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September 17, 2017: “What’s Right About Contorted Logic”

Centering Thought: A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, resilience and beauty of the commonwealth of life. It is wrong when it tends otherwise. – Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac

Story for All Ages “The Excrutiatingly Scrupulous Twins,” Robin McBride from A Lamp In Every Corner, by Janeen K. Grohsmeyer

This is a story adapted from “The Excrutiatingly Scrupulous Twins,” by Janeen Grohsmeyer. It’s from a collection of UU Stories called A Lamp In Every Corner. (1)

Once upon a time, not so very long ago, and in a place not so very different from our own, there lived a pair of twins named Tim and Tom, and they looked exactly the same. They wanted everything in their lives to be exactly the same, so Tom and Tim were always fair with each other-excruciatingly, scrupulously fair.

If Tom got a new pencil, Tim had to have a new pencil-same length, same color, same sharpness. If Tim got a new skateboard, Tom had to have a new skateboard. “Why don’t you take turns?” asked their father, but taking turns wasn’t the same as having your own, which meant it wasn’t fair.

The twins were always careful to be fair-excruciatingly, scrupulously fair. In the morning at breakfast time, they counted every flake of cereal in their bowls. They each measured one-half cup of milk for their cereal. If Tim had three strawberries, Tom had to have three strawberries (even though Tom didn’t really like strawberries), and the strawberries had to be exactly the same size.

Oh, yes, they were fair.

“Why don’t you share?” asked their mother, but sharing wasn’t the same as having, and it certainly wasn’t fair. The twins knew about sharing. They shared the same bedroom, so they put a line of tape down the exact center of the bedroom, to split the room exactly in half. On one side of the room were a bed, a dresser, and a desk. On the other side of the room were a bed, a dresser, and a desk: same kind, same size, same color. But one side of the room had a window, and the other the door, so their bedroom wasn’t fair.

And sometimes, no matter how hard they tried to make every single thing in their lives excruciatingly, scrupulously fair, they couldn’t. Tom could run faster and was good at math. Tim could and was good at spelling. No matter how hard they tried, they were never exactly the same.

“Life isn’t fair,” said their father, but that wasn’t . . . well, it wasn’t fair! Things ought to be fair and even and equal.

Only things weren’t. And neither were their parents. “Go study your spelling,” said their mom the night before a spelling test, but she said it only to Tom.

Tom was annoyed that his twin didn’t have to study. He sulked, and procrastinated. He tried to take advantage of every distraction he could think of.

Tim sat down at the table, with a model plane he was working on. Tom made a face at him.

“You want help?” offered Tim.

Tom looked up in surprise. “You’d help me?”

“Well . . . yeah. Sure. If you want.”

“But you already did your spelling homework. It won’t be fair for you to have to do spelling again.”

His brother shrugged. “That’s okay. I don’t mind helping you.”

“Well, um, yeah. Thanks!” said Tim. “And hey, you know, two days from now we’re going to have a math test, so tomorrow I can help you.”

“Hey, yeah!” Tom said. “That’s right!” Then he grinned. “That’ll make it fair.” It would be fair tomorrow, but even more important than that, Tom decided, was that his brother was kind enough to help, knowing that he could have upset him.

And maybe, Tim decided, maybe it was more important to be kind than it was to be excruciatingly, scrupulously fair.

Reading from Good Without God, by Greg Epstein Robin McBride
Our reading this morning is from Good Without God: What A Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe, by Greg Epstein, the Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University and a regular contributor to NPR’s “On Faith.”

He writes:

Humanists accept that the scientific evidence for evolution is overwhelming; We build our worldview around it because we want to look rality square in the face, ublinking, unflinching, unafraid of the truth. But the story of evolution is not the sole property of Humanism.

Billions of religious people have accepted the basic tenets of this story as well. The Catholic Church, with its 1.1 billion members, has officially affirmed the reality of evolution – and has acknowledged the “intelligent design” is not science.

Of course, I vigorously disagree with what I see as contorted, nonsensical, logic by which Catholic doctrine seeks to suggest that evolution and the traditional Biblical creation story can both be true. But to the extent that Catholics and other religious people accept that we have reliable evidence for evolution, they are our allies and friends. (2)

Sermon “What’s Right About Contorted Logic?” Rev. Denis Paul

The first time I went to General Assembly, I felt a need to stop in at the plenary session of the Unitarian Universalist Humanist organization, charmingly called the HUUmanists, spelled with two Us.

I was nervous about being there. I felt like an interloper, and at only 37 years old, I stood out in that crowd of septegenarians and octogenarians. I was so grateful to see in the back corner my friend Chris Holton Jablonski. He seemed as nervous as I felt. Both of us had read all the humanist books that were required reading for UU ministers, but still felt a need to understand their movement a little better.

