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IYI: I’m going to adopt a particular innovation in notation, created (as far as I know) by David Foster Wallace. It goes like this: most of what I’m writing is pretty straightforward and I’ll cover pretty much everything eventually. If I’m talking about something a little abstruse that’s tangential enough that it doesn’t warrant further elucidation, like, right away, then I’ll mark it “if you’re interested”—IYI—before the section to set it off. These are what I think are interesting or important, but not essential, qualifications or excursions.

Two of the things I’ve always been interested in are closely related — desirelessness and effortlessness. It wasn’t until recently that I was able to articulate their connection, in my mind, and why I think it can be so advantageous to cultivate both senses.

I have essentially two goals in life: to be happy and to make the world a better place. You can think of these as products. The first is creating my own happiness and the second is creating, fostering, supporting happiness in everyone else.

IYI: Defining “happiness” is pretty tough, but kind of important. I don’t mean contentment and I don’t mean short-term pleasure. The best definition I’ve come across for what I mean is more properly referred to as “eudaimonia” or “doing and living well.” Economists might refer to it as “utility,” although revealed preference makes the definition of utility endogenous, and I definitely don’t mean “whatever the underlying thing is that I’m evidently optimizing for,” because one of the things I’m trying to do is transform my utility function so that it becomes an eudaimonia-maximization function. As noted in the little part in the Wikipedia page that discusses Elizabeth Anscombe, this has the advantage of “ground[ing]  morality in the interests and well being of human moral agents …without appealing to any questionable metaphysics.” = Yay! IYI2: My personal morality differs from my prescriptive morality, so this is more a benchmark for me, rather than a standard to which I hold other people, about which more later, perhaps.

These seem reasonable enough that I’d like to teach Violet what I’ve discovered vis-a-vis happiness-production technologies when she begins to start thinking about how to produce happiness in herself and others.

If you’re someone who has ever struggled with motivation, then I find one of the easiest ways to be productive is to do things of value that don’t feel like work. One of the best ways to be happy is to want the things you have, and to extract as much enjoyment from them as possible. These approaches use desirelessness and effortlessness as inputs to production. I think of them as expanding on the intensive margin.

And this is why effortlessness and desirelessness are so useful and important on a personal level: A. they’re cheap, B. they’re sustainable, and C. they’re investments in human capital–improvements in production technology–so expenditure on them isn’t burned, it’s stored and reused. Like everything else, they’re subject to diminishing marginal returns, but when you think of the emotional depth and maturity of the average human being, I think we still have some pretty low-hanging fruit here.

For a parent, they’re great as well. They encourage your kid to seek internal validation rather than measuring her success by the amount of stuff she has or the amount of money she earns. They teach your kid to naturally follow a course to find interests that feel consonant with a coherent worldview, ethic, aesthetic, and eventually choice of career and lifestyle. Finally, for parent and child, they make it so you never get panicky or string yourself too thin, so you have untapped emotional reserves to ride out the vicissitudes of life.

At the same time, I think it’s important that these aren’t confused with laziness and self-abnegation. They sure are a nice alternative to solipsism or materialism or consumerism, though. One way to solve this problem, I guess is to want the things I will have, and to enjoy the wait.

So yeah: work to want the things I have and to want to do the things I must, and live my best life. More on my experience with this later.

From the excellent, comprehensive, and highly recommend Oxford Companion to Food

COOKIE the name used in N. America for a small, flat, sweet confection, which approximates to a sweet BISCUIT as eaten in England, although cookies tend to be richer and have a softer, chewy texture. The name first appeared in print as long ago as 1703.

Generations of immigrants from all over Europe have contributed to the American tradition of cookies. Early Dutch settlers introduced their recipes for various types of koekje, Dutch for “little cake” (see BANKETBAKKERI), the name which needed only slight adaptation to become cookie. English, Scandinavian, German, and E. European settlers introduced numerous types of biscuit, including many which could be classed as cookies, and maintained their connection with feast days. Cookies were originally associated, in the USA, with New Year’s Day; references cited by Craigie and Hulbert (1938) from the early part of the 19th century show that cookies and cherry bounce (a cherry cordial) were the correct fare with which to greet visitors on that occasion, although already threatened “by plum-cake and outlandish liqueurs”, as one author put it. Read the rest of this entry »

Once the holidays had started, Ron and Harry were having too good a time to think much about Flamel. They had the dormitory to themselves and the common room was far emptier than usual, so they were able to get the good armchairs by the fire. They sat by the hour eating anything they could spear on a toasting fork — bread, English muffins, marshmallows — and plotting ways of getting Malfoy expelled, which were fun to talk about even if they wouldn’t work.

