When the Truth Does Not Set Us Free

July 20, 2015

When the Truth Does Not Set Us Free
Preached July 19, 2015
at Unitarian Universalist Church of Bowling Green

In his book The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt writes about an experiment that was trying to get a sense of why people make the decisions that they do. Subjects in the experiment were offered two dollars if they would sign a piece of paper that said:

I [name goes here] hereby sell my soul, after my death to the leader of this experiment for the sum of $2.

If they signed the paper, they got $2. There was a line for the subjects to sign and under that line it read: “This form is part of an a psychology experiment. It is not a legal or binding contract in any way.”

They were told that they could rip the paper up as soon as they signed it and still get their two dollars. Yet only 23 percent of the subjects were willing to sign the paper. After some pressing from the experiment leader, another 17% were willing to sign the paper, but that still meant that 50% of folks were not willing to sign a meaningless paper.

When the experimenter asked people why they wouldn’t sign it – knowing that it could not possibly be real or binding, most people couldn’t really explain it. Even several atheists who didn’t even believe in souls said they just didn’t feel right signing it.

Haidt recounts other experiments like this. In some, the researchers control for plausible good reasons not to do something, and then ask people to do it, like the sign your soul away experiment. There was also one where a dead cockroach was sterilized, and quickly dipped down in some water and then out again. People were offered money to drink the water, and few would, despite the fact the researchers assured them and explained how it was impossible for any germs or cockroach pieces to be in the water.

In other experiments, they construct stories and scenarios where people do things that just “seem” wrong even though the researchers are careful to construct the stories so that there are no actually harmful consequences. Yet people continue to refuse to do things even when they cannot explain why and continue to insist that something is right or wrong just based on how it seems to them, without being able to offer plausible reasons.

It raises the important question about why we do or don’t do unreasonable things, or things that seem to make sense.

This matters to us for a couple reasons. First, most of us know people who make decisions that seem atrocious. They live lives that seem unreasonable to us, off the wall, abhorrent, or just plain wrong. We think to ourselves, “There are obvious reasons for them not to believe that or do that and they do it anyway!?!?” We also may think this about some politicians who take positions or make decisions that appear to make no sense whatsoever. While sometimes this can be attributed to pandering to their base, often it seems that the positions they take or decisions they make don’t even help them strategically. They just seem to be unreasonable positions with no apparent strategic benefit either.

So it is important – as individuals and as a church – to think about how we might respond to people when reason is not enough.

And, it may or may not be the case that some of us look at ourselves and give ourselves a little pat on the back and think to ourselves, “Good thing we are reasonable and have thought out all the pros and cons of this or that and come to a calm, measured decision about things.”

Yet, for some of us, for those non-saints among us today, we actually may have a few things in our life that we do that are counter to reason. Where we know the right thing to do, the right way to act, the right thing to say, what we really should be doing, and yet we do something different.

It might be as benign as, for instance, procrastination where we know there will be negative consequences for us in the future that outweigh the short term relief we get from putting something off. We know what the consequences will be. We know we will have to stay up late, and be tired the next day. We even know we will regret it, and yet we keep on waiting to write that memo, do the dishes, write that paper – or sermon – or make that phone call that we need to take care of.

The list goes on – we know that we are destroying our environment, but our actions are often, at best, slightly out of our comfort zone, and often they are simply token. This is both on an individual level – those of us in the room know that we live in houses that are bigger than is fair in terms of energy consumption… those of use who drive and fly more than our share, pumping out our greenhouse gasses by the ton.

And on a collective level – we want the economy to keep growing, we as a people want to live comfortable decent lives, and we kind of have this gnawing feeling that what we are doing is melting those polar ice caps, not to mention keeping lots of people in developing countries in slave-like working conditions to feed our hunger for affordable clothes from Target, yet… yet… yet… we kind of keep living mostly how we live, hoping that our diligent recycling efforts and occasional donation or protests or online petition signing on Facebook will atone for a life we know has dire consequences for others – today and in the future.

