Nov 5, 2018
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, November 4, 2018
This is the Sunday before a truly contentious election. Many of us are deeply concerned about the future direction of this country. Some of us fear that it is on the verge of becoming a totalitarian state. The path forward for most, if not all of us, seems unclear. No matter which party wins control of the House and Senate this coming Tuesday the United States will remain a divided country. No matter which party wins control of the House and Senate this coming Tuesday, democracy in the United States and throughout the world will continue to be in crisis.
One aspect of this crisis is that it is difficult for people with different political opinions to talk to each other. Many of us self-stratify. We choose to live in communities where most people hold similar values to us. I am guilty of this myself. When I moved to Houston from Boston I selected the Montrose neighborhood. It is near the church. There are lots of art museums, restaurants, bars, and cute shops. It has good public transit. It is walkable. It is also a liberal enclave.
People like to ask me how I am coping with the culture shock of moving from the Northeast to the South. When they do, I have to tell them that so far it does not seem that different. I do so with the knowledge that the reason why it does not seem that different is that most of the places I find myself in are places filled with people like myself: liberal or left educated professionals. In such places I find that most people more-or-so less hold similar political, religious, and social values.
Last week I found myself at a Halloween party where not everyone held similar political views. And I was reminded of how difficult it is for people in this country to talk to each other. There I was, hanging out on a new friends’ porch as torrents of rain came and the kids ran from house-to-house trick-or-treating in increasingly soggy costumes. Someone came up to introduce himself to me. He seemed friendly enough. He asked me if I had tried the frito pie. I confessed that I did not know what frito pie was. He explained to me that it was a combination of frito chips, chili, and cheese--and pointed over to the table where all three items sat waiting to be mixed together.
Another person entered the conversation. Somehow, the topic shifted, and we found ourselves talking about the horrific events of the last week. It came up that I am in favor of some kind of gun control. And that completely ended the conversation. Full stop. No attempt to find common ground. No discussion. The man I had been talking to said something like, “The Second Amendment is what it is” and walked off. He was not rude or anything. He just made it clear that we had nothing more to talk about.
Have you had a similar experience? Or does this experience seem familiar: You post something political online. Pretty soon your Facebook wall or your Twitter stream becomes a mess of vitriol and bile. You unfriend your aunt. You block your cousin. No one convinces anyone of anything. Instead, everyone retrenches in their own enclaves. Or you decide to embrace the old maxim and refrain from discussing politics at the dinner table.
Some philosophers argue that this dilemma is inherent to our contemporary culture. Different moral and political positions are conceptually incommensurable. That is a fancy way of saying is that there is no rational way to sort out a disagreement between them. They begin from different premises or are rooted in different core values.
This is something you may have experienced on those occasions when you have been able to engage someone from a different political perspective in a debate. I remember one experience I had like this when I was on an airplane. I was on my way to present a paper at some academic conference. My seatmate struck up a conversation. He asked me what I did and where I was going. I told him. It turned out that he was a classics major from a conservative Christian college.
We spent the next two or three hours discussing philosophy, theology, and the classical canon. On the surface it appeared that we influenced by many of the same thinkers. Aristotle, Plato, Cicero, Ovid, Augustine... We had read and appreciated each of them. But, it is like the Greek poet Sappho wrote:
If you are squeamish
Don’t prod the
We failed to follow Sappho’s warning not to go deeper. As the conversation continued, we discovered we did not agree on anything. Despite our common canon, we actually shared no ground. Any position that one of us took the other found objectionable. We did not agree upon racial justice, economics, women’s rights, GLBT rights, federal funding for higher education, the reality of climate change, prison reform, the origin of human life, gun control, the nature of good and evil, the separation of church and state...
There is a lot of ground that can be covered in a few hours. Yet each time we approached a subject we found we had completely incompatible arguments. Take abortion, an issue in American political life that has long proved divisive. I made an argument that ran something like this: In a free society, each person has the right to control their own body. An embryo is part of the mother’s body. Since a mother has a right to do what she wants with her body she has the right to freely make a decision about whether or not she will have an abortion. Therefore, abortion is morally permissible.