Ron also started teaching Harry wizard chess. This was exactly like Muggle chess except that the figures were alive, which made it a lot like directing troops in battle. Ron’s set was very old and battered. Like everything else he owned, it had once belonged to someone else in his family — in this case, his grandfather. However, old chessmen weren’t a drawback at all. Ron knew them so well he never had trouble getting them to do what he wanted. Read the rest of this entry »

the ancients believed that the earth was the back of an elephant that stood on a tortoise that swam in a bottomless sea. Of course, what held up the sea was another question. They did not know the answer.

The belief of the ancients was the result of imagination. It was a poetic and beautiful idea. Look at the way we see it today. Is that a dull idea? The world is a spinning ball, and people are held on it on all sides, some of them upside down. And we turn like a spit in front of a great fire. We whirl around the sun. That is more romantic, more exciting. And what holds us? The force of gravitation, which is not only a thing of the earth but is the thing that makes the earth round in the first place, holds the sun together and keeps us running around the sun in our perpetual attempt to stay away. This gravity holds its sway not only on the stars but between the stars; it holds them in the great galaxies for miles and miles in all directions.
Read the rest of this entry »

Walt Whitman (1819–1892). Prose Works. 1892.

I. Specimen Days
120. A Winter Day on the Sea-Beach

ONE bright December mid-day lately I spent down on the New Jersey sea-shore, reaching it by a little more than an hour’s railroad trip over the old Camden and Atlantic. I had started betimes, fortified by nice strong coffee and a good breakfast (cook’d by the hands I love, my dear sister Lou’s—how much better it makes the victuals taste, and then assimilate, strengthen you, perhaps make the whole day comfortable afterwards.) Five or six miles at the last, our track enter’d a broad region of salt grass meadows, intersected by lagoons, and cut up everywhere by watery runs. The sedgy perfume, delightful to my nostrils, reminded me of “the mash” and south bay of my native island. I could have journey’d contentedly till night through these flat and odorous sea-prairies. From half-past 11 till 2 I was nearly all the time along the beach, or in sight of the ocean, listening to its hoarse murmur, and inhaling the bracing and welcome breezes. First, a rapid five-mile drive over the hard sand—our carriage wheels hardly made dents in it. Then after dinner (as there were nearly two hours to spare) I walk’d off in another direction, (hardly met or saw a person,) and taking possession of what appear’d to have been the reception-room of an old bathhouse range, had a broad expanse of view all to myself—quaint, refreshing, unimpeded—a dry area of sedge and Indian grass immediately before and around me—space, simple, unornamented space. Distant vessels, and the far-off, just visible trailing smoke of an inward bound steamer; more plainly, ships, brigs, schooners, in sight, most of them with every sail set to the firm and steady wind.

The attractions, fascinations there are in sea and shore! How one dwells on their simplicity, even vacuity! What is it in us, arous’d by those indirections and directions? That spread of waves and gray-white beach, salt, monotonous, senseless—such an entire absence of art, books, talk, elegance—so indescribably comforting, even this winter day—grim, yet so delicate-looking, so spiritual—striking emotional, impalpable depths, subtler than all the poems, paintings, music, I have ever read, seen, heard. (Yet let me be fair, perhaps it is because I have read those poems and heard that music.)
(from bartleby.com)

The truth is I have never been much of a beach bum, which is to say that my favorite time to visit the ocean is when there’s nobody else there. I’m not sure why that’s the case. Also, I prefer dawn and dusk at the ocean to mid-day. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy chucking a frisbee as well as anyone, and have done my share of bodysurfing and sand-castle-building. I think there must be some sort of psychological imprinting that gets done early in life that goes on to govern ones relationship with nature. Certainly my time around water was with company, but mostly just immediate and some extended family.

All of which is sort of apropos of nothing. The language here is great. I love the “just visible trailing smoke of an inward bound steamer,” and the starkness of “an entire absence of art, books, talk, elegance” is a really interesting redefinition of a winter beachscape in contrast to Whitman’s daily world, and in contrast to the Dickensian winter landscape dominated by the comings and goings of people and their myriad connections and complications.