And so the question remains: what are we to do? We see others making terrible decisions that seem to defy logic and reasonableness, and yet also we ourselves are often not able to resist the sirens of a comfortable life, of addiction, of dishonesty, of yelling when it feels good even when it hurts others, of self-righteousness arrogance, of our knowledge that we know, and others do not.

The little voice in the back of our head tells us to stop, to change, to do better, yet we stuff it down, quiet it, we feel guilty and then ease our guilt with more of the same, or perhaps we have ignored it so long, that we cannot even hear that voice inside of us.

Haidt makes the argument that we are two: we are an elephant and we are a rider on that elephant. The rider on the elephant is a logical reasoning, the little itty bitty rider, and the elephant – the big big elephant – is our intuitive reasoning, our gut, our accumulated patterns of thinking and being. Haidt makes the argument that the rider often likes to think that he or she is driving the elephant around, telling him or her where to go, and occasionally maybe, it is true the rational rider can manage to get the elephant to do a thing here or a thing there. But, Haidt makes the argument that mostly the elephant is in control and our reasoning rider often believes himself or herself to be driving the elephant, but that neurologically the intuitive elephant is running the show, with the rational reasoning following our intuitive reasoning just a split second behind. Haidt makes the argument that the rider is a most often a function of the elephant. Almost as if the elephant walks to the right and the rider thinks, “Ah, yes, to the right. That’s where we need to go.” It happens so fast we don’t even realize the order it happens in.

Mostly, Haidt says, despite our fetishization of enlightenment rationality, we are what Hume called a slave to our passions. It is not that we don’t reason, but more like reason is not really a judge or teacher, weighing the evidence or guiding us to greater understanding. Rather reason is more like an attorney or a press secretary, justifying our actions and our intuitions.

There is an organization called The Frameworks Institute and they do a lot of good work with this idea. They point out that “when the facts don’t fit people’s frames, often they will changes the facts, not the frame.” That is, our feeling about what is right is so strong, our intuition – our elephant – is so powerful that when facts contradict it, people ignore the facts, they change the facts, not their frameworks and habits of thinking.

If we look at the environmental movement, it is a perfect example. For years, scientists have been telling us about the melting, the rising sea levels, the concerning weather patterns, the fact that Bangladesh will be fully under water in the lifetime of our children. They provide models, graphs, charts, studies. And yet. Go out on the streets of Bowling Green and people will tell you that global climate disruption is not a thing. It is an invention. Things are fine.

And yet, even those of us that believe that this is true, continue to live as if it isn’t so, ignoring the calls that radical change across large swaths of humanity is essential if we are to avert the destruction of the world as we know and instead we take our baby steps, hoping it is enough, but knowing that it probably isn’t.

We – we here – and we out there – are not an overall rational reasonable people despite our wishes.

And one thing that we often do is to tell ourselves that we – we good ones, we educated ones, we who listen to NPR and read The New York Times – we are different than those people out there. Yet, I want to suggest this morning that that kind of thinking simply worsens our predicament. It makes us feel good, yes, but it contributes to an us and a them, the good ones and the fallen ones, the wise ones and the unknowing ones – the very kind of separation and exclusion that so many of us have experienced in other contexts in our lives when we were told that we were other. That we were not enough. That we were not good.

I want to suggest this morning that in one way or another, we are all wrapped up in what Foucault calls the divine spectacle of humanity’s madness. But! You protest! Just like Alice in Wonderland, ““But I don’t want to go among mad people!””

Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”

“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.

“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”

Our madness takes different forms, yes, but we are all, in one way or another, riders on our elephants, struggling to wrestle a little control over our lives, over our collective future. Grappling to make meaning in a world that often seems mad.

And, so, again, we return: what are we to do?

The answer, of course, is not to throw up our hands and decide that reason and rationality have no place in the world. That data doesn’t matter. That our gut feelings are always right, that our collective madness is the best that we can do, but I want to suggest that we take reason and rationality off of its pedestal and realize that our world will change and our own lives will change when we realize that information is never enough and the best data will not save us. Despite our desperate wishes, the truth – or even THE TRUTH – will not set us free.

