Sunday, March 21, 2010

Skeptics and True Believers--and the Vernal Equinox!

Rev. Kit Ketcham, March 21, 2010

So we’re sitting in the worship committee meeting a few months ago, working out the schedule of speakers for the spring, and it turns out that it would be helpful if I were willing to shuffle my preaching dates around and speak today, March 21, instead of last Sunday, the 14th, being as how the Social Responsibility Council needed the 14th for Justice Sunday, meaning that our service today would deal with both the theological question of the month and the Vernal Equinox.

Our theological topic this month is the question of epistemology---in other words, how do we know what we know? Who do we trust to tell us the truth? Is any source infallible? And at first glance, you might think that the vernal equinox has little to do with who and what we believe, what we consider to be truthful sources, and how that shapes our way of being in the world. But you’d be wrong---it is deeply embedded in our issues of authority.

Because that’s what we’re talking about----authority. Who has the authority to tell us what to believe? What credentials does that person or source need? Why do some of us (on both ends of the religious and political spectrums) become True Believers and others become Skeptics?

When I was a senior in college, extremely wet behind the ears, having come from a small town Baptist preacher’s family and never having been exposed to much beyond my own personal family life, I was invited by a faculty committee to be a member of a senior seminar entitled Freedom and Authority.

This was a big deal, if you were a Linfield senior, because you had to have good grades and be nominated by a professor. I’m not sure who nominated me but it was probably Dr. Malone, my grouchy Spanish prof, since I was just about the only student on campus who liked him so he thought highly of me. I guess.

Anyhow, I eagerly joined the class and for a semester rubbed elbows with a dozen other so-called distinguished students---all of whom seemed to “get it”, to get the conflict between freedom and authority. I guess. I’m still not totally clear.

This is not to downgrade the intent or content of the class, because I had a great time in it. But I didn’t do very well. I never really understood until many years later what the essential issue was. Because I’d never personally experienced a conflict between freedom and authority. At least I didn’t think so.

My fellow students were pretty up on the latest current events, the issues of freedom and authority in real life, like civil rights and science vs religion and totalitarian political systems. I just wasn’t. My brain hadn’t yet gone there. And I had a nagging sense that I ought not act on an issue just because someone else thought I should.

But I faked it as well as I could, choosing as my term project the topic of the Theatre of the Absurd and analyzing the play “Rhinoceros” by Eugene Ionesco.

Rhinoceros, of course, is a play which satirizes and metaphorizes the advent of Nazism, Fascism, and Communism. I just thought it was a play about a weird town full of people who were turning into rhinoceroses.

But the commentaries I read about the play broadened my horizons considerably and by the end of the semester I had a better idea of just what misplaced authority could do to individual and national freedom. But not much. I think I was pretty dim in those days, more interested in socializing than thinking. And, of course, I wasn’t eager to believe something just because someone else told me to.

I was a late bloomer on this issue and am thankful that I finally got it and started making up time on issues of freedom and authority, but I am most passionate when authority starts stepping on my rights and those of people I know or know about. I am cautious about investing a lot of passion in fighting something I don’t understand if my only option is to take someone else’s word for it.

Which brings us back to that important point: who has the right or the credentials to tell us what to believe? How do we know what we know?

Many religions have their sacred texts, such as the Koran, the Torah, the Christian scriptures, the Bhagavad Gita, the Book of Mormon, the Vedas, the Sutras; poets from many religions have added their human wisdom to the weighty tomes of prophets such as Mohammed, Moses, the Buddha, and the disciples of Jesus. There have been long council meetings in the history of religion to decide what writings belong in the sacred library of each faith and what writings should be set aside as heretical or misleading or fantastical.

We Unitarian Universalists use a lot of different written texts as inspiration, but we tend to interpret those texts in ways that suit our own understandings of life, whether good or bad. Sometimes we choose texts for their feel-good outcome rather than for their kick-in-the-pants motivation, but that’s not always a bad thing. The point is, we choose the texts, the texts are not forced upon us by others who chose them for us.

Which makes us fall generally into the category of Skeptic, as opposed to True Believer----though there can be True Believers on both sides of the fence, men and women whose thinking is so fixed about a topic that they are unable to see the other side of an issue.

Take God, for example: there is a continuum of belief about God, from an old white guy in the sky persona to an anti-God stance, with adherents on either end equally vociferous about their position. Most of us here are likely still working on our definition of the power beyond human power and may never finish working on it!

As Skeptics, we tend to be careful about what we believe; we are normally willing to change our minds if credible proof is offered that we are wrong. We tend to be pretty open-minded, though my dad once warned me, as he saw me heading down one primrose path after another as a teenager: “Honey, don’t be so open-minded that your brains fall out.” We tend to use Science as our yardstick for credibility or, if Science doesn’t shine a light on a particular path, we use our own reasoning ability to sort out the believable from the unbelievable.

