January 17 marked the 300th anniversary of the birth of Ben Franklin. The New York Times printed an article about him by a Franklin biographer, Stacy Schiff. I read the article through the eyes of the sermon I was preparing — about what we Unitarian Universalists believe, and what I personally believe – and I realized that I could use Schiff’s words about Franklin as my text for this sermon.
For example, she wrote, “Alexander Hamilton might have known everything, but Franklin questioned everything.”
This brought to mind the old story of the Ku Klux Klan coming to the Unitarian church and burning a question mark on the lawn.
We don’t claim that Ben Franklin was a Unitarian, as we do with other founders, like Jefferson and John Adams, but he had characteristics that we associate with our Unitarian Universalist approach to religion and spirituality.
In the religious community we’re the questioners. We question because we want to understand – we don’t take our beliefs from a particular book or ecclesiastical tradition, or as a matter of faith; our beliefs are fired in the kiln of reason. We value the rational mind, even if it gets in the way of a smooth ride to that sought-after destiny we call religion, or the spiritual aspect of life.
But we’re not a religious community simply because we value the rational mind – we’re a religious community because we value the spiritual aspect of life and we want to find an appropriate balance of intellect and spirit, of reason and faith, of the rational and the emotional.
About Ben Franklin, Schiff went on to say, “His religion was tolerance, his sect pragmatism.”
There are three pillars on which our faith is built: freedom, reason and tolerance. Just as we demand the freedom for ourselves – freedom to have our own thoughts and to question what we’ve been told or taught — so do we respect and defend the freedom of those whose beliefs are different from our own. We celebrate diversity in all its forms, sizes, shapes and colors.
But be careful: that tolerance coin has two very different sides; on the one hand, tolerance is respect for the other person’s point of view and her right to express it. The other side of the tolerance coin is condescension – it suggests the need to ‘put up with’ ideas that are inferior, something we have to endure, like pain.
There are always two sides to every story. About Franklin Shiff writes: “His ability to argue either side of an issue with equal vigor drove (John) Adams to distraction.”
When I visited an old, dear high school friend in California last summer we agreed to avoid certain topics, acknowledging that we are on opposite sides of certain social issues, like gay marriage and the war in Iraq. I wanted to tell him that I understood his point of view and I wanted to say that there were some things where we disagree, but I could take his side in an argument, ‘with equal vigor.’
Sshiff says that Franklin was, “America’s first autobiographer, he presides over an age of memoirs…”
The memoir has gotten a lot of attention lately, because of James Frey’s popular best selling book, A Million Little Pieces. I’m glad I read it before the revelations about the things he invented. Those revelations about his inventing a three-month prison sentence and a fist fight in the rehab center didn’t change my sense of appreciation for the book.
Indeed, they reminded me of comments I made recently about our personal myth—the story we tell ourselves about ourselves; and the way we tell that story to others. The memoir is imperfect in part because the memory is imperfect; the memoir is imperfect because it strives to be mass-marketed; editors know what sells and doesn’t sell, just like used car salesmen.
James Frey wrote a story about redemption; it’s not only about him and his life, it’s about what it means to be human, what it means to be lost and then found, like the ‘amazing grace’ song; it’s a story about liberation from the prison of addiction. It’s a very human story. In his biting memoir, addiction took on a human face – a battered face, with missing teeth and a hole through the cheek. Yes, we could have done without the face lift – the invented stories; we wish the details were more accurate, but I have a feeling that he got some advice about how to get his book published, and it worked.
Now James Frey is a rich man – so he has another big job ahead of him; in addition to staying clean and sober, he’s responsible for making good use of all that money! It isn’t easy!
One of the deficiencies in our culture is a general lack of appreciation of mythology; a culture that takes its religion literally. But the addict’s struggle is universal; it’s ‘Biblical’ in size and scope, like the story of Job, which was, of course, fabricated…it’s a poem, and it’s part of the mythology of the Bible. Most of the Biblical stories are invented; they’re myths; but a good myth reveals deep, universal human truths. A good myth is a Truth story; it’s not meant to be a true story. Parts of every memoir contain elements of mythology.
Oprah ‘gets it.’ Frey’s story is not about literal details; it’s about one’s inner life… it’s about spirituality, the deepest aspect of religion. It doesn’t ruin the story for me to know that Frey didn’t spend three months in jail – his addiction, though, is a life sentence! Oprah traffics in dreams, in hope and inspiration. I’m not a big fan; I’ve never watched her show. But I know that she has helped millions of people and I’m glad she chose Frey’s book.