Reason is never enough because we – we in here and we out there – are a complex nexus of rider and elephants, of head and heart, of body and soul and mind and we – we who are here, we who fly gay pride flags, we who fly confederate flags, and we who fly American flags, we who support gay marriage, we who do not, we are all in this together. We are all trying to make our way in a broken, messed up confusing world where things are not fair, where things are not rational and where it feels so good to make an us and a them, a right people and a wrong people, a rational, reasonable people and those other people.

But we are all mad, my friends. We are all woven into this mad world, making decisions that do not make sense, and no matter how right we think we are, being right is not enough. Being right feels good, but being right is not a strategy to get to the world we long for.

In my classes, my students and I do deliberations. We take a contentious issue and have a short guide that frames three different options, outlining the position and then the tradeoffs of each position. The guides are designed to give a fair hearing to different viewpoints and a fair assessment of the pros and cons of each view. I ask my students, when people make a point, or a claim, even if it seems wrong, or absurd to ask what is behind the statement. You think that everyone should have a gun with them at all times? What values underlie that? What worries underlie that? The person is saying they value security. They are saying they feel insecure. Perhaps they long to feel more powerful. Perhaps they don’t feel safe. They are saying they value certain freedoms. We are not trying to agree or disagree with the values or the feelings that underlie the statement, but to hear them. To hear our neighbor where they are at. To pay attention to their elephant.

My students do not usually leave our deliberations with different viewpoints, but what they do say over and over is that they understand their classmates better. The liberals understand the conservatives better. The conservatives understand the liberals better. They are less other to each other. Which, I believe plants the seeds for hearing each other better. As one of my students said, it seems like in the U.S. we have lost the idea of an us. It seems like there is always a good us and a bad them, but we don’t have an us anymore.

We as individuals and we as a church can dig in our heals. We can insist on being right, on the truth that we know, on reason and rationality as our altar. Yet, if we cannot hear our neighbors – our most “other” neighbors, our confederate flag flying neighbor, our neighbor who thinks we are going to hell, how can we reach the world? How can we do anything but simply preach to the choir. If we are serious that we our faith is not just for some us, we must ask how can we be a church and a faith for all people who need love? Who need to be heard. Who feel like an other.

We do not have to agree with people’s elephants to pay attention to them, to speak to them, to acknowledge them, to tell them that they are inherent worthy and have dignity. And, if we are ever to corral our own elephants in the direction that we would like them to go, we must at least recognize that they are there, to learn perhaps to be friends with them, to recognize that they are part of us.

I wish that we would know the truth and we would be free.

But may we leave today, knowing we are not free. And the truth with not get us there. Freedom is a long, slow journey of learning to love ourselves, of learning to love others in all their messiness and brokenness, of listening, and reflecting, of letting go of our egos and our righteousness. Over and over again.

Perhaps it is the case that we shall never be truly free – not free from suffering, not free from our elephants, no free from our neighbors who seem crazy or drive us crazy.

Pema Chödrön says, “In life, we think that they point is to pass the test, or overcome the problem. Yet the real truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together for a time, and then they fall back apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that.”

Perhaps, if we are to taste a little freedom, it will come from this coming together, and falling apart, as individuals, as families, as a church, as a world, and not running from that. Letting go of how right we are, how much better we are, and seeing that we are all in this together, struggling together on this spinning planet to try to eek out something a little more humane, a little more beautiful, a little more worthy our years here. May we show care to ourselves in this messy journey, and care for others, even the most other others.


*This sermon is copyrighted. Please do not use in whole or part without permission.

Who Is Church For?

March 18, 2012

In a recent online Unitarian Universalist discussion about church growth, someone asked a question about why some parts of Unitarian Universalism are harder explain than “to profess a love for your imaginary friend.” By this, I can only assume that the originator of the post referred to the profession of love for God (or Jesus). This came on the heels of a sermon I recently heard that included an (older) poem by a Unitarian minister that openly made fun of other faiths and made the point how much better Unitarians are than other irrational faiths. And, to top it off, I attended a Unitarian Universalist Christmas concert in December that made fun of important parts of the Christmas story.

