The sermon below was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, California, at the 10:30 a.m. service. The sermon text below is a reading text; the actual sermon contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2012 Daniel Harper.
This morning’s reading comes from the essay “How To Make Our Ideas Clear” by Charles Sanders Peirce:
From all these sophisms we shall be perfectly safe so long as we reflect that the whole function of thought is to produce habits of action; and that whatever there is connected with a thought, but irrelevant to its purpose, is an accretion to it, but no part of it…. To develop its meaning, we have, therefore, simply to determine what habits it produces, for what a thing means is simply what habits it involves.
(“How To Make Our Ideas Clear,” Charles Sanders Peirce, Chance, Love, and Logic: Philosophical Essays, ed. Morris R. Cohen [New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1923], pp. 41-42.)
Sermon — “Powerful Habits”
Here’s a story from the Buddhist tradition, the twenty-sixth Jataka tale; the Jataka tales tell of the previous incarnations of Gautama Buddha. The story goes like this:
Once upon a time, a king had an elephant named Damsel-face, who was virtuous and good, and never hurt a soul. But one day, robbers came and sat beside the elephant’s stall at night ro make their wicked plans. They said to each other, “If someone catches you in the act, don’t hesitate to kill them. Get rid of all goodness and virtue, be pitiless, cruel, and violent.”
The robbers kept coming back, night after night, to talk over their plans. Damesel-face got into the habit of listening to them, and at last the elephant concluded that he, too, must turn pitiless, cruel, and violent. The next morning when his keeper appeared, the elephant picked him up with his trunk, and dashed him to death on the ground. When another man came into the stall to see what had happened, Damsel-face picked him up, too, and dashed him to death on the ground.
The news came to the king that Damsel-face had gone mad and was killing people. The king sent his prime minister (who was, as it happens, Gautama Buddha in an earlier incarnation) to find out what was going on.
The prime minister quickly determined that there was nothing physically wrong with Damsel-face. Thus he determined that someone must have been talking near Damsel-face. He asked the elephant-keepers if anyone new had been seen near Damsel-face’s stall. They replied that for some weeks a band of robbers came to sit and talk outside the stall every evening.
The prime minister told the king that the elephant had been perverted by the talk of robbers.
“What is to be done now?” said the king.
“Remove the robbers,” said the prime minister. “Order good men, sages and brahmins, to sit in his stall and to talk of goodness.”
This was done. Good men and sages sat near the elephant and talked. “Neither maltreat nor kill,” they said. “The good should be loving and merciful.”
Hearing this, the elephant thought they must mean this as a lesson for him, and resolved thenceforth to become good. And good he became.
(Story adapted from Mahilamukha-Jataka, The Jataka, or Stories of the Buddha’s Former Births vol. 1, ed. E. B. Cowell, trans. Robert Chalmers [Oxford: Pali Text Society, 2004; Oxford University, 1895], pp. 68-69.)
The point of this story is similar to the point of this morning’s reading: If we would discover a person’s thoughts, we should observe their habits. Or to put it another way: You are your habits. This was the great insight of nineteenth century philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce, the author of this morning’s reading.
Recent advances in neuroscience confirm Peirce’s insight. Neuroscientists have found we may come to a conscious decision to engage in an action only after we have already commenced that action; at times our conscious thoughts serve only as an after-the-fact justification of something we have already started doing. We may have far less conscious control over our actions than our conscious thoughts would have us believe. Consider the act of walking: how could we possibly walk if we had to make a conscious decision about each action involved in walking? — now I will lift up my left foot, now I will move it forward, now I will place it on the ground, now I will lift up my right foot, and so on. If we had to retain conscious control over every action involved in walking, we would have a hard time getting anywhere, and we would certainly not be able to chew bubblegum while we walked.
The greatest portion of our lives is governed, not by conscious thought, but by the habits we develop over time. This is true of basic everyday physical actions like walking and talking; it is also true of our social and moral actions. We rarely have the luxury of having enough time to think through every moral decision we must make; we have to rely on habit.
Habit is built through repetition, through doing something over and over again. Mastery of a new skill begins when some of the actions involved in that skill become automatic, when they become a matter of habit. If you have a driver’s license, you probably have some vivid memories of the mistakes you made before driving a car had become an automatic process for you. And then when you become expert at something, you have to continue to maintain your expertise; if you stop driving for a period of some years, it may take some time to regain your confidence; a musician may master an instrument, but even after achieving mastery a musician must continue to practice to maintain mastery.