“Space, simple, unornamented space” is a really interesting thing–the late, great, DFW (who I owe a work of remembrance, one of these days) commented on space as respite in “Getting Away From Already Pretty Much Being Away From It All” and noted that city-folk like to get away from it all, while people who inhabit “space” pretty regularly like to come together in order to experience the spice of life. Whitman’s appreciation for the quiet beach seems to support this notion.

In my case, I think I just like solitude; it’s hard to say. I think solitude is both desirable and dangerous for me, in that it is something I find enjoyable, but which makes me progressively less interested in human interaction. Solitude with beauty attached (as opposed to ornamentation) is even more appealing.

Sorry for the lack of an entry attached to yesterday’s post. I hope you liked. I may comment on it sooner or later, but a lot of what I have to say will come up again later this season. Happy Advent!

Winter

William Shakespeare (1564–1616)

WHEN icicles hang by the wall
And Dick the shepherd blows his nail,
And Tom bears logs into the hall,
And milk comes frozen home in pail;
When blood is nipt, and ways be foul       5
Then nightly sings the staring owl
Tu-whoo!
To-whit, Tu-whoo! A merry note!
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.

When all about the wind doth blow,       10
And coughing drowns the parson’s saw,
And birds sit brooding in the snow,
And Marian’s nose looks red and raw;
When roasted crabs hiss in the bowl—
Then nightly sings the staring owl        15
Tu-whoo!
To-whit, Tu-whoo! A merry note!
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.

(from Bartleby.com)

This is day 1 of an Advent lectionary we’re putting together this year. I’ve got a few readings that I definitely want to include but will be looking for good stuff to put in it if anyone has any ideas.

Last year, about this time (maybe a few weeks or a month from now, to be honest), I believe I made up a tune and sang this one to Violet when she was in her deep struggling to sleep days. Nowadays, she still fights it, but at least you can sit down.

I love poems about winter. Especially with Thanksgiving and Christmas, I tend to get a little wrapped up in the bustle of the season, which is nice in its own way, but the thing I have always loved about winter is the boarding up of the house, the heading indoors, the feeling that the song “Let it Snow” captures so well, of being safe from the storm with the people you love. It’s the opposite and equal of the feeling on the first warm day of Spring, where you cross your threshold in a short-sleeve shirt for the first time and the balmy gust fairly launches you out into the world, like an impulse-driven coaster, ready to kick shoes on sidewalk and hit the ground running.

Winter has the feeling of needing to brace yourself for the outdoors, and the ritualistic girding with hats and scarves and coats and gloves, or the mighty sprint to the mailbox and back, thoroughly underdressed–both carry with them the wonderful feeling that the out of doors is relevant again after being a sea of lukewarmness for a lovely long time.

Here’s wishing all y’all happy holidays of whatever variety you enjoy.

Another really amazing class. The material was very critical of Unitarian Universalism in a really insightful and responsible way, and it really gave me a new sense of depth on the foundations of our institution and on the challenges we face as a community. I’m very new to the UU thing, so I have a bit of a tin ear to the internal monologues common to UU-ers, but I got the sense that there was a sense of skepticism, interest and critical thought among the group tonight–which is pretty much what I think you shoot for in a class like this.

The material for today’s class was:

David E. Bumbaugh – On Being a Born-Again Unitarian Universalist

Anthony David – Torn Between Unitarianism and Universalism

Anthony David – A Unitarian Universalist Creation Myth

Before class started, I started thinking about the material we read before class and drawing up a little mental map for myself about “born-again-ness”, and mostly came up with stuff about devotion and diversity–devotion to making faith and metaphysics a central part of life and diversity in the sense that it is no longer compartmentalized into a small segment of life, but instead covers all aspects of your life.

I started making a list of questions that would go on the “faith form”: who are you, where are you, what were you, what will you become, where will you go, why are you here, etc. I then started thinking about meta-questions. “Is the individualistic paradigm a valid approach to these metaphysical questions?” “Does ‘who am I?’ even makes semantic sense?” “Upon what assumptions are my fundamental questions predicated?”

That was as far as I got, more or less, and then class started.

As an ice-breaker, we paired up and tried to come up with UU signature aspects. I was a little disappointed in myself, I think. I went for the ingathering of the waters, which has deep and personal meaning for me, but it was right there at hand, and I feel like I would have earned more for trying harder.

(The summer after freshman year, when I went to the river and moved rocks and smoked cigarettes with my pant legs rolled up and tried to find a place to fit–it’s worth writing about some time in here, as a lot of my analogues derive from what I learned moving rocks and changing the course of the river.)

