Marriage as a religious act

The sermon below was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at the Unitarian Universalist Community of the Mountains, Grass Valley, California, at 11:00 a.m. The sermon text below is a reading text; the actual sermon contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2013 Daniel Harper.

Reading:

Splendid to us and much sought after is the sweet smell of love, established in the time of the ancients, guided by the voices of the prophets, and sanctified by the words of the teachers: because of all beautiful things of the earth, love is the most excellent. (Same Sex Unions, John Boswell, p. 292)

The other reading was a copyrighted poem which cannot be reproduced here.

Sermon — “Marriage as a Religious Act”

I’d like to speak with you this morning about marriage as a religious act. But in order to do that, I think I had better back up and first tell you a little bit about the sexual revolution as it occurred within Unitarian Universalism. I am not a historian, so this will not be history; rather, this will be the story of the sexual revolution as I happened to have heard other Unitarian Universalists tell it.

And I’ll begin with my mother and her twin sister. My mother’s family belonged to the Salem, Massachusetts, Unitarian church. In 1942, they went off to college in Boston, a women’s college that prepared young women to become teachers; in those days, young women could become teachers, or secretaries, or nurses, or housekeepers, though eventually they were expected to become wives. Being Unitarians, they went to First Church in Boston, not too far away. First Church was quite progressive for the day, and offered sex ed classes to college students. They were twins and split everything up, and my aunt was the one who went to the sex ed classes. She told me that the other students teased her when she went, but as soon as she came back they clustered into the room she shared with my mother, and wanted to know everything she had learned. This is the earliest example I know of sexuality education for unmarried persons within Unitarianism; that these classes took place outside the family, and long before marriage, represents a change in society’s understanding of sexuality.

Now we move forward to the 1950s, and turn to the Universalist side of our heritage (remember that the Unitarians and Universalists didn’t merge until 1961). I have heard it told that Kenneth Patton, the Universalist minister at the revolutionary Charles Street Meetinghouse in Boston, apparently conducted same sex union or marriage ceremonies there in the 1950s; but it was not the sort of thing that could be made public, not in those days, so we know little more than that such ceremonies probably took place. Obviously, this represents the beginnings of a change in the way we Unitarian Universalists understood marriage. (1)

Beginning in the 1960s, Unitarian Universalist women began seriously questioning the gender roles established for them. My family belonged to the Concord, Massachusetts, Unitarian Universalist church, and sometime in the early 1960s my father was invited to become an usher, which was considered a man’s job. My mother was invited to join the Flower Committee; and the way I remember her telling the story, she tried to remain polite but she made it clear she had no interest in arranging flowers. By the end of the decade, she was serving as an usher with my father — and I remember it was a big change when women became ushers. These small changes in gender roles at church helped us begin to question the larger gender roles associated with marriage.

As we moved into the later 1960s, there was a lot more sexual freedom in wider society; partly due to changing social values, but also due to the growing availability and legalization of inexpensive and effective contraception. In many ways the growth of sexual freedom was good, but it also had its dark side. Within Unitarian Universalism, there were too many ministers who decided that growing sexual freedom meant they could have sex with women in their congregation. I later heard stories about Unitarian Universalist ministers who allegedly had sex with women in their congregations during the 1960s; in one of these stories, the people in the congregation knew a woman’s marriage was going to break up when she went to pastoral counseling sessions with their minister. These are not pleasant stories to tell, but they help show how we Unitarian Universalists were questioning the meaning of marriage. And the way I have been told some of these stories, violation of trust by ministers helped galvanize some of the early feminists. So it is not surprising that some women who had witnessed clergy sexual misconduct in their congregations in the late 1960s became leaders in the Women and Religion movement in the 1970s.

During the 1960s, we Unitarian Universalists remained ambivalent on the subject of gay rights. In 1969, the same year as the Stonewall riots, James Stoll was the first Unitarian Universalist minister to come out as gay, but after coming out he never served in a Unitarian Universalist congregation again. At the same time, we published About Your Sexuality, a comprehensive sexuality education curriculum for early adolescents, which taught that homosexuality was perfectly normal. So we accepted homosexuality as normal, but we weren’t quite ready to let openly gay men or lesbians serve as our ministers. Needless to say, it remained controversial through the 1960s for a congregation to endorse same sex marriages.

