Tag Archives: humanism

On Miracles

(A sermon delivered at Throop Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasadena, California on 4 December 2016. Copyright 2016 by Everett Howe.)

Our worship theme at Throop Church for the month of December is miracles. This is a difficult topic for a humanist like me to speak on, because, frankly, a lot of prominent public humanists and atheists can be very literal-minded and sometimes self-righteous when talking about such things.

So in this sermon, I would like to do two things.

First, as you might have expected, I’d like to talk about the type of miracle that I do not believe in — not with any intent of changing whatever beliefs you might hold, but rather with a goal of empathy. And second, I would like to describe to you the type of miracle that I do believe in.

To begin with, what is a miracle? A miracle is an occurrence that cannot be explained by reason or by science; but more than that — it has to be a mysterious occurrence that is good. And, it has to be something that is not repeatable; it has to be unusual in some way. Because when a miracle starts to be a regular occurrence, it stops being a miracle, and starts being a law of nature.

Now, I know that some of you already have a bent towards naturalistic explanations of things. When faced with claims that seem counter to our understanding of the physical world, some of you already start from a skeptical perspective. Others of you are more open to the idea of a spiritual realm that does not always follow the laws of natural science; and some of you believe in a God that lives outside of our normal experience of existence.

These are all ways of looking at the world. And my goal today is not to argue about theology and metaphysics; instead, I would like to try to give you an experience, an experience that might give you an idea — if you don’t already have one — of what it feels like to have a more skeptical bent, to be more in tune with naturalistic explanations of things. And to give you this experience, I’d like to describe an experiment carried out a few years ago and written up in the British Medical Journal.

The experiment was designed to test whether prayer can influence medical outcomes. There have been a number of studies of this question, but the one I will describe has some particularly beautiful ideas in its design.

The study involved 3393 patients in a university hospital in Israel who had bloodstream infections between the years 1990 and 1996. Each patient was assigned at random into either a study group or a control group. All patients received appropriate medical care. But the patients in the study group also received a brief prayer; the patients in the control group did not. The experimenters then compared three variables: the mortality rates of the patients, the lengths of their stays in the hospital, and the duration of their fevers.

There was no statistically significant difference in mortality rate between the study group and the control group. However, there was a statistically significant difference in the length of hospital stay between the two groups; the patients that received prayers had shorter stays, and shorter duration of fevers. Let me repeat: There was a statistically significant effect.

Now, at this point, battle lines have already been drawn. The more skeptical among you might be thinking, “let’s see these statistics, because statistics can be misleading.” And the skeptical might be wondering, “why would length of stay be affected, but not mortality rate?” But others of you might be thinking, “yes, well, it’s not unlikely that prayer would help; sure, let’s double-check the statistics, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find that prayer makes a difference.” Faced with my description of this study, I expect that most of you have moved to comfortable and familiar intellectual positions.

But the beauty of this particular experiment lies in a detail that I have not yet mentioned. As I said, the patients were all in the hospital between 1990 and 1996. But the experiment was carried out in the year 2000. The random assignment of each patient to the study group or the control group? That was done in the year 2000. The prayers said for the patients in the study group? Those prayers were made in the year 2000.

This was a study of retroactive prayer.

So no matter what you originally thought of this study, I hope that now you are thinking, “Wait. What?!”

The study shows a statistically significant difference in length of hospital stay, and attributes it to prayers said four to ten years after the patients were in the hospital.

Stop for a moment. What are you feeling? Do you feel more skeptical about the study than you did at first? Are your ideas about the flow of time so fundamental that you think there must be something wrong with the analysis? If so, then you are feeling what many humanists feel about other spiritual claims.1

So now you know the type of miracle that I have a hard time believing in. But what about the miracles I can believe in?

Well, miracles live in a larger context — a context of hope in the face of fear and despair. Instead of viewing miracles as contradictions of the laws of science and nature, you can think of miracles as stories that can help keep us going when we are ready to give up. So let me tell you about the miracles I am hoping for. And to help explain a metaphor, let me tell you a story from when I was in college.