My seatmate started from a different place. He claimed that an embryo is actually an identifiable human being. As such, it was accorded rights of its own. The chief of these rights is the right not to be murdered. Therefore, abortion is morally wrong.*
Our positions were, as I suggested earlier, conceptually incommensurable. They were based in different assumptions about what it means to be human. There was no way to rationally reconcile them. It was almost as if we were talking different languages. Actually, it was worse than that. Es posible por me decir el mismo cosa en Español que digo en Inglés. It is possible for me to say the same thing in Spanish that I say in English. But it was not possible for my seatmate and I to agree on what we meant when we used words that were central to our vocabularies. The words like life, murder, and body meant different things to each of us.
Friends, this is where we are right now in our political history. We have reached a point where people cannot agree upon what words mean or what it means to be human. Indeed, this country’s resurgence of white supremacy and nationalism indicates that people cannot even agree upon who is a human being. The poor suffering migrants who are wending their way from Honduras to the United States border are human beings. They breath, they cry, they hunger, they love, they fear, they struggle, the same as anyone in this sanctuary this morning. The same is true of the eleven Jewish elders who were murdered last week as they gathered for worship at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh. The same is true of the two black people recently killed in a Kroeger in Kentucky. The same is true of the two women killed at a yoga studio in Florida on Friday. They were all humans with hopes, loves, fears, families, friends, favorite foods, like any of us. And yet, their murderers failed to recognize them as such. Instead, their murderers saw them as something other than human.
It is not just that we cannot agree upon our fundamental values. It is that we cannot agree upon who is a who human being. The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan may have argued, “Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts,” but apparently, he was wrong. People seem very much to have their own facts. And sure, you might, and I might, argue that certain facts are, well, facts based in an objectively measurable reality but that would be beside the point. We cannot get everyone to agree to what the objectively measurable reality is. For many people, it is an objectively measurable fact that the scriptures--be they the Hebrew Bible, the Christian New Testament, the Koran, or the Book of Mormon--are divinely inspired. For me, they are great works of literature containing much wisdom and not a little foolishness, testaments to the infinite power of human creativity, the luster of poetry that lies within.
The great challenge before us is collectively finding our way out of this mess. And here I could make the observation that there is no historical example of people defeating totalitarianism through debate. And that it has only ever been defeated through mass mobilization. And that it has not always been defeated. And I could list the examples of the great life affirming, antifascist, movements that have stood against totalitarianism in Europe, in Latin America, and in the United States. And I could talk with you about the tragic defeats of those who stood against the genocide of the indigenous people of this continent in the eighteenth and nineteenth-centuries. Or the loss of Spain to the fascist regime of Francisco Franco in the 1930s. But I do not think that would bring us any closer to figuring out a way forward that does not reenact the great struggles of the past.
And so, I want to turn to my sermon title, “The Virtues of Conservatism.” It hints at one path that might be available to us, the path of virtue ethics. Ethics is organized around the question, How should I live a good life? This is the question that faces us today, on the Sunday before the election, just as it is a question that we will face next week after all of the ballots have been counted. It is a question that we must answer within the context in which we live, under the threat of rising totalitarianism. It is a question we will answer somewhat differently ten or twenty years from now when the political, cultural, and ecological world we find ourselves in has changed.
Philosophers and theologians divide ethics into three broad schools. One school claims that ethical action is found by following rules. In such a system, the person who judiciously obeys the law might be thought of as the ethical person. Another school believes that the ethical person is measured by the outcome of their actions. The dictum “the ends justify the means” probably best summarizes this stance. It has been favored by some of the great fighters for freedom and justice. Malcolm X was one of the true heroes of the twentieth-century. He taught us to struggle for freedom and justice “by any means necessary.”
Virtue ethics is the third broad school of ethics. Virtue ethicists believe that the ethical life is to be found by cultivating certain traits of character. These traditionally are categories like honesty, bravery, generosity, gratitude... These traits are called the virtues.