The sexual revolution seemed to me to accelerate in the 1970s, perhaps because I was in my teens in those years. You began to hear about Unitarian Universalist congregations sponsoring same sex union ceremonies. The feminist movement accelerated, and we began to sing hymns that had de-genderized language for the first time. These were all positive developments.

On the negative side, I later learned that during the 1970s many Unitarian Universalists experimented with so-called “open marriage,” where you could sleep with whomever you wanted and still stay married. Sometimes this was called “wife swapping” instead of “open marriage,” which gives you a sense of how sexist this was. In many congregations, there were even adult education classes in open marriage (at which the mind boggles). While I’m sure it seemed like a good idea at the time, hindsight is always twenty-twenty, and too many people got hurt by some of these 1970s-era experiments in redefining marriage.

Not surprisingly, this strand of the sexual revolution played out in parts of our youth movement as well. My own Unitarian Universalist youth group was pretty much squeaky clean. But in some youth groups and in some district youth programs there was a good deal of sexual activity, which mostly followed the sexual example being set by some Unitarian Universalist adults. Thus I have heard about adult youth advisors who were sleeping with teens (and of course this was mostly male advisors sleeping with girls), just like ministers were doing with congregants. And I’ve heard about teenagers having lots of sex with each other at youth events, though when you talk with women who went through this as girls, they may tell you that it was rooted in sexist assumptions and sometimes it felt like sexual harassment and/or date rape. Again, I’m sure it seemed like a good idea at the time, but too many people, especially girls, got hurt.

Yet despite all this, in other ways we Unitarian Universalists made positive progress in rethinking marriage. One of the most important things we did was to change our thinking about gender roles in marriage. By the 1980s, I would say all Unitarian Universalists understood women and men to be equal partners in a marriage, and while plenty of marriages stuck with the old gender roles to a greater or lesser degree, we held up equality as an ideal. Also by the 1980s, we recognized that you could have committed, serious, long-term relationships without getting married; my current partner and I got together in 1989, and I felt no stigma from anyone in my Unitarian Universalist church because we were not married.

The 1980s was also the decade when I would say we had the most conflict about same sex unions and same sex marriages in our congregations. I know several ministers who got into real trouble in that decade for officiating at same sex marriages, and more than one Unitarian Universalist congregation got embroiled in serious internal conflict about whether or not they should affirm same sex marriages. By the end of the 1980s, I think the tide had turned. The conflicts continued — I myself witnessed one particularly nasty little conflict as late as 2002 — but increasingly we became comfortable with same sex marriages. Indeed many of us became active in advocating for the legalization of same sex marriages outside our own faith communities.

So that’s a very subjective telling of the story of how the sexual revolution moved through Unitarian Universalism, told from a very subjective perspective. This sexual revolution changed our views on a great many things, including sexuality, gender roles, and (of course) marriage. And I would like to point out three major consequences of this sexual revolution:

First major consequence: Feminism has become the norm for Unitarian Universalists. We firmly believe that women and girls are just as good as men and boys, and if you don’t feel that way, you are probably not going to feel comfortable among us. Because we believe that women are the equals of men, we have fundamentally changed the way we think of marriage between a man and a woman. In the bad old days, when a woman got married, she knew she was going to be subservient to the man; she would even give up her own name, and she would become, for example, Mrs. John Smith.

But once we figured out that women and men are equal, that did away with the old gender roles, and we no longer thought there had to be one dominant partner in a marriage, and that dominant partner was going to be a man. And that helped open up the possibility that a marriage didn’t always have to consist of a man and a woman.

