Born this Way…?

First Reading – #592 The Free Mind by William Ellery Channing
I call that mind free which masters the senses, which recognizes its own reality and greatness:Which passes life, not in asking what it shall eat or drink, but in hungering, thirsting, and seeking after righteousness.

I call that mind free which jealously guards its intellectual rights and powers, which does not content itself with a passive or hereditary faith: Which opens itself to light whencesoever it may come; which receives new truth as an angel from heaven.

I call that mind free which is not passively framed by outward circumstances, and is not the creature of accidental impulse: Which discovers everywhere the radiant signatures of the infinite spirit, and in them finds help to its own spiritual enlargement.

I call that mind free which protects itself against the usurpations of society, and which does not cower to human opinion: Which refuses to be the slave or tool of the many or the few, and guards its empire over itself as nobler than the empire of the world.

I call that mind free which resists the bondage of habit, which does not mechanically copy the past, nor live on its old virtues: But which listens for new and higher monitions of conscience, and rejoices to pour itself forth in fresh and higher exertions.

I call that mind free which sets no bounds to its love, which, wherever they are seen, delights in virtue and sympathizes with suffering: Which recognizes in all human beings the images of God and the rights of God’s children, and offers itself up a willing sacrifice to the cause of humankind.

I call that mind free which has cast off all fear but that of wrongdoing, and which no menace or peril can enthrall: Which is calm in the midst of tumults, and possesses itself, though all else be lost.

Second Reading – from Free Will by Sam Harris
Free will is an illusion. Our wills are simply not of our own making. Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control. We do not have the freedom we think we have.

Free will is actually more than an illusion (or less), in that it cannot be made conceptually coherent. Either our wills are determined by prior causes and we are not responsible for them, or they are the product of chance, and we are not responsible for them.

Sermon – Born this Way…?
Unitarian Universalist minister David Rankin tells the story of how he was just finishing a cup of coffee at his local diner, when a road weary family came in for lunch. He describes how the family’s six year old son was filled with energy of the recently released. He bounced on the booth seat, and talked non-stop until the waitress arrived to take their order.

She looked at the boy and said, “What do you want for lunch?”

With big eyes glancing at his mother and his father, he quickly said, “Hot dog!”.

She responded, “Fries?”


“And what to drink?”

Before she finished he said, “Coke!”

“Okay” was the response, and the waitress took the parents’ order and left.

Sitting completely still with the same wide eyes, the little boy said to his mother, “Mom – she thinks I’m real.”

How is a person made real?
How do we know when a person is a person?

My niece Abby was almost four when her baby sister Emily arrived, and for at least the first year of Emily’s life – Abby would ask her mom, “Mom, when will Emmy be a people?”

Aren’t little kids so good at zeroing in on some of life’s most complex questions?

In this case, Abby was pondering one component of what theologians would call “theological anthropology.” What makes someone a person?

In David Rankin’s story of the diner, the little boy experiences first hand one of liberal theology’s best answers: We are made real by way of our capacity to make our own choices. We differentiate ourselves as human beings by way of our capacity for self-determination.

We freely choose, therefore we are.

It was this assertion that in many ways paved the way to today’s Unitarian Universalist church. We can rightfully trace our religious roots back to the Puritans who came en masse from England to the shores of what became Massachusetts. I shared this piece of our religious history with you a few weeks ago when I gave a sermon you could accurately characterize as an apologetic for the Cambridge Platform.

However, as you might have guessed, at a certain point our history parts ways with the orthodoxy of the Puritan congregational churches.

Or rather, it parted ways over a number of years, but over a very particular doctrine, directly related to this question of theological anthropology. The Puritans, you might realize were die-hard Calvinists. Which is to say, they believed in pre-destination. Which means they believed, God decided your path for you – whether you were saved or damned, whether you were chosen or doomed, one of the elect or one of the – to borrow a phrase from contemporary versions of this theology: left behind.

Whether or not you were one of the elect had nothing to do with your own choices or your own actions, your destiny was pre-decided, pre-ordained by God. The path of your life was set even before you were born.

Now you might wonder what would lead human beings, lots of them, to accept and affirm such a disempowering way of thinking of themselves. There are lots of reasons, including social and historical factors – then, and now, as to why pre-destination seemed the best possible option for thinking about the moral questions of life.

Perhaps most of all, it is the necessary conclusion when you are committed – as they were – to thinking about God as what my Bible Professor in seminary called – Omni-Omni. Omni-present, Omni-scient, Omni- potent. All powerful, all knowing, always everywhere. When you have a God that knows everything, and is in charge of everything, and is in everything and everywhere – well you can’t escape that God’s will would define and determine human destiny.

Every commitment you make in theology has a consequence. In this case, you get a super powerful God, but a super weak humanity. What kind of God would you prefer?

Pre-destination was the party line in the 17th and 18th century colonial religious scene. But as with any religious group, it was never 100% accepted. There are always those who wondered, who questioned, who began to imagine other ways of thinking about our will and its freedom or lack thereof. These heretics are our people.