The majority of the class was about the “ghosts” that haunt our Unitarian Universalism and the reading on a creation myth started us off–the driving force there being that as a tradition derived from a standing order church continues to feel a compulsion to serve everyone within the sound of its bell.(which, upon further review, is an interesting economic institution. The argument was that the presence of the church was a Public Good, and so in order to solve the freerider problem, taxation was used to support the church…makes economic sense, but violate the principle of separation of church and state)

While the idea of ghosts was by no means intended to be negative, I argued that ghosts are unavoidable in a liberal religious tradition. Insofar as liberal religious traditions take pains not to “throw out the baby with the bathwater,” there will always be aspects of the baby that then become our haunting spectres. We call it a church, and neither a mosque nor a synagogue, despite my atheism, for example. That said, I wouldn’t argue that we should just call it a building… In many cases, these ghosts just complicate things, like baroque ornamentation, or other odd architectural features that merely seemed like a good idea at the time. In some cases, though, they can hold us back.

We talked at length about the idea that Unitarian Universalists favor universality rather than particulars, and that this is both a strength and a weakness. At its best, it belies our belief that there are many paths to truth. At its worst, we end up doing nothing but singing songs about how inclusive we are and taking a Noah’s Ark (two of each)–or Pokemon (gotta catch ’em all!)–approach to building a congregation. Rev. David made the very good point that, for all our inclusiveness, we are neither a terribly large nor an incredibly diverse faith tradition. He also noted that megachurches–not renowned for their inclusivity–are among the most culturally diverse faith organizations.

This got me thinking–why do megachurches work?

One reason: trying to get two of everything doesn’t work. Then each person only has one person like them in the congregation. Try getting 150 of every type of person and suddenly you have a diverse community where everyone feels like they have someone to talk to. So sheer scale can help a lot.

At the same time, I think there is an irony to inclusiveness. By valuing our inclusiveness so much, we effectively become a very exclusive congregation: we only attract people who can stand to be around strangers, people who are themselves personally inclusive. So by trying to include lots of kinds of people, we end up only attracting one kind of person–the inclusive kind. Consequently, we are a pretty exclusive bunch.

Megachurches only attract one kind of person as well–those willing to embrace conformity, within certain bounds. They, too, are an exclusive bunch.

As conformity has historically been favored by evolution, and as a willingness to embrace strangers is sort of a freakish mutation (although one I value greatly), it’s not surprising that megachurches have a larger draw than UU congregations. (I have to say, though, I think UU has a lot more to offer many people than they realize, and at least some of this difference is certainly due by a relative difference in willingness to evangelize.)

We talked about a bunch of other stuff, but as I’ve got a TychoCelcchu CoH shoutcast (don’t ask–it’s dorktacular) burning a hole in my desktop, I’m gonna wrapt this up pretty soon.

So, the last thing on my mind is the idea of questions as ends in themselves. We talked about this briefly in class, but I think about it a lot. We require at least tentative answers to take actions, but without negative capability (or omniscience), we will have trouble drawing a conclusion without certainty, and trouble being okay without a conclusion.

When the nagging need for answers gnaws at us, we have to either embrace doubt (this is especially integral for undecideable propositions, the definition of which I torture into including such questions as “Does God exist?” and “Does free will exist?) or turn to faith. In truth, I think doing both is the best course of action. Without at least a tentative answer, we cannot act. In order to arrive a tentative answer in a morally responsible way, we have to move past doubt to take a leap of faith; that said, in order to arrive at a tentative answer in an intellectually responsible way, we have to remember that we doubt our faith, and thus that the answer can only be tentative. More on this later, for sure.

Another heck of a class.

was a lot of fun. it’s always nice when the girls are having a good time and I don’t have to be bending over to pick them up or debating whether I should be intervening. Junebug’s still a little easier to deal with, physically, because she’s immobile, but V is definitely becoming willful–and it’s amazing,  because it’s expressed as a boundless curiosity and she’s a happy kid, upbeat and excited about things–but it’s still havoc on the lower back to chase, lift, re-aim, repeat.

All of which is totally the opposite tone from that which I meant to strike. I laid out a beach towel in the outfield at our local playground/rec center and put some cheerios out and Juniper sat in the grass and I lay back and watched the sky and Violet orbited like a spirograph, and they both thought that my lying down was just the funniest thing either of them had ever seen. Violet decided to tackle me repeatedly; I put my hat on Junebug and she spent five elated minutes trying to take it off again. Antics ensued…

Later in the day Violet saw real live ducks and that, as they say, was the cat’s pajamas.

