invited to a wedding by a friend. I was excited and thanked him for the invitation. Yet on the day of the wedding I ended up going to the office instead of celebrating with my friend and his new wife. Some project needed my attention.

Just recounting the story it seems absurd. Clearly my balancing skills had failed me. I had failed to look at the bigger picture on how to be in harmony with those around me. I had failed to Stop! Look! And Listen! as the Buddhists would suggest. I am sad to say our relationship did not survive this gutter ball I rolled. In retrospect I recognize that I upset the balance of the community of which I was a part.

I had another friend who learned to play Go while in grad school. Go is a 4,000 year old board game of strategy, tactics, and aesthetics. No computer can yet touch the competency of advanced human players. There are leagues of professional players in Japan and scores of devoted amateurs all around the world. Go is a fascinating game and my friend became obsessed. Six years into his Ph.D. program he was still playing Go but he had made little progress on his dissertation. A short while afterwards, he quit school without finishing his degree – a casualty of his devotion to Go. Clearly his balancing skills were also suffering.
And he knew it all along. My friend’s problem was not Stop! Look! Listen! but the lack of will power to change course despite having paid attention. His wife and young child paid part of the price. His actions were not in harmony with his priorities. He behaved in a way that upset the balance of his most important community.

Diane Rizzetto in her book “Waking Up To What You Do” tells the story of an interesting community ritual of an indigenous tribe in Tasmania. “When something happens in which someone behaves unskillfully, thus upsetting the balance of the community, the group comes together around the fire to reenact the situation.

For example, if a man yells at his wife a lot and chases her out of the hut, causing havoc in the village, he is brought before the community, not to be judged or reprimanded, but rather to help him see the absurdity of his behavior. Members of the tribe role-play the scene between him and his wife in a lighthearted way. The villagers, including children, all take part, laughing, joking, and mimicking the absurdity of the behavior until the man himself relaxes and also realizes the absurdity of his actions.
Interestingly enough, even his wife takes part in the villagers’ dramatization. Before too long, the whole scene turns into a big party and the husband and wife provide food for the rest of the villagers. The purpose of the ritual is to acknowledge their fallibility openly so that they can put it into perspective, even laugh at it.”

While our urban life style may not allow our whole village to get involved when we upset the balance in our lives, the ritual suggests a valuable idea: Whether we lack awareness of what we are doing or the will power to change it we can and should hold each other accountable more creatively.

Non-violent communication, as we have studied and begun to practice it here at church, is one of these creative ways. Learning to call and facilitate restorative circles is one of the approaches we can use when our community is off balance.

Or, what would happen if we replaced the ubiquitous “how are yous?” with an earnest “How are your balancing skills right now?” or “What are you doing these days to remain in harmony with yourself and your community?”

I don’t mean to imply there is no time or place for focused attention on a singular activity. Spending one-on-one time with one of my children is important to a sense of balance or harmony in our family. Yet if a week passes and I have barely said a word to my other child, the harmony is clearly broken and more skillful balancing is required.

The appropriate timeframe for balancing varies greatly. Some things need to be balanced daily, other things can wait months, years, even a lifetime. I don’t need to go running every day to feel balanced, but if I don’t get exercise for more than a few weeks I begin to sense an imbalance in my life. I don’t need to talk to my long distance friends every week, but if months pass without contact I begin to feel the balance is off. I don’t need to have a vacation every month, but if more than a year goes by without a break in the routine, I know I am no longer balancing as I should.

What’s important is that for most of us to do well at our balancing acts it helps to be held accountable explicitly. And we need each other to do so.

For some of us, our parents played this role. When we were obsessed with sports, or clothes, or grades, they nudged us to remember other interests and activities. They reminded us to pay attention to our whole lives and to accept the co-responsibility for the harmony of the community of which we are a part.

Some of us have used counseling or life coaching to create structures of creative accountability. Covenant group or other small groups can also allow for honest reflection on our commitments to a balanced life. There is no single approach that will work for all of us.

One unexpected experience with accountability I had during my internship at Unity Temple. Within the first month I had to complete a learning service agreement. This agreement spells out the expectations for what I wanted to learn and what I was expected to do during my time as an intern minister. My internship supervisor, along with the members of my internship committee helped me put together this agreement. It talked about pastoral care, social action, teaching, interfaith work, administrative skills, and, of course, worship arts, the stuff ministers do when we are up here in the pulpit. But it didn’t stop there. The form also required me to spell out how I would practice self care and what my spiritual practices would look like.
At first I resisted. Why does my personal life need to get dragged into what I learn and do on internship? But soon it became obvious. Being explicit about what I need for self care and personal spiritual growth – and having my supervisor and committee agree to it – offered just the protection I needed when the balancing got difficult.