I almost cannot breathe when I hear these sorts of things. It is so profoundly dismissive to one’s love of God to say “love of your imaginary friend.” I certainly do not take these thoughtless and dismissive comments personally. I am more concerned with what this says to the world about the Unitarian Universalist faith. You know, what it says to people who are hurting, searching, and longing and turning to the church for support and guidance. I am embarrassed for Unitarian Universalists. How will anyone ever take us seriously about our messages of love and inclusion if we actively and routinely make fun of other faith traditions?

I can hear the defenses ringing in my head. Everyone is not perfect, right? We all make mistakes! Oh, can’t we just have a sense of humor? Oh, don’t be so defensive!

But for me, what this raises is the question of who the church is for. Unitarian Universalists are not alone in struggling with this, of course, so don’t think I mean this only for this context. But we certainly have an issue here. Is the church for us – the people already in the inside, who know and love each other, who believe pretty similar things and know better than those who don’t? Who know better than those people out there? Those folks that have “imaginary” best friends they call God?

Or, is the church for the world? Are we about love freely given? Unconditionally? Are we about healing those who hurt? Are we about radical hospitality? Are we about facing our own demons and pushing through that even when it is hard and soul wrenching because the world needs us? Are we about getting over ourselves?

We are not a club, people. We are a faith. If you want a liberal rational club for smart people who don’t believe silly things, a place where you giggle knowingly about those other people, please don’t hold your meetings in The Church because the The Church is for Everyone.

Some UU Thoughts

April 29, 2006

It is times like this that I wish I would have made this blog anonymous-ish, like some other UU bloggers out there, which would give me (at least a bit more) free reign to just rant. (I know it is hard to believe that I might be able to do such a thing…) So no ranting here. I will try to be calm, collected, and reasonable. I went to the Ballou Channing District conference today. It was a good reminder that I need to get out and about in UU land more. It was also a good experience to help me understand why so many other bloggers can be so critical of UUism. (For instance, you can find a collection of critiques of the UUA and UUism ideas about “fixing” UUism here at Chalice Chick‘s blog or you can read one of many posts that are pretty down on the UUA and/or UUism in general here at Boy in the Bands blog. I could go on, but there is an abundance of not very satisfied UUs out there who offer lots of criticism, generally, I think out of love, but still it can be a bit much sometime.)

Anyway, I guess throw me in the mix of loving critiquers. I think a lot of my previous feeling of wondering how oh how could anyone be harsh about UUism/UUA etc. comes from being a part of two really great congregations — my home church and my internship church. There has been very little if any bickering at these places, great leadership, and lots of respect and flexibility about and around people’s various beliefs. Like my early time being involved in a Christian church in high school, I freely admit I tend to come at a lot of religion stuff a tad naively. That said, it is good to learn the hard lessons of religious community — it is, of course, messy and really should be no other way because life is messy. Anyway. Onward.