Second major consequence: We Unitarian Universalists now openly affirm that sex is pleasurable. We know that sex is an important part of human experience. We emphatically do not believe that sex is bad, or “dirty.” Furthermore, we have no problems accepting new scientific advances, and so we have been perfectly willing to adopt new advances like oral contraceptives, and other new and more effective contraceptives. And the new contraceptives have meant that we don’t have to worry nearly as much as we used to about unintended pregnancies, which means that we have come of the purely pleasurable aspects of sex and sexuality. In these views, we are quite different from some other religious traditions.

Because of this, we don’t believe that marriage is primarily for the sake of reproduction. We think sex within marriage can serve to strengthen the relationship between the two partners. And that has opened us up to the possibility that a marriage does not have to be defined as a biological man and a biological woman whose main purpose is to have biological children together.

The third major consequence of the sexual revolution for Unitarian Universalists: We discovered that stable partnerships are best. During the 1970s, many Unitarian Universalists experimented with various kinds of open marriages, partner swapping, and the like. Viewed from a purely pragmatic vantage point, these experiments had more negative consequences than positive consequences; too many people got hurt (and too many of the people who got hurt were women, legal minors, and/or people in less powerful social positions). On this very pragmatic basis, we learned that stable partnerships generally cause fewer problems. At the same time, we are also quite clear that it is a good idea to end partnerships that are going badly; but we now know that we don’t want to end relationships on a whim, and that we have to consider how ending a relationships will affect children, partners, relatives, and others.

Another way of stating all this is that we know that sexual relationships have can have lasting consequences. This makes us more likely to believe same sex marriage is a good thing: we think it’s a good idea to have public ceremonies in which the partners express their commitment to each other, no matter what the gender of the partners may be.

 

To review these three results of the sexual revolution in Unitarian Universalism: (I) Feminism is the norm for Unitarian Universalism, and that means we don’t put people into strict gender roles. (II) Sex is good and pleasant parts of the human experience, and it exists for more than the purposes of reproduction. (III) We have come to find out that stable partnerships are best. Thus it is not at all surprising that we Unitarian Universalists are more willing to accept same sex marriage than quite a few other religious groups in the United States.

So far, I have looked at how our Unitarian Universalist views on sex, sexuality, and gender have changed as a result of the sexual revolution; and I’ve looked at three consequences of the sexual revolution. To wind up this discussion on Unitarian Universalist views of marriage, let’s take a look at what happens when two people get married in our tradition.

When you have a Unitarian Universalist wedding, there are three essential parts which are required: the intention, the vows, and the proclamation; that is, there is a statement that the people getting married really do mean to get married, then the people getting married exchange promises to one another, and finally, there is a statement that these two are now married. Everything else can get dropped from a Unitarian Universalist wedding ceremony.

Why are these three parts essential? They are essential because from our point of view, a marriage is a covenant between the partners in the marriage. In order to have a covenant, the parties to the covenant have to go into it freely and willingly — this is why we have the intention, to show that the parties to the marriage are entering into it freely and willingly. And in order to have a covenant, the parties involved have to exchange promises to one another — this is why we have the vows, for they are the exchange of promises between the people getting married. Finally, in our tradition a covenant should be witnessed by others in the wider community, and the wider community recognizes that you are married — this is why we have the proclamation.

Interestingly, a marriage ceremony in our tradition is not absolutely required; marriage is not a sacrament, nor is it mandated by religious law. In this, our tradition has some small similarity to the first thousand years of the Christian tradition, insofar as during the first thousand years of Christianity there was no religious imperative to get married, and marriage was a flexible matter; indeed, there were even same-sex Christian marriages throughout the medieval period. (2)

But the institution of marriage has changed enormously over the centuries: medieval marriage was very different from Renaissance marriage, which was in turn different from Victorian marriage, which is turn was different from mid-twentieth century marriage, which in its turn is quite different from marriage today. Marriage has always been an evolving institution; it continues to evolve today; and our great grandchildren may look back on what we consider progressive and think of us as quaint, alien, and old-fashioned.

To conclude, then, when we look at what UU religious marriages are today, we find that marriage is a covenant into which two people enter, promising each other their love and support. That covenant is recognized by a wider community, and ideally we hope that marriages will remain stable for as long as possible. We believe that sex is good and pleasurable and need not be limited to biological reproduction. And we do not think married couples should be restricted to mid-twentieth century gender roles.

