Monday, February 24, 2014

It's Human Nature

Sermon shared by Rev. Jane Page on February 23, 2014 at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Statesboro.

First Reading

For our first reading today, I have a story that was told by Rama-Krishna, a nineteenth century Hindu mystic  (from our Building Your Own Theology Curriculum).

Tapoban, the master, had a disciple who served him with irreproachable diligence.  He served his master well.  It was solely because of this diligence and the services that he rendered that Tapoban kept him, for he found the disciple was not very smart at all.  One day the rumor spread throughout the whole region that Tapobana’s disciple – this servant – had walked on water; that he had been seen crossing the river as one crosses the street.  Tapobana called his disciple and questioned him,  “Is what people are saying about you possible?  Is it really true that you crossed the river walking on the water?”

“What could be more natural?” answered his follower.  “It is thanks to you, oh blessed one, that I walked on water.  At every step I repeated your saintly name and that is what upheld me.”
And Tapoban thought to himself, if the disciple can walk on water, what can the master not do?  If it is in my name that the miracle takes place, I must possess power I did not suspect and holiness of which I have not bee sufficiently aware.  After all, I have never tried to cross the river as if I were crossing the street.  And without more ado, he ran to the river bank.  Without hesitation he set his foot on the water, and with unshakable faith repeated, “me, me, me” …. And he sank. 

For our 2nd more contemporary reading about human nature – I have a song written by Michael Jackson called – Human Nature.  And if ever there was a study in the paradoxes about Human Nature – it could be represented by Michael Jackson.  So much was good – and so much went awry.  I wish he that he didn’t have to die.  Fortunately he’s left something of himself with us.  So let’s listen to a bit of Michael Jackson LIVE singing “Human Nature.” (click link).

Moment of silence to contemplate these things, breathe, and prepare for our message. 

This sermon is the fourth in my series based on topics we are exploring in our “Building Your Own Theology Class” on the Sunday evenings when I preach.  And tonight we’ll be looking more in depth at Human Nature.  But we’re going to wade in that water this morning.  In fact – we’ve been wading already with our story for all ages and readings and that message from Michael. 

I’ve spent a lot of my life wading these waters, sometimes swimming, sometimes diving deep – and sometimes feeling like I may be drowning – and sometimes I probably climbed up on those pipes I was supposed to stay off of.  In any case, I’ve gotten really wet with this subject.  I used to teach a class at Georgia Southern University called, “Human Growth and Development.”  We looked at physical development, cognitive development, social development, moral development, etc. etc.  And in every part of this the same question would come up.  What has made me who I am?  Is our growth and development determined by Nature or Nuture.  In other words – did we come with the instructions built in regarding how we would turn out – or were we like clay – ready for our environments including our parents and teachers to mold us.

There are famous folks on both sides of the debate.  John Locke, a 17th century philosopher said that at birth, the mind was a blank slate (or we would say a blank whiteboard) ready for the environment to write upon.  He also said:  “We are like chameleons, taking our hue and the color of our moral character, from those who are around us.”  (
And there are many others on team Nurture.

And then there is E.O. Wilson.  He’s probably best known as a Naturalist and has studied more about ants than anyone in the world.  But he’s also the Father of sociobiology – and would be one of the captains of Team Nature in this debate.  He has stated that ”Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive, and even spiritual satisfaction.”

In his book – ON HUMAN NATURE - Wilson argues that the human mind is shaped as much by genetic inheritance as it is by culture (if not more). There are limits on just how much influence social and environmental factors can have in altering human behavior. So he and others on Team Nature would emphasize how we have evolved and our genetic makeup in explaining how we came to be like we are.  Here’s another famous person that would be on Team Nature.
Why?  Lady Gaga sings – Baby I was Born This Way.

That debate still goes on of course, but we have discovered quite a bit about this through our scientific studies.  We do know now through twin studies and other genetic research that much of who we are is coded into us within our genes.  And we also know that evolution is so very important in explaining how we have come to be who we are.  

And some of this is common sense too.  There are some old sayings that some of us grandmas and grandpas say that were passed on to us from our parents.  Sometimes my Daddy would try to teach me to do something that was easy for him – and I would really try – but I couldn’t do it very well.  And he would say – “Well – you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.”  But - What did my daddy mean?  He meant that I just didn’t have the talent to do that well with that particular activity.  And that was okay – because I could do other things.  I found out something while I was working on this sermon though.  And that is that in 1921 some chemists in Cambridge Massachusetts worked really hard to make silk from pork by-products and were actually ABLE to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.  Here it is!

