A Better Set of Authorities and Institutions

Rev. Megan Foley
Sermon Date: 
Sun, 05/06/2012

This video we’ve just seen by Jeff Bethke[1] has a lot of interesting points to it, some I imagine that you might agree with, some that may make you think, some you might not particularly agree with, and some points you might not care about at all.  He is talking about a religion that is not ours, after all.

When David Brooks, the social and political commentator who you’ll see on PBS or hear on NPR or read in the New York Times, or in one of this books like Bobos in Paradise or The Social Animal… when David Brooks saw the video, this is what he saw:  He saw a young person who is advocating for the abolition of an institution – the Church – in favor of individual action, in this case individual religious exploration and faith, within the Christian context.  And Jeff Bethke, as it turned out, not only advocated for this switch, but advocated rather successfully, since this video you just saw went viral in February and has been hit twenty million times.

In the op-ed piece that David Brooks wrote for the New York Times from February, he describes this video as speaking “for many young believers who feel close to God but not to the church. [The views of the video represent] the passionate voice of those who think their institutions lack integrity — not just the religious ones, but the political and corporate ones, too.”[2]

And young people, disgusted with their institutions and protesting them, has been a very common theme over the past year or so.

Brooks, however, points to the conversation that Jeff Bethke started as indicative of some of the trouble that most of these protest movements of the past year have encountered.  Because after Jeff’s video went viral, older Christian theologians began to point out its errors and inconsistencies.  Brooks reports that “[a] blogger [on theology] pointed out…that it is biblically inaccurate to say that Jesus hated religion. In fact, Jesus preached a religious doctrine, prescribed