Liberal religion and unions

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) 2013 Daniel Harper.

Readings

The first reading comes from a booklet titled “Final Plans for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,” prepared for the August 28, 1963, march:

Why We March

We march to redress old grievances and to help resolve an American crisis.

That crisis is born of the twin evils of racism and economic deprivation. They rob all people, Negro and white, of dignity, self-respect, and freedom. They impose a special burden on the Negro, who is denied the right to vote, economically exploited, refused access to public accommodations, subjected to inferior education, and relegated to substandard ghetto housing.

Discrimination in education and apprenticeship training renders Negroes, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, and other minorities helpless in our mechanized, industrial society. Lacking specialized training, they are the first victims of racism. Thus the rate of Negro unemployment is nearly three times that or whites.

Their livelihoods destroyed, the Negro unemployed are thrown into the streets, driven to despair, to hatred, to crime, to violence. All America is robbed of their potential contribution. …

The Southern Democrats came to power by disenfranchising the Negro. They know that as long as black workers are voteless, exploited, and underpaid, the fight of the white workers for decent wages and working conditions will fail. They know that semi-slavery for one means semi-slavery for all.

[The second reading was a copyright-protected reading by Martin Luther King, Jr.]

Sermon — “Liberal Religion and Unions”

Today is the day before Labor Day, and Labor Day is the holiday on which we celebrate the contributions that working people, trade unions, and labor unions have made to the United States. So this morning, I thought we should talk about the relationship between labor unions and liberal religion.

Organized religion in general has had a strained relationship with organized labor. Some people in organized labor have felt that organized religion keeps people from addressing the unfairness they face in day-to-day working life by offering hopes of heaven in a life after death. But our liberal religion, Unitarian Universalism, teaches that we must address the problems facing us in our lives here and now, not waiting for some heaven in a life to come. Yet even so, we have tended to spend less time on the problems of working life than on other problems like racism, sexism, looming environmental disaster, and so on. What I propose to do is to talk about why we should be spending just as much of our time and effort on labor issues as we spend on our preferred issues.

And I’m going to start by reading you a story that comes from the Western religious heritage, more specifically from the Christian tradition, the 65th chapter of the Gospel According to Thomas. This is supposed to be a story that Jesus told:

“A […] [person] owned a vineyard. He gave it to some farmers so that they would work it (and) he might receive its fruit from them. He sent his servant so that the farmers might give him the fruit of the vineyard. They seized his servant, beat him, (and) almost killed him. The servant went (back and) told his master. His master said: ‘Perhaps (they) did not recognize (him).’ He sent another servant, (and) the farmers beat that other one as well. Then the master sent his son (and) said: ‘Perhaps they will show respect for my son.’ (But) those farmers, since they knew that he was the heir of the vineyard, seized him (and) killed him. Whoever has ears should hear.” (1)

What a strange and controversial story, like many of the stories told by that Jewish teacher we know as Jesus of Nazareth!

It is a controversial story because later Christians interpreted this story as an allegory. After Jesus had been executed by the Roman Empire, these later Christians remembered this story he had told, and they interpreted it to mean Jesus was foretelling his own death. They turned the story into an allegory, where the person who owns the vineyard is God, and the vineyard itself is Israel. God sends prophets to Israel, prophets who are treated badly; then God sends Jesus (whom Christians think of as God’s son); and the people of Israel kill God’s son. Some later Christians even interpreted this story to mean that Jesus’s fellow Jews executed him; which is a silly and faulty interpretation of what actually happened, since it was the Roman Empire which was responsible for executing Jesus. Because of this silly and faulty interpretation, this story has become controversial.

But let’s ignore that silly old interpretation of the story. Let’s take this story at face value. What happens in the story? Some person owns a vineyard; he is obviously an absentee landowner, since he must send someone else to see what’s going on in the vineyard. This absentee landowner finds some farm workers to farm his land for him. Then he sends servants and his son to get his rent from the workers. But the farm workers are so angry at the absentee landowner that they beat his servants, and kill his son.

Biblical scholar Dominic Crossan suggests that this is a “deliberately shocking story of successful murder.” (2) The story causes us to ask: Why would farm workers resort to murder? What would make them so angry? And here we stumble across an interesting problem. The text of the Gospel of Thomas comes from a manuscript that is some sixteen hundred years old, discovered in the Egyptian desert in 1945,. In places, this old manuscript is damaged. I said that a person owned the vineyard, but there is an actual literal hole in the manuscript just before the word “person”; the missing word might “kind,” making this a “kind person,” or it might be a word for “usurious,” which would make this person one of those absentee landowners that were hated by the farmworkers of that time and place. (3) It is not too much of a stretch to say these landowners resembled the white landowners who had black sharecroppers working the land in the Southern states following the Civil War.

If we assume that the landowner is keeping the farm workers in a sort of semi-slavery, then we can understand why the farmworkers might want to murder the landowner’s son. The usurious landowner was charging the farm workers injurious rents, so they were unable to make a decent living from their work. In Jewish law and custom, such practices were discouraged and even forbidden. Indeed, in Jewish custom, the true owner of the land was God; no human being could own the land. This helps us to understand why the farm workers would beat the slaves, and murder the son; while the murder is deliberately shocking, it helps us see that the farm workers believed the landowner was trying to take some of God’s power and authority to himself.