Before going in, I knew that the American Humanist Association defines Humanism as “a progressive lifestance that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead meaningful, ethical lives capable of adding to the greater good of humanity.” (3)

Supernaturalism is a loaded word. It’s holding to a belief that events can be attributed to some force beyond scientific understanding or the laws of nature. To me, that means that the connection I feel with a being (human or otherwise) that I’ve never met can’t be explained scientifically, but it can still exist. The thing is that I’ve never heard anyone use the word in a positive way. Maybe it’s just the circles I move in, but usually when I hear the word, it’s used dismissively. “That isn’t real, it’s just supernaturalism.”

What I heard at that HUUManist plenary was different versions of the refrain “All these supernaturalists are trying to take Unitarian Universalism away from us and make us worship their stupid god that isn’t real and never existed.” I heard a lot of anger. I heard a lot of hurt. I saw expressed in myriad ways fear of losing that which mattered most to them.

The hard part was that nobody was doing or saying anything to address the real issue, the fear of loss of an association that had been supported through the 1930’s through the 1960’s by these folks. They were angry that young seminarians like me were taking away the institutions they built and nurtured when they were my age.

It felt like a battlefield in that room, and in that battlefield, I was clearly the enemy. Because, you know, I’m okay with the idea of God. After 30 minutes, I had to leave, and Chris followed me out.

All these years later, I still feel like I need to learn more about Humanism, to understand the story better, so I picked up Epstien’s book.

When I started reading Good Without God, I loved his definition of Humanism. Rather than asking and waiting for intercession from a force outside of themselves, humanists take “charge of the often lousy world around us and work to shape it into a better place, though we know we cannot ever finish the task.” (4)

Now, I know that very few of us act our best when we are afraid. And we all get triggered when something reminds us of a past experience. I’m no different. I got triggered the first time on page 8. Page 8. It was a sentence toward the end of this morning’s reading when Epstein says, “Of course, I vigorously disagree with what I see as contorted, nonsensical, logic by which Catholic doctrine seeks to suggest that evolution and the traditional Biblical creation story can both be true.”

First of all, I know a lot of people who believe that biblical creation and evolution can both be true. They’re not both factual, but they can both be true.

Science seeks to answer the question “how?” and Darwin’s theory of evolution and the big bang theory do that. They explain how the universe came into existence and how life on this planet came to be as we know it.

The bible seeks to answer the question “why?” And it answers the question through metaphor.

In the piece that Robin read, Epstein was referring to Brian Swimme, author of The Universe Story : From the Primordial Flaring Forth to the Ecozoic Era–A Celebration of the Unfolding of the Cosmos
In which he tells the epic – and scientifically sound – story of the creation of the universe, constantly asking the question “why?” For him, the whole story is powerful that, as the subtitle of the book says, it’s worthy of celebrating. Of worshiping.

Yes, of course, there are some people who believe that the Bible is a scientific document, and there’s not much any of us can do to change their minds. But. There are plenty who see the Bible as a great source of truth if not fact.

But calling people like Brian Swimme stupid, and accusing them of perpetuating contorted logic doesn’t serve any purposeful or creative end. Swimme’s work, even if you don’t agree with it, “tends to preserve the integrity, resilience and beauty of the commonwealth of life,”It fits within the definition I’ve been using of right relationship, according to environmentalist Aldo Leopold. (5)

Why does any of this matter?

First, There are plenty of people who feel like UU is dying. I don’t happen to agree with that, but I will say that we cannot afford to lose people because of intolerance and fear within our ranks. I happen to believe there is plenty of room for all of us to co-exist. Humanists, atheists, agnostics, Buddhists, Christians, Jews and Muslims. And many more. What holds us together isn’t our beliefs, but our commitment to journey together.

Second, we’re living in an age when there only seems to be room for extremes of opinion. You must believe X or Y. It’s driving us apart, and giving plenty of people permission to dismiss others as stupid and even worthless.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to fall into that trap. So I was really uncomfortable as I continued reading, when Epstein slammed Christian theologians, most notably and repeatedly rick Warren of Saddleback Church for preaching regularly that in order to be good, you must believe in God and the afterlife.

He also slams Albert Mohler, President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, for writing on his blog, “If human beings are left to our own devices and limited to our own wisdom, we will invent whatever model of ‘good character’ seems right at the time.” (6)

I had never heard of Mohler so I loked up his blog. It happened to be a few days after the White Supremacist rally in Charlottesville, a couple days after he wrote

“I would argue that racial superiority in any form, and white superiority as the central issue of our concern, is a heresy. The separation of human beings into ranks of superiority and inferiority differentiated by skin color is a direct assault upon the doctrine of Creation and an insult to the image of God in which every human being is made.” (7)

In other words, Albert Mohler is on our side. He is on the side of those who believe that no one race has the right to claim supremacy over any other race. And he makes himself more clear than some of the most powerful elected leaders in our country are able to make clear.

