Reading 1: From Michael Chrichton’s, The Lost World.
The Institute explored the behavior of a great variety of complex systems – corporations, neurons, enzyme cascades within a single cell, the group behavior of migratory birds….It did not take long before they began to notice that complex systems showed certain common behaviors, behaviors [that] could not be explained by analyzing the components of the systems. The time-honored scientific approach of reductionism – taking the watch apart to see how it worked – didn’t get you anywhere with complex systems, because the interesting behavior seemed to arise from the spontaneous interaction of the components. The behavior wasn’t planned or directed; it just happened. Of the behaviors two are of particular interest. One is adaptation. The ability to adapt is characteristic of complex systems – and may be one reason why evolution seems to lead toward even more complex organisms. But even more important is the way complex systems seem to strike a balance between the need for order and the imperative to change. Complex systems tend to locate themselves at a place we call the “edge of chaos.” We imagine the edge of chaos as a place where there is enough innovation to keep a living system vibrant, and enough stability to keep it from collapsing into anarchy. It is a zone of conflict and upheaval, where the old and the new are constantly at war. Finding the balance point must be a delicate matter – if a living system drifts too close, it risks falling over into incoherence and dissolution; but if the system moves too far away, it become rigid, frozen, totalitarian. Both conditions lead to extinction. Too much change is as destructive as too little. Only at the edge of chaos can complex systems flourish.
Sermon Part 1: Connecting in chaos
In my first few years after leaving home, my mom and I used to have a conversation we’d repeat every so often. It goes like this:
First, I tell my mom what I’ve been up to, about my classes – basically what feels like regular old chit chat. And my mom goes: “You sound weird. You don’t sound like yourself.”
“Who do I sound like, mom?”
“I don’t know. Like your friends, or your professors. I’m not sure, just not like you.”
This conversation drove me crazy. It drove me crazy that she didn’t believe me. And I drove myself crazy with the doubts that would creep in as a result – am I not myself? What does my “real self” sound like? What does that “real self” want to do with the rest of her life?
The process of figuring out who we are, particularly in relation to our parents, is not a straight line. Even when you think you’ve gotten it all worked out, something changes, and you have to do it all over again.
“Self-definition,” as Edwin Friedman calls it, is a life-long process, and a practice we never really perfect, but continue to try. However, not a process or practice in the way a lot of us have been taught or enculturated to believe.
A few weeks ago, I spoke about the ways our faith has been shaped by the Enlightenment – that philosophical period of the 18th century that some describe as the “Turn to the Self.”
As Unitarian Universalist theologian Paul Rasor summarizes, according to this view, “the individual becomes a mature self, an autonomous ego, by throwing off the constraints of the social group and breaking free.” And importantly for us, he adds, “This view expresses the [still] dominant self-understanding among religious liberals.”
This idea of self-hood is where my mom was coming from – I wasn’t being my “self” because I was too influenced by the views of my social group. Of course, the “self” she was wanting to hear from was probably equally a product of my family as a social group. But, we’ll come back to that issue in a bit.
This concept of selfhood as a matter of freeing oneself from the influence of others – and the idealization of the “free,” “unencumbered” individual – has motivated, still motivates – many of us towards Unitarian Universalism.
Because our living tradition affirms individual freedom of belief rather than assent to a shared theological statement – we attract those who yearn to declare their independence as an ultimate fulfillment of what it means to be human.
This is liberal religion as an assertion of being made free from. Free from social constraints, from family pressures, from the religion of our childhood, dogmatic demands – free from whatever you feel binds you up, keeps you from being your real, true individual, autonomous self.
Our first principle (the affirmation of the inherent worth and dignity of every person) has often been interpreted from this view of the self, which can be taken as permission for any given individual to be and do whatever they want along their individual path. Taken to the extreme, our first principle ends up acting as authorization for a life that is literally self-centered. But again, all of this depends on a highly individualized and fixed definition of selfhood.
Even in the Enlightenment, however, there was some sense that this wasn’t quite right. Since then philosophers like John Dewey, Jurgen Habermas, and more recently Sallie McFague and a whole community of feminist, womanist and post-colonial theologians – all of these – have worked to offer an alternative understanding of the self – something Rasor describes succinctly as “intersubjectivity.”
To various degrees, the ideas over these centuries have re-imagined the self not as some kind of fixed, pre-established thing that would ideally be unencumbered by the influence of others, but rather, as Dewey said, always “in the process of making,” all in the context of the great web of relationships. As Rasor puts it, in this view of the self, “we are not first individuals who then form social groups. Instead, not only do our groups precede us but we become selves in the first instance through the process of social interaction.” Groups come first, and selves arise out of groups.