As some of you already know, I was an undergraduate at Caltech, the other Pasadena institution founded by Amos G. Throop. When I was an undergraduate, I did not own a car — but my friend Tim2 had a Dodge Charger 2.2. We referred to it, with perhaps a trace of irony, as the “graceful yet powerful Dodge Charger.” There was one time the two of us were out in the high desert one night, perhaps in Victorville or Adelanto, I don’t remember exactly where or why. Tim had driven us out there, and I was going to drive us back. “You can head back to Pasadena by taking the 138, the 14, and the 210,” said Tim, describing a route that goes counterclockwise around the San Gabriel Mountains. “Or you could take the eastern route, on the 15 and the 210” — clockwise around the San Gabriels. “Or,” he said, “you could take the Angeles Crest Highway. That would be a test of man and machine.” He handed me the keys.

I drove home that night on the Angeles Crest Highway.

Now, even as an 18-year-old boy, I was reasonably responsible. I’m sure I drove faster than I was really comfortable doing, but I probably was not being too unsafe. And yet I remember, as I drove home that dark night on those twisty mountain roads at the wheel of the graceful and powerful Dodge Charger — I remember looking at the guardrails on the turns and thinking, “I don’t want to test those.”

I didn’t want to test the guardrails.

I have friends who voted for Donald Trump, and who recognize the aspects of his personality that are not suited for the presidency. But they expect that calmer minds in the administration will prevail; they expect that Trump’s worst excesses will not lead us off the road and into the chasm; they expect that the guardrails of our democracy will hold.

But some of these guardrails have been tested before. And they haven’t always held. Within living memory, a presidential executive order led to the incarceration of over 80,000 U.S. citizens and 40,000 non-citizen residents.

In recent memory, the September 11th attacks prompted the U.S. government to torture prisoners, in violation of international law and basic humanity.

I said earlier that miracles live in a context of fear and hope. My fear is that in the next few years there will be some kind of crisis — maybe an attack by terrorists, maybe something else — that will bring out the worst of America. And I am worried that the guardrails will not hold. What can I do with this fear? If you share it, what can you do with this fear? Is there a way that we can maintain some hope amidst this fear?

While I’ve been pondering these questions, I’ve thought of two poems that have stuck with me this year, poems that have been floating near the surface of my thoughts for months.

The first of these is the poem “Between the World and Me,” written in 1935 by the African-American poet Richard Wright. I will not read this poem to you now; I would not surprise you here on this calm Sunday morning with it. Because the poem itself is about the poet being surprised, while walking through the woods, to come across a clearing where there had recently been a lynching. As he sees the evidence of what has happened there — the blood-stained clothes, the burned sapling, the lingering smell of gasoline, the bones — as he realizes what he has come across, the scene comes terrifyingly to life: “The dry bones stirred, rattled, lifted, melting themselves into my bones. The grey ashes formed flesh firm and black, entering into my flesh”— and the poet finds himself reliving the scene, finds himself chased, caught, burned alive by a jeering crowd. It is not a poem to surprise people with.3

It starkly captures the fear, and the rage, and the injustice, that is part of the American experience, much as we would like to forget or deny it.

The second poem is “Let America Be America Again,” written three years later, in 1938, by the African-American poet Langston Hughes. Rev. Tera used this in worship two weeks ago, and I used it in worship last April.

The poem begins with one speaker recalling themes from America’s mythological history, telling of a land

[…] where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

But a second speaker inserts himself into the monologue, first making quiet comments that complicate this naïve narrative of America, and then stealing the mic, so to speak, to give a more complicated history.

This history recognizes the fear and injustice that Wright’s poem expresses. It does not hide it, it does not deny it, it does not diminish it. And yet, the poem ends with hope:

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath —
America will be!

But I think the key to the poem is that the hope for America that it expresses, the hope that we can rise above our past and truly become the land we claim to be, the hope that we can transform ourselves, miraculously — that hope depends on us.

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain —
All, all the stretch of these great green states —
And make America again!

How can this happen?

How can America rise above its past — indeed, how can we rise above our present — and live up to our values? It would take a miracle.

But that’s a miracle I can believe in.

The catch is that it is a miracle that we have to work for. And in the coming years, when we may need to rely upon the guardrails of our democracy, our work will be to strengthen our institutions, and to stand up for the ideals we hold dear.

In a few minutes we will be singing “The Fire of Commitment,” which is #1028 in the softcover hymnal. Please take a moment now to open up the hymnal to #1028. The third verse starts:

From the dreams of youthful vision comes a new, prophetic voice,
Which demands a deeper justice built by our courageous choice.