I just had a few thoughts in the shower this morning and wanted to elaborate on my reinterpretation of the concept of sin. As I interpret sin, the idea of “original sin” and the “fallen state of man” have radically different interpretations, in that they become almost tautological. This is to say that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” is literally equivalent to the statement “Nobody’s perfect.” The denotation is pretty similar (although I don’t believe in the existence of the divine except insofar as it represents an humanly constructed ideal to which we all strive), but the connotation is incredibly different.

In particular, human conscience is fundamentally correct, but limited by our human fallibility. That human fallibility is the source of our essential triumphs, our ability to appreciate our brief existence for its scarcity, and our ability to work together to transcend our individual mortality and fallibility to be better version of ourselves and achieve greater goals than any of us could achieve individually before we shuffle off this mortal coil. By the same token, that fallibility is the source of many of our shortcomings, as we underestimate the risks inherent in future tasks and make bad decisions based on faulty information, and give in to time-inconsistency of preferences, and fall victim to our lacks of sympathy and foresight.

In my view, though, this “sin” should never be a source of shame–for one thing, without sin, we would each be perfect, and there would be nothing of interest. For another thing, and this is the really important one for me, perfection is simply not feasible–it doesn’t exist outside of our concept of the divine; it’s a stylized model, just like perfect competition or a frictionless vacuum. We don’t expect the world to feel guilt or shame for having friction or air–in fact, while a world without friction might make Newtonian mechanics a little easier to understand, it would be a fundamentally (and, since I love the world we live in, tragically) different world than the one we know and love. It’s not even clear what it means–it’s not internally consistent, because the source of friction is the electromagnetic forces that keep solids coherent and thus a projectile wouldn’t just take a purely parabolic arc in a frictionless world, it would also cease to cohere. All of which is why we ended up coming up with physical models that incorporate friction and electromagnetics and why scientists keep searching for better and more coherent models.

By the same token, I think sin functions much better as a descriptive concept–a heuristic device, really–that allows us to think about the negative space between intention and action, and allows us to engage with these ideas in useful ways. It’s tautological in that “sinful” means “less than perfect” which is to say “possible in our universe.” Wherever there is entropy, there is “sin” in this sense, and it becomes the source of all beauty and love, chaos and complexity and change. Without sin, there is no growth, no progress; all is stagnant and fixed.

So to the extent that “sin” is useful as a concept for thinking about human behavior, I like to make use of it, but I’d really like to see it stripped of its associations with shame. I think all human error derives from our very real and beautiful limitations, which we can come to embrace, accept, and occasionally transcend, but which should not be associated with guilt or recrimination.

Tonight’s class was really great–a revelation in a lot of ways. There’s so much to talk about, so this may come out a bit scattered.

I suppose I may as well start at the start and go over what we went over. We broke the ice by discussing our UU moment, and mine goes a little something like this.

I grew up Moravian, and really had a generally very good religious experience growing up. The Moravian motto is “IN ESSENTIALS, UNITY; IN NON-ESSENTIALS, LIBERTY; IN ALL THINGS, LOVE.” which is really a very UU approach to life, although I disagree with the Moravian Church about what, exactly, are essentials. During the confirmation process (I would have been about 13 or so), I had some doubts about the Apostles’ Creed. In retrospect, they seem kind of pedantic, maybe even contrarian, but they were really the start of my personal search for truth, so they are waypoints that are important to me. It was a real struggle, and I worked with my confirmation mentor, who I think was at least a little strained about how to help me through, and the end result was basically the idea that I had to have faith. At the time, I didn’t really know what faith was, but as far as I could tell, it mostly meant I should say the words, pray about it, and trust that things would come together later.

Since then, I have come to disbelieve the theology and cosmology of the Christian church (although a lot of the ethics and traditions remain dear to me) and have become what I call a devout atheist. In the earlier days of my atheism, I maintained some of the fundamental beliefs of Christianity–the dogmatism and the intolerance, for example, both of which I mean in a valueless context. Christianity is dogmatic and intolerant in ways that are, within its structure, quite morally sound, although to me they ring untrue.