In this frame, you can’t separate out an individual from their family, their friends, their socio-historical context, or their culture. It’s all one.
Like our reading describes, you can’t break down life – this complex system – into its component parts and hope to learn something more true. The pieces without the whole don’t make sense.
This way of thinking offers an important corrective to our first principle’s potential for self-centeredness, and instead invites us to think about our first principle in the context of our seventh – affirming we are inherently worthy in the context of the interdependent web of all existence.
It is the layering of the two that is important. Though the self is constituted within a greater whole, mature self-hood in this paradigm still requires differentiation. Which I know, sounds like we’re right back where we started. But the critical difference, is that rather than imagining we are born with some pre-formed self that we must protect from relational interference or infiltration, the so-called infiltration is how we become a person, which then in turn can differentiate itself.
To put it another way – our interaction with others – sometimes kind, sometimes cruel, always vulnerable, and our mutual transformation in the context of these relationships is not how our self is corrupted, but rather, how our self is formed. And then that developed, developing self can in turn be individuated. And the process repeats. Going back to those irritating conversations with my mom, I wasn’t “not” myself, I was simply becoming myself. New social groups, new and changing self.
Out of our connections and relationships, the systems we connect with are changed, and the systems those systems are connected with are changed, and so on, and so on, so that across the great web of relationships, we are always evolving, as individuals, and as a part of a greater whole.
Now I don’t now if this will surprise you, but on this issue of “self-hood”, Unitarian Universalists are actually pretty conservative. Paul Rasor’s book has been out for 10 years, and when it came out it was already summarizing theology that was cutting-edge 30 or 40 years prior. The most progressive theologians, philosophers and social scientists have for decades been theorizing out of and promoting ethical paradigms based in this more inter-subjective, relational notion of the self – the self that knows that there is no I without we.
But the way many Unitarian Universalists think about ourselves, talk about our lives,
how we think about church, and the way we understand who WE are together – as a congregation – or the ways we imagine how we relate to the rest of the world, our neighbors, and how this way of thinking guides our actions and our commitments – or how they don’t – so much of this remains highly individualistic.
You may have noticed, it’s been a big year for our congregation. Sometimes we have teetered on the edge of chaos as we sought a pace that will allow us to evolve and adapt to a quickly changing world and to our own changing community in Larimer County that is already and always impacting us, as we impact it.
One of the things we’ve been working through this year – both intentionally and simply as a result of what it means to have a long-tenured minister retire – is an exploration of the relationship between the individual and the community. We have been exploring our expectations for how we walk together, and what our promises are to ourselves, one another and the wider world; we’ve been wrestling with who gets to decide what, and for whom, and why. And we’ve been saying more “we,” maybe more than in the past.
There is – across all of Unitarian Universalism, an emerging, transforming sense of how we think about the human person, and a move to a more inter-relational, communal understanding. And there is a drive to consider ourselves less as a bunch of individuals who happen to gather occasionally, and instead a complex system constantly adapting and evolving based on the many layers of interaction that have gone on, do go on, and will go on over time.
This re-framing hasn’t always been easy. Over the past few months, I’ve heard some wonder if we’ve abandoned the first principle (or all of them, they seem to be missing from the order of service?), or even if we have abandoned Unitarian Universalism all together. I’ve heard all the rumors. But the principles still hang – back of the sanctuary – and above the water fountain – and more importantly, they still ground us in a shared covenant across our association as Unitarian Universalist congregations. Of which we are a part.
But I do get that the implications of this shift in how we think about the “self” are significant, and for some can feel threatening to the experiences of joy and liberation many have experienced in this faith – that freedom “From”. And yet, aligning our faith with a more relational understanding of the self as a part of a great web of interdependence – understanding ourselves as fundamentally both connected and individuated – emphasizing not just freedom from, but what we are free “FOR” – is critical for us to remain relevant to our still-constantly changing world.
Hyper-individualized self-hood leaves us lonely, and isolated. It taxes the earth’s resources unsustainably. It keeps some super wealthy, and others starving. And it seriously limits our potential impact to bring greater love and kindness to more of the world – which is what I understand as our whole reason for being.
And so let us welcome the edge of chaos, uncomfortable though it may sometimes be, let us hover there, take up residence, held as we are within this great web, knowing our interaction, adaptation and resulting creativity represents our vitality and our infinite possibilities.
Reading #2: The Journey by Mary Oliver
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
their bad advice – – –
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
‘Mend my life!’
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations – – –
though their melancholy
was terrible. It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice,
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do
determined to save
the only life you could save.
Sermon Part 2: The Only Live You Can Save
I should’ve called this part the bonus material – like on a DVD’s extras. I’m not preaching a full sermon again until July, so I needed to get just a little in more on this topic. I keep hearing a question come up in conversations, and meetings, and in my own life. It’s a question that directly relates to what it means to be an inter-subjective self.
These conversations start with a description of a problem, usually someone else’s problem. Like, someone is depressed, anxious, unable to find a job, struggling with chronic illness, perpetually angry or disappointed, addicted, enabling, abused or abusing…maybe you know someone who fits in one of these categories.
Sometimes you think you know what that person should do. How do I get them to do that? Or, you know how to fix the problem, but just need a little help yourself. Can you help me?
These conversations travel a path like the one Mary Oliver describes in her poem. We start in the weeds with all the voices calling, “Mend my life.” We feel our desire to help, the ways their suffering leaves us heartbroken, frustrated, confused. We see ourselves “catching” their struggles as if they are our own. We don’t usually think of depression or anxiety as contagious diseases – but they can be. Eventually, we sort out what’s actually going on, who is actually struggling, and why – whose anxiety it really is, whose depression, whose grief. Then the question presents itself – I want to be there for them. I want them to get better. Yes, I am “catching” their issues, but I want to help. Isn’t that compassion? Isn’t that love?
In 2008, the Rev. Nick Carter gave a keynote as a part of the UUA General Assembly – about best practices in navigating these tensions of the individual and community. He offered a list of 10 best practices – all great – but it’s the first of the practices that is my general guiding principle for this question of how to truly help someone else. Basically his council was to stop the common liberal practice of what he calls, “sloppy agape.”
Agape is that greek word that Martin Luther King Jr used to describe the kind of love we feel for someone simply because they are a part of our one human family. Agape is a good thing, the best. It holds the power of transformation.
But sloppy agape is when we fail to pair the relational self (this sense of being one human family) with the individuated self. It is when we assert the seventh, without the first principle, when we get mixed up on the boundaries of our self, and confuse what is ours with what belongs to someone else.
I am thinking in the fall, maybe all of next year,we’ll do a series on family systems theory –
which is the theory promoted by Murray Bowen and specifically for congregations and leadership by Edwin Friedman – and it is the frame work we’re swimming in in both this and the first part of the sermon. But for today, let me say generally, family systems is a frame that always orients towards the family as a whole – the way its members relate to each other – their habits and generational history, as well as the family’s relationship to the larger society around them.
This is in contrast to a focus on any individual person in and of themselves, which would be like looking at the parts of a watch. In the congregational setting, the family is the congregation – both as one big system, but also in the ways it is made up of families.
Within this family systems framework, every lesson is about self-differentiation. Which is maybe counter-intuitive. But here’s the idea: in the midst of embracing a fully relational view of self-hood, the key for health and continual positive growth, is understanding that the only person you can really change is yourself, the only life you can save is your own. And maybe just as importantly, because there is no isolated self – as we’re newly embracing, and as family systems teaches – if you save yourself, you save the whole.
Self-differentiation in this model begins by facing your underlying motivations and feelings that have been formed in the context of a web of relationships – make them more conscious, claim them as your own. It means getting clear about what pushes your buttons and why, it means understanding, and interrupting the deep and often multi-generational patterns of your life, and attempting to step back enough to try something entirely new. To be clear, self-differentiation does not mean a lack of feeling for another. It simply allows you to walk along side someone else with care and compassion, with a kind of immunity from catching their stuff.
To help us practice this kind of self-differentiation, I recommend participating in a small group – especially one of our SOUUL Circles. The deep listening there is ideal for increasing self-awareness. And, they offer a great way to practice both individuation and continued relational self-development, and it means you’ll have others holding you accountable to some of this often hard and yet vital work.
We’ll launch another 4 or 5 groups in the fall, so look for information in August. Regular spiritual practices – including worship- can be helpful too – as they offer a disciplined practice to keep us in tune with the big why. While the summer weather beckons, sitting together for one hour, each week, our body comes to remember – in the singing, the pausing, the breathing together. If you haven’t ever been a regular weekly participant in worship – try it out. It’s a really different experience than coming less often- and it is a practice that helps move us from an individualized notion of church to a more inter-subjective sense, where we are here for the “we” as much as for the “I”.
Also this summer we will offer spiritual practice sessions every other Sunday, so stay after the worship for additional strength for the journey.We are a people with big hearts,
and we want to take care of each other. We do know – intuitively I think – that we are both individuals, and we all are part of each other, and that we need both. But also, though we can be really practiced at thinking and theory – some of the actual doing is really hard for us. It’s hard for most everyone.
So we keep practicing. In our actual families, and in our congregational family – we keep strengthening our sense of self, breaking old patterns, evolving and growing together. And with this as our practice, we might imagine ourselves hovering regularly at the edge of chaos. Maybe even dancing along the edge. It could be fun.