Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Sermon: "Faith's Future, Humanity's Future" (Delivered 5-19-13)


Call to Worship

[This call to worship was read by a member of the youth group.]

Good morning.  My name is Reverend Thom Belote.

Today I was going to preach about the future.  So I built a time machine to see what the future would hold.  I made a mistake and crossed the wires by accident, and sent myself twenty years into the past.

This is me in 1992, twenty years ago, a youth saying the opening words at a UU church.

Twenty years ago the United States was withdrawing troops from Iraq following a war, just like today.
Twenty years ago the Rodney King trial showed us that racism and the criminal justice system were serious issues in our country, just like today.
Twenty years ago the Rolling Stones went on tour, even though they seemed to be getting a little old for touring.  They are touring North America right now.
Twenty years ago there were one hundred and fifty thousand Unitarian Universalists in the United States, the same number there are today.

But some things have changed in the last twenty years.

Today twelve states recognize gay marriage.  None did twenty years ago.
Today there is greater diversity in politics, business, and education.
Today smartphones, Facebook, Skype, and Twitter change the way we communicate.
Today our church is more than twice as large as it was in 1992 and worship is held here instead of in the Barn Chapel.

While you think about what the next twenty years will hold, while we worship together, I’m going to see whether time travel is reversible.


Sermon
My thanks to Jim C. for purchasing the right to assign me a sermon topic at last November’s Auction.  Here is what Jim requested from me in the sermon.  He wrote, “I've been thinking about the sermon I purchased at the auction and I have an idea for your consideration: ‘Welcome to the Year 2038.’  I'd like you to consider what life will be like 25 years from now.  What will life in the U.S. look like?  Will current trends of income inequality plunge us into a land of nobles and serfs, or will we have overcome our greed-based economic system?  What will the religious and racial makeup of our society look like?  Will SMUUCh be a mega-church, the rest of the world finally realizing that loving support of our individual paths is the way to true spiritual growth and fulfillment?  Will there be air to breathe, or will we be purchasing it in portable tanks in order to survive?  Think you might get out your crystal ball and have some fun with this?”

A funny thing happened right around the time that I received Jim’s sermon idea.  Right around that time I picked up a copy of a book by Nate Silver entitled The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail – But Some Don’t.  Nate Silver began his career as a wayward mathematician, spending his nights earning a living playing on-line Poker and his days mostly failing to devise a better mathematical model for predicting the performance of baseball players.  In 2008 Nate Silver started a blog using math to predict the outcomes of elections.  He was wildly successful.  In the 2008 presidential election, he called 49 out of 50 states correctly.  He missed Indiana.  He went back to the drawing board, improved his model, and went a perfect fifty for fifty with the 2012 presidential election.  In my circle of friends a saying emerged, “Keep calm and trust Nate Silver.”



Silver’s book looks at a number of fields that are in the business of prediction, everything from meteorology to seismology, from sports betting to investing in the stock market.  One of the main take-aways from Silver’s book is that for the most part human beings are abysmally bad at making predictions.  Sorry, Jim.  I have a favorite example of prediction folly.  Starting before the year 2000 the New York Times paid a so-called football expert to predict the exact final score of every NFL game.  In the year 2000, a journalist began tracking these predictions.  That year the author went a perfect zero for 256 with his predictions.  The next season the column returned and he went zero for 256 a second year in a row.  The third year he still had a job and in the middle of that season he finally made one correct prediction.  For a period of several years Nate Silver tracked the political predictions of a panel of talking heads on The McLaughlin Group, a political talk show.  He found that they were all very bad at making predictions.  Any of them could have just flipped a coin and not done any worse.  So, I hope that you are at least entertained this morning by my misguided predictions.  I certainly won’t be giving you hot stock picks or telling you to lay your money on the Spurs in the NBA playoffs.

Turn on the news, open the paper, or read a book about current events and you may find yourself convinced that the world is doomed and that humanity is utterly hopeless.  Or do the same and you may find your spirits buoyantly lifted as you regain your faith in the progress of humankind.  I wonder if this happens to you.  You hear about a shocking act of senseless, wasteful violence and you despair for the human condition.  You learn that marriage equality wins in Delaware and Minnesota and your faith in humanity is restored.  Then a ridiculous law is passed in Topeka or Jefferson City and you swear the world is ending.  But then great piece of legislation is passed and you allow hope to creep back in.  You learn some catastrophic information about global poverty or global climate change but then you learn about a groundbreaking development in medicine or clean energy.  Which way do the signs point?  Towards a world going to hell in a hand basket?  Towards a nobler world than we have known today?  Or do the signs point to the status quo, nothing new under the sun, same as it ever was?