If we want to prepare for a miracle, if we want to help America climb closer to its ideals, we will have to make the courageous choices that lead to deeper justice. And it is hard to make courageous choices when you feel that you are alone.

So I would like to help us all take home the message that we are not alone; that we are working together for deeper justice; that the weight falls not on any one individual’s shoulders; that when one of us is tired and needs a moment of rest, the others can take up the task.

I would like us to feel in our bones that we are working together, that we are stronger together.

So I am going to ask you to respond to me now. If you don’t agree with something I say, feel free to stay silent — but if you do agree with me, please respond by saying “Yes, we will.”

Will we work together for justice?

Will we fight for free speech?

Will we protect the earth?

Will we work to help those that are viewed as the least among us?

Will we protect the oppressed?

Will we fight for a society where all people can live with dignity?

Will we join together to fight hatred?

Will we proclaim that black lives matter as much as white lives?

Will we support freedom for all religions?

Will we redeem all the stretch of these great green states?

Will we work together until justice rolls down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream?

Then please rise in body or spirit, and we will sing “The Fire of Commitment.”

Image credit: Artur Pokusin, posted on unsplash.com under the Creative Commons Zero license. Original here.

  1. So what should we make of this study? It looks like part of the problem is that there may have been one single person who had an unusually long stay in the hospital — close to a year — and this one person happened to get assigned to the control group. In other words, the “statistical significance” of the length-of-stay result was due to chance assignment of this single person to the control group instead of to the study group. The study generated a lot of feedback in the British Medical Journal, but unless you are following that link from a location with a license for the journal, you won’t be able to see all of it. (In particular, you will miss the letter to the editor entitled “You cannae break the laws of physics, Captain.”) 
  2. When one refers to a person in a sermon in a way that identifies them, it is good practice to ask that person whether you can use their story. I am so sad that I cannot ask Tim this; he died unexpectedly in December 2010. RIP TPA29970. 
  3. You’ve been warned now that this is an intense poem. It first appeared in the Partisan Review, and you can see the original here, page 1 and page 2

Shifting Gears

(A sermon delivered at Throop Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasadena, California on 27 September 2015. Copyright 2015 by Everett Howe.)

(A general note on the sermons I post: I wrote them with the intention of speaking them, and therefore the punctuation is more appropriate for spoken language than written language. Grammar, too, is different in practice for spoken language than for written language. If something looks funny to you when you see it written here, try reading it out loud.)

Five years ago I was president of the Board of Trustees of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of San Diego; I had already served a year as vice-president, and the following year I would be past-president. I was happy with my family life and with my job doing mathematical research; and I was discovering that I was better at lay leadership than I had expected to be. And yet something was off; I was not feeling satisfied. I wanted to be able to contribute more to the life of the church — serving on the board did not seem like enough — and in any case eternal committee membership did not seem like it would be personally satisfying. I struggled with this feeling of dissatisfaction for some time, but it continued to grow, and it became more and more upsetting to me. Finally, I asked for a meeting with our associate minister, the Reverend Kathleen Owens, and with our intern minister, Sue Magidson. I made the appoinment with Sue as well as Kathleen because I knew her and trusted her, and because she had a Ph.D. in math education; I thought she would understand where I was coming from.

Kathleen and Sue listened to me for some time, as I explained as best I could my unfocussed dissatisfaction, and my desire to do something more for the church.  After I had gone on for some time, Reverend Kathleen stopped me, and asked:

“Everett, are you saying that you have a call to ministry?”

Last month when I led worship here at Throop, I mentioned that an intern minister’s first sermon at their teaching congregation is usually a personal introduction of some kind, telling the congregation something about who the intern is — their history, their path to ministry, their theology…

Last month I was not quite yet your intern minister, but this month I am your intern minister — and I will be for two years, until the end of May 2017 — learning from Reverend Tera, learning from all the staff members, and most importantly, learning from you, the members and friends of Throop. We will have many chances to get to know one another, but to give you a head start, today I will tell something about how I got to be here.  And any story of how I got to be here has to pass through Reverend Kathleen’s office five years ago, with me sitting there, and Kathleen asking whether I was saying that I had a call to ministry.

