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[Chalice] Hope, True and False [Chalice]

Presented September 27, 2015, by Doug Muder

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Opening Words - Saul Alinsky wrote:

My personal philosophy is anchored in optimism. It must be, for optimism brings with it hope, a future with a purpose, and therefore, a will to fight for a better world. The question arises: Why the struggle, the conflict, the heartbreak, the danger, the sacrifice? Why the constant climb? Our answer is the same as that which a mountain climber gives when he is asked why he does what he does: "Because it is there." Because life is there ahead of you and either one tests oneself in its challenges or huddles in the valleys in a dreamless day-to-day existence whose only purpose is the preservation of an illusory security and safety.

Meditation in words - Vaclav Havel wrote:

Hope is a state of mind, not of the world. Hope is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit, and orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons. Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously heading for success, but rather an ability to work for something because it is good.


Today's psychology disapproves of denial. But an older folk wisdom allowed that some of the world's horrors might best be ignored. That insight gets passed on to young Nick Adams at the end of Ernest Hemingway's story "The Killers".

In that story, professional hit men have taken over the diner where Nick eats, because they want to kill one of the other regulars, Ole Anderson. Eventually the killers decide Anderson isn't coming and leave to look for him elsewhere, so Nick races to warn him. But Anderson is so resigned to his fate that he can't be convinced to do anything but wait for the killers to find him. The story ends back at the diner, when Nick says to George, the owner: "I can't stand to think about him waiting in the room and knowing he's going to get it. It's too damned awful." "Well," the older man advises, "you better not think about it."

Historically, Unitarianism has been a less cynical, more optimistic faith. The second reading is from James Freeman Clarke's 1886 sermon "The Five Points of Calvinism and the Five Points of the New Theology" Clarke's five points were widely quoted, and his "new theology" virtually defined the Unitarianism of his era.

The Apostle Paul tells us that one of the things which abide is hope. If hope abides, there is always something to look forward to, - some higher attainment, some larger usefulness, some nearer communion with God. And this accords with all we see and know: with the long processes of geologic development by which the earth became fitted to be the home of man; with the slow ascent of organized beings from humbler to fuller life; with the progress of society from age to age; with the gradual diffusion of knowledge, advancement of civilization, growth of free institutions, and ever higher conceptions of God and of religious truth. The one fact which is written on nature and human life is the fact of progress, and this must be accepted as the purpose of the Creator. . . . The fifth point of doctrine in the new theology will, as I believe, be the Continuity of Human Development in all worlds, or the Progress of Mankind onward and upward forever.

But some experiences can challenge even the strongest faith in the Creator's benevolent purpose. Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel remembered this incident from when he was a 15-year-old in Auschwitz.

It so happened that a great Talmudic scholar from Poland was my work companion. One day he said, 'Tonight don't go to your place. Stay with me.' So I stayed next to him. I did not know why, but I soon found out. He and two colleagues -also great masters in Jewish jurisprudence- had convened a rabbinic court of law to indict the Almighty. He wanted me to witness it. And I remember every word of that trial. It lasted for several nights. Witnesses were summoned. Arguments were heard, always in a whisper, in order not to arouse suspicion and punishment . . . At the end, after due deliberation, the tribunal issued its verdict, and my teacher, my friend, was the one to pronounce it: Guilty. There was a silence then that probably permeated the entire camp and the entire world. After a minute or an infinity of silence he shook himself, smiled sadly, and said, "And now it's time for evening prayers."

Hope, True and False

When people find out I write a political blog they always ask the same question: "How can you stand to immerse yourself in the news like that? It's so frustrating and aggravating and depressing." The answer I usually give is that plunging into the news is actually a way to cope. Looking for some truth behind all the spin and propaganda, and communicating that truth to others, is my way of trying to make things better. When I finally understand something and write it down, I feel a little less helpless. And occasionally, I think I make a difference.