It allowed me to justify reading a book of fiction, to spend time composing music, to write in my journal, or to prioritize date night with my wife over competing events at church. I was just as accountable to do those things as I was to learn about church administration, to make pastoral care visits, or to attend regional ministers’ gatherings.

An agreement such as my learning service agreement doesn’t guarantee we won’t fall or send bowling balls into the gutter. Yet it can help us begin to justify a transformation in how we prioritize what we do because it helps us internalize a different set of values. If balance and harmony are recognized as important ultimate goals, stress and burn-out and frustration caused by the pursuit of other goals are no longer as justified. Polluted air, eroded landscapes, lost species caused by the pursuit of other goals are no longer as justified. Poverty, hunger, and sickness caused by the pursuit of other goals are no longer as justified.

The more we accept that striving for balance remains essential despite the impossibility of ever achieving it, the more we are willing to embrace the paradox of balance, the more it becomes possible to imagine a world where harmony and peace within people, among people and with the earth are more than a dream of the future.

May it be so.

Atheism: What Does a Non-Believer Believe? by “Russ”

From the site “Perspectives: Food for the Skeptic’s Soul“:


The following sermon was written and presented to an eclectic Unitarian Universalist congregation, comprising people of varying beliefs and religious backgrounds. The author is a podcast listener and reader of A Secret of the Universe, and he kindly contacted me to share a draft prior to presentation. It surely struck a chord, so I requested his permission to share it with you. He generously agreed without hesitation. He did ask, however, that his full name not be used (a powerful statement in itself about the degree of intolerance toward dissenting religious views). Thanks Russ, for letting me share your powerful insights and thoughts. May they help all of us remember that reasonable and thoughtful people can draw very different conclusions about the supernatural, and live vibrantly, fully, and peacefully through our unique metaphors and narratives.

Beliefs of a Non-Believer:

Incorporating a little Atheism into your Personal Theology

A UU Sermon by “Russ”

What might a Non-believer believe? I appreciate the opportunity to discuss this. I will not speak for all non-believers, but I will share one perspective. Non-spiritual people are overwhelmingly much more than Spock-like individuals who reject everything except science and reason. We feel, we laugh, we love, we aspire, we hope, we rejoice and we are grateful. We cherish the transformative, the transcendent, and even at times that which surpasses our comprehension and understanding. We enjoy music, the arts, companionship, mystery, awe, beauty, walks on the beach, and getting caught in the rain—but not necessarily piña coladas.

In talking about those of us whose worldview is entirely without belief in the super-natural, I’ll use the term Atheist. I could avoid it and use terms such as non-theist, naturalists, secular humanists, freethinkers, post-theists, Brights, materialists, non-believers or others. Each of these names has advantages and disadvantages. However, I’ll mostly use atheist because, while seemingly harsh to some, it is direct and honest and it is a word that is in need of redeeming.

What does it mean to be an Atheist? Some would define us as horrible people who hate God and love evil or people who want to see god banished from public and private life or people who are sure there is no god. I can’t speak for all Atheists, but all I know would strongly object to any of those definitions. Atheists are mostly just people who choose to live their lives without strict guidance from theistic beliefs. All of us here today live our lives in neglect of certain gods; we all fail to honor, seek approval, follow the path or heed the advice of thousands of theistic traditions. Atheists just go one god further than most. Here’s the question for today. Might a UU with a more supernatural worldview, find valuable perspectives rooted in atheism—to incorporate into their personal theology?

Some might doubt that. Some see science and reason as a constraint—not a launching pad. Most of us know the story of the Jefferson Bible. Thomas Jefferson started with the New Testament and, with a razor, removed all the supernatural elements. I don’t find that to be a good representation of what Atheism has to offer. I don’t like a model that suggests that religion formulates something good and then humanity uses science and reason to whittle it down and take out what doesn’t belong. To me, Atheism is not about stripping down, but rather about building up. A materialistic worldview is fertile soil for a positive and affirming life view. While, overwhelmingly, everyone here respects science and reason, at least as long as they stay within their circles, many feel that it is essential to go outside of the natural world for wisdom and wholeness. As an atheist, I believe that wisdom and wholeness are enhanced by staying within the natural realm. It is through the natural world that we see most clearly.