Ministry?  Let me tell you how far-fetched that sounded in the larger context of my life.

I grew up in Sacramento, the youngest of seven children.  My father worked for the State Department of Education; my mother was a homemaker, and later a writer of young-adult fiction.  My siblings and I were raised completely unchurched; the only times I can remember even being inside a church when I was growing up was for piano recitals.  My family did celebrate Christmas and Easter, but in a very secular way — kind of the same way that we celebrated New Years and Halloween — as holidays where there are certain traditional things you do. For us, at Christmas and Easter those traditional things involved Christmas trees, presents, stockings filled with chocolate and an orange, Easter baskets — also full of chocolate — and big family get-togethers with grandparents and aunts and uncles.  Religion was really not a part of it.

Growing up, I knew that some of my friends went to church or to synagogue; my best friend in high school was Catholic, and our next door neighbors — a state senator and his family, who, coincidentally, represented a district in West LA not that far from here  — were Jewish. But because we never went to church, a lot of what I absorbed about religion while I was growing up came from… televangelists: Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, Pat Robertson, Jimmy Swaggart… We would see them while flipping channels and sometimes watch a little; my mother was particularly fascinated by them, and in her first book she included a scene of a tent-show revivalist raising false hope for the seriously ill while raising cash for himself.

My parents were humanists, though they did not start using that word until perhaps the time I was in high school.  As a child and youth I was interested in science and math; and from reading and thinking about things, by the time I was in high school I knew that I was an atheist, and philosophically skeptical.

Perhaps I should have tried to find a humanist group to meet with in person, but that thought did not occur to me, and I’m not even sure that there were many such groups around.  Instead, I read some humanist magazines: My parents subscribed to Free Inquiry, published by the Council for Secular Humanism, and I personally subscribed to the Skeptical Inquirer, a magazine I had read about in one of Martin Gardner’s columns in Scientific American, which was dedicated to scientifically investigating claims of the paranormal. But after a while I began to be disturbed by the tone of some of the articles in these magazines. In some articles there was — well, for lack of a better word, an “arrogant dismissal” of the religious. Not “I disagree with you about this, and here’s why I think I am right”, but rather “I disagree with you about this, and — how could you be so stupid?”

It was my first experience of finding myself agreeing with someone on some intellectual point, but not wanting to be associated with them. (I did not stop to think that there could be theists who felt the same way about Pat Robertson.)

So for many years I felt that I would have to live philosophically on my own. I tried to be kind, and to do good, and if anyone asked, I would tell them that I was an atheist — and I would secretly hope that they would be surprised. “You’re an atheist? But you’re so considerate!”

Fast forward: through college, graduate school, a job teaching at the University of Michigan, getting married to Bella (who you will get a chance to meet today), moving to San Diego, having kids… Fast forward to 2005. Around this time, Bella began to be interested in finding a church community, somewhere where we could go to meet other people; to talk about important aspects of life; to have a supportive community.  I didn’t think there could be a church that I could participate in as a humanist.  So Bella visited a few congregations without me — liberal Episcopalian, United Church of Christ — but then one evening we remembered those rumors we had heard about the Unitarian Universalists. We looked online and we found the seven principles that you can find near the front of the hardcover hymnal…  Let me remind you:

  1. The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
  2. Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
  3. Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
  4. A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
  5. The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
  6. The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all; and
  7. Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

Bella and I read these… and looked at one another… and asked, “What’s the catch?”  We… we agreed with these principles! And, looking further, we saw that humanism and science are mentioned among the sources of Unitarian Universalism! So that is how we wound up, the following Sunday, at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of San Diego; and that’s how, five years later, I found myself sitting in Reverend Kathleen’s office.

“Everett,” she asked, “are you saying that you have a call to ministry?”

A call.  What is a call?

For Christians, a call means a call from God.  God lets you know somehow that you are meant to do something in the grand scheme of things.

What does the idea of a “call” even mean to a humanist?