Maintaining habits may take less time than we think. Neuroscientists have discovered that in some cases you can just think about something to maintain some level of expertise. Some musicians have exploited this fact. The concert pianist Hélène Grimaud can rehearse for a concert by playing through a piece in her head: “Mat Hennek, her current partner, remembers that one day, when he and Grimaud were first dating, they went shopping in Philadelphia and then to a Starbucks. At one point, he recalls, ‘I said to Hélène, “Hélène, you have a concert coming. Did you practice?” And she said, “I played the piece two times in my head.”‘” [D. T. Max, “Hélène Grimaud’s Life as a Concert Pianist,” New Yorker November 7, 2011.] It should be said that Grimaud is known for playing many wrong notes during her concerts, and perhaps she needs to spend more time practicing at the piano, not just in her head. Nevertheless, it is relatively easy to maintain a habit that is already in place.
We human beings are creatures of habit. While we Unitarian Universalists like to believe that we human beings are basically rational, and that we human beings have a great deal of control over our own actions, this belief does not exactly correspond with who we are. We are more like the elephant Damsel-face than we would like to believe: reason and rationality have only limited influence over the power of habits.
Yet it is possible for us to use our reason, to have conscious control over our lives, by using the power of habits. A prime example of this may be found in the Silicon Valley culture in which we live. Silicon Valley culture encourages us to be innovators: we break through old habits to develop new and innovative ways of doing things. In this way, Silicon Valley culture shows us how innovation itself can become a habit: to innovate is to form the habit of always questioning the way we do things habitually; it is a skill that is learned through repetition until it becomes a habit.
The habit of innovation is both personal — if you’re a creative engineer, you get in the habit of seeing the world in new ways;— and the habit of innovation is social — one of the reasons people come to Silicon Valley is because here we can meet many other people who have personal habits of innovation. All habits are both personal and social: it is easier to form the habits we want when we are surrounded with people who already have those habits, or who are also trying to form those habits.
Though I suspect we religious liberals rarely think about it, religion is a matter of habit and repetition. We have a tendency to do the same things over and over; and we work to develop habits that support our highest values. Some of these habits are more personal: we pray, we meditate, we write in journals. Some of these habits are more social, and the social habits support and reinforce our personal habits. This is why we like to do the same things in the same way year after year in our religious community. Repetition and ritual, doing the same things over and over again in the same way, helps us keep the good habits we came here to get. And so every year in late December, we tell the same story about the birth of a human being who grew up to a powerful prophet of love; we tell that story year after year in order to remind ourselves to dedicate ourselves to the habit of love in its highest sense; and we come here to this religious community to tell this story so that we are surrounded with other people who are also maintaining the habit of love.
This kind of repetition can make our liberal religious congregations feel like conservative institutions at times. It is never easy to balance the need for repetition and sameness against the religious liberal’s need for ongoing evolution. I think this balance can feel particularly hard to achieve here in Silicon Valley, amidst the culture of innovation. It is hard to balance the habit of repetition and sameness which help keep us true to our highest values, and on the other hand the combined effect of the Silicon Valley habit of innovation and the liberal religious habit of ongoing evolution.
To maintain our balance, there are two social habits that we religious liberals especially cultivate. First, we cultivate the habit of skeptical argument; and second, we cultivate the habit of keeping the sabbath. Let me describe each of these, beginning with skeptical argument.
By definition, we religious liberals are skeptics, and as such argument is one of our chief forms of religious practice. We argue with one another so we won’t settle for comfortable platitudes that feel good but are only partially true. We argue with one another because we know that no one person has complete access to the entire truth of things. We argue because we know that the only way to find truth is to be a part of a community of inquirers.
Argument is neither a comfortable nor a comforting religious habit. When you engage in true skeptical argument with someone else, or in a religious community, you take the risk that someone else is going to show you where you are not quite right. I have had this happen frequently, and sometimes very publicly, for when you preach to a room full of religious liberals for whom skeptical argument is a spiritual practice, there is a very good chance that someone will talk to you after the sermon, and show you where you need to think more deeply about a particular topic. I knew a man who wrote down questions that arose for him during the sermon, and he would hand that list of three or four questions to the preacher at the end of the service. When I was the preacher, I both looked forward to and dreaded receiving that list of questions; I dreaded getting the list because usually at least one of the questions would reveal a place where I had not fully thought through some part of the sermon; I looked forward to getting that list because his questions invariably made me think more deeply about the topic. Like most religious liberals, I find it refreshing to think about something in a new way. A bath of ice cold water is also very refreshing, but that doesn’t mean it is comfortable or comforting.
