(A sermon delivered at Throop Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasadena, California on 15 November 2015. Copyright 2015 by Everett Howe.)
(A general note on the sermons I post: While I do lightly edit them and add links and footnotes, they are still basically texts that I wrote with the intention of speaking. Therefore I sometimes use punctuation that is more appropriate for spoken language than for written language. Grammar, too, is different in practice for spoken language than for written language, so if something looks funny to you when you see it written here, try reading it out loud.)
In Providence, Rhode Island, there’s a bakery called simply: Sin. Their web page says that they have “a line of special occasion cakes and desserts that makes the ‘Sin’ of dessert well worth it,” and they encourage you to “go ahead and Sin… Eat wicked and never feel guilty.”
Closer to home, near Venice Beach, there’s Sinners and Saints Desserts. “If you are a sinner,” they say, “you will enjoy our decadent, scrumptious creations.” If you’re a saint, on the other hand, your choices are limited to their gluten-free selections.
The colder parts of the Central Time Zone seem to be home to great depravity. In Saskatoon you can patronize Mortal Sin Foods 1, and in Sioux Falls, be sure to visit Sinful Things Desserts, “home of the ultimate sin.”
Or, if you prefer the comfort of your own home, search for “sin” and “dessert” at cooks.com.
What is going on here? Why is there a very strong thread of American culture that associates pleasure — especially bodily pleasure, and most especially the pleasures of eating — with sin? Why is it that choosing something to eat solely because you like the taste — and not because it’s full of anti-oxidants or B-vitamins or omega-3 fatty acids — why is it that choosing to do something solely because you like it is often seen as the top of a very slippery slope towards selfishness?
Spoiler alert: I won’t be able to tell you the answers to these questions in the next 20 minutes. But I would like to raise up the questions themselves as something to think about, especially as we enter the winter holiday season. Because our worship theme this month 2 is gratitude, and I would like to encourage you to be grateful for, and not guilty about, pleasure.
High school students often think that life is unfair. I was no different, and when I was in high school, one of the particular unfairnesses that bothered me was that… I had a body. It wasn’t so much of a question of it being a body that was failing me in some way — which really, mine was not, unless you count a bad case of acne — no, my complaint was more fundamental than that. I used to stay up late at night, reading, or working on math problems, or studying chess, or — one lucky summer — programming the school’s personal computer 3 that I had been allowed to take home. Basically, I would stay up late doing nerdy things that I liked. And whenever I started to get sleepy, I would regret the fact that I lived in a body. Why do I have to go to sleep?, I would wonder. Why can’t I just live as a disembodied mind — or, as the conventions of science fiction would have it, as a brain in a vat of nourishing fluid?
A few clarifications must be given here…
First of all, a person living as a brain in a vat would still get tired. Sleep is a really a function of the brain, not just of the rest of the body. But what I was really confronting in high school was the distinction between the mind and the body, not so much the brain and the body.
Secondly: Star Trek fan that I was, I should have remembered that many of the science fiction stories about disembodied minds are really about the benefits and pleasures of our bodies, benefits that we are prone to overlook.
But perhaps the main thing to mention is that trying to maintain a distinction between the mind and the body — or, to move from philosophy to religion — to maintain a distinction between the soul and the body… the thing to mention is that trying to assert or maintain this distinction has a long history. The ancient Greeks, for example, contrasted the intellectual and restrained Apollo with the physical and ecstatic Dionysus. Many religions speak of a human soul that exists independenly of our bodies, and that may live on after our bodies die, or be reincarnated into a different body.
And if we become so focussed on our souls as being completely separate from our bodies, it’s easy to wonder, as I did in high school: Wouldn’t we be better off if we didn’t have bodies.
But we all do have bodies. Our consciousness comes from our bodies, so in some sense we are our bodies. We take up space in the physical world. And not just our literal, physical volume; the existence of our bodies uses up resources. We consume things — air, water, food — we eat other living things — to survive. And society has a lot to say about how much space, literal and metaphorical, we should feel entitled to.