But that doesn’t take away from the fact that we are born with differing gifts and talents and some of us have to work harder on some things than others.  However we have also learned that this genotype that we inherit for various attributes and abilities has a wide range and we can perform at the top of it or the bottom of it depending on perhaps how we have been nurtured in this area – and our efforts.  So while I’ll probably never play basketball well enough to play professionally, if I practiced a lot and got in better shape, I could probably play on a seniors women’s church league team. 

So this nature-nurture debate goes on to some degree – but I and many others contend the answer can be found with the Certs solution.  Are you old enough to remember this?
Certs Commercial 
I used to use the Certs commercial to illustrate this idea in my Human Growth and Development class but they got too young to know what it was (or I got too old) and I had to switch to the “Tastes Great – Less Filling” beer commercial.  They wouldn’t know that now either.

Now Nature vs. Nurture is not the only thing folks might disagree on in regards to Human Nature.  There are also disagreements about whether or not we are inherently bad – that whole doctrine of Original Sin; or inherently good – what Matthew Fox refers to as Original Blessings – and what we Unitarian Universalists refer to in our First Principle.

Are we born bad – needing correction and/or grace?  Or are we born good – but perhaps become bad sometimes because of what happens in our lives or the choices we make?  Hmmmmm. 
Here’s are some famous teachers, writers, philosophers, psychologists and other thinkers that are quoted in our “Building Your Own Theology” curriculum in the section about Human Nature.
  • John Dewey said “The child is born with a natural desire to give out, to do, to serve.
  • Urie Bronfenbrenner said  “There are no bad people; only bad institutions….Given sun, soil, air, and water, a plant does not need to be told how to grow. 
  • Eric Fromm said:  “We are what we do.”
  • Ovid said:  “I see the right, and I approve it too, condemn the wrong, and yet the wrong pursue.”
  • Unitarian Transcendentalist Margaret Fuller said:  “He that falls into sin is a man; that grieves at it may be saint; that boasteth of it is a devil.”
  • The Apostle Paul said:  “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”
  • Mark Train said:  “Bein’ good is so much trouble, while bein’ bad ain’t no trouble at all.”
  • Homer said: (Humans are) “the saddest of all the beasts of the field.”
  • And Unitarian Ralph Waldo Emerson said:  “A man is a god in ruin.” 
Now this is not a scientific study of opinions, -- but in just looking at this selection – do most of these folks think humans are good or bad?  If they were playing the rope game “tug of war,” which team would win – the Humans good team or the Humans bad team? 

Indeed, throughout much of human history, we have bought into this idea that good and bad or dueling and that bad has the upper hand – so much so that folks have to make sacrifices or accept specific religious doctrine in order to not be punished for all eternity for their inherent evilness. 
Now we Unitarian Universalists don’t buy into this, do we?  In fact, our FIRST principle says that we affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person.  UU minister and humorist Meg Barnhouse shared how difficult this was for her when she first came to UU.  I’ll try to allow her spirit to embody me and tell you what she says about this.

“My experience of the Principles is that they are deeply demanding. The first one asks me to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person, which means that I can no longer subscribe to the cheerful Calvinist doctrine of the total depravity of human nature. It sounds grim, but really, if you are in fact starting with a totally depraved nature, the opportunities for self-congratulation abound: “Hey, I didn’t knock over a 7-Eleven this afternoon, even though money’s pretty tight. I’m doing well!
Now I have to struggle with the worth and dignity of people who do unspeakably awful things, whereas the doctrine of total depravity made that one a no-brainer.”
I agree totally with you Meg.

So why do we have that as our principle?  Are our eyes closed to the evil in people – including ourselves?  NO—we know it’s there.   Now some would say that EVIL is not born in us.  That we evolved (or we given by God) goodness and empathy toward others, for the survival of the human race.  These folks say that goodness is the default – the natural way to be.  And it’s only when our psyches or our souls are broken in some ways – through perhaps childhood trauma, etc.  or something in their environment that breaks them (like facing death) that we see folks “breaking bad.”