The True Believer often has a personal stake in the belief they hold, whether religious or political. For some, the personal stake is fear---they are afraid of losing something if they shift their stance: a friend, a family member, a job, an opportunity, a spot in heaven.

For others, the personal stake is loyalty----they’ve always been part of the community attached to the belief and don’t mind the disconnect between the community belief and their own understandings.

For still others, the personal stake is money. The more people one can get to watch one’s TV performances, the less likely a personality like Glenn Beck or Ann Coulter is to change his/her mind. And it’s no good arguing with them---it just makes the money pour in faster.

There are a great many current issues facing us---of belief or understanding---and most of them are not found in the Bible or any other sacred text. So where do we find our trustworthy information about health care or banking or housing or climate change or the latest conspiracy theory? To confuse the issue even more, some issues are covered in sacred texts and come out in opposition to our personal and community social justice values.

These are all issues with ethical implications and we need ethical sources of information. One would think that religion would point us in an ethical direction and yet religion cannot do so without invoking its own particular prejudices and doctrines.

Consequently, we see religions withdrawing much-needed social services in a city because of a community law that forbids discrimination against certain kinds of families. Or we see religious lobbyists funneling large sums of money into a referendum which contradicts their particular doctrine on a marginalized social group.

Does Science offer a credible authority in these issues? It can and does, but its reputation has been tainted to some extent by those who would pay for a certain research outcome and have doctored research reports to reflect the desired outcome, rather than the actual outcome.

Science has offered conflicting information in a number of instances, some of which have led to a variety of conspiracy theories based on results touted as scientific but skewed in some way so as to override the public’s doubts and inflame the public’s suspicions in situations which dismay and anger them.

What makes us want to believe the worst about people or about social issues which anger or scare us? Why do we often believe rumors and gossip and even spread them? Why are we willing to believe the worst about some former and present national leaders?

We are very susceptible ourselves---to fear of being betrayed, looking foolish, misplacing our trust. And we are cautious, suspicious, skeptical to the point of outright disbelief, always poised to grab our dignity, turn tail, and run from the potential betrayer.

And when we are disappointed in some hero-leader, some of us are so disappointed that we withdraw our trust entirely, turn our anger on that person, and look for someone else less flawed.

The truth is that no human source is totally credible. All humans have to negotiate the minefields of culture and heritage in order to produce answers, even scientific answers. Those humans whose lack of integrity allows them to circumvent ethics and honesty get quick results, temporarily.

As with the banking industry, the credibility of leaders who touted risky mortgages and were willing to sell clients down the river for big profits, their credibility is gone and we are mopping up the flood of broken dreams that their falsehoods produced and trying to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Betrayal of trust is the bugaboo of authority figures, the thing all leaders, parents, teachers, priests and preachers, police and fire fighters, doctors, lawyers, stockbrokers, politicians, anyone who dispenses or enforces wisdom or rules has to be aware of the dangers of betrayal of trust. We who serve in these positions do not always recognize how important our integrity is to those we serve; we can be slow to understand that people look to us for wisdom, for help, for honesty and reassurance.

When a teacher or preacher abuses a child or a congregant, when a cop or firefighter misuses his or her uniform to bully or injure a person, innocent or not, when a lawyer or stockbroker inflates fees and hours spent on a case to squeeze extra cash out of a client, when a parent models wrong behavior, when a politician lies or is unfaithful to a spouse, they lose credibility in our eyes. For good reason! They have damaged someone who trusted them and, in doing so, they damage themselves.

What makes a human source credible and trustworthy? Well, time helps, the length of time we’ve known someone and known them to be honest. So does experience, the years they’ve spent studying or practicing in the field of expertise. In scientific matters, the ability to duplicate the touted results of an experiment. In personal relationships, deeper knowledge of the person.
What it boils down to is integrity, personal and professional integrity, an authenticity of personhood that transparency in behavior reveals. When someone we view as credible and trustworthy tells us something, we are likely to believe them. And if they let us down, their remorse and efforts to repair the damage done may help us regain our trust in them.

Is there any totally honest, reliable source of authority? Many of us would say God or Higher Power, whatever name we might give the force that drives the universe. But God has often been misquoted! Is there something else, something that is honest without words, transparent without “spin” or interpretation?

Here’s what I think: Yes, yes, there is. It is, in my opinion, the source of all our knowledge, all our culture, all our religion. Everything Science has learned, everything the philosophers have learned, every piece of music, literature, or other creative act has been the result of the knowledge we’ve gained from studying and being in relationship with this entity.