So for example, I felt a special satisfaction a few months ago when South Carolina stopped flying the Confederate battle flag in front of its capitol. Not that that was the greatest victory of modern times; it was mainly symbolic. But what it symbolized is that more and more Americans are ready to examine how the legacy of the Confederacy continues to affect our politics today. And I choose to believe that the 400,000 people who have seen my article "Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party" are playing a role in that process. Another topic I've been writing about for several years now is privilege. I've been trying to make that discussion accessible to people who resemble me - whites, straights, men, the professional class - people who might otherwise find the topic threatening. So even though I had nothing to do with starting the Black Lives Matter movement, I like to think that my readers are better prepared than most to listen and respond to what it's saying.

My most popular post of the last few months - called "You Don't Have to Hate Anybody to be a Bigot" - examined the way religion in America has so often been used to justify and mask oppression. My hope is that the people who read it are better equipped to resist the recent attempts to disguise bigotry as "religious freedom". So that's my simple answer to the question: Yes, the news can be depressing sometimes. But plunging into the battle to make the world better in whatever way you can, large or small, and making use of the particular talents and opportunities you happen to have, is far less depressing than walking around with a vague sense that bad things are happening that you don't dare think about too hard. But what I don't usually admit is that my simple answer doesn't always work. The news does get me down sometimes. And in fact I don't have an answer that always works. But I do have a series of answers, each of which works in situations where the others fail.

So let's take a closer look at the problem. If you're like me, the issues that get you down are probably the ones that seem hopeless, or at least hopelessly beyond your influence. The harder you look at them the more depressing they get. Campaign finance, for example. I could spend the rest of this talk trying to convince you that our current system is unfair and unjust, and that billionaires and big corporations should not have this kind of influence on our political process. But you probably know that already. Just about everybody knows it, and still nothing changes.

Or think about gun control. When Deb and I drive down the east coast from our home in New Hampshire, our favorite place to stop for lunch is the Blue Colony Diner in Connecticut. The food is good and it's very convenient. I ate there many times without paying much attention to where it is other than at Exit 10 off I-84. But it turns out, the Blue Colony Diner is in Newtown, not far from the site of the Sandy Hook school shooting. Once you realize that, it's a very odd feeling to sit there and look around and realize that some of the first-graders who were gunned down in their classroom probably ate right here. And some of their friends and relatives might be here right now. They look just like me, like us. And as a country, we have decided that shootings like that are OK. They're normal. We don't need to change anything to try to prevent them. And so, while Sandy Hook still stands out in our memories, some kind of mass public shooting happens every few weeks. We just live with that.

Now, issues like that are depressing, and I can understand why some people may decide to stop paying attention to them. But there's a scene in the HBO drama The Newsroom that points to an even more insidious effect: Discouragement can soak in so deeply that you develop unconscious defenses against absorbing certain kinds of information, even if you think you're paying attention. In that scene, fictional news anchor Will McAvoy interviews an EPA climate expert. Now, interviews like that are all basically the same: The experts always predict that horrible things A, B, and C will happen unless we take preventive actions X, Y, and Z right away. But no matter how hard Will tries to get the interview onto that track, his guest just won't co-operate. Again and again, he says it's too late; 20 years ago there were lots of things we could have done, but now we're just doomed. Finally Will directly asks for some reason to be optimistic. And the climate expert says: "That's the thing, Will. Americans are optimistic by nature, and if we face this problem head-on, if we listen to our best scientists, and act decisively, and passionately . . . I still don't see any way we can survive."