Now let me leave you with this final important reminder: I have only been talking about religious marriage as it exists within our Unitarian Universalist tradition. I have not been talking about legal marriage, which is an entirely different kettle of fish. And the sad truth is that while we Unitarian Universalists recognize religious marriages for same sex couples, in the state of California those religious ceremonies do not result in legal marriages; whereas when we recognize opposite-sex religious marriages, those marriages are recognized as legal by the state. But I have done what I set out to do, which was to talk with you about marriage as a religious act.

 

NOTES:

Update, August, 2013: It should be noted that this sermon was written and preached at a time when two key cases were before the U.S. Supreme Court — Hollingsworth v. Perry, in which the plaintiffs sought to require the state of California to enforce Proposition 8, a ban on gay marriage; and U.S. v. Winsor, in which the plaintiff challenged the legality of the so-called Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA. In June, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court decided both these cases in favor of same-sex marriage. The Supreme Court opinions for Hollingsworth v. Perry may be found here; that for U.S. v. Winsor may be found here. Same sex marriage became legal in California almost immediately after the Hollingsworth v. Perry decision; and and it appears that the effect of the decision on U.S. v. Winsor will be to extend federal marriage benefits to all legally married same sex couples, although this is a complex matter that is still being worked out in practice.

(1) Jeff Wilson has documented Unitarian ministers who were performing same-sex unions in the 1950s; see the Journal of Unitarian Universalist History, 2011.

(2) John Boswell, Same Sex Unions (Vintage Books, 1995).

Additional notes:

The sexual revolution: My telling of this history has been shaped by a published history of the sexual revolution, Davis Allyn, Make Love Not War: The Sexual Revolution: An Unfettered History (Little Brown, 2000). Despite the rather lurid title, this is a serious attempt at history, and is to my knowledge the only book-length history of the sexual revolution. The bibliography is especially useful for those who wish to study the history of the sexual revolution in more depth.

Unitarian Universalist history: Except where I have permission to retell someone’s recollections of the sexual revolution, or where I heard stories told in public, I have changed details to protect anonymity; these stories come from Unitarian Universalists who lived in the Northeast, in the Midwest, and on the West Coast. (As an aside, regarding legalization of contraception, it is worth noting that at least through 2012 it remained technically illegal to sell contraceptives to unmarried persons in Massachusetts, the state in which I was raised as a UU.)

History of marriage: For same sex marriages in the Western world prior to the Renaissance, see Same Sex Unions in Premodern Europe by John Boswell (New York: Willard Books, 1994); for a brief look at the history of marriage from the Reformation through the Enlightenment, see “Reformed and Enlightened Church” by Jane Shaw, in Queer Theology: Rethinking the Western Body, ed. Gerard Loughlin (Oxford: Blackwell, 2007).

Theological grounding: Part of the theological grounding of this sermon comes from “Sex and Secularization” by Linda Woodhead, in Queer Theology: Rethinking the Western Body, in its description of how Christian denominations try to regulate private life in a secularized world. Also useful in understanding how religions react to the secularization of society is Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony by Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon (Abingdon, 1989), though I should say that I have serious disagreements with Hauerwas and Willimon.

Neuroscience and Liberal Religion

The sermon below was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, California, at the 9:30 and 11:00 a.m. services. The sermon text below is a reading text; the actual sermon contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2012 Daniel Harper.

Reading — This morning’s reading comes Samuel Johnson’s Rambler, issue number 32:

The cure for the greater part of human miseries is not radical, but palliative. Infelicity is involved in corporeal nature and interwoven with our being. All attempts, therefore, to decline it wholly are useless and vain:

The armies of pain send their arrows against us on every side, the choice is only between those which are more or less sharp, or tinged with poison of greater or less malignity; and the strongest armor which reason can supply will only blunt their points, but cannot repel them.