When Cheryl and I first started going to the Unitarian church in Baltimore, I really struggled with it. Whenever a Christian or a Wiccan or a Buddhist would talk, and would ascribe any of their feelings to a belief in a divine power, I had to hold my tongue from shouting them down, or from trackng them down afterwards and trying to convince them that they were wrong and blind and if only they’d listen, if only they’d realize, then they’d understand that the way they were looking at things just didn’t make internal sense–it couldn’t be true–and then they’d know what was really true and they’d live freer and better and more moral lives.

Unitarians believe in a free and responsible search for truth, and I had an easy time with the responsible part (in some sense, at least), but a really hard part with the free part.

My UU “moment” came a few months back, when a ministerial candidate, speaking at our church, talked about her sense of the divine in nature, and how it sheltered her and reminded her of her connection to the world, and how that made the world make sense for her. I had become much less pugilistic and contrarian in the intervening several years, but it hadn’t really crystallized until that moment–just how far I’d come. Despite the fact that I felt no personal truth in her belief in a divine force surrounding us all, I felt nothing but joy for her and connection to her. Here was someone who had found a personal truth, a way of looking at the world that made it make sense to her–not only that, but it gave her a belief in the fundamental benevolence of the universe. She had found this faith in a way that was honest and forthright, by following her internal sense of the true and the good, and I was thrilled to hear her story of personal triumph, and her vision of a beautiful and embracing world. And despite the fact that I didn’t believe as she did, I was able to recognize someone who had found joy and hope, a fellow traveler on a similar but different search or path or journey. In that moment, I realize that I got it–I understood and embraced the free and responsible search, and saw what a world that held that tight would look like, with each person focused on being good in the ways that they knew how.

It really was a transformative moment, a long way from duking it out over the Apostles’ Creed, and I couldn’t help but feel an immense affinity for the institution that we support and that supports us on our paths.

After the ice breaker, we talked about the course about what we were going to be learning. We talked a little bit about a liberal faith tradition as distinct from conservative or radical approaches to faith. A liberal faith tradition, as I understand it, is neither one where tradition is treated as the arbiter of all truth, wherein followers are to take the tradition that is handed them and accept it whole-cloth, and where the response to skepticism is explanation followed by an exhortation, or even a command, to exhibit religious discipline by searching their soul, using prayer and meditation to find a way to make peace with a tradition they find exceptionable. Nor is it an approach where all received tradition is treated as the bondage of ill-informed and cruel-intentioned forbears, each more determined than the last to lay the yoke of religion upon the masses, to control them–or as simply bunk, to be tossed out as valueless and misguided, mere epicycles on the spiritual orbits we have come to know as “true truth”.

Instead, a liberal faith tradition is an inherently moderate and contemplative one, where the traditions of the past are received and examined in good conscience. Those ideas which makes sense to our current believers are accepted and modified as needed to remain current. Those ideas which seem reprehensible or unhelpful are considered and modified, if possible, or rejected and repudiated, where to do so strengthens our faith.

The example we discussed in class is that of the idea of “sin.” A conservative approach to sin might rely heavily on scripture, on the language of the time and on the intentions of the writers. It might also rely heavily on historical church doctrine. To the extent that the moral content of sin might appear to be modified by changes in technology or political or social institutions, a conservative approach is wary of allowing changes to be made to the idea of sin.

A radical approach is likely to reject the whole notion of “sin” as a useless social construction of a bygone era, designed to make people feel guilty for behavior that threatened the power structure that existed at the time–an idea best left utterly repudiated, now that modern man knows better.

A liberal approach is more likely to try to make use of sin, if possible, as a way to bridge understanding–certainly the problems we face today can be informed by the wisdom of the past, and so perhaps sin is best thought of as an addiction–as self-destructive behavior that is at the crux of an internal conflict of intention within each person. While we may or may not believe in the concept of separateness from God, each of us might make use of the idea of sin to understand the world better.

The way I think of sin is informed by the use of the Greek word hamartia to denote sin in the New Testament. Hamartia derives its meaning from the idea of “falling short of the mark” and consequently has been used, by analogy, to mean separateness from God.

I view it as falling short of the mark in the sense that the mark might be thought of as the Path or the Tao–which, for the sake of explanation I can characterize this way: The Path consists of the future series of actions taken by an individual if that individual were purely good and omniscient. For Christians, this is essentially “What Would Jesus Do?” For Taoists, it is following the Tao.