British Psychologist Steve Taylor, author of Out of the Darkness and Back to Sanity:  Healing the Madness of the Human Mind, explains it this way. "‘Good’ means a lack of self-centeredness. It means the ability to empathise with other people, to feel compassion for them, and to put their needs before your own. It means, if necessary, sacrificing your own well-being for the sake of others’. It means benevolence, altruism and selflessness, and self-sacrifice towards a greater cause - all qualities which stem from a sense of empathy. It means being able to see beyond the superficial difference of race, gender or nationality and relate to a common human essence beneath them. (In contrast) …‘Evil’ people are those who are unable to empathise with others. As a result, their own needs and desires are of paramount importance. They are selfish, self-absorbed and narcissistic." 

Those two descriptions both fit my penpal Jacob – who is serving a life sentence in one of those overcrowded prisons in California.  The good description is him now – practically a saint.  And the evil description is Jacob before prison and before he was on antipsychotic medication. 

Most of us don’t need antipsychotics – but we do need Connection!  I don’t know a lot – but I do know that CONNECTION with others helps to keep us whole—and when we lose connection, we sometimes lose our ability to empathize.  And sometimes it’s because we never MAKE the connection. 

The manager of Rum Runners in Statesboro has probably never really connected with folks outside his on “Southern Heritage” culture.  So he doesn’t feel the hurt that many students feel when they walk by his establishment and see the big Plantation Room sign with rebel flags and cannons, or the signs that through coded language like “No Urban Wear” – say, in effect, “Whites Only.”  I’ve tried to connect with HIM and ask to meet with him through a FaceBook message – but he hasn’t responded.  (Since I initially wrote this sermon, a group of concerned folks had conversations with the owner in Savannah and the sign has been removed.)

And then others realize the complexity of labeling our actions in such dualistic terms anyway.  What some see as bad, others may see as good – or even godly.  The folks at my former church have thrown out their boy scout troup that has been a part of that church for generations. After the boy scouts finally entered this century and changed their rules to become more inclusive, some churches saw them as ungodly – and have decided to sponsor a Christian scouting organization instead.  First Baptist pastor John Waters said (quote from WTOC article):  "This wasn’t a knee jerk reaction. It wasn't something that we hastily decided. But with prayer and thoughtful guidance, we made the decision that there would be a better way."  He also said that the new Christian organization – Trail Life - "will fit the culture of our church and the families of this community."  I guess he doesn't recognize many of our families as part of this community.
Now – am I calling out Rum Runners manager Devon Bradford and Pastor John Waters as evil men?  NO!  I think they think they are doing the right thing.  It just shows how much work we have to do in this community.

But WE are guilty too of thinking we are right when we are wrong.  In our own lives, we take actions we think to HELP someone – then find that we have HURT someone with our actions.  I know I’m not the only one who has done this folks – right?  Yet, we KNOW some things are more caring, more loving, and that is why we have committed ourselves to these principles! 

We WILL stand on the side of LOVE! Like the grandfather in our story for all ages advises, we will feed that good wolf in ourselves and in our community. 

Thankfully -- Some of those that study good and evil – say that we actually choose good more than evil.  In his article in UU World, Patrick O’Neill says:  “People are almost equally capable of both good and evil, but most of the time—say, three times out of five—people choose the good. The seesaw tilts just a few degrees toward the good in this tentative world, but those few degrees are the difference between peace and Armageddon. The job of the church is to put the few stubborn ounces of our weight on the side of goodness, and press down for all we’re worth.”

That is what we strive to do here.

Oh, may it be so!

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Peak Experiences!

Have You Been to the Mountaintop?  Exploring Peak and/or Religious Experiences
Rev. Jane Page
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Statesboro
February 9, 2014

My husband Greg is very proud to be a 46er.  Now the term 46er had no meaning to me before I met Greg – and it probably doesn’t mean anything to you folks either.  But if you grew up climbing the Adirondack mountains, you would appreciate Greg’s accomplishment.  The Adirondack Forty-Sixers are hikers who have climbed all forty-six of the traditionally recognized High Peaks of the Adirondack Mountains.  Now Greg climbed most of these as a camper and camp counselor early in his life.  But he had a few more to go after we met, and shared with me that he had resolved to achieve that goal.  And in July of 2007, he did.  It was a Moutaintop – peak experience – literally and spiritually. 

These two combinations of geographical and spiritual peaks are not uncommon.  In fact some scholars maintain that the most important revelation narratives of all three major Western monotheistic religions occurred on mountains. Moses experienced God in the burning bush on Mount Horeb and was given the Commandments on Mount Sinai.   Jesus underwent the Transfiguration on a high mountain in the Holy Land and Muhammed was given the Qur’an in the cave of Hira on the mountain Jabal al-Nour. Many other religious traditions emphasize mountains and hills as holy places where one may find divine wisdom.  Perhaps it’s the lack of Oxygen!  Seriously!