I’ll start with the thing that could, in and of itself, be enough to complain/lament about in and of itself. Our every-so-loveable keynote speaker Rev. Dr. Davidson Loehr (bio here) called people who believed in the resurrection of Jesus “idiots.” This is not an exaggeration on my part. He was making fun of how, in his opinion, Western religions think that their myths are literally true, while Eastern religions know that their myths are not really true and just a way of understanding the world. (I would question this blanket statement. And, as a side note, he also said that there are no gods in Buddhism, which is wrong. You can read a little about that here at wikipedia or here at www.religionfacts.com). And in this context about myths, he said something along the lines like “A dead guy actually rising again after death? Come on! Give me a break!” and then the bit about idiots. I don’t know if it might have occurred to him that perhaps there are UUs who believe this (like Peacebang who wrote about just that recently in this post) and he actually doesn’t care about calling fellow ministers and fellow UUs idiots or if he simply didn’t stop to think about this. I don’t happen to believe in the bodily actual resurrection of Jesus, but certainly I don’t think those who do are idiots. I must say, by the end of the Rev. Dr. Loehr’s talk I was really too offended to listen to much of what he was saying. But he seemed to argue, as well, that we shouldn’t believe in God in the traditional sense anymore, or, rather, that we shouldn’t call what is not actually God-in-the-traditional sense God because that is being untruthful or inconsistent. Really what we should say is that this ground of being (a la Tillich, or whatever language you might use to talk about the divine or holy) is not God. He seemed to understand that God must equal “a big guy in the sky.” I’m sure I’m not saying this well and that maybe the way I’m saying it doesn’t help my reader understand how annoying this was. Maybe someone will produce a transcript of this and I can then quote more accurately. The point is that I find making fun of other people’s beliefs, say, like the belief in bodily resurrection or the actual belief in God, not so helpful. And, if he is all concerned about rescuing UUism and growing the faith (as it seems he is concerned with) then I would say that calling people who believe in Jesus’ resurrection idiots and making fun of people who believe in God-in-the-traditional-sense or who just like to say God because it makes sense to them, is not a step in the right direction since in 2004 about 80% of our country self-identified as Christian. Anyway.

Onto a second, and slightly less problematic part of his talk, but still, on top of the other stuff not pleasing to yours truly. He told the story about how Friedrich Schleiermacher (an old theologian guy whom you can read about here) gave the sermon at his nine year old son’s funeral and instead of saying that Nathaniel was “playing soccer in heaven with Jesus” (these are the exact words from Dr. Loehr’s talk, of course FS would never had said such a thing anyway) instead FS said that it was really sad his son hadn’t lived a full life. Rev. Dr. Loehr’s point here was that Schleiermacher was being honest about what he believed — that his son wasn’t in heaven and rather than comforting everyone at the funeral with sweet lies (ie heaven) he instead had integrity and was honest. Hmm.

First, one of my favorite images happens to be imagining my Pappaw and Mammaw, Grandaddy, my cousin Bob, my and cats Puffy, Helaina, Tyler, Nicole, Twinkle Eyes, Linda, Harriet, Tiffany and Luke frolicking around up in heaven. I know of course that my vision of what this might look like is probably quite a ways off from what it actually looks like, but my theory is that no one knows what the afterlife looks like, so all we can do is give our best guess at imagining it. If it works for you to imagine reincarnation, fine. Soccer up in heaven, great. If you like to imagine your cats becoming friends with Jesus and the Buddha, that is just fine, too. It is not a matter of being dishonest but rather saying we just don’t know and so we might as well think about what works best for us. And this is what I think about most religious things, including the idea of God and heaven. We just don’t really know and I get really really annoyed with people (ah-hem) who think that they are super-enlightened and like to make fun of people who believe CRAZY stuff like that their cats are chasing mice in heaven and hanging out with all their departed family members. Instead these oh-so-enlightened people tell us how it really is because of course they really know that there is no such thing as heaven. Did I say I wasn’t going to get sarcastic? Sorry, I know I shouldn’t and I will stop.

Secondly, when a child dies, I am all for saying what the family needs to hear. Funerals are not a time to profess your own personal theological revelatory truths (such as there is no heaven). If you are doing a Buddhist funeral, you do what the Buddhists need and talk about interbeing and the eightfold path. If it is a humanist funeral, you focus on the person’s life more than what might (or might not) come after it. If you are doing a funeral for your daughter’s cat, you ask what the daughter thinks happen to the cat. If it happens that she thinks the cat is chasing mice in heaven, then you go with that. No one knows what happens when you die. We all come up with different ways of making sense of this. Rev. Loehr said it would have been easier for FS to say that his son was in heaven because that is what people wanted to hear, including the boy’s mom. But this was the time that FS chose to profess his theological honesty? How about when someone commits suicide? Do you talk about how sad his last moments were because that is the honest thing to do? Or when my Mammaw died should I have taken that moment to share with my Southern Baptist family my thoughts on Southern Baptist Theology or Christian theology?