And our people found their public voice towards the end of the 18th century when Charles Chauncy began to preach on the possibility that all humans had within them a “likeness to God,” which had implications both in terms of the quality of our nature, as well as our capacity to make choices and determine the course of our lives.

“Half a century later,” as contemporary UU scholar Paul Rasor tells it, “in 1828, Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing preached a well-known sermon using ‘Likeness to God’ as his title. Stating [what was by then the] widely held liberal view, Channing claimed that ‘the Divinity within us….makes us more and more partakers of the moral perfection of the Supreme Being'” (26, Faith Without Certainty).

Ten years later, Channing declared even more boldly that human beings “have the power not only of tracing our powers, but of guiding and impelling them; not only of watching our passions, but of controlling them; not only of seeing our faculties grow, but of applying to them means and influences to aid their growth. We can fix our eyes on perfection, and make almost everything speed toward it.”

Channing – who is known today as the founder of American Unitarianism – was saying that human beings have the power to control their feelings, their ideas, their understandings. Actually, he says, we have the power to become perfect! No matter what our life circumstances, no matter what we are born into, we are capable of becoming anything. It is up to us.

We like this, right? I mean, it suits us. We, the inheritors of this liberal religious vision of free will and self-determination, this gospel of self-improvement, this resonates for us. Anything you want, work hard enough, and it can be yours. The future is in our hands. We’ll build a land where we’ll bind up the broken, goes one of our songs.

Our liberal tradition has empowered us so fully, so completely honored our capacity to choose and to act freely, it is hard to imagine what our faith looks like without an emphasis on free will and volition. Our worth, our real-ness as a human, is directly tied to our capacity to make our own choices, to choose for ourselves.

Now remember what I said about all theological commitments having a consequence. Commit to an all-empowered humanity? You get an impotent or even non-existent God.

As the Rev. Galen Guengrich of All Souls, New York City puts it, it does not matter if God exists or not; either way, we are God’s hands. There is only us.

To be clear, the question of free will – despite my sermon title – is greater than the nature and nurture debate. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter the source of your life circumstances or your personality, the question of free will is a matter of whether or not you have within you the power to respond freely to those givens. One leading psychologist defines it this way: “Is the person an autonomous entity who genuinely chooses how to act from among multiple possible options? Or is the person essentially just one link in a causal chain, so that the person’s actions are merely the inevitable product of lawful causes stemming from prior events, and no one ever could have acted differently than he or she actually did?”

Two centuries after Channing, we are still wondering if we are able to “fix our eyes upon perfection, and make almost everything speed toward it.” “?

Or, to ask the question as 20th century Unitarian ethicist and theologian James Luther Adams put it, is “human will a decisive element in human structure?” (49, On Being Human Religiously).

JLA – as he is known – was so dedicated to the primacy of human freedom and our capacity to choose, that he declared it was the only claim that you could not disavow and still call yourself a follower of liberal theology.

And yet, if we as liberal religionists are anything, we are open to new knowledge as it is revealed through science and the evolution of life itself.

Which means, we have a problem.

See, most scientific studies now reveal that free will simply does not exist.

Don’t believe me? Just google “Does free will exist” and you’ll find a slew of articles from scientific american and psychology today that underscore that our decisions are influenced by many things – cultural and historical context, environmental factors, our genetic codes, our physiology, our chemistry, our biology….just not so much by something we might call our free and conscious will.

To offer a couple specific examples….A Radiolab podcast interviews Malcolm Gladwell who describes studies on decision-making. One in particular shows how when we meet a stranger and they hand us a warm cup of coffee, for example, vs. when we meet one who hands us a cold drink – well it turns out we are much more likely to report positive feelings about the one who hands us the warm drink. Because – warm drink = warm person? That’s rational…

Another article in Scientific American quotes scientist Francis Crick who boldly says, “‘You,’ your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules… although we appear to have free will, in fact, our choices have already been predetermined for us and we cannot change that.”

OMG – the Puritans were right!

None of these articles on free will find that our decisions are created by an independent conscious mind. In fact, it is becoming less clear if such a thing as “the free mind” even exists. Not only were we “born this way” in terms of our basic personality and physical characteristics, but we were “born” pre-disposed to certain choices, born into to a particular life, and even born to fulfill what some might call our pre-determined destiny.

And here is where all this big theological theorizing gets real – let’s turn our attention to the trial that concluded in Florida yesterday evening, the trial for George Zimmerman for the killing of 17 year old Trayvon Martin. I don’t claim to know or understand all the details in the case, but here’s what seems to be the most basic summary: Zimmerman believed Martin was a threat; he decided to shoot him, and Florida has enacted a law that says that if you believe someone is a threat, you can shoot them in “self-defense” without being charged with murder.

When I think about this case, I can’t help thinking about my racially and economically diverse neighborhood, where visitors inevitably ask us if it’s safe. Or rather, white visitors want to know if it’s safe. Can you walk around? They ask. What about at night?