We religious liberals cultivate the social habit of skeptical argument through listening to sermons, and then most importantly talking about those sermons during social hour. When I attend a Sunday service, I make sure to leave time to attend social hour. And I always feel bitterly disappointed when no one talks about the sermon during social hour. Even if the sermon is boring, I gain a lot by trying to find the kernel of truth in that boring sermon, and then talking through where that kernel of truth might lead us. When the sermon challenges me, and prompts me to think about things in a new way, that’s even better, and then I really need to talk about it with other people during social hour.
The primary habit of skeptical argument in our liberal congregations is this process of hearing a sermon, finding the kernel of truth in it, talking about it to find where it might lead us, and so moving closer to truth in the company of a community of inquirers. We religious liberals do not listen to sermons passively; sermons, even bad sermons, give us something to think about, to talk about, to argue about. This is why Unitarian Universalists have a long tradition of having educated clergy, ministers with learning, preachers who will provoke us, teach us, sometimes annoy us, provide us with fodder for our ongoing skeptical arguments.
(A parenthetical note: I cannot help mentioning two other methods of cultivating skeptical argument: teaching or attending Sunday school, and participating in the Sunday morning forum. If you have ever taught a class of lively fourth and fifth graders, or if you have ever participated in a lively discussion in the forum, you know that you can cultivate the habit of skeptical argument in either setting. As someone who teaches Sunday school most Sundays’, though, what I miss is the chance to participate in skeptical argument with the larger number of people attending the main services. As good as teaching Sunday school can be, it is also good to come regularly to the sermons in the Main Hall.)
Sermons, or any statements, cause problems when we accept them passively. That is what happened to the elephant Damsel-face: when the robbers came and sat next to his stall and talked about evil doings, Damsel-face passively accepted what they said as truth; and in this passive acceptance Damsel-face himself turned bad. Had Damsel-face been a religious liberal, he would have gone to social hour afterwards and argued about what they had said, talked about how what the robbers said contained no real kernel of truth, and so (we hope) he would have moved towards higher moral truths.
The story of Damsel-face also implies that we should choose with care those people with whom we would argue. We want to have our skeptical arguments with other people who also aspire to the highest human values, so we develop the habit of good thoughts, and good actions. Like Damsel-face at the end of the story, we want to spend time each week with good people, our equivalent of sages and brahmins, with whom we can talk about goodness and truth, and who will encourage us to go out into the world and do good.
The other habit we religious liberals cultivate, in addition to the habit of skeptical argument, is the habit of keeping the sabbath. Unlike other religious traditions that keep the sabbath, we don’t have a complex set of rules and rituals to follow on the sabbath. Our rules are simple: show up here each week, or as often as we can, often enough to cultivate the habit. Obviously, a big part of keeping the sabbath for us Unitarian Universalists is the opportunity to engage in skeptical argument. But we also come here to spend time with others who are striving after the highest human values.
This was how the damage to Damsel-face the elephant was repaired: sages, wise and virtuous people, sat down regularly with Damsel-face to talk about goodness. This is what happens to us in our lives. We cannot avoid spending time in settings where goodness and truth and virtue are not the highest values — every time I drive on the freeway, I find myself in such a setting; in my previous careers, some of my workplaces felt like I was spending time with a band of robbers. We come here each week, or as often as possible, to keep the sabbath and recall ourselves to truth and goodness.
In order to keep the sabbath, we don’t have to do anything in particular; all that’s required is that we show up, and spend time with others who also strive after the highest values. Like Damsel-face listening to the wise sages, we don’t necessarily have to do anything; we can just sit and listen to talk that aims at the highest virtues. It is probably better if we engage in some skeptical argument, but it is not necessary. What is most important is that we show up here for a couple of hours each week; the sabbath is a time we can let our souls lie fallow, a time to let ourselves rejuvenate.
Like the elephant Damsel-face, we human beings need to spend time in good company; we need to listen, and take part in, good and virtuous conversation. So it is we cultivate the habit of skeptical argument; so it is we cultivate the habit of keeping the sabbath, in our liberal religious sense of it. And may our cultivation of these powerful habits lead us to become better and wiser people.