Sermon — “Neuroscience and Liberal Religion”

In his reflection, Roy King talked about the wonders of science, and mentioned the Higgs Boson. Well, one Sunday morning the Higgs Boson walked into a Catholic mass. The service is about to start, and the Higgs boson shouts “Stop!” The priest turns to look at him, and says, “Why should I stop?” The Higgs boson says, “Because you can’t have mass without me.” (1)

But seriously:

We religious liberals like to talk about the wonders revealed by science. We find religious inspiration in what science reveals to us about the world. It may be less than correct to call the Higgs boson the “God particle,” as some journalists have taken to doing; nevertheless, what I have read about the discovery of the Higgs boson fills me with awe and wonder.

The wonder of science arises from observations of the world around us to which we apply our reasoning abilities in community with others. This combination of reason applied to shared observation reveals a wondrous world that can delight and astonish us. And this combination of observation and reason can be applied to the problems of living: we develop drugs to fight disease, we breed new varieties of crops to alleviate food shortages and hunger, we apply materials science and physics to develop photovoltaic panels. It can feel as though we should rely exclusively on reason as we determine how to live our lives.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve been particularly aware of the wonders of a specific branch of science — the wonder that results from contemplating the recent advances in “brain science,” a loose term which roughly encompasses neuroscience, cognitive science, and portions of allied disciplines such as developmental psychology. If you’re like me, you are accustomed to thinking that you know pretty well how your mind works. For example, we all know perfectly well that if we want to carry out some action, first we decide what we’re going to do, and then we do it: I decide that I’m going to take a bite out of a bagel, and after I make that decision, I reach down and pick up the bagel to take a bit. That’s generally how we think our minds think: first we decide to do something, then we do it.

But this is not the way our brains work much of the time. The neuroscientist David Eagleman puts it this way: “Our brains run mostly on autopilot, and the conscious mind has little access to the giant and mysterious factory that runs below it. You see evidence of this when your foot gets halfway to the brake before you consciously realize that a red Toyota is backing out of a driveway on the road ahead of you.” (2)

Another neuroscientist, Michael Gazzaniga, did research in the 1970s on people who had had the neurons between the left and right brain hemispheres severed. In one experiment, researchers showed a different scene to each of the eyes of one of these people: the eye controlled by one hemisphere saw a snow scene, while the eye controlled by the other hemisphere saw a chicken. The researchers then asked the person to asked to choose another image that was related to the image they had just seen. When the eye controlled by the right hemisphere of the brain had seen the snow scene, the hand controlled by that same hemisphere chose as its related image a shovel — to shovel the snow, obviously. But the centers of speech and logic are controlled by the left hemisphere of the brain, which meant that when the asked the person to say why s/he had chosen the shovel, the left hemisphere was unable to respond (because the neural connections between the two hemispheres had been severed). So the person said they had chosen the shovel in order to shovel — the chicken manure. (3)

Our brains are extremely adept at coming up with reasons for our actions after the fact. You step on the brake pedal and you avoid hitting that red Toyota that’s backing out of the driveway in front of you; your brain makes up a story that you decided to step on the brake, but in reality your foot was stepping on the brake before you made a conscious decision to do so. Reason is a product of the conscious mind, and consciousness is a small part of our brain’s activity. Powerful though reason may be, we are not entirely reasonable beings.

Yet for us religious liberals, reason sometimes serves as a central tenet of our religious life. We have not affirmed traditional conceptions of a Christian God in the eighteenth century, when the Unitarians declared that Jesus was not God, and when the Universalists declared that God would not send anyone to hell. Today, half of all Unitarian Universalists call themselves humanists or atheists, and say that there is no deity, or deities, at all. The absence of God in our shared religious life appears to have left a kind of God-shaped hole, and I have seen people try to fill that God-shaped hole with reason. I don’t mean to imply that we try to turn reason into a god, but we do ascribe powers to reason that are not confirmed by science. We have developed a myth that would have us believe in supernatural powers of reason.