Virtue ethics are favored by many conservatives. Such thinkers tend to treat the virtues as static. There is one meaning to being brave or honest. There is one meaning to compassion. Such thinkers also tend to think that social roles are fixed and that we are best selves when we perform the roles we are given when we pursue the virtues inherent in them. There is one way to be a good, and virtuous, parent, or worker, or child, or spouse or whatever.
Virtue ethicists tend to talk about how the presence of virtue is expressed in character. The conservative intellectual David Brooks writes a lot about the relationship between virtue and character. One of my friends accuses of him being a crypto-moderate, but Brooks speaks for a certain element of patrician conservatives. His interest in virtue ethics is mirrored in other patrician conservatives like William Bennett; Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of Education, he wrote an entire book called “The Book of Virtues.”
But here’s the thing, virtue ethics has a long connection to Unitarian Universalism. It was particularly favored by our Unitarian ancestors. Let me give you an example.
Lately, I have been poking around in the church library. It is something I do instinctually. I have spent enough my life doing historical research that if you put me within smelling distance of an archive I will start digging through it like a pig rooting for truffles.
A couple of weeks I happened across a beat-up pale green volume. Coffee stains on the front, it is marked “Scrap Book.” It contains a selection of newspaper and magazine cuttings about First Church and Unitarianism from the late 1920s through the early 1940s.
One of those articles contains a sermon that was preached when this congregation dedicated its first building here on Fannin and Southmore. The minister was then Thomas Sanders. We have already read the closing paragraph of his sermon. I want to draw our attention to its last sentence, “The church must generate moral power as well as instruct, for salvation is found in the development of character.”
Salvation is found in the development of character. It is about a clear a statement of the classical Unitarian theology of New England as I can imagine. In this view, the purpose of the church is to provide people a moral education so that they can strive towards self-improvement and live good lives. These Unitarians understood themselves to be Christian because they believed, as one wrote, “the character of Christ... sets before us moral perfection.” Christ was someone who had developed perfect character and who tried to teach others how to develop it. By following Christ’s teachings, they thought, people could discover the inner light within and begin to approach what they called “the likeness to God.” The great nineteenth-century Bostonian Unitarian preacher and theologian William Ellery Channing once claimed, “The great hope of society is in individual character.” He was suggesting that we become our best selves, and realize our own likeness to God, by nurturing such virtues.
The virtues for someone like Channing were not unlike the virtues for many contemporary conservative philosophers. They came out of respecting a certain set of fixed social roles. Nineteenth-century New England Unitarians contained many of the country’s mercantile elite. They had much clearer ideas of what it meant to be a Unitarian minister or a banker or a ship’s captain or a wife or a husband or a judge or a student than we do today. I suspect that many of us would disagree with how they understood those social roles. I certainly have no interest in receiving the kind of deference from congregants that a man like Channing could expect. Nor do I am interested in serving the elite in the same way that he did.
But that misses the point, the possibility, that I see in virtue ethics. It allows us to possibly find an entry point into a conversation with those who occupy different political, philosophical, and theological positions. We can probe the writings of Channing and discover what he meant by words like courage. His definition was different than ours. It centered on Jesus. I doubt many contemporary Unitarian Universalists would resonate with his claim that we express our moral freedom by leaving “all for Christ.” And yet, we can recognize that he valued, as we do, the importance of speaking our own truth and of being brave in the face of injustice.
I suspect that the same is true of my seatmate on the airplane. We were able to keep talking because we could at least agree upon which words might be important in our lives, even if we had completely different understandings of them. I was able to ask him, What does it mean to live a good life in your community? And he was able to ask me the same. It is true that our conversation went nowhere. But, unlike the man I met at the party, we were able to keep talking.
I have this inkling, this thought, that it might that the best we can hope for over the long haul is the possibility of staying together in a collective conversation. It is true that the ends, the goals, I seek have a lot more in common with Malcolm X than with the man I was sitting next to on the plane. I am against white supremacy. I am against totalitarianism. I am against economic inequality. I am for the great project of collective liberation, the unleashing of the human spark that can leap each to each.
