This Sunday talk was shared on April 10, 2010, at Thomas Paine Unitarian Universalist Fellowship.
It’s good to be with you all this morning.
This talk started a couple months ago, at work, where I’m an editor for Men’s Health magazine. I was back-reading an article “Why Men Fail,” by Mike Zimmerman. In it, he writes this:
Real success, any way society measures it—money, fame, happiness, family—cannot be achieved in the presence of cynicism.
And then he goes on to quote Matthew McConaughey, of all people, who says:
First, I gagged. Then I scoffed, Matthew McConaughey! Please! Had a little laugh. Finished the article.
About 15 minutes later, I couldn’t get the thought out of my head. Success cannot be achieved in the presence of cynicism.
So here’s where we’ll start. Unitarian Universalism is a skeptics’ faith. Right there in our principles and purposes we covenant to affirm and promote “A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” We are explicitly noncreedal. There is no one-size-fits-all faith.
I teach a class here—Neighboring Faiths, in which we take 5th and 6th graders to the nearby homes of other faith traditions. And if you want to see someone screw up their face and really decide that you are from another planet, tell them that as a faith we don’t believe the Bible, the Torah, or the Koran is the sole valid interpretation of the divine. Tell them you think that all those books have their place, along with Gandhi’s Autobiography, and All I Ever Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, by Robert Fulgham (a UU minister, by the way). Expect them to say that they’re praying for you.
As a faith perspective, we are questioners.
Look around you, and you’ll find a lot of skeptics—professional skeptics, even (doctors, lawyers, scientists). I’m a journalist. The most important lesson I ever received was from a mentor who said, “Your mother says she loves you, check it out.” And then, for emphasis, he repeated, “Your mother says she loves you …. check … it …. out.”
Importantly: Most of the people here were not born into this faith, but came here after asking a question or a series of questions about their religious identity and finding the answers lacking. Can I get an amen?
I would consider skepticism a question-powered search for truth and meaning. But there’s a related word: cynicism. Cynicism is questioning, but with a different goal. It’s the negation of finding answers. It is, in fact, a hiding from answers. Cynics can be funny, but arguing with one can be a frustrating affair, because a cynical exchange doesn’t get at the truth of the matter.
You’d think that one tactic for overcoming the cynic would be belief, but indeed, as we all know, there are “true believers” who are completely cynical.
So when I first thought about this message, I had skepticism and cynicism on one side of a rhetorical divide, and belief on the other. But that’s not right. Let’s do it like this: skepticism and belief on this side; cynicism on the other. The choice we make is not between questioning and believing. At our best, we shape belief through questioning. The more interesting question, to me, is one of trust.
Skepticism and belief are built on a trust that the answers can be ascertained. Cynicism, on the other hand, is a by-product of dis-trust.
I become a cynic when my trust in the assumptions I make about life is compromised. I become cynical about my job when I distrust that the people who run my workplace are invested in the well-being of everyone that works there. I become cynical about my government when I do not trust that it is working or can work for the Common Good.
And when that happens I get political theater the likes of which we’ve all watched for a decade or more. And those events have an effect, a souring of belief in the ability to solve problems, in this case as a country. The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press spoke to people on their opinions of Congress. 86 percent were negative, 4 percent positive, and 10 percent too polite to say what they were really feeling. The most-used words to describe Congress were: dysfunctional, corrupt, selfish, inept, confused, incompetent, ineffective, lazy, bad, sucks, poor, crooks, lousy, terrible.
Now, I’m no fan of Congress. But short of a true cataclysm in Washington, these numbers do not seem so much a measure of the effectiveness of our legislature as a measure of something else we feel toward the representatives that we ostensibly sent to Washington.
The question is when do we move from critique to condemnation.
Is it wrong to be cynical? Sometimes, like with the current political climate, it may feel as if it is the only road forward. But here’s my question to you: Where does this road lead? And do you want to travel it?
Even in love, Roberts and Owen are constantly suspicious that each is going to betray the other. And—spoiler alert here: if you want to see this movie, shut your ears for the next 30 seconds, though, honestly, the plot is so confusing that you’ll never remember what I say as you wade through the thing—they steal the “secret” only to find out that they, in fact, have been played by other actors in the drama. They end up only with each other—which, again, means Julia Roberts and Clive Owen. Weep not for either of them.