I’m quoting here from an article on Mountains and Mysticism on the internet blog science on religion. 

In a 2005 article in the journal Medical Hypotheses, Arzy and colleagues compared studies of high-altitude effects on physiology with historical reports of mountaintop mystical experiences, and found some fascinating similarities. Mountain climbers suffering from the effects of high altitude and low levels of oxygen have reported such eerie experiences as sensing an invisible presence, having visual and auditory hallucinations, being swept up in powerful emotions (particularly fear), and even seeing light emanating from nearby objects or having out-of-body visions. All of these phenomena are characteristic of many religious or mystical experiences recorded throughout history.
The authors proposed several hypotheses for why mountaintops might be especially conducive to profound religious encounters. First, physical stress – a nearly unavoidable aspect of any good mountaineering adventure – releases endorphins that lower the body’s threshold for temporal lobe epileptic seizures…..

During prolonged stays in high-altitude environments, the researchers proposed, the parts of the brain surrounding the tempero-parietal junction may also become damaged, leading to shifts in one’s sense of self-awareness….. When this area is malfunctioning, eerie experiences like feeling separated from one’s own body or sensing alien presences are more likely.  Finally, the combination of high altitude and social might weaken functioning in the prefrontal cortex… When this area of the brain isn’t working properly, the owner of that brain might be more susceptible to sensory hallucinations and to accepting their validity."….It’s possible, therefore, that the extreme environmental conditions found on mountaintops may help physiologically generate mystical experiences.

These authors go on to point out however – that altitude can’t be making all that difference all the time or everyone in Colorado would constantly be talking to God.   But they are not all talking to God, are they?  Unless God's name is Mary Jane. 

Of course others find peak experiences in the woods, at the beach, in a church, in the kitchen, and, yes, in other rooms as well.  We are not limited by geography, space, place, or time. 

We humans do have these peak experiences!

And since this is Darwin weekend, I wanted to try to explain all of this from an evolutionary perspective.  There has been much written about the evolutionary origins of religions and religious experiences – too many different theories for me to share about today.  There is certainly a difference of opinion among scientists about much of this; but most will agree that we’ve certainly at least evolved to have the capacity for religion and religious experiences.   And by evolution I’m primarily referring to biological evolution – but certainly there has been social evolution – and the passing on of memes or constructs– as well as genes.  And these religious constructs have been passed on effectively because they are usually communicated in emotional situations which make them easier to remember. 

In any case, our pragmatic friend William James would tell us that it doesn’t matter how or why it came about.  He would ask instead -- what is the result of it?  What good are these experiences?

In 1902, William James published a book called The Varieties of Religious Experiences:  A Study in Human Nature.  He did not study religion or religious experiences generally, he studied specific individuals who had religious experiences – people like George Fox, who was diagnosed a schizophrenic, but who founded one of the most peaceful religions ever – The Quakers!

In his book on the Varieties of Religious Experience published in 1902 – and based on his lectures – he made these important claims as summarized by one of his biographers (from Wikipedia):
* (First) - Religious genius (experience) should be the primary topic in the study of religion, rather than religious institutions—since institutions are merely the social descendant of genius.
* (Second) The intense, even pathological varieties of experience (religious or otherwise) should be sought by psychologists, because they represent the closest thing to a microscope of the mind—that is, they show us in drastically enlarged form the normal processes of things.
* (And Third) In order to usefully interpret the realm of common, shared experience and history, we must each make certain "over-beliefs" in things which, while they cannot be proven on the basis of experience, help us to live fuller and better lives.
The investigation of mystical experience was constant throughout the life of James, leading him to experiment with chloral hydrate (1870), amyl nitrite (1875), nitrous oxide (1882), and even peyote (1896). James claimed that it was only when he was under the influence of nitrous oxide that he was able to understand Hegel. He concluded that while the revelations of the mystic hold true, they hold true only for the mystic; for others, they are certainly ideas to be considered, but can hold no claim to truth without personal experience of such.