Why would Greg Epstein want to make an enemy out of Albert Mohler? Or Brian Swimme? Or even Rick Warren? We have enough enemies in white nationalists, without making enemies of each other over beliefs about how or why the universe was created.

Fortunately, Greg Epstein has his won solution to the problem he falls into.

Using the Humanist Association’s self- definition of “affirming our ability and responsibility to lead meaningful, ethical lives capable of adding to the greater good of humanity,” Epstein suggests asking what it is we are striving for.

If love is all we need, there is plenty of proof out there that people do horrible things in the name of love. And we expect so much from love, that it’s often a let down. Our standards for ourselves are impossibly high.

If happiness is our ultimate objective, we’ll soon learn that it’s impossible to be happy all the time. More importantly whatever it is that makes me deliriously happy might make you miserable. I know I would love to live in world where all of our local communities were as diverse as the whole world. Which would be sheer misery for the tiki-torch bearers in Charlottesville.

If we strive only to be all that we can be, enlightened, powerful, without flaw, then what else is there? How do we learn? How do we connect with people who are not as evolved?

And if being of service is the highest ideal, how do we keep ourselves going in the face of catastrophe? Even on an airplane we’re told to put on our own oxygen masks before helping others.

What we really should be striving for, according to Epstein, is Dignity. Dignity for ourselves. Dignity for others.

Most UU’s know the seven principles. But even those who don’t know them all at least know the first and seventh: the inherent worth and dignity of every person and the interconnected web of all existence, of which we are a part.

Even upholding these basic principles, there’s no easy way to define dignity, or even understanding its purpose.

Here, Epstein refers to the work of his teacher and mentor Sherwin Wine.

The purpose of cultivating dignity is to deal with life’s tragedies. And defined it by describing dignity’s four qualities:

“The first is high self-awareness, a heightened sense of personal identity and individual reality. The second is the willingness to assume responsibility for one’s own life and to avoid surrendering that responsibility to any other person or institution. The third is a refusal to find one’s identity in any possession. The fourth is the sense that one’s behavior is worthy of imitation by others.”

What Wine seems to be saying, and Epstein seems to be reinforcing, is that we each have a responsibility to live in integrity, reflecting on our impact on the world and the lives of others, and allowing others the space to do the same. To be role models of good behavior.

I’m sorry, but calling other people stupid doesn’t seem to fit within the definition of striving for dignity for oneself and others.

Epstein is doing what we all do sometimes. He’s behaving like the twins.

The truth is, we’re all like the twins. We bend ourselves every which way in order to affirm the way in which we want to see the world, and understand our place in it. To others it seems ridiculous, like the excrutiatingly scrupulous twins. Trying to do the impossible, and twisting themselves together in the process.

Hymn #341 O World, Though Choosest Not the Better Part

O world, thou choosest not the better part!
It is not wisdom to be only wise,
And on the inward vision close the eyes,
But it is wisdom to believe the heart.
To trust the soul’s invincible surmise
Is all of science and our only art.

Our knowledge is a torch of smoky pine
That lights the pathway but one step ahead
Across a void of mystery and dread.
Bid, then, the tender light of faith to shine
By which alone the mortal heart is led
Unto the thinking of the thought divine.

Offering of Gifts (Rev Denis)

Offertory Hymn #381 (Tune: Tallis’ Canon #372)

From all that dwell below the skies, 
Let songs of hope and faith arise;
Let peace, goodwill on earth be sung,
Through every land, by every tongue.

Gratitude (BOT)

Postlude #

Benediction (Robin)

The words of Robert Mabry Doss: (8) 
For all who see God

(1) Grohsmeyer, Janeen K.. A Lamp in Every Corner: Our Unitarian Universalist Storybook (Unitarian Universalist Storybook eLibrary) (Kindle Locations 1122-1130). Skinner House Books. Kindle Edition.

(2) Greg Epstein. Good Without God: What A Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe. William Morrow. 2009. p. 8.

(3) American Humanist Association.

(4) Epstein p.xiii

(5) Aldo Leopold. A Sand County Almanac. Ballantine books, 1986.

(6) Epstein p. 4

(7) Albert Mohler. “The heresy of racial superiority: confronting the past and confronting the truth.” August 12, 2017.

(8) Singing the Living Tradition #700