This is an important point, and I’d like to take a moment to talk a little bit about this Jewish understanding of the land. In the Torah, in the book of Exodus, that book that tells us about freedom and escaping from tyranny, God says to Moses:

“For six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, so that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the wild animals may eat. You shall do the same with your vineyard, and with your olive orchard. Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest, so that your ox and your donkey may have relief, and your homeborn slave and the resident alien may be refreshed.” (4)

Because humans do not own the land, God tells them, humans cannot exploit the land to draw from it every last bit of profit. The land must be allowed to rest. Not only that, but humans cannot exploit other humans to draw from them every last bit of profit. Workers, too, must be allowed to rest, and the poor must be allowed to have whatever the land offers up — or really, whatever God offers up — on this seventh year, this sabbatical year.

Elsewhere in the Torah, we learn that God requires other things of humans during the sabbatical year. In another book of the Torah, the book of Deuteronomy, God tells humans that during the sabbatical year, all slaves must be set free; no one shall be tight-fisted towards persons in need; and, God admonishes humans, in the other six years, humans had better be nice to one another in anticipation of the sabbatical year, lest they risk God’s wrath. (5)

Not only are we humans to celebrate a sabbath day every seven years, and a sabbatical year every seven years, but God says humans should observe a Jubilee Year every seven-times-seven years. In the book of Leviticus, God tells humans: “You shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you…” This is a sort of super-sabbatical year, during which humans shall return to the land which their families traditionally lived on, no matter who ostensibly owns it now. (6)

Given this background, we are less surprised that the farm workers were angry at the absentee landowner. They felt they were being cheated; they felt the landowner was denying them their God-given rights; they felt the landowner was infringing on God’s pre-eminent ownership of the land.

This, by logical association, brings us to the historic March on Washington, which was held fifty years ago, on August 28, 1963. African Americans, particularly in the Southern states, were being kept in a state of semi-slavery by unjust laws set up by white European Americans. The African Americans who organized the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom were religious people, often religious liberals — so, for example, Martin Luther King, Jr., was a liberal Baptist minister, and Bayard Rustin was a Quaker — and they knew what the Bible said about freedom, and fairness. They knew that the Bible explicitly states that slaves and semi-slaves must be set free, that the land belongs to God and not to any humans, that humans are commanded by God to be fair and just to one another.

More than that, their religion helped them to understand how all humans are interconnected. We heard in the first reading this morning the way the organizers of the March on Washington analyzed the economic situation of their time. They believed that the plight of white workers and minority workers is tied together; that semi-slavery for minority workers meant semi-slavery for white workers, too. Their economic analysis comes straight out of the standards of justice and freedom that Christians inherited from the Jewish tradition, by way of the Jewish teacher, Jesus of Nazareth.

This opinion was held by many European American religious liberals fifty years ago, including by many Unitarian Universalists. If you know your Unitarian Universalist history, you know that although we are a tiny and predominantly white denomination, we provided disproportionate support for the Civil Rights movement in the early 1960s. In fact, our Palo Alto Unitarian Universalist congregation sent its senior minister, Dan Lion, to the Mississippi Summer Project in 1964, and to the march on Selma in 1965.

Yet while we Unitarian Universalists were great supporters of the Civil Rights movement, somewhere along the way we lost sight of the fact that the Civil Rights movements was about jobs as much as it was about ending segregation. We Unitarian Universalists have never been particularly strong supporters of any kind of labor movement. Historically, many Unitarians were mill owners and factory owners and business owners, and they saw themselves as being in direct opposition to labor movements. Historically, many Universalists worked in the skilled trades or middle class jobs, and so were not particularly sympathetic to more broadly-based labor movements.

And from a theological point of view, we Unitarian Universalists have been strong individualists. We like to think that we live life as individuals, on our own terms. This goes back at least as far as Ralph Waldo Emerson — who started his career as a Unitarian minister — and his essay “Self Reliance.” We glory in the theological ideal of self reliance; and this, I suspect, is why so many of us are atheists today, because we have little interest in a theological idea that affirms we humans are dependent on another being greater and more powerful than ourselves. Certainly, many of us have felt that we should rely on our own efforts, not on labor unions.

For these and many other reasons, we Unitarian Universalists have not been very sympathetic to labor movements. And so, when we talk about the 1963 March on Washington, we readily talk about how it was a march for racial freedom and equality, but we pass over the fact that it was just as much a march for jobs and labor rights.

I would like to suggest to you that we need to rethink our attitude towards labor movements. And I would like to suggest that the story I told at the beginning of this sermon gives us a theological reason to rethink our attitudes.

What we learn from that story is that ancient Jews did not believe in exploiting the land to the utmost; they believed in letting the land rest every seventh year. And for the same reason, those ancient Jews believed that one human should not exploit other humans.