We need all the hope we can get – it’s possible to pull yourself out of addiction.
Some of my friends who are committed to the AA model don’t like the book because James Frey didn’t go that route, and he makes some unfortunate, arrogant comments about it; but that, too, was his path; his journey up from the bottom. It seems to be working for him, so far.
Getting back to Schiff’s story about Ben Franklin: she says, “He had no great faith in human nature but an abiding one in collective human enterprise.”
Who could have a ‘great faith in human nature’ at a time when we read about and witness through television what we used to call ‘man’s inhumanity to man,’ and the human capacity for evil, greed, vindictiveness and violence?
But we must not lose faith in the ‘collective human enterprise.’
Franklin told those who were about to sign the Constitution, “For when you assemble a number of men to have the advantage of their joint wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those men all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views…But he was also a preternaturally happy man. He truly believed that it was always morning in America.”
The latest exposure of human weakness at the top can be seen in the Abramoff lobbying scandal in Congress. That’s an old story; it’s about the assembly of men and women in Washington ‘with all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinions, their local interests, and their selfish views,’ as Franklin put it. The Peanuts character, Linus, said, “I love humanity, it’s just people I can’t stand.”
Schiff writes: “With equal genius Franklin codified good behavior and (then) defied it…With equal gusto he preached temperance and wrote drinking songs.” And that was before Emerson’s famous line about a ‘foolish consistency being the hobgoblin of little minds adored by philosophers, statesmen and divines.’
She says that Franklin “…made an art of levity.”
The piece I read last week about the successful life comes to mind: “To laugh often and love much, to win and hold the respect of intelligent persons and the affection of little children.”
A good, active sense of humor is a prerequisite to a healthy spiritual life. I have a growing sense of appreciation for the statue of a laughing Buddha that sits outside my office – so much serious stuff happens in that office, as it should, but the laughing Buddha reminds me that I must find and maintain a balance in my life. I’ve noticed that the much-revered Dali Lama laughs a lot – he even laughs at himself. He giggles! He’s a spiritually-centered man.
Which is not to say that one’s religious or spiritual life is not to be taken seriously; it’s just that there’s a limit to the seriousness with which we can take it, causing us to lose sleep, to fight with our own families, to say nothing about the ultimate absurdity of religion – the religious war! There’s nothing religious about war; any kind of war, at any time, for any reason.
War is the ultimate sign of defeat – we resort to war when we’ve failed in our efforts toward diplomacy and compromise; we resort to war only when all else fails; and if, as in the case of Iraq, we engage in war before exhausting all other alternatives, it’s a grave sign of more significant failure: the failure to overcome the pride of power, the deadliest combination of the deadly sins.
Ben Franklin cultivated an active sense of humor; which is not to say that he wasn’t a serious man. Schiff informs us that, “His last public act was to petition Congress against slavery.”
Ben’s portrait is on the face of our $100 bill – the highest denomination of our currency. She closed her birthday tribute to Franklin by saying, “He believed it was always morning in America. He makes us feel rich.” She asked, “Would you rather have a Washington or a Franklin in your pocket.” Nice metaphor!
Her tribute got me into the sermon, which was in response to one of our members who approached me and asked how she could respond to family and friends who, when they heard she had joined the Unitarian Church in Westport, said, “But Unitarians don’t believe anything.”
I responded that she could say, “Oh, but we do: in fact, we believe everything.”
Some Unitarians like to say that when you’re a Unitarian “You can believe anything you want.” I cringe when I hear it put that way, though I understand the spirit of the statement – that there are no creedal demands on us; there’s no theological test.
There’s a significant difference between the idea that we Unitarian Universalists are free from dogma or a theological creedal statement and the idea that ‘we can believe anything we want to.’
Those of us for whom the Unitarian Universalist approach fits think that everyone would really like to have the freedom we do; but I’ve come to realize that such freedom (which is one of the three pillars of our faith, along with reason and tolerance) is not easy; not necessarily desirable; freedom puts demands that the Western religions learned early on is not very attractive.