I was at a conference in Ottawa last week, so I’ve been on two cross-country flights recently. There’s nothing like being on an airplane to bring about awareness of your body — as you sit in those uncomfortable seats, wishing you had paid extra for that luxurious extra four inches (four inches!) in Economy Plus — as well as awareness of other people’s bodies, as you wonder: Who will wind up in the seat next to me, and battle me for the arm rest?
It’s so easy to get wrapped up in these little battles over who gets what space that we can forget: Who is it that said that the airline seat is the appropriate amount of space for a human body? The airlines set expectations for how much space we should be able to take up. If you happen to exceed those expectations, air travel will make you keenly aware of this… both from the discomfort of trying to fit into those narrow seats, and from the awareness of your fellow passengers’ relief when they see you walk past their row when the plane is boarding.
This is just one reflection of our societal expectations about body size, and how they encourage feelings of shame and guilt. Larger people know from repeated experience: strangers feel free to comment on their bodies, on their perceived health, on their choice of clothing, on their purchases at the grocery store… especially if they are buying food with government assistance. Women, of course, get an especially large helping of this barely-disguised disapproval, because their bodies are often viewed as not being their own; their bodies exist, society says, to be attactive to men, or to be incubators in which to grow babies. “Don’t eat that!”, complete strangers will tell a pregnant woman. “It’s not the best thing for your baby.”
But society is wrong! Our bodies are our own. We are our bodies. Mind and body are not separate things — our minds, our souls, come from the physical existence of our bodies. We, all of us, take up space in the world. And we have a right to do so.
We take up space with our bodies, and we take up space in other ways as well. We all agree that helping others is good; but taking care of ourselves — physically, emotionally, spiritually — these are morally good things too.
My learning service agreement for my internship with Throop Church lists eight areas that I am supposed to focus on. Some of these areas are things you would probably expect — I am supposed to develop skills in worship, for example, and in pastoral care. But perhaps you will be surprised to learn that one of the focus areas is “self-care.” It is easy for people who are attracted to ministry to buy in to the belief that their whole lives should be devoted to nothing but service; that self-sacrifice should be the goal. But this is not only unsustainable — I say that it is also morally wrong.
A couple of months ago, from this pulpit, I talked about the Transcendentalists, and the notion of “self-culture” that they adopted from William Ellery Channing. In that sermon, I pointed out that the Transcendalists seemed to miss the importance of community. But they were not wrong in stressing the importance of cultivating one’s own soul; what is the point of being alive and being human, if not to spend at least some time expanding one’s horizons.
There’s an older story, too, that I think makes this same point. It’s a story that appears in the Christian scriptures, in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and John — the story of Mary of Bethany anointing Jesus.
The story is this: 4 One night, in the week before his crucifixion, Jesus was staying with friends in Bethany. While Jesus and others are having their dinner, Mary of Bethany comes to Jesus with a container of a very valuable perfume, and she anoints his head and his feet with it, using up almost the entire container. The disciples see this, and say “Hey, Mary, what are you doing? Why are you wasting this perfume on Jesus, when you could sell it for a lot of money and give that money to the poor?” Jesus tells them to leave Mary alone, because she has just done something kind. And then he says, “The poor will always be with you, and you can help them any time you want. But I’m not always going to be with you.”
This is a very interesting passage from the Gospels, and there is a lot of commentary on it. Reading the some of the commentary, you sense the discomfort that the story creates. There’s a sense of anxiety; some commentators say “Now, don’t go and use this as an excuse not to help the poor.” They seem to be worried that this story will give people permission to be entirely self-centered.
Now, who am I to be giving Biblical exegesis? But I am going to go ahead and do so anyway. And, I am going to trust that all of you here already have social consciences; that you do think about caring for the poor, about righting wrongs, about justice, about healing the planet.
But what does Jesus say about these issues? “The poor will always be with us.” The problems and injustices of the world are huge, larger than any one of us — which is why we have to work together to solve them. But any single one of us? If any single one of us devoted all of our energy to helping humanity, we would do some good — but alone we would never be enough; there is always be more to do. Each one of us could throw our entire selves up against these problems — and be completely annihilated.