The Quaker author Parker Palmer writes about calling in a humanist-friendly way in his book Let Your Life Speak. He writes about finding those things that are compelling to the deepest part of you, your soul, if you’re willing to use that language… and he writes about the difficulty of hearing what that deepest part of you has to say.  He illustrates this with a nice image:

The soul [he writes] is like a wild animal — tough, resilient, savvy, self-sufficient, and yet exceedingly shy.  If we want to see a wild animal, the last thing we should do is to go crashing through the woods, shouting for the creature to come out.  But if we are willing to walk quietly into the woods and sit silently for an hour or two at the base of a tree, the creature we are waiting for may well emerge, and out of the corner of an eye we will catch a glimpse of the precious wildness we seek. (pp. 7–8)

By quiet, open, honest reflection, says Palmer, we can sometimes access the deeper truths about ourselves.  And, he says, being ourselves is the point.   He relates a Hasidic tale about this idea:

Rabbi Zusya, when he was an old man, said, “In the coming world, they will not ask me: ‘Why were you not Moses?’ They will ask me, ‘Why were you not Zusya?’” (p. 11)

As Palmer expresses it, you are fulfilling a call if you are doing something that expresses who you really are.

As it happens, I knew what it meant to have a calling, because I already had one: a calling to do mathematics. I know that that sounds strange to many people; it’s kind of like someone saying that they have a calling to undergo oral surgery. But it’s true.  When I was eight years old, I wanted to be a mathematician. Which is a little odd, because I had no idea at that age what a mathematician really does. You see, the arithmetic you do in elementary school is analogous to learning how to spell; the math you do in high school is kind of like learning grammar.  Most people stop there and never even get to the mathematical equivalent of reading a story.  But I found as I got older that my talent for the spelling and grammar of mathematics came along with a talent for reading and writing mathematics.  I could read the wonderful, eternally true stories of math — and I could write my own; it’s a way of touching the infinite.

This calling took me to Caltech, where I got my bachelor’s degree in math; to Berkeley, where I got a Ph.D.; to the University of Michigan, where I taught for three years; and to my current job at a think tank in San Diego.  I was set; I had a calling; I had a job doing what I was called to do.

And yet there I was in Reverend Kathleen’s office.

“Everett,” she asked, “are you saying that you have a call to ministry?”

I have to warn you about one of the dangers of speaking with your minister.  When they ask you a question?  You might feel a responsibility to answer honestly.

It had never occurred to me to think of what I had been feeling as a call. But I recognized immediately that that would explain a lot. And I knew what the only honest answer was.

I said “yes” — even though I didn’t quite know what that meant.

I should make it clear that I did not then drop everything, quit my job, and enroll full-time in seminary. As I said, I am very skeptical, even of my own gut feelings. It took three years of discussions with Bella, of self-reflection; three years of deeper involvement in lay ministry at my home congregation, and test runs taking one class at each of the two UU seminaries — it took a very long time before I decided, with Bella’s support, to enroll in seminary… and then it was as a part-time distance-learning student. Even with this internship at Throop, I am still working 60% time at my math job.

What will the end of all this be?  Parish ministry?  Chaplaincy? Part-time? Full-time? How will ministry fit in with mathematics?  I don’t know yet. Those are some of the things that I will be working out, here, with you.

Thank you for letting me be part of your religious life.

Blessed be.  Amen.

Why Are We Here?

(A sermon delivered at Throop Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasadena, California on 23 August 2015. Copyright 2015 by Everett Howe.)

Last spring, when Rev. Tera invited me to come preach at Throop some Sunday in August, neither she nor I had any inkling that I would wind up being your new intern minister, starting in September. I am really very happy to start this relationship with all of you here at Throop.

Traditionally, an intern minister’s first sermon at their teaching congregation is a personal introduction of sorts, telling the congregation something about who the intern is — their history, their path to ministry, their theology… but technically, my first sermon as your intern will be next month, so today I will not tell you too much about my own background. But I will tell you a little bit; I will start with a little bit about my beliefs, and a story.

For my beliefs, the short version is this: I am a humanist; I do not feel that there is any innate meaning to the universe, but I do believe that people can give life meaning. Also, I am an atheist; by which I mean that I do not believe in anything that I would call “God.” If you keep all of this in mind, the story I will tell you becomes more interesting.

For three years, starting in 2012, I was a volunteer on the “lay ministry” team at my home congregation in San Diego. One duty of the lay ministers is to be available after each service to listen to people; if someone has a joy or a concern that they would like to share with someone, they look for the lay minister on duty at the back of the sanctuary, and go over to talk for a while. Sometimes people are excited and want to share good news; sometimes people are going through a tough time, and they need to tell someone about it, to get some emotional support and to know that they are not alone; sometimes people just want a hug.