“I know Mammaw believed that she would go to heaven with Pappaw and Jesus, and all of you believe that too, but actually, I go to Harvard Divinity School and have a slightly different take on what her afterlife looks like, and I thought now, in order to be truly honest and have integrity, I would share that with you.”

Anyway. I think I have made my point.

What I mean to say is that I didn’t think that our speaker today was all that helpful because even if he had some valid challenges to make to Unitarian Universalism (like, for instance, that we victimize groups of people so we can feel like the super-hero-rescuers) it was hard to hear that with all of his unnecessary making-fun-of and what struck me as a tad of hubris and oh-look-at-me, I’m going against the grain and challenging you all who are stuck in your old silly liberal ways. By the way, he referred to people who think that God is up in the sky as thinking of God as a critter. I’ve never heard this before. Not only does it sound demeaning to people who think of God in a more traditional sense, it just sounds strange to me. I theorized to a fellow conference go-er that perhaps it was a Texas thing (Loehr is from TX).
As an interlude, I will share, as the evaluation form for the conference asked, “What worked best for you at the conference today?” I loved seeing other UUs from other congregations, talking with some AWESOME young adult women (they were so good I practically wanted to hug them), and learning about UU history in a workshop. It was great to be gathered in the presence of so many beautiful people who I am journeying with and will continue to journey along with. And I’m not just saying that. That was really nice.

Now, back to my loving critiques. There was an award ceremony in the middle of the opening service. There were quite a few awards, and I’m guessing that, like me, most people didn’t know the people who were getting the awards. This could be understood as nit-picky. It comes from my many years running leadership conferences for high school and college students. This would have been something we would have taught them if they were going to have a religious service – put the names of those who are getting the awards in the program. If you must include a verbal announcement, as a way of recognizing those who contribute to the work of our faith in the world, do so in a two minute (not 15 minute) acknowledgement. Second, after the Rev. Dr.’s over-hour-long talk, and after we broke up into small groups for a half-hour (and someone in my small group dominated the entire conversation) instead of going to lunch as would have made sense, they decided to have MORE loooong announcements. Right before lunch. And they were not essential announcements, but 101 reasons why we think you should go to GA. And other stuff that I don’t remember because I was hungry like everyone else and had been sitting since . I really will say that I KNOW this is being nit-picky in a sense. But, I just want to see my beautiful wonderful denomination be run as beautifully as my ultra-professional mega-church of my youth. There is a reason people flocked to my mega-church that I went to in high school. Because they didn’t let a long string of people get up and make long, repetative announcements right before lunch. They were investing in having people come to our church because they thought that their souls needed to be saved. This was a really compelling reason to get their act together really really well and be really professional. I know that we don’t have this feeling of being in a rush to rescue souls from hell and sometimes I feel like this results in not putting our all into things or just not feeling like doing things really well is as urgent. It is sort of like “Whatever we do is good enough because we all have dignity and worth and we don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings by suggesting maybe a different approach…” And then we have people like Rev. Dr. Davidson Loehr who are really concerned about the future of Unitarian Universalism and changing thing, and his way of doing that is by refusing to call himself UU, calling The Seven Principles The Seven Banalities, insulting people’s theologies, going on about Schleiermacher and Feuerbach, and touting Paul Tillich as the best theologian of the 20th century (I happen to not be a fan of old Paul). Sigh.
But I do have hope. And not just because I am truly impressed with the future of UU ministry (that is, recent and soon to be graduates of div. school) but because I believe that there is something compelling about UUism. And that we can learn. We can change. We can take the wonderful things we have, unlearn those not-so-great things, and learn new things. I don’t know if I’ve ever met a Unitarian Universalist who is or was involved in the work of the faith who wasn’t well intentioned. Not that that is everything, but it is a great foundation. I’m truly thrilled to have found this faith and the wonderful current and future ministers, the excited commited people in congregations… And look forward to learning more and doing all that I can to support the work and growth of our faith in the world.