I don’t really believe that the idea of “purely good” has any sensical meaning–a point upon which I’ll elaborate at a further date–but for now just run with it. Because human beings are not omniscient, we all inevitably fall short of the mark. This is, in my view, the source of the idea that human beings are essentially flawed, and the belief that “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” In the Christian ethic as I have received it, this has generally come to mean that all people are inherently depraved in some way, and need to reconnect with God in order to be saved from their fallen state.

My liberal interpretation of sin–which seems to me to be a very useful concept indeed–is that we have a moral imperative to set unattainable goals for ourselves–our reach should exceed our grasp–and in so doing, we will inevitably fail to achieve our goals.

When I say this, I mean that we should use our internal conscience to envision worlds we prefer to the current one, worlds we conceive as being more perfect and more moral and more just than the one we live in, and we should strive to make this world more like the ones we envision.

By failing to reach that goal, we learn humility. By striving and succeeded in small measures, we earn pride. This process of pride at our successes and humility at our shortcomings builds character, hones our moral sense and provides us with a sense of empathy–for our fellow human beings who all must necessarily fail–and moral righteousness in our desire for a world of increasing justice and kindness.

It helps us to become less judgmental to see the world this way–we know that everyone must ultimately fail to be their best self in a real and personal way, and are more forgiving for having experienced it. There is an essential separation between making judgments about the acceptability and social permissibility of certain people’s behavior–and the consequent decision about freedom and imprisonment–and judgments about the value and worth of those human beings in a moral sense. By striving and failing we can learn to accept the necessary justice required for maintaining and protecting the rights and freedoms granted by our society while honoring the inherent worth and dignity of every person in a truly and radically compassionate way.

It also helps us to be less judgmental of ourselves. While we learn humility from striving and failing, falling short of the mark, in this sense, is simply a foregone conclusion. It is no reason to feel shame, nor is it an indication of our inherent depravity–all of us are moving steadily toward the target, as best we can. Our inner compasses are sound, but the nature of existence is that each of us is limited by our mortality, and as we are neither omnipotent nor omniscient, we can take pride in our successes without needing to feel shame about our failures. This belief in the concept of sin without requiring the concept of shame makes sin something that we can understand in a more coherent and human fashion.

That’s an example of my application of a liberal approach to faith. There’s lots more where it came from, as I hope to explore further, later on.

We talked about the things we UUs believe in, and the difference between framework beliefs and what I’ll call focus beliefs.

All UUs share framework beliefs, such as the belief in a free and responsible search for meaning or the belief in the inherent worth and dignity of every person.

We don’t all share focus beliefs, such as the belief in the divinity of Jesus, or the belief in the reincarnation of souls–or even the existence of souls. It’s because of this distinction between framework and focus that I can be an atheist and a Unitarian Universalist.

We explored our beliefs further by looking at a column published several weeks ago in the AJC, written by Lorraine Murray. In it, she rejected the idea of a multi-denominational church that allowed members to “pick and choose” what they believed it, claiming that it led to a “wishy-washy” religion, which she called the “Church of Anything Goes.”

Rev. David wrote a letter to the editor in response, which was subsequently published, and he invited us all to read the article and try to articulate a defense of Unitarian Universalism in response. My response, to put it briefly (as it’s late and I should be asleep), is that my faith and the faith of the Unitarian Universalists I know is the least wishy-washy of anyone i have ever met–and certainly Anything Does Not Go. Unlike more conservative faith traditions, each member of a Unitarian Universalist congregation holds only hard-won beliefs, each of them open to question. There are no easy ways out, no “pray about it and it will come to you.” If you’re uncertain about life after death but fear mortality, there’s no one telling you, “Don’t worry, it says so in the Bible, so it must be true.” To claim that one can simply choose to believe–even against the voice of conscience–and then all will be cured seems to me an ultimately untenable approach to religion. Instead, Unitarians believe that each of us has to find  our own truth, and so we are each congregants and theologians both, striving to make sense of the world we live in. It is through the incredible strength of the thick and tightly braided rope of the world’s stock of wisdom and faith traditions that we are able to pull through to a fuller, more serene and substantial faith on the other side. By the same token, you won’t find many UUs who say “yeah, I kind of believe this, but not really, but I just try not to think about it too much.” That was not my experience as a Christian. Each of us is a seeker, with a moral responsibility to search and to support the search of others. To be part of a faith community that acknowledges and embraces the price and promise of that committed search is to be fully spiritually engaged.

I’m looking forward to next week’s class.