But it is also true that I suspect that on some level each of us can articulate a vision of the good life. It might not be found in the words we speak. It may only be present in the actions we take. But, nonetheless, I imagine it can found in the lives we try to live and the lives we valorize. I have a suspicion that each of you has some sense of who is a good person and the kind of people you admire. And sometimes, we can even find something to admire, some sense of virtue, in those people we find ourselves in violent disagreement with. W. E. B. Du Bois was one of the greatest philosophers in this country’s history. He was able to say that there was “something noble in the figure of Jefferson Davis” even as he denounced Davis’s white supremacy and observed that there was “something fundamentally incomplete about” the standards by which the old Confederate had tried to live.
Such an appeal to virtue ethics might be a foolish hope. But then again, Unitarian Universalism has been labelled a faith without certainty. I would be lying to you if I told you I knew exactly what must be done, today or tomorrow. I know that totalitarianism has only ever been defeated by mass mobilization. But I also know that even as we confront the present horrors of the day we must try to stumble our way forward for the long haul. And that something must change if we are not to endlessly repeat, as it seems we are now, the cycles of totalitarian rise and defeat. And maybe, just maybe, those stumbles include a focus on the common vocabulary that exists across political difference. As David Brooks has observed, virtue ethics “is a philosophy for stumblers. The stumbler scuffs through life, a little off balance. But the stumbler faces her imperfect nature with unvarnished honesty, with the opposite of squeamishness.” And so, I leave you, on this Sunday before the election, not with a clear charge or solid instructions on what you must do but rather with the glimmer of hope that we can seek and find a common vocabulary with those we disagree. I do not hope that we will agree. I only that we might find a way to remain in a conversation.
Maybe then we might each discover the shining light within. Then maybe, just maybe, against all the odds, and the heart break, and the human error, our lives will echo with the words offered by the African American poet Thylias Moss:
You will be the miracle.
You will feed yourself five thousand times.
May those words be true for each of us.
Amen and Blessed.
* My reconstruction of our argument owes something to Alasdair MacIntyre, “After Virtue,” third edition (Norte Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), 7.
Nov 6, 2017
as preached at the First Parish Church, Ashby, November 5, 2017
This past May I celebrated the tenth anniversary of my ordination as a Unitarian Universalist minister. I spent the first half of my decade as a clergyman as a parish minister and the last five years in the stilled and musty halls of the academy. I started my ministry in Cleveland in September of 2007. Since, I am serving a parish again in the fall of 2017, I thought this autumnal morning would be a good opportunity to reflect upon some of what I have learned in my ten years as a minister. In his Divinity School Address, Emerson gave this advice to aspiring clergy, “The true preacher can be known by this, that he deals out to the people his life,--life passed through the fire of thought.” Those words were read during my ordination. I have attempted to follow Emerson’s advice and pass my own life through the fire of thought.
As I have, I have come to the conclusion that much of what I have learned as a religious leader can be distilled into two sentences: The horror and beauty of life are ever intertwined. We are what we do. The horror and beauty of life are ever intertwined. We are what we do. Neither of these observations is original to me. William Blake, “Man was made for Joy & Woe / And when this we rightly know / Thro the World we safely go / Joy & Woe are woven fine / A Clothing for the soul divine / Under every grief & pine / Runs a joy with silken twine.” To claim we are what we do is to invoke ethical traditions that stretch back to Confucius and Plato.
The horror and beauty of life are ever intertwined. Some of what I say over the next few minutes might be a little difficult to listen to. If you find it all disturbing I welcome a conversation after the service. I hope that you will listen my words in the spirit they are given. They come from a belief that it is only by confronting the hard parts of life that we can grow as individuals and as a religious community.
When I was in my mid-twenties, I felt called to the ministry because of the Unitarian Universalist tradition’s powerful legacy of social justice work. I wanted to make the world a better place and I thought that one way to do that was as a minister. It came as something of a surprise to me when I realized early in my ministerial training that one of a minister’s central functions is to be present to death. I was barely two months into seminary when I was asked to officiate my first memorial service.
Now, there are only two kinds of memorial services: easy ones and hard ones. The easy ones come at the end of a long and honorable life. The deceased’s family and friends gather one last time together to celebrate all that was and all that has left been behind: the love that remains after death.