Some might say that an Atheistic view with a purely materialistic stance is un-natural; all cultures and people have believed in one sort of a god or another. Not so. Let me introduce the Piraha (pronounce pee-da-ha). These people live in the Brazilian Amazon Rain forest. They lack beliefs in what they can’t see. Though lacking science and even math, evidence matters to them. They laugh a lot while taking whatever life throws at them. Daniel Everett first visited them in 1977 as a Christian missionary and a linguist sent to learn their language, translate the Bible for them, and ultimately bring them to Christ. Instead, they brought him to atheism. I quote from his book Don’t Sleep there are Snakes —“The Pirahãs have shown me that there is dignity and deep satisfaction in facing life and death without the comfort of heaven or the fear of hell and in sailing toward the great abyss with a smile.”

So what are “atheistic” thoughts that might be of value?

At times it’s good to embrace “I don’t know”. Dave Weiisbard, a UU minister said, “As many of you know, I am troubled by what I see as the trend in Unitarian Universalist churches today to look for reassurance more than challenge, to back away from doubt in search of security.” Why are we uncomfortable with the “I don’t’ know?” I’ve heard it said here that “Religion answers the questions that Science can’t.” Humans have a tendency to want answers and if we can’t get them one place, we will try another. But instead of seeking “the answer” or even “an answer” consider the perspective instead of being comfortable with … ”I don’t know.”

I’ve heard it explained that the New Testament spoke of demon possession and evil spirits because, of course, they did not have the knowledge base of modern psychiatry so they understood mental illness in terms that had meaning to them. But explanations suggest actions. What do we do about a person inhabited by a demon? “Get out the hot pokers” maybe? That might make sense, given the understanding of demon possession, to even the most compassionate of people. But if you are a compassionate person and admit, “I don’t know”—might you be kinder? If that doesn’t seem likely to you, let me tell you about Knuckles, the chimp in Florida. He has cerebral palsy and frequently acts strange by chimp standards. But he gets a pass for behaviors that would get other chimps cuffed. What can chimps know about cerebral palsy? Our closest relatives, in a condition of “I don’t know,” show strong compassion. We can too.

We once explained lightning as the wrath of God; this led to opposition to lightning rods because they were seen as interfering with God’s will. So we need to recognize that explanations have serious consequences. They suggest prescriptions and prohibitions and actions. For such reasons, “I don’t know” is often a better choice.

In a related vein, quick answers can rob life of mystery and awe. Take a question and a quick answer. “Why are we moved by music?” God made us that way. Not very satisfying for me—to think I respond to music like my TV responds to its remote control—because I was made that way. How BORING!! Think instead—I don’t know … now there is potential. Music—maybe it has connections to appreciating the heartbeats of others nearby, of rhythmic breathing, of early communities and drumming, or of bird songs and other elements of the natural world. I don’t know why music moves me, but it seems very special and I treasure it and embrace music’s transcendent properties as a wonderful mystery full of possibilities. I just don’t know, yet it’s wonderful that way. So consider, even if you have very strong theistic beliefs, that leaving open the possibility of mysteries can enrich your life and don’t let your theology give you too many easy answers.

Atheists aren’t inclined to look for messages where there aren’t any. We can probably mostly all agree that sometimes (at least some of the time) things just happen for no special reason whatsoever. It’s not always karma coming back to you nor are events always a sign from on high. Rain falls, hurricanes strike, good ideas sometimes just don’t work out. Don’t always take events as a judgment or criticism and don’t get too caught up in viewing success as some sign of divine approval. Millions of people are impoverished through no fault of their own. Victims of tsunamis, floods, tornados, and other disasters are likely as innocent as millions of others around the world who seem more “blessed”. An Atheistic perspective would say, don’t let “karma” convince you that some blame or unworthiness marks these people. Don’t let your good fortune convince you that you are more deserving. As Robert Ingersoll advises, “Don’t shirk your responsibility to your fellow man because somehow you think we all get what we deserve. In nature there are neither rewards nor punishments—there are consequences.”

As an atheist, it can be easier to have a more realistic set of expectations. If you have high expectations you are frequently disappointed. More realistic expectations often lead to happiness and satisfaction. As atheists, we don’t feel we have been robbed of some birthright a god wanted to give us; we didn’t somehow miss out on a paradisiacal earthly existence. We’re not consumed with expectations for perfection later. Our target is not infinite, everlasting, unending bliss. We’re just damn lucky to be here. Think of the how wonderful a baby’s belly laugh is. It’s far beyond what we should expect. Think of it—our huge planet is dwarfed by a Sun, which is nothing special among 100′s of billions in this galaxy, which is just one of the hundreds of billions of known galaxies. There certainly is a lot of beauty and grandeur in the universe, but the overwhelming vast majority of this universe just follows the laws of physics and chemistry, with nothing near as remarkable as what we find on this small planet. For me, I can say how magnificent it is that, out of all this matter and space and time, events here have allowed the development of life, and if the culmination of all these events, over billions of years, was only just the wonderful, remarkable expression of a baby’s belly laugh, for me, that would be enough. As they say, everything else is just gravy.