Here is one version of the myth of reason:

Some hundreds of thousands of years ago, hominids began to evolve brains that could reason. These hominids eventually evolved into the species Homo sapiens, beings who could think and reason. As time went by, humans became more and more reasonable, and we became able to penetrate the mysteries of the cosmos. As we gradually came into full use of reason, with its help we were able to develop science and technology, and at last we have come to the point where we can solve all problems facing us (that’s supposed to be a punch line, in case you want to laugh). The power of reason gives us the power to order human life so that as many people as possible — and eventually all people — can live out their lives in grace and beauty, and in freedom from want. And as our reason has grown, we have learned to dismiss old, unreasonable myths about the universe. We have evolved beyond the idea that we are not in control of our own destiny: we no longer believe, for instance, we have to sacrifice living beings to propitiate the gods. Some of us would say we have evolved beyond the need for belief in a supernatural being, for our reason shows us that there is no supernatural world.

This is a wonderful myth. This myth sustains much of our social justice work, for we believe that we can consciously reason out ways to reduce human suffering, and that reason will ultimately prevail over the forces of ignorance and stupidity that cause human suffering. And this myth sustains much of our ontological speculation, for we believe that we can consciously reason out the underlying structure of being and existence. But neuroscience and cognitive science have undermined a central belief set forth by this myth, that we can consciously reason our ways through life. We have far less conscious control over our lives than this myth would have us believe.

Since this myth of all-powerful reason is not supported by brain science, I’d like to tell you that brain science has come up with a useful alternative for the practical living of our day-to-day lives. But to the best of my knowledge it has not. Nor should we really expect it to: science is a powerful way of making careful observations, revealing the wonders of the world around us. It has not proven so useful as a way to structure ordinary life.

In particular, I am not aware that brain science has offered much in the way of useful research on organized religion. I have read about a study where scientists studied the brains of Buddhist monks meditating, and Christian nuns praying, and found that there were similarities between the two in terms of the parts of the brains which were activated by meditation in the one, and prayer in the other. (4) Not being a Buddhist monk nor a Christian nun, this is not of much use to me. I’m not part of an insulated group engaged in esoteric practices, I’m part of an ordinary congregation; and the problems I face, and that I see others around me facing, are problems for which brain science seems to offer no real guidance.

Let me give you an example of one such problem, taken from the life of Samuel Johnson.

Johnson was perhaps one of the most reasonable of all writers in the English language, a thinker who epitomizes the link in Enlightenment thought between reason and morality. He was also aware of the limits of reason. In this morning’s reading, we heard Johnson tell us that reason can perhaps blunt the miseries and calamities of human life, but reason cannot do away with those miseries and calamities. He did not think that we could end all human suffering through the use of reason. For Johnson had directly experienced the limits of his own reason at least twice in his life. In his twenties and again in his fifties, he suffered some kind of breakdown. After each of these breakdowns, both he and his close friends felt that there had been times when he could be called “mad,” what we today would call mentally ill.

Arthur Murphy, in a brief biography, described one time when Johnson felt he was losing his reason: “In 1766 [Johnson’s] constitution seemed to be in a rapid decline, and that morbid melancholy, which often clouded his understanding, came upon him with a deeper gloom than ever. [His good friends] Mr. and Mrs. Thrale paid him a visit in this situation, and found him on his knees, with Dr. Delap, the rector of Lewes, in Sussex, beseeching God to continue to him the use of his understanding.” (5)

Mr. and Mrs. Thrale were deeply affected by this scene. Mrs. Thrale later wrote: “I felt excessively affected with grief, and well remember my husband involuntarily lifted up one hand to shut [Johnson’s] mouth, from provocation at hearing a man so wildly proclaim what he could at last persuade no one to believe, and what, if true, would have been so very unfit to reveal.” (6) The Thrales immediately took Johnson to their country home, where they nursed him back to some semblance of health over the next three months.

Johnson was not able to reason his way out of his state of mind. Nor does brain science tell us what Johnson should have done for himself. But what Johnson did to recover from his breakdown is supported by brain science; and for those of us looking for practical guidance in how to live our own ordinary lives, it’s worth hearing what Johnson did:

First, for all his genius and power of reason, Johnson realized that he did not have as much conscious control over himself as he would have liked to have had. Therefore, he realized that he had to rely on other people. When Mr. and Mrs. Thrale found him having a breakdown, he was able to let them take him to their country house and nurse him back to health.