The dark humor of that scene comes from how wrong it feels. We're just not programmed to take our bad news that way. Whatever the problem is, we want to hear about it in the context of action towards a solution. So it's OK if you tell me that we're behind and it's late in the game. But we still have to have one more inning and some good hitters coming up. The whole point of listening to a prophet of doom is to learn how we're going to avoid doom. Maybe we'll have to change our ways. Maybe we'll have to become better people. Maybe we'll have to find in ourselves a wisdom and courage we didn't know we had. But there's still got to be time for heroic action to turn things around. That's the only story we know how to live in. Now, when I first watched that scene, I saw the point of it, but I didn't take it personally. I didn't see myself as Will McAvoy, trying to make the news fit a pattern before I could take it in. Then last spring, a group at my church back home decided to read Naomi Klein's recent global-warming book This Changes Everything. I don't how many of you have looked at that book, but Klein argues that the most extreme climate-change deniers - the ones who claim it's all a conspiracy to implement world socialist government - they may have the science of climate change wrong, but they have the politics right. The only thing that's going to fix this, she claims, is a complete revolution in the world capitalist system. Now, this morning I'm not prepared to argue whether she's right or not. But I do want to talk about what a hard time I had reading that book. Because I just hadn't been prepared to go there. I really wanted to believe that we could deal with climate change by making some simple political moves and a few lifestyle adjustments, and that I was already doing most of my part. I drive a hybrid, I live in an apartment that doesn't need a lot of heating and cooling, I recycle. Politically, I support a carbon tax - so I'm on the case. I'm OK. And this book is saying: "No, it's not going to be that easy." Klein spends the first half of the book knocking down all the things we think are going to save us: Wind and solar power isn't developing nearly fast enough. Natural gas isn't the answer in the meantime, and there's no such thing as clean coal. There's no magic technology coming that will remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere or neutralize their effects. And taxes and subsidies that just tinker around the edges of capitalism aren't going to turn things around. So people like me, she's saying, the ones who think we're OK and doing fine - we're really not. We need to get way more radical. I wasn't ready to go there. So it has been hard for me even to get to the point where I can evaluate rationally whether I agree or not. And watching myself struggle like that has been a blow to my self-image. Because looking at facts and figuring out how to think about them - that's what I do. If I'm not the kind of person who can do that, then who am I?

That was a bit of a tangent, so let's take a minute to review where we are. I started with a question people often ask me: How do you deal with the depressing aspects of the news? And my simple answer is: Diving deeper into the news and involving yourself however you can in the effort to do something positive - that's actually less depressing than avoiding it. And that is a fine answer on issues where you feel like your side is winning or at least has a good shot. But what if it doesn't? No matter how sunny you are by nature, you can only bang your head against a wall so many times before despair sets in. And if you don't consciously defend yourself against that kind of despair, your unconscious mind may take on that job, and construct defenses that keep disturbing ideas at a distance, even if you think you're paying attention. One response is just to embrace those defenses. As George tells Nick Adams: If you can't stand to think about something, then you better not think about it. If you're not going to win some battle, then forget about it and go fight some more promising battle. But the problem with that strategy is that almost every really important struggle looks hopeless at some point. Back when John Adams first started talking about independence, who expected that idea to go anywhere? When the Dred Scott decision came down in 1857, or Douglas defeated Lincoln in the senate race of 1858, who knew that we were just a few years away from ending slavery once and for all? In 2004, when same-sex marriage was so unpopular that conservatives used referendums against it as a get-out-the-vote tactic, how many people understood how close we were, not just to nationwide legalization, but to a political climate in which liberals want to raise the issue and conservatives hope it goes away? Things can turn around fast once they start turning. But the reason they turn is that some people keep struggling in spite of the apparent hopelessness. Things only turn around if somebody has a downright irrational commitment to turning them.

So if you swear that off, if you say "I'm only going to fight battles that my side seems likely to win", you're not going to be there at the most important times. Often the difference between changing the world and just shaking your fist at it, is having the intestinal fortitude to keep going even when failure seems certain. So where does that persistence come from? Throughout history, one way people have kept going when the odds were stacked against them has been to have optimism built into their worldview. Certain kinds of religion do that. So in the Bible, Gideon's 300 men can face the Midianite army because they believe that a powerful God will give them the help they need. A similar bias towards optimism shows up in folk tales and children's stories. Again and again, they teach this lesson: Even if the task seems impossible, if you set out with a pure heart, unexpected allies may pop up to help you. And so, in The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy bravely sets out to find the wizard. And even though her faith in him turns out to be misplaced, the unexpected friends she makes along the way see her through.