And so the lesson of Duplicity is you reap what you sow—look for deception, look for dis-trust, it will find you. In spades.
Mike Zimmerman—remember him? the writer of the original article— had a term for the kind of communication that thrives amid dis-trust. He calls it a “bitch spiral,” an ever-quickening descent into blame, recrimination and passivity. “Why even bother? She’ll screw it up anyway.” “I’d love to do that, but I know the boss wouldn’t let me.” “What a joke!”
Even worse, bitch spirals are hard to resist; they rarely pull down just one person. It’s something to think about next time you’re sitting around a table and somebody begins their familiar litany of complaints about the Same Ol Somebody or Something. Do I really want to go where this is leading?
The Rev. Kent Matthies, the minister at the Unitarian Society of Germantown, and I were talking about trust. And he said to me that a golden rule of congregational health is that if you have a problem with trust or respect between the leadership and the minister, you’ll go nowhere. When you can’t agree to trust, you certainly cannot commit to a shared vision of where you want to go together.
And while Kent was speaking specifically about congregational leadership, I’d re-cast that as a challenge to everyone in our community, because at our best we are surely ministers to each other.
Reminds me of a movie from last year – Duplicity. Anybody see it? I’m sure some of you did, though I’d challenge anybody to recount the plot. Easier to remember its stars – Julia Roberts and Clive Owen, a little eye candy for everyone. Anyway, in the movie Roberts and Owen are first rivals and later lovers despite working for competing corporate espionage squads. They conspire to steal a prize product – a cure for male pattern balding. As an editor at Men’s Health, I’m pretty sure that would be a big deal.
And we are at an important time in our congregational life. Two weeks from now, we’ll gather to articulate a vision of what we want this community to be. For those who have been here for some time—more than 5 years, say—this is a pretty familiar drill. If you’re newer, you probably will find this a novel idea. If you grew up Catholic, for example, the parish priest never asked you to help envision the Church’s next 5 years (though, honestly, it wouldn’t hurt for that church to try now; it’s never good when the two things that come to mind about a church are creepy pedophilia and obstructionism; if ever there was a time and place to look for fresh thinking, now and the Catholic Church would be a good place to start).
But back to Thomas Paine: The business of creating a shared vision requires first that we build a shared trust—a safe area in which we can share thoughts that might stray far from where we are now; that allow for possibilities that perhaps aren’t apparent to all of us; a place where we can hear, discern, and then react.
And this place needs to be large enough to accommodate all of us. My wife Virginia and I have a term for the 33 or so people in this community who invariably show up for events like church visioning sessions—”The Usual Suspects. Well, “rounding up the usual suspects” is no path to a shared vision. We need new suspects. If you are in this room, we need your perspective, your energy.
If our first principle calls us to respect the worth and dignity of each person, then we need each of those people in our community to take part in shaping our shared vision—and in making it a reality. There is no greater incentive to become involved than to have been there at its creation.
And we will not succeed unless all the people in this community articulate a vision, wrestle with it, embrace it, and commit to it.
Some Sunday mornings, I sit in my seat, about halfway back on the right side there, and we sing a song together, and I can feel the strength of this community building around me. This began before Rev. Bryant joined us, but it’s certainly strengthened in the past nine months. We’re at a time brimming with excitement and potential.
We’ve been here before; previously, not much changed. Why? Because we clung to what we were instead of what we could become. We tried to make new realities confirm to old assumptions, rather than challenge those old assumptions.
We sit at that same point again. And we will need all the courage and trust we can muster to imagine a vibrant and loving community with room enough for all those folks who we know live around here without a faith community, but who would find our perspective affirming and maybe even life-changing.
What could we become? I have ideas, and I know you do, too. Bring them here two weeks from now. Share them. Listen. Listen some more.
And think about these questions: How do I build a culture of trust around me? How do I exhibit trust in others? And how do I live up to the trust others put in me? Because the surest way to breed cynicism is to fail to follow-through on what you say you will do.
We often quote Margaret Mead around here: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
It’s time for this “small group of thoughtful, committed citizens” to change its world. Matthew McConaughey would be proud.
That’s a joke. And a closing. Blessed be.