It is not supernatural, it is not intangible, it is not a person or institution, it is not imaginary. It is available, it is honest, it is real, it is a complete body of knowledge and reveals its wisdom to us every day by merely existing. It does not lie, although it spins.

Everything we humans have learned in the thousands and thousands of years of our existence we have learned from the Earth we live on and our relationship with it. And you were wondering where the Vernal Equinox would crop up!

Unfortunately, there’s no drop-down menu on the Earth’s webpage to tell us where to look for ethical answers to our great FAQs, our frequently asked questions. And the Earth is not necessarily merciful in its applications of reality. Natural disasters abound. My cat Max kills birds if he’s outdoors and pees on my bed if he’s indoors. It’s still up to us to figure out our everyday ethics and to decide how to answer the questions we have about what to believe.

As Effie and I talked about this topic, we shared how we make decisions about what we believe, and she said, in essence, “It’s important to me not to lose sight of the mystery of life and to know that we will never run out of mystery. No matter what the facts seem to be in any situation, my ultimate authority,” she said, “is that ‘yes’ inside of me that tells me I’m on the right path. I don’t want to give away my own authority to a rigid doctrine or a political stance. As for sacred texts, such as the Bible, I haven’t thrown out its wisdom, but I do re-interpret it, using Jesus’ life as a model.”

And I shared with her that I have an internal plumbline, by which I measure the rightness or wrongness of what I hear and see around me. My internal plumbline was set in place according to my own moral sense, which came not so much from God as from what I could see was kind and humane. I learned kindness and humaneness from the adults I grew up with, who mostly treated me and others respectfully and with love. And I learned the dark side of the equation from people who shared with me their terrible experiences of injustice.

Getting back to the issue of Science and the Vernal Equinox and how they are related to our sources of authority---it has begun to alarm me deeply that the lessons of the earth, as deciphered by science and poets, have been so derided and ridiculed and even outright denied. In our world, an anti-science, anti-intellect, anti-education miasma is growing and spreading. And I’ve started thinking about what we as a congregation might do to combat this in our community.

I’ve written about it in my newsletter column and have bounced my thoughts off the conversations groups I meet with; most have responded with good ideas and feedback. I’d like to share it with you as well.

You know that we have a presentation on Charles Darwin and The Origin of Species coming up this Wednesday evening, and I hope many of you will attend. It will be a great brain-stretching way for us to engage with an authoritative speaker on a topic which has been much maligned by those who would deny the evidence that the earth has presented about the origins of life and our own species.

And as I worked with our speaker, Dr. Mary Kay Sandford, this idea popped into my head: what if we sponsored, occasionally, similar kinds of presentations to our larger Whidbey Island community. Perhaps we’d look at Bioethics, or Medical Technology and End of Life issues. Perhaps we’d consider the possibilities of the Hubble Telescope and the Large Hadron Collider, or Genetic Engineering.

What if we got authoritative speakers in these kinds of cutting-edge fields, asked them to tell us about them, and then asked them about the ethics of this issue. What are the ethical challenges of Genetic Engineering, for example? And then, and then, what if we asked religious leaders in our community to comment on the religious meaning of each issue?

I am just daydreaming right now, but I have asked the board for permission to explore the possibility of a Symposium on Science, Ethics, and Meaning, and my first step is to form a task force to help me think through the parameters of such a project and a process for creating it. If you are interested in helping, I would love to hear from you.

We have a lot of music and art and drama and literary events in our community but hardly any science, except for environmental science, which is itself embattled. I think we could begin to combat this creeping mentality of denial and scorn for knowledge by offering such an opportunity to Whidbey Island.

I ask you to think about it. I know of no other congregation, UU or mainline faith tradition, which is doing anything to combat this threat to a rational, logical, and humane approach to human living. I think it is sorely needed by a nation which is beset by a creeping attitude of anti-truth. And we may be just the ones to offer it to others.

Let’s pause for a time of silent reflection and prayer.

BENEDICTION: Our worship service, our time of shaping worth together, is ended, but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place. Let us go in peace, remembering that all we human beings know we have learned from the earth. May we honor the wisdom of science without letting go of the mystery which lives within each of us. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.


Joel said...

I think having scientists pontificating about ethics is a lot like looking to clergymen for scientific opinions. (And Scopes showed how that works out.) Certainly the two can't be separated entirely, but ethics are not a scientist's specialty. Better for you clergyfolks to take the lead in that area.

ms. kitty said...

Scientists do have ethical standards they must consider; however, they are not charged with the moral issues. One of the most gripping Mensa presentations I remember was a Bioethicist talking about the ethics of her research.

Miss Kitty said...

Awesome, Ms. K. Thanks for posting it. (((hugs)))

ms. kitty said...

Hugs to you too, Miss K. By the way, we had our Darwin presentation tonight and it was awesome!