Atheism leads me to love my fellow man. 1 John 4:20 notes that, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen.”

The Christian Bible provocatively questions, how can you say you love god when you don’t care for your fellow man? Careless devotion to a supernatural being can distract you from an appreciation of your fellow man. Did a supreme being intend for me to live in happiness? Have I been robbed of that happiness by the failure of others to meet the expectations of that being? Am I being punished for the sins of others? As an atheist—I don’t see where I was intended to have anything. I am very fortunate that the world has worked out to provide me with so much. I see where I am now and I can recognize how much I owe to others. I am not of a people who were kicked out of a garden of paradise because of the failings of others. I have comfort because of what others have done. The sweat, love, kindness, and generosity of others have built this world. True—they have not been perfect people by many standards. Attributing blessings to some form of the divine, makes it harder to recognize how we are sheltered from the impacts of nature because of the efforts of our fellow men. “We have all been warmed by fires we did not build and drank from wells we did not dig,” as a familiar UU quote observes. We have a lot to be thankful for from our predecessors. As an Atheist, I find it easier to practice gratitude, and I seek to express gratitude to others.

Atheists don’t believe in an extended or infinite afterlife. That makes this life all the more precious and worthwhile. Whether you are theistic or not, there are benefits from thinking that you should do your best to live as if the books were to be closed after this earthly life. You may become more of an activist if you doubt that victims of poverty and injustice will receive comfort in a later life. You may be more compassionate toward and accepting of others choices if you think that this is the only life where love can be shown. For yourself, this life is where you need to sing and dance, love and give, imagine and explore, create and enjoy, laugh and cry. If there is an afterlife, so much the better for you—but don’t stand on the sidelines waiting while this life passes you by.

Atheists believe that you have to find your own purpose and meaning in life. This is a huge responsibility, but you’re not going to fail the test by missing a pre-determined answer. You are not a square peg who must be sanded and smoothed to fit in a round hole. It can be a great opportunity to realize that the meaning of your life is not a pre-determined answer or mystery that you have to get right. Rather, the meaning of your life is something you can determine to your own satisfaction. As stated in the gospel of Luke, “Why do you not judge for yourselves what is right? There is great power in thinking ‘My life is about what I say it is.’”

There’s a lot I didn’t have time to go into so here are some quick hits on a grab bag of naturalistic ideas:

– For non-believers there are no chosen people, no favored sex, no group was created first or especially beloved. More importantly, everyone shares in a common humanity. We stand together.

– We don’t have to pick and choose from other codes to match our moral values. We directly define our values.

– While appreciating the value of poetry and messages with multiple meanings, we also value clear language so that we can have honest mutual understanding.

– For most of us, who you marry, what you do with your body, how you live your life—is your business. We don’t think your personal choices will make it more likely that we will get hit by a hurricane or anything like that.

– We judge things on their own merits, without reference to religious beliefs that might make us concerned about things like stem cell research or gay marriage. We have no reason not to be organ donors.

– We don’t have to deal with dilemmas like why did god help me find a parking space, but ignore the starving masses over there.

– We know that we can be transcendent in scope and kind, like no other beings have ever been, at least in this part of the universe.

– For atheists, there is not a line between what is sacred and what is not. A good theistic framework can do the same. The glorious, the numinous, the transcendent, can break out anytime, anywhere, in any setting.

If there is a God, at least we’ve taken him seriously. Many of us suspect he might approve of us using our minds to try to really understand life, rather than singing empty praises. Pascal claimed it was worth living for God even if there is no God. Robert Price turned that around and asked, “Perhaps it is worth living without God even if there is one. Maybe that’s even his will.”

I think that atheism is a source of optimism, hope and joy. However, I’ll admit, it would be nice if we had a family reunion after this life (not that I would want it to last forever). I’d like to believe that a supernatural entity is protecting me from grave harm (though no followers of any deity today are assured that). I wish that, in the end, we could count on justice prevailing and wrongs being righted. I do wish those things. But I can’t believe them. Do I lose some comfort? I don’t know. For me it seems that I am more relaxed and at peace where I am, accepting only what I truly believe. That seems far better for me than struggling to believe. I don’t see myself as better off with a hope of things which might or might not happen or a faith that would be plagued with doubts.

Maybe there are two fundamental differences in how we look at the world. When we stand in awe of some incredible wonder that touches us profoundly, some of us will be moved by thoughts of what exists outside the universe, while others will be move by thoughts of how wonderful the things within our universe can be. I hope that, across that divide, we may all share in that awe and together recognize what is truly amazing.

(Reproduced with permission–from “Russ”)