Science has its own optimistic principle: Truth will out. Scientists like Galileo or Darwin could keep going because they had faith in a reality that isn't defined by human authorities, no matter how powerful they seem. Some things are really there, and eventually people will have to recognize them. And as the James Freeman Clarke reading made clear, optimism was also a key feature of 19th-century Unitarianism. Even as Unitarians were evolving towards a more humanistic worldview, they retained the optimism of traditional Christianity. Not because a personal God was going to step in and make things right, but because the Universe is just built to favor progress. So even if the winds are currently blowing against you, you can hope for ultimate victory because you are on the right side of History. That's why Martin Luther King liked to quote a line from the Unitarian minister Theodore Parker: "The arc of the moral universe is a long one, but I am sure it bends towards justice." So religious or philosophical optimism can strengthen your personal determination. But it's not invincible either. Probably everyone knows stories about people who believed in the power of prayer, until that power failed to save someone they loved. And on a larger scale, horrors like Hiroshima or the Holocaust can challenge anybody's faith in God or Progress. Viewing the world from the perspective of Auschwitz, Elie Wiesel's teachers could not accept that the suffering around them was leading to some greater good according to the plan of a loving God. So they put their God on trial and found him guilty of crimes against His people. And yet, shaped as he must have been by that experience, Wiesel did not spend the rest of his life in despair and apathy. Quite the opposite, he went on to have a productive life and to do much good in the world. And part of the reason why, I think, is contained in the end of that story, when the judges, having found God guilty, go on to say the evening prayers. I think they did that because Judaism wasn't just a worldview to them, it was who they were. And they weren't going to stop being who they were just because God had let them down. So while Wiesel would never again trust in God to make sure the good guys won, he also never stopped trying to do the right thing. Because that's who he was, and he didn't know how to be anybody else. Ultimately, I believe, developing that kind of identity is more reliable than optimism. Because I don't believe that any of us has the perspective to see the arc of the whole universe, or to be completely certain it might not bend back towards injustice at some point. But we have a much better chance to know ourselves, and shape ourselves, and root our identities in something more solid than philosophical or religious abstraction. Identity, though, is also not a perfect shield against despair. We all have low points, we all have times when we doubt ourselves, when we feel like imposters, and all the stories we like to tell about ourselves ring hollow. And that's why we need each other.

It's hard to hold on to an identity by yourself, without a community to support you. It's easy to get discouraged. It's easy to wonder why you bother. It's easy for the whole notion of looking for truth and doing the right thing and fighting the good fight to just slip your mind. And that brings us around to answer a question that we didn't even start out asking: What is a community like this for? I didn't have to wonder what the church I grew up in was for. Like the song says: "If it'll get us all to Heaven, it's good enough for me." But a Unitarian church doesn't promise to get us to Heaven. So what's it for? Why come here? Why contribute? Why volunteer?

Here's what I believe: I think the point of a Unitarian community is to build and uphold an ideal of the kinds of people we want to be and the kinds of lives we want to live. We're here to hold that ideal for each other, so that at those inevitable moments when your own candle starts to flicker and maybe even goes out, there is a campfire you can come back to. I think we're here to hold our faith in each other. So that no matter what happens, no matter how many times you fall short and disappoint yourself, somewhere there are people maintaining faith in you, faith that you can see the truth, and you can do the right thing, and you can fight the good fight. And what's more: faith that all those things are worth doing.

So that's where I've gotten to. My simplest answer to the challenge of continuing to stay informed and involved in the affairs of the world is that involvement is less depressing than denial. Beyond that, a religious or metaphysical optimism will keep you going through times when events are running against you. Beyond that, an identity rooted in seeing the truth and doing the right thing and fighting the good fight will keep you going when your larger faith in God or progress flickers. And beyond that, membership in a community of people who share those ideals and values, and maintain faith in each other, will keep you going through times when your faith in yourself gets shaky. As I said before, that's not a perfect answer. I don't promise that it will hold up against every horrible series of events that could possibly happen to a person. But fortunately, none of us needs to stay strong through every horrible thing that could ever happen. Each of us only needs enough resilience to complete the journey of our own lifetime. So I want to close by wishing you good luck on that journey, and reminding you to take care of each other.

The closing words are from Elie Wiesel:

Hope is like peace. It is not a gift from God. It is a gift that only we can give to one another.

©2015 Doug Muder

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Muder, Doug 2015. Hope, True and False, /talks/20150927.shtml (accessed May 23, 2017).

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