Here’s a quote from James’ book about his reason for believing and following the path that mystics follow.  You have to listen closely because the writing is dense:  The whole drift of my education goes to persuade me that the world of our present consciousness is only one out of many worlds of consciousness that exist, and that those other worlds must contain experiences which have a meaning for our life also; and that although in the main their experiences and those of this world keep discrete, yet the two become continuous at certain points, and higher energies filter in. By being faithful in my poor measure to this over-belief, I seem to myself to keep more sane and true. I can, of course, put myself into the sectarian scientist's attitude, and imagine vividly that the world of sensations and of scientific laws and objects may be all. But whenever I do this, I hear that inward monitor of which W. K. Clifford once wrote, whispering the word "bosh!" Humbug is humbug, even though it bear the scientific name, and the total expression of human experience, as I view it objectively, invincibly urges me beyond the narrow "scientific" bounds. Assuredly, the real world is of a different temperament -- more intricately built than physical science allows. So my objective and my subjective conscience both hold me to the over-belief which I express. Who knows whether the faithfulness of individuals here below to their own poor over-beliefs may not actually help God in turn to be more effectively faithful to his own greater tasks?

Hmmmmm.  This is heavy.  I asked you for help.   Here’s what I got.  One person shared from a more academic perspective – some of the William James perspective connected with the question of whether these experiences happen as frequently as before, and two others shared experiences they have had primarily through meditation – though interestingly, neither one is meditating now….  Perhaps because they got the message.  They listened, and are now doing.  It takes both.

Just three of you responded.  Perhaps I should not be asking anyway.  Some who have experienced significant peak experiences say that those who have had the experience don’t need to ask – and those who haven’t had the experience – can’t understand anyway. 

My son John, who has had these significant experiences, says this is a cop out for folks who want to control it and not explain it.  So I asked him about his experiences.  Did he see visions of sugarplums dancing it his head – or what?

He said, “No – I saw the world as it really was.”  John explained that he heard a voice in his head that he believed was not himself thinking at the time – but a separate entity; and he accepted it as such saying, “You live your life on faith anyway.”  He said this being was loving and had a sense of humor.  And he tried to listen, observe, and learn.  John says his experience opened up parts of his brain so that he could see patterns of human behavior that he had not seen before.  He said, “People move like fish.  We’re on a river, but we can’t see the water.  There are more connections to each other than we realize.”  He says that when having that experience, you can observe things in nature that teach you life lessons.  It’s not that he saw things that weren’t there.  But he really saw what WAS there so much more truthfully and intensely. 

Here’s an example.  He was on a riverbank in this nature park at the time and a man rode by in a boat and hollered up – I used to live there.  I used to live right there but they took my house away from me.  And John looked down and saw some concrete blocks in the ground – the remains of a foundation – the man’s house, and then he noticed some little bug creatures making their home there.  And he thought – "the home is still here, but it’s someone else’s now.  Some things remain, and some things change – and we have to move on.  It’s someone else’s turn.”  Theodore Parker preached a famous sermon on the Permanent and Transient trying to get folks to understand this.  But John learned it well that day – and it has stuck with him because of the overwhelming feelings of connection he had. 

Now John says the problem comes when folks want to keep that feeling or get back to it, and try for their rest of their lives through various religious practices or taking drugs or whatever to get to to that when in reality, they’ve learned the lesson they needed to learn.  He reminded me that Mother Teresa had the experience of God talking to her, telling her that she needed to feed and clothe the hungry. And she continued to pray and hope for that special experience again, but she never had it.  Nevertheless, she lived it – she did it.  She learned the lesson and she lived it.  And isn’t that more important!!

I don’t climb a lot of Mountains anymore – literally or spiritually.  I stick with the foothills, perhaps because it’s safer. Similarly, Maslow suggested that as we age physically, the intensity of peak moments gives way to a gentler, more sustained state of serenity that he called plateau-experiences.  As he poetically observed in RELIGIONS, VALUES, AND PEAK-EXPERIENCES, "The great lesson from the true mystics {is that} the sacred is in the ordinary, that it is to be found in one's daily life, in one's neighbors, friends, and family, in one's backyard."  That’s good, because I know from experience with others, that you can fall off the edge of a Mountain.  And I also know that you can learn from the rhythm of a good jog around the neighborhood or walk around the labyrinth too.  You may not have a peak experience, but you can feel the oneness and the call to goodness.  Then you can remember it. 

And that’s another reason that we come to church…  to remember the oneness, to just touch the connection – know it’s there, and be inspired to live life more fully and to help others to do so as well.  So today -- whether we are remembering the thunder from the Mountaintops – or that voice still and small – may it call us to nurture and heal ourselves and the world.

Amen and Blessed Be.