Then there are the hard ones: the tragic accidents; the incurable diseases that strike down the youthful; the lives that end all too soon. Memorial services like these bring to me the words of the Greek poet Glykon: “Nothing but laughter, nothing / But dust, nothing but nothing, / No reason why it happens.” I find it impossible to offer an honest rationale, a satisfactory explanation, for why horror has happened to one person and another has escaped it. The best I can do is recognize that our human lives are ever shaped by our choices and the choices of others. So much of the pain we suffer has its origins in deep historical systems of racial, economic, and gendered oppression. And yet, such explanations are unsatisfying, for they all suggest that so much of our lives, and the suffering we experience throughout them, is due to little more than blind chance. “No reason why it happens.”
My first memorial service was a hard one. They had been husband and wife. They had died tragically in their early twenties. They were my friends. We had actually all lived together right before I started seminary. And so, it seemed natural that when they died I was asked to organize a service.
My two friends were what we call “spiritual but not religious.” They were not Unitarian Universalists. Instead of a church we decided to hold the service in backyard of the apartment building where they had lived; where we had lived together. Several other of our friends lived in the building. My friends had been alienated from their birth families. The building was the place they most felt at home. It was decided that as part of the service we would scatter their ashes in the apartment’s back garden.
The service began. A late autumn Chicago night, we had candles against the cold. The stars struggled through the murk of city lights. The wind came, damp and icy off the lake. Hearts heavy, we sat in silence. I said some words, read a poem, then another, led a prayer. The stories started. They began somber enough--the attempts to reason through the unreasonable, the ache of loss--but slowly our spirits shifted. Someone shared about the couple’s dogs. They had owned two toy poodles. They loved to groom those dogs. It was almost as if they practiced topiary on them. The animals’ haircuts were often misshapen bouffants. Slightly smashed spheres, triangles, or even squares could be found at the end of their tails or on the tops of their heads. That was not their most endearing feature. It turns out that poodle fur takes vegetable based hair dye wonderfully. And so, on their evening walks the dogs would roam along the lakeshore--a cascading calliope of electric blue, neon green, shocking pink. Thinking about those dogs still makes me giggle.
Lightened by canine stories, grins on our faces but damp still in our eyes, we knew it was time to scatter the ashes. Chicago is not called the Windy City without reason. The person charged with the task either made a miscalculation or simply was not paying enough attention. She tossed a big handful of ashes into some flowers. They flew back on us, getting in our hair and clothes. A moment of shock and then the laughter began. And so, there we were, laughing and crying, not knowing exactly when one emotion started and the other stopped, covered in what someone euphemistically called “dead girl.” Baptism by ash. Have you had a similar experience? Where in the face of the truly awful something of the shear utter unbridled joy of life crashes through?
The horror and beauty of life are ever intertwined. James Baldwin made something of the same point in “The Fire Next Time.” It is probably Baldwin’s most widely read text. Written in the midst of the civil rights movement, it is a meditation on what it means to be black in America, the illusion of white innocence, this country’s deep structures of racial violence, and how we might find a modicum of hope. An enduring theme throughout the book is that despite of whatever horrors exist in the world, beauty endures. At the close, Baldwin recollects his childhood in a poor Harlem family, “When I was very young, and was dealing with my buddies in those wine- and urine-stained hallways, something in me wondered, What will happen to all that beauty?”
One might mistake Baldwin’s query as an elegy for lost innocence. But he had rather something else in mind. The question is not about innocence but resilience. It is caught up in the reality that in a racially just world, the particular beauty of those moments would never have existed for Baldwin. As he struggled to make his way through the world, a black, gay, atheist writer, he saw beauty persisting. There are stories of beauty that can be discovered amongst some of the greatest human horrors.
The words of Holocaust survivor Gerta Weissman Klein reflect this. Writing of her time in Auschwitz, Klein recollects, “Ilse, a childhood friend of mine, once found a raspberry in the camp and carried it in her pocket all day to present to me that night on a leaf.
Imagine a world in which your entire possession is one raspberry and you give it to your friend.”