The first time I was going to be on duty as a lay minister I was nervous. I was prepared — the lay ministry team is trained by our ministers in techniques of pastoral care — but training is different from real life. What would it be like if someone with a serious problem came to me for sympathy and help? Would I be able to be present with them, and to listen? Would I be able to avoid the temptation to try to fix things? — because some things can’t be fixed, and often what people need is not advice, but rather someone to be with them on the journey.

That first morning, as I was walking the few blocks from my parked car to the church, I was nervous about these questions. I centered myself by thinking about another aspect of lay ministry: part of the job is to be a living manifestation of the concern the whole church community has for the welfare of its members. The lay minister is not just one concerned person; they represent something larger: the spirit of love of our community. “May this spirit of love work through me,” I thought to myself, “and be visible to those who come for help.”

“May this spirit of love work through me, and be visible to those who come for help.”

“Huh,” I thought, as I walked into the sanctuary. “I think that was a prayer. Funny thing for an atheist to be doing.”

The title of this sermon is “Why are we here,” and maybe it’s not so clear what that story has to do with this question. But I have to admit that the title may be a little deceptive. I did not mean “why are we here?” in the grand philosophical sense; if you came here hoping that I will reveal the secret of life and of our role in the universe, I won’t be doing that… today. What I meant by that title is: Why are we — you and me, the people in this room — here — here together this Sunday morning? Why are we at church today?

Of course, we each have our own answers to this question; we each probably have several answers. And personally, I’ve come up with a number of different answers for myself over the years. What prompted me to talk about this today, though, were some ideas that were coming up for me this past semester in seminary while studying Unitarian and Universalist history. I’d like to talk about an argument for why we might not want to be here, an argument with deep roots in our Unitarian history.

[Right about now Rev. Tera may be feeling a little nervous… “Is the intern really going to be telling people why they shouldn’t be at church? Is it too late to reconsider this whole internship plan?”]

At the beginning of the 19th century, William Ellery Channing was one of America’s most prominent liberal theologians. For 39 years he was the minister at what is now called the Arlington Street Church in Boston, and in 1825 he helped found the American Unitarian Association. One of the things that made a theologian “liberal” at that time was the belief that the Bible should be viewed as a book written in language suitable for a particular time and for particular people, and that any truths it contains are subject to interpretation. The liberal theologians thought that God communicates to people not just through the word of the Bible, but in other ways as well; for instance, through the workings of the natural world, through the details of creation. But in 1828, in a sermon he gave at an ordination, Channing spoke of yet another way we can learn more about the Divine. He said,

That man has a kindred nature with God, and may bear most important and ennobling relations to him, seems to me to be established by a striking proof. This proof you will understand, by considering, for a moment, how we obtain our ideas of God. Whence come the conceptions which we include under that august name? Whence do we derive our knowledge of the attributes and perfections which constitute the Supreme Being? I answer, we derive them from our own souls. The divine attributes are first developed in ourselves, and thence transferred to our Creator. The idea of God, sublime and awful as it is, is the idea of our own spiritual nature, purified and enlarged to infinity. In ourselves are the elements of the Divinity. God, then, does not sustain a figurative resemblance to man. It is the resemblance of a parent to a child, the likeness of a kindred nature.

To modern ears, it almost sounds like Channing is saying that people created God, not the other way around. Channing wasn’t saying that, because for him God was a given. But he was saying that God is like us — or, at least, like the best parts of us — and that we can learn about divinity by studying our own natures. Pretty wild stuff for the time, especially if you were a Calvinist.

Channing also championed an idea he called “self-culture” — culture as in cultivation and agriculture, as in helping one’s mind and soul to grow. His idea of self-culture included studying “nature, revelation, the human soul, and human life;” it included (as he put it) “control of the animal appetites;” it involved interacting with superior minds, for instance through reading. It involved what Ralph Waldo Emerson would later call “self-reliance” — figuring out one’s own opinions and holding true to them, even if they are unpopular. In short, self-culture involved knowing oneself better; by this, Channing believed, one could be closer to God.