And what would be the point of our human existence if this were all that we did?
It is important to devote time and energy and money trying to help our fellow humans and to help improve the world; but we each need to have some time left to be our own individual selves. Again: What is the point of your existence as a human if you don’t spend some time expanding your soul… experiencing your body? Experiencing wonder at existence?
People seem to find it very easy to discount this lesson. Let me give one example of where I think this happens.
There is a philosophical and social movement nowadays called “effective altruism;” two of its main proponents are Peter Singer and William MacAskill, philosophers at Princeton and at Oxford, respectively. I think there are many problems 5 with this movement, but I will try to summarize it without getting too sidetracked by my criticisms.
The effective altruists try to measure the impact of any action by a single number; they measure goodness in “quality-adjusted life-years,” or QALYs. For example, one year of life for a healty person is valued at 1 QALY; one year of life of a person with AIDS who is not receiving AIDS medication is worth 0.5 QALYs; if that person were to take AIDS medication, the value of one year of their life would increase, to 0.9 QALYs. A year of life for a blind person, they say, is worth 0.4 QALYs.
Now, the effective altruists want to use these numbers to evaluate the benefit of good actions — for example, of giving AIDS drugs to patients who need them, or of preventing blindness. But perhaps you already see one problem with their system: Your blind friend may not view their life as being worth only 40% of the life of a sighted person. But I promised not to get distracted by criticism, so let’s continue.
Once they have figured out the worth of every action in terms of QALYs, the effective altruists then try to figure out the most benefit, as measured in QALYs, that you can get from various life choices. They come up with some interesting and counter-intuitive conclusions. For example, if you happen to have the skills that would make you employable on Wall Street, the effective altruists say that the best and most moral thing you can do with your life is to work on Wall Street, and donate most of your income to a charity that, for example, provides mosquito netting to the poor in malaria-infested parts of the world.
Don’t volunteer at a food bank or a homeless shelter, they say — that time could be spent more profitably working at a high-paying job, and sending the proceeds to the mosquito-net charity. The children you will save from malaria outweigh the homeless and the hungry in your own town.
I think that there are many problems with this philosophy. For example, it works entirely within an existing political and economic structure, without questioning whether that structure is good. It is like taking the size of an airline seat as an absolute fact of nature, instead of as a choice that was made because it is convenient to a large corporation.
But here is the problem I would like to focus on today: This utilitarian philosophy does not take into account the worth of the individual. It views each person simply as a machine whose moral value is measured in how much money they can make to donate to charity. It does not value the preferences of the individual; it does not value the spiritual satisfaction of the individual; it does not value the social connections, and the moral growth of the individual.
Perhaps I take this too personally — because as a Ph.D. mathematician, I am employable as a Wall Street financial analyst. According to the effective altruists, people are dying of malaria because I am standing here today, instead of working at a hedge fund.
That may be true. But I would rather be here today than at that hedge fund. Because my soul grows here. And that is worth something.
Perhaps you will be glad to know that my desire to live as a brain in a vat did not last long. As I have grown older, I have learned to appreciate the connection between my mind and my body, and to enjoy the pleasures that I can still get from my body. These pleasures and abilities will not always be there; being able-bodied is a temporary condition.
I would like to close this sermon with some homework. It is optional; and it will not be graded.
If you are willing, take the time this holiday season just to notice when pleasures — and, in particular, foods — are decribed in terms of good and evil, sinfulness and saintliness.
Now, you personally may need to think of dessert in the context of a medical condition, or dietary restrictions; and in any case, it is good to think of dessert in terms of how it will make your body feel not just immediately, but also in the next hour, and the next day. But for extra credit, see whether you can avoid thinking of dessert — or of any food — in terms of sin, and guilt.
Because you deserve more than sin and guilt. Take up your space in the world, and know that you have value.
Photo credit: Peggy Greb. The image is in the public domain, and was released by the Agricultural Research Service, the research agency of the United States Department of Agriculture. More information here.