In our own theological language, we would say that all human beings, and all other beings, are bound together in an interdependent web of existence. We got the term “interdependent web of existence” from the theology of Bernard Loomer, who was a member of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Berkeley. Loomer said that when Jesus talked about the kingdom of heaven, what he really meant (in our language) was the interconnected web of life; he was making the point that we are all interconnected. (7) This helps us towards a better understanding of the story of the absentee landowner and the farm workers: the absentee landowner ignored the interdependent web of all existence. He attempted to extract the maximum profit both from the vineyard, and from the human beings who worked in the vineyard. The point Jesus made by telling us this story is that ignoring our connectedness to other human beings and to all other living beings must lead inevitably to violence, hatred, and waste.

Now — we Unitarian Universalists today tend to interpret the interconnectedness of all existence as applying only to environmental issues; thus we say that we must halt global climate change because we are harming the web of existence. But to speak of a web of existence in which all creatures, and all inorganic things as well, are interconnected, means that we are connected not just with polar bears and whales, but also with all other human beings. The implications of this are profound: we do not own polar bears or whales; nor can we own other human beings; nor can we own the products of another person’s work, any more than we can own a polar bear’s pelt.

This is the theological point of ancient Jewish law: to say that God owns the land, and the fruits thereof, is simply another way of saying that all things belong to the interconnected web of all existence, and that nothing can really belong to any individual organism which is a part of the web of existence. By the way, you don’t have to believe in a literal God to affirm this statement; indeed, it would not be too much of a stretch for us to say that God is nothing more, or less, than the interdependent web of existence.

This is a very challenging teaching for us religious liberals. We are accustomed to thinking that we are in control. We are accustomed to thinking that we are most important as individuals. But what our religion is actually teaching us is that what is most important is our connections with other human beings, and with other non-human beings.

And this at last brings me to labor unions and religious liberals. Considered in light of our theological understanding of the interdependent web of all existence, a labor union is very similar to an environmental organization like the Sierra Club, or Bill McKibben’s 350.org; a labor union is also theologically similar to organizations that fight for racial justice like the NAACP. Of course all these organizations have their failings. But these are all organizations that affirm the ideal of the sanctity of the interdependent web of all existence. These organizations affirm, as do religious liberals, that we should not exploit other beings, whether human beings or any living beings. These organizations affirm that we cannot live our lives as if we are radical individualists, for to do so tends to separate us from the interdependent web of all existence. And these are all organizations that challenge us to criticize our current economic system of unbridled competition and individualism, in which the highest values are money and, let’s be honest, greed.

We religious liberals know that our highest value must be the interconnectedness of all beings. And so it is that we should place a higher value on the ideal of labor unions (8) — the ideal of people working together for a higher cause, the ideal of fair wages and economic justice, ideals which were a part of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom; the ideals that come with the realization that we are all bound together in our interconnected network of mutuality.

With these ideals, as Martin Luther King said fifty years ago, “we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony.” And so, in the words of the ancient Jewish prophet Amos, may “justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.” (9)

 

NOTES:

(1) As translated in Stephen Patterson, J. M. Robinson, the Berlin Working Group, The Fifth Gospel (1998).
(2) John Dominic Crossan, In Parables: The Challenge of the Historical Jesus (1992), 96.
(3) “But what does this ancient Christian parable mean? Its interpretation is complicated by a troublesome lacuna, or hole in the papyrus, in its very first line. The missing word is an adjective which would have modified the word ‘person’ in some way. The extant letters around the edges of the hole permit a reconstruction of the word ‘good,’ so that one could speak here of a ‘good person’ who rented the farm to ‘evil’ tenants, just as one finds in the synoptic versions of the story. But the extant letters also permit the reconstruction of the word for ‘creditor’ or ‘usurer,’ which would make this person one of the absentee landlords so much hated among the land-poor peasants of Galilee. One wonders, in the rural areas of Palestine and Syria among the dispossessed and poor — the tenant class — how this parable would have been heard. Were these evil tenants, or were they brave tenants?” — John S. Kloppenborg, Marvin W. Meyer, Stephen J. Patterson, and Michael G. Steinhauser, Q-Thomas Reader (1988), 102.
(4) New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), Exodus 23.10-12. To read more on one contemporary Jewish interpretation of this general topic, see “Labor Rights in the Jewish Tradition” by Michael S. Perry (1993), available online here.
(5) NRSV, Deuteronomy 15.1-15.
(6) Ibid., Leviticus 25.8-17.
(7) Bernard Loomer, Unfoldings (1984), 1.
(8) Of particular interest to religious liberals in the Freelancer’s Union, “A Federation for the Unaffiliated,” online here. Something like 30% of all U.S. workers are now contract workers or freelancers of some type, and the percentage is probably higher among us religious liberals, since freelancing fits in with our preference for individualism. What the Freelancer’s Union is demonstrating to us is that even independent workers need a union. This highly innovative union breaks out of the old of trade unions and factory workers unions, funding itself through selling discounted insurance and other services to its members. The Freelancer’s Union engages in political advocacy, provides training and support, helps freelancers deal with deadbeat clients, and is beginning to offer face-to-face meetings for networking.
(9) NRSV, Amos 5.24.

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).