There is so much in those two sentences. Beauty, generosity, friendship, some scant hope, and, of course, the backdrop of almost unfathomable horror. To observe that beauty persists amongst horror is not to provide moral justification for the unspeakably awful. It is instead to suggest that we are ever haunted by hope.
Reflecting on Baldwin’s essay, Unitarian Universalist theologian Rebecca Parker observes, “The greatest challenge in our lives is the challenge presented to us by the beauty of life, by what beauty asks of us, and by what we must do to keep faith with the beauty that has nourished our lives.” To meet this challenge is to survive in a world is all too often hostile to our humanity.
And so, we come to my second lesson, we are what we do. I do not mean this in any sort of trite vocational sense. I am not saying that your measure, or mine, can be counted as the sum of our professions or the amounts of our salaries. Instead, I am taking an ethical position, aligning myself with a particular ethical tradition, virtue ethics.
Philosophers and theologians divide ethics into three broad schools. One school claims that ethical action is found by following rules. In such a system, the person who judiciously obeys the law might be thought of as the ethical person. Another school believes that the ethical person is measured by the outcome of their actions. The dictum “the ends justify the means” probably best summarizes this stance. And then, finally, there is the tradition of virtue ethics.
Virtue ethics has a long resonance within our Unitarian Universalist tradition. Virtue ethicists believe that the ethical life is to be found by cultivating certain traits of character. These traditionally are categories like honesty, bravery, generosity, gratitude... The great Bostonian Unitarian preacher and theologian William Ellery Channing once claimed, “The great hope of society is in individual character.” He was suggesting that we become our best selves by nurturing such virtues.
Virtue is like a muscle. It grows with exercise. The brave person is brave. The generous person is generous. The person who is filled with gratitude practices gratitude. We are what we do. These virtues come from the habits that we form. Those habits can be shaped by our religious practices. The main reason to join a Unitarian Universalist community, I have come to believe, is that it gives us the opportunity to cultivate virtues in a community that models those virtues. The community also holds us accountable to each other and provides us a space to reflect upon our actions and our habits when we fail to live up to our aspirations.
Think about your own involvement in the life of First Parish. Our community encourages us to practice virtues together. When we speak truth to power from the pulpit or stand vigil on the town common we are being honest and brave. When we share our joys and concerns we are providing a space for gratitude. When we make a financial pledge to the congregation we are practicing generosity. And when we fail to do these things we can hold each other accountable. Has your involvement in First Parish made you a braver, more gracious, or more generous person? Unitarian Universalism has nurtured these traits in me. After my decade as a minister, I know I am a braver, more gracious, and more generous person than I would be if I was not a Unitarian Universalist. This community and the broader community of Unitarian Universalism help me to be so by holding me accountable. What about you? We are what we do.
Finding beauty amidst horror is a virtue that can be nurtured by religious practice. Religious practice is something that we do together. It is the ritual life of our community and it is spiritual disciplines like meditation, prayer, yoga, or journal writing that we encourage each other to maintain. One of the most powerful religious practices in this community is music. Singing together, listening to Stephan or the Lizards in the Hayloft settles my spirit. It is a regular practice of letting a little beauty into life, even if only for a few minutes on a Sunday morning.
My heart is very heavy these days. It is undoubtedly a pathetic truism that the state of the world is bleak. So bleak that a litany of all of our planetary troubles is unnecessary. They sit almost constantly on many of our hearts and minds. And yet, the practice of beauty that I find in music helps to sustain me, helps remind me that there is hope, that life and the human community will find a way to continue. It is like the verse from our earlier hymn:
Through all tumult and the strife
I hear the music ringing.
If sounds an echo in my soul.
How can I keep from singing?
We are what we do. We practice beauty in the midst of the horrors and difficulties of life. When we do, we make the world a little more beautiful in its turn.
And so this is my prayer for each of us. No matter the murk and mire, the hard times and brutalities, the bleak winters of despair, the springs or autumns with seemingly little hope, may we cultivate a practice of beauty so that we may all ever ask, “How can I keep from singing?”
Amen and Blessed Be.