I understand what Jean Paul Sartre had in mind when he said, “Man is condemned to freedom…which he may seek to evade, distort, and deny but which he will have to face if he is to become a moral being. The meaning of man’s life is not established before his existence. Once the terrible freedom is acknowledged, man has to make this meaning himself, has to commit himself to a role in this world, has to commit his freedom. And this attempt to make oneself is futile without the ‘solidarity’ of others.”
Traditional religionists sometimes say, “If you don’t offer a set of beliefs, why bother having a church?”
We have a church because we need one another; we need the support and encouragement that comes with a sense of solidarity; we need a corrective – we need influence of people we’ve come to trust; so the building of community is central to our approach to the religious or spiritual life.
Freedom is the most complicated human ingredient.
We all want answers. We even want answers to questions too big for us to ask; these answers form the basis of all the religions of the world, to say nothing of the self-help books. Each of the religions is a kind of H & R Block, offering a risk-free opportunity to have someone else prepare your return…for when you ‘return.’ Heaven is guaranteed!
The religions offer a kind of step-by-step diagram of your walk through life…a sort of Mapquest set of directions to follow.
Unitarian-types prefer to explore, rather than follow the beaten path. We believe that all the religions are the products of human imagination. That doesn’t mean they are ‘just made up,’ even though it does mean that they are ‘made up.’
It’s that little word ‘just’ that distinguishes a respectful acknowledgement of the source of the religions. Humans invent religions because we need to satisfy something in ourselves, which is comparable to the reason we eat and drink and sleep – basic things that need to be satisfied if we are to achieve a sense of being at home in the world and in ourselves.
Every human being has religion, in its generic sense. The generic brand includes any and all ways by which we make connections, going back to the literal meaning of the word religion: to reconnect; from the Latin verb legare, to connect; and re-legare, which means to re-connect, once you get un-connected at birth; once you become a separate human being, with a mind of your own, a body of your own, a set of characterstics inherited at conception, and a unique environment into which you’ve been thrust from day one.
At our best, then, we Unitarian Universalists affirm the basic values and deep truths found in all the religions of the world – at their best.
At our worst, we deny the validity of other people’s religion; at our worst we are disrespectful and arrogant; at our worst we are competitive and aggressive about our beliefs. After all, we’re only human; just like Ben Franklin, and James Frey and the members of Congress.
It’s possible to get addicted to a religion, trying to impose it on everyone else. There’s an old saying, “When I’m a Buddhist my family hates me; when I’m the Buddha they love me.”
(When I’m a Christian my family hates me, when I’m the Christ they love me.)
When I’m living out the best in all the religions – the universal commandment to be a good person – it doesn’t matter what, if any, religious group I happen to belong to.
One of the biggest dangers in the various religions is the tendency of adherents, including Unitarian Universalists, to try to impose their brand on the everyone else. There’s always a danger in trying to impose our thoughts, ideas and beliefs onto others; even while we appreciate learning about one another’s thoughts, ideas and beliefs. It’s tricky business.
I’ll leave you with the continuing question: how have your beliefs changed, so far: your beliefs about God or the gods; your beliefs about afterlife, sin and salvation; your view of human nature — about good and evil. When you identify some change, ask yourself if there a particular experience that caused the change, or an accumulation of life experiences.
And I’ll close with words from the ancient Chinese teacher, Lao Tsu, from the collection attributed to him in Tao Te Ching; from chapter 49:
The sage does not dwell on his own problems.
He is aware of the needs of others. He says:
I am good to people who are good.
I am also good to people who are not good.
Because Virtue is goodness.
I have faith in people who are faithful.
I also have faith in people who are not faithful.
Because Virtue is faithfulness.
The sage is hesitant to speak; he is humble –
To the world he seems contradictory and confusing.
The people look to him and listen.
He behaves like an innocent little child.
We come together this morning in acknowledgement of our need of one another.
Some of us need to be heard, but have no one who will really listen.
Some of us need to be loved, and some of us need to love.
Some of us want to change, but it’s too (painful) difficult.
Some of us are lonely, but afraid to tell anyone.
Some of us want to just be ourselves but (we’re afraid we won’t be accepted as we are.)
Some of us want to make the world a better place but feel weighed down by a sense of futility.
Some of us don’t even know what we need, but hope to find out, here.
We come together, sometimes in fear, sometimes in trust, sometimes in sorrow and pain, sometimes in joy, but always in hope and faith that we can help and strengthen each other in our quest for healing.