Both of these ideas of Channing’s took firm root in the Transcendentalist movement, of which Ralph Waldo Emerson was one of the principal members. Emerson’s essay on self-reliance celebrates independence of thought and of spirit, and is still often included in high-school and college English curricula. Henry David Thoreau, another member of the Transcendentalist movement, is perhaps most famous for his book Walden, an account of his two years of simple living at Walden Pond, near Concord, Massachusetts. His cabin was in fact not very far from civilization, and only a mile and a half from Emerson’s house, but his ruminations and meditations on nature and solitude and self-reliance are quintessentially American. Walden is also often taught in high school, and it still resonates in American culture. Some of you may be familiar with Annie Dillard’s collection of essays Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, or with Cheryl Strayed’s book Wild, which was made into a movie last year. I recommend both books; and they both live in the shadow of Thoreau’s Walden.

Thoreau’s writing encourages isolation and contemplation of nature; Emerson championed the strength of the individual mind andsoul. But what did the Transcendentalists have to say about church? In 1838, Emerson was invited by the graduating class of Harvard Divinity School to give a talk. He himself had already left the Unitarian ministry. In his speech to the graduates, he told an anecdote about being at church and not being inspired by a particular preacher. He said:

A snow storm was falling around us. The snow storm was real; the preacher merely spectral; and the eye felt the sad contrast in looking at him, and then out of the window behind him, into the beautiful meteor of the snow.

When faced with a bad sermon, Emerson’s first thought is how he would rather learn from nature. To be fair, Emerson was not against sermons — he just thought they had to be good — or, as he famously put it in that same passage, they should be “life passed through the fire of thought.”

Now, the Transcendentalists were not just some eddy in the backwaters of history. Their ideas greatly influenced American culture — and Unitarianism specifically. Two of the hymns we sang this morning had words by Emerson, and I counted at least 24 hymns and readings in the grey hymnal with words from 8 different Transcendentalists.

So the Transcendentalists are important to our movement. And what do they teach us? God is reflected in our own souls; and we can learn spiritual truths through contemplation, reading, immersion in nature, and intentional solitude. Also, bad sermons aren’t worth sitting through. So again, why are we here? There’s a perfectly solid theological basis — set forth by Unitarians and Transcendentalists — for why we might just as well stay home and read a book, or go hiking up Mount Wilson to look at flowers and trees, and the wonders of creation.

Well, what are some of the problems with this argument?

One of our Unitarian Universalist principles is “the free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” The Transcendentalists were really into the free search for truth and meaning, almost intoxicated by it. The idea that you could learn about God just by self-reflection was powerful; and, as a professional mathematician, I have to point out that they found philosophical justification for this idea by appealing to mathematics. Mathematicians come up with universal truths just by thinking, they said; why not theologians?

But they ignored one important aspect of mathematics — after you have convinced yourself of some mathematical statement, and think you have found a proof for it… you need to try to explain your reasoning to someone else, to see whether they find any mistakes. The Transcendentalists conveniently left out this part of the process.

Our UU principle is “the free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” I think that the responsible part involves coming into community. Here, we find that the truths that seem so apparent to us may not be so clear to other people; here we find other perspectives, ones that we may not have considered; here, perhaps, we learn some humility… which, incidentally, is a characteristic that I personally do not find in Emerson’s writings.

Channing’s idea is that God is reflected in our own souls, and therefore we can find divine truth by introspection. But if God is in everyone’s souls, then we can equally well find divine truth in community with others.


There are many reasons to come to church. It can be a time apart from the rest of the week, a sabbath. Worship, with music and words and silence, can put us in touch with the things we find divine. It can be a time when we reflect on our values, and ask ourselves whether we are living them as well as we would like to.

But for me, one of the main reasons for being here is to build a beloved community. A community that supports each of us; that challenges us to be our best selves; that helps us think about the mysteries of life, and of death; that gives us companions through good times and bad. In the words of our responsive reading, “All our lives we are in need, and others are in need of us.” We live out this fact by being together, here.

I said at the beginning that I do not believe in anything that I would call “God.” But as I’ve started on this path towards ministry, I’ve learned from talking with many people that I do believe in some things that some other people might call “God” — for instance, that thing that we are creating, week by week, by coming here.

May the spirit of love work through all of us, and be visible to all those in need.

Blessed be. Amen.