Truthfully, my neighborhood is as safe as any in the city. However, it is likely that when you walk, you will run across young African American men. And if you are a white person in America, it is also likely that you have received cultural and social messages that say young black man = threat.

And so whether or not you as a white person feel safe walking in the neighborhood is a matter of how well you are able to separate that poisonous stereotype of a cultural message from the particular and real-life human being crossing your path.

And yet – all these studies show our capacity to parse out these kinds of decisions, our capacity to make a rational choice, a free choice, is significantly if not entirely compromised by factors outside our conscious control.

If we think of it this way, and I suppose to some degree that his jury must have thought of it this way – then we have to ask, at what point is it right to hold George Zimmerman accountable for his actions?

At what point do we hold any of us accountable for any of our actions?

And if it turns out that we are not actually able to “choose” for ourselves, what then makes us human afterall?

You know what’s extra interesting about all those scientific studies? I mean in addition to the major discovery that free will doesn’t exist…..It’s that they have also discovered that humanity is better off when we believe free will exists. Free will, it turns out, is a really useful religious myth. When instead we assert a deterministic view of life, we tend to cheat more, lie more, act more selfishly…generally act badly, in all kinds of ways – more so than when we lift up our capacity for free will.

Personally, I love this hypocritical proposal from the scientific community, because it aligns with one of my favorite ways to measure religious truth: does holding this belief make us more compassionate, does it make us more kind, does it help us love each other and ourselves a little more? If so, then it’s true. Maybe not scientifically true, but religiously true.

Fortunately for all you who like to have your truths line up, however, I have another proposal.

One of my kids’ favorite books tells the story of a little boy who says he has a volcano in his belly that makes him explode.

He tells all his friends and family that they should be extra careful around him because they wouldn’t want to set off his volcano.

His mom lets this go on for a while, but eventually she sits him down for a little talk.

She tells her son that it is good for him to be aware that he has more of a “volcano” than other kids might have.  And, it is good to let his friends and family know about his volcano. They can help him be more aware of his potential to explode, and they can help him learn things to better anticipate and manage his actions when he does.  But ultimately, she told him, he was still responsible for what he did with that feeling – that volcano – inside his belly.

There are many things about our choices that are not of our own making; there are more things that determine us than we even realize. But the fact that we are not capable of untethered conscious decision-making does not mean we are not capable of conscious decision making at all.

It just means that human freedom – like I talked about last week, lives in a paradox of individual autonomy and relationship-based restrictions.

If in the nineteenth century we came to affirm the individual’s capacity to choose as the definition of human personhood, what makes someone “real,” perhaps in the twenty-first century, it is time to again to revise our understanding with the corrective of the interdependence of all existence, what we might even think about as a corrective to our understanding of God.

Perhaps it is time to acknowledge that we are born into relationship with all of creation – all that ever was, is, and will be, born into lives that we did not make ourselves. And then, we are empowered to act within this great and given relationship. And this acting, in relationship – rather than as autonomous individual actors, is what makes us real.

For it is through relationships of integrity and trust, that we can come to understand much of what pushes and pulls on us to choose and to act in one way or another.

From this perspective on “free will,” it seems to me that our call in response to that devastating verdict last night, is not to distance ourselves from all the George Zimmermans in our midst (which is to say, any of us, all of us), or to call them “other,” but rather to step forward into fuller relationship. To listen, to learn, to understand. To grow and to act, together, through the relationship. There is nothing easy or straightforward about this kind of moral action.

Yet it is only in these holy partnerships, where we can hope to awaken to our lives beyond our choosing, beyond our control, and only in in this shared awakening, can we help one another act according to consciously identified values and commitments.

In the context of these relationships, we are more powerful and more free than we even yet realize.

It’s a different kind of freedom than we have been taught to value, but it is more satisfying, more meaningful, and more human than any vision of hyper individualism could promise.

To me, this is the critical belief of today’s liberal religion. We can create a new world, just not by ourselves. We can act decisively, just not without help. We can consciously act according to our deepest commitments – when we do so together.

As my favorite quote from my favorite Unitarian Universalist theologian Rebecca Parker goes, “None of us alone can save the world. But together, that is another possibility, waiting.”

About Rev. Gretchen Haley

Gretchen Haley is relentlessly curious about most things, especially the big stuff of theology, the beauty of creation, the magic of collaboration, and the great joy of pop culture (reflected in this blog by random posts on Beyonce, Taylor Swift, Scandal, Orphan Black, or the latest Marvel movie). She has an audacious ambition for the liberal church, believing in its capacity to transform lives and our world by way of hyper-local relationships and partnerships that inspire the unleashing of courageous love. She's all in on adrienne maree brown's emergent strategy, and finds solace in the trails in and around Fort Collins Colorado where she serves with the brilliant Rev. Sean Neil-Barron as one of the ministers of the Foothills Unitarian Church. She and her amazing partner of over 20 years, Carri, have 2 children, Gracie (14) and Josef (12) who both relish and resent being PKs, and who keep her grounded, frustrated, inspired, and humbled, everyday. She is basically obsessed with her puppy, a large sized mutt, Charlie.
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