Nothing about a willingness to rely on others contradicts the insights of brain science. Once we realize that our conscious minds aren’t in as much control as we’d like to think, it would be logical and practical to rely on the help and insights of those around us. Indeed, the field of cognitive science, particularly as applied to education, has shown that thinking and learning sometimes takes place, not within our individual brains, but in a shared social setting: that is, cognition may be distributed among several persons, rather than limited to the insides of one person’s brain. Thus it makes complete sense to get in the habit of relying on other people in our day-to-day lives. This is, in fact, one of the primary functions of a religious congregation like ours: to get us in the habit of relying on others.

Second point: As we heard in this morning’s reading, Johnson said in the face of life’s miseries and calamities, reason is of limited usefulness. And in the passage immediately following this morning’s reading, he went on to say what does help at times of misery and calamity: “The great remedy which heaven has put in our hands is patience, by which, though we cannot lessen the torments of the body, we can in a great measure preserve the peace of the mind, and shall suffer only the natural and genuine force of an evil without heightening its acrimony or prolonging its effects.” (7)

Think about Johnson’s breakdown, and the way Mr. and Mrs. Thrale took him off to the country for three months to recover. I’m sure Johnson could have found better things to do with those the three months than to be nursed back to health. But he had cultivated the habit of patience, and for those three months he was able to put aside his eagerness to work on his writing, and take the time to recover his mental health.

We don’t place much value on patience in twenty-first century America. But think of patience as a habit of mind that can be cultivated to get us through those times when reason isn’t going to help. It’s like the habits you form when you learn how to drive: you don’t have time to think about stepping on the brake when you see that red Toyota backing out in front of you, you just do it. In a similar way, we can cultivate the habit of patience.

Third, and finally, Johnson used religion as a mental discipline that helped him to reflect on himself, his morals, his failings, his strengths, his place in society and his effect on others. His written prayers often reveal great depths of personal insight into his character; and he went to Sunday services for much the same purpose: to engage in reflection and introspection.

From a practical standpoint, organized religion helps develop habits that not only give us insight into our emotions and motivations, and allow us to set up patterns in our lives to change our behavior for the better. Some brain scientists like to say, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” (8) Johnson coupled his habit of deep personal introspection with reflection on the highest moral values. Thus when he prayed or went to Sunday services, his neurons were wired to do some introspection and reflection; he was automatically drawn into remembering his highest values.

So we have seen that brain science is helping us religious liberals understand the limits of reason. We don’t have as much conscious control over life as we’d maybe like to think, and we may have to rethink liberal religion’s strong insistence of self-reliance. And as it turns out, maybe we should be looking at another aspect of liberal religion. We can find great value, not just in the speculative hyper-rational side of liberal religion, but also in the power of common religious habits that help us structure our lives so that we can get through the problems that face us in ordinary living. After all, that’s why we come here each Sunday morning: to renew the habits that help us get through another week of ordinary life.

Notes:

(1) Original joke appears to have been written by science comedian Brian Malow; see e.g. this 2009 video of Malow speaking in Berkeley, California.
(2) Eagleman, Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, Pantheon, 2011.
(3) Information about Gazzaniga research taken from a lecture by David Hogue.
(4) See, e.g., this Reuters interview of neurologist Andrew Newberg.
(5) Arthur Murphy, “An Essay on the Life and Genius of Samuel Johnson, LL.D.,” c. 1792. In Johnsonian Miscellanies, 1835.
(6) Hester [Thrale] Piozzi, Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson, 1786.
(7) Samuel Johnson, Rambler, no. 32.
(8) Phrase based on a theory developed by Donald Hebb in 1949. Neurobiologist Carla Schatz appears to have popularized this form of Hebb’s theory.

For background information about Samuel Johnson’s life, I also consulted Samuel Johnson: A Biography (1977) by W. Jackson Bate, and James Boswell’s Life of Johnson (1791).

Powerful Habits

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.

Reading

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.