Historically speaking, Unitarian Universalists have tended to embrace a more positive view of the future.  Writing in 1886, Unitarian James Freeman Clarke wrote his answer to what Unitarians believe.  He said Unitarians affirm “the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, the leadership of Jesus, salvation by character, and the continuity of human development in all worlds, or, the progress of mankind onward and upward forever.”  Theodore Parker claimed that the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.  Search our hymnal and you will find an entire section of hymns under the theme “In Time to Come.”  The time to come imagined by these hymns sounds pretty good to me.  “These things shall be: a loftier race than e’er the world hath known shall rise, with flame of freedom in their souls, and the light of science in their eyes.”  “Hail the glorious golden city, pictured by the seers of old: everlasting light shines o’er it, wondrous things of it are told.  Wise and righteous men and women dwell within its gleaming wall; wrong is banished from its borders, justice reigns supreme o’er all.”

This bright optimism is one of the distinguishing characteristics of liberal religion.  It is one of the many things that differentiates us from the brand of religion that declares the end is nigh, that the rapture is coming.  We have hymns called “Now is the Time Approaching” and “Soon the Day Will Arrive,” but the future they imagine is cheerful, not doom and gloom.  It occurs to me to ask, are we as a religious movement still as sunny in our disposition as our forebears from decades and centuries ago?  Does their faith in “onward and upward forever” strike us as naïve, or does their hope still inform our own?

In my own life, I am a person who tends towards optimism.  But what about you?  Where do your predictions lie when it comes to the future of humanity?  Are you a person who imagines things getting better – do you imagine human well-being improving on our planet and human suffering diminishing?  Are you a pessimist – do you see things growing worse for more of the world’s people?  Do you predict an increase of human suffering?  Or, are you one of those people who believe that past is prologue?  Do you think that the amount of misery and happiness in the world will stay more or less level in the future?  And, when it comes to the future of faith, do you see liberal religion as a vanguard, actively moving the world forward, or as a rearguard, doing what we can to hinder the inevitable rising tide of injustice, dysfunction, and destruction?

In his chapter on predicting the weather, Nate Silver makes an interesting observation.  He says that despite the jokes we make at the expense of meteorologists, computer models that predict weather a few days in advance are actually among the best predictions we have.  However, these models take into account so many variables, so much chaos, that more than a handful of days out the predictions become very inaccurate.  Silver points out that the best predictor of weather more than a week away is actually the long-term historical average for that day.  So, if we can’t predict the weather more than two weeks in advance, except to say that the best we can say is that it will be an average of what came before, what chance do any of us have of predicting the future twenty five years from now?

As I was researching for this sermon I ran across a number of predictions that seemed hopeful and positive, as well as a number that were much less so.  Nate Silver recently updated his projections about marriage equality in the United States.  Four years ago he predicted that all 50 states would support marriage equality by 2024.  I also encountered several studies about war.  These authors claim that there is less war today than at almost any time in recorded human history, that warfare has been steadily declining for the last six decades, and that a world without war is a likely possibility within our lifetime.  These predictions were so fascinating that I decided to make them the subject of my sermon next week for Memorial Day weekend.

That’s the good news.  The bad news, as Jim pointed out in his questions, is that recent trends in the environment and in economic inequality show us heading in the wrong direction, trending towards increased suffering for more of the world’s people.

In environmental terms, here is what I see in the next 25 years.  I see an increase in the frequency and severity of extreme weather and I predict this will have a harmful effect on different populations across the globe.  I see a rise in movements of environmental counterculturalism, of backyard gardens and urban farming.  And I see some of the more cataclysmic possibilities being mitigated in part by new technologies and human adaptability.  We are very flexible creatures and we’re going to have to be.  Many future crises could be lessened or even averted if we saw immediate major behavioral changes among the populations in developed, developing, and third world countries.  Unfortunately, it is really hard to change human behaviors.

As far as economic inequality, the widening gap between rich and poor, I predict that if this trend is to be slowed down or even reversed, it won’t happen because of a sudden spiritual and ethical awakening of those who hold and control gross amounts of wealth.  If it is to happen, it will happen through a sustained and serious revolution on the part of the poor, lower class, and the declining middle class.  It will take a movement exponentially larger than occupy Wall Street.  It will require organized resistance and organized non-compliance.  What if the victims of predatory home loans refused to move out of their homes?  What if students refused to pay back their loans?  For such a revolution to succeed public perception would have to change; the media must no longer serve the interests of the corporate state.  And, for such a revolution to succeed, the agents that serve corporate interests would have to decide to side with the people.  I do not see massive restructuring of the economic systems of our country happening except through revolutionary dissent.  [Note: the shape of these remarks more than likely has to do with the fact that I’ve been reading a book about the rise of socialism in Russia during the first half of the 20th century.  To quote Leo Tolstoy, “It is not necessary to kill Tsars Nicholas and Alexander… but only to leave off supporting the social condition of which they are the product.”]

But Jim also asked about the changing face of religion in America and about my predictions about America’s religious future.  Probably the biggest religious story of the last decade has been the decline of religious participation in America.  Most historic denominations are shrinking.  Presbyterianism and Congregationalism have each shrunk by 25% over the past decade.  The Episcopalian Church and the Lutheran Church have each shrunk by nearly 20%.  Membership in the United Methodist Church has declined by 7%.  Even the Southern Baptists are shrinking.  Meanwhile, Unitarian Universalism has stayed pretty much exactly the same size.  Only a handful of religious traditions are growing.  Roman Catholicism is growing slightly.  Pentecostal denominations, Mormons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses are also growing.

Some might predict that this trend will continue and that the decline of the mainline will continue.  Evangelical and mega-churches may already be showing similar signs of decline.  Some might see the trends and predict that in the coming decades American religion will move in the direction of religion in Europe, will be more and more tiny and mostly ignored.

My prediction is that the decline in American religion that we’ve seen is not a sign of what is to come.  Rather, I see religion continuing to play a major role in the American landscape although some religious movements are sure to thrive while others decline.  Religion will still be a big thing in 25 years and the reasons for this are several-fold.  For one thing, the contemporary American landscape is designed to promote private space and commercial space and to minimize community space and civic space.  Human beings, however even us individualistic American loners, long for connection and community.  We want to escape isolation and loneliness and we can’t do that in our homes and we can’t do that at strip malls.  Churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, gurdwaras, and Zen centers are leading institutions for providing civic space focused on questions of longing and meaning.  They are also significant providers of social services in a nation that is radically underinvested in the services it provides to its citizens.  There is a need, but there is also a need for congregations to understand what that need is all about.

So, what of Unitarian Universalism?  Jim asks will we become a mega-church when our community realizes that we offer a path towards personal fulfillment and true spiritual growth?  Unitarian Universalism is doing better than the Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Episcopalians, and even the Methodists.  However, there are pretty much just as many UUs in the United States today as there were a decade ago.  In fact, there are pretty much as many UUs in the United States today as there were 50 years ago.  Unitarian Universalism, on the whole, has been frozen in place for the last half century, a fact that has proven vexing, frustrating, and upsetting to the national leaders of our faith.

Our church, at least for the past decade and a little more, has been one of the congregations that has bucked this inertia.  As far as I can tell there are three UU congregations in our district that have exhibited significant growth within the past decade.  Three congregations out of more than fifty.  One of those congregations, in suburban Minneapolis, the fastest growing, has grown from around 400 members to around 800.  Another, the UU church in Des Moines, Iowa, has grown from around 300 to more than 450.  And, in the past decade or so, we’ve grown from a little under 200 members to a little over 300.  We’re the only three.

About six years ago I participated in a UU growth consultation held in Louisville.  I was one of twelve ministers of growing churches from all around the country selected to be a part of the gathering.  (Then afterwards I edited a book on what we had learned.)  I remember a couple of things vividly.  One thing was that we were different in all sorts of ways.  Some of the congregations were more humanist, others more theist.  Some had an organ; others had a rock band.  Some were social justice leaders in their community, really out there on the front lines.  Others emphasized community and spiritual growth more than social justice.

What they all had in common, what we all had in common, was that we resisted seeing growth as a technical problem to fix.  As Rev. Christine Robinson of Albuquerque writes, “My congregation in Albuquerque has doubled in size in the past 25 years, outperforming the Methodists (30% decline), the UUA in general (flat), and the population of the city (up 50%)  And could I tell you, even in retrospect, how my budgets each year contributed to that growth?   I cannot.  The best I can do is make some educated guesses.  Bringing on a second minister, for instance, was clearly a part of our growth, although it had to be not only the right line item but the right minister to work.  Funding a church band was probably helpful.  On the other hand, our numbers of children have gone up and down without regard to the money we have poured into our RE program.   All my prospective guesses about what might bring those elusive guests, growth and vitality, into our church have been just that.  Guesses, Hopes, Optimistic plans…”

Rather, when the twelve of us gathered we talked mostly about attitudes that growing UU congregations need to embrace.  Those attitudes, among others, include the belief that the church is offering something important and promoting the type of transformation needed in society, an attitude of radical hospitality and welcome, an embrace of change and innovation, and a sense of pervading love.  [These themes are echoed in the book of essays I edited following the growth gathering.]

Twenty five years from now may seem like a long time, but I happen to believe that the spiritual issues with which we wrestle are perennial and universal.  Transformation and welcome and change and love will be needed in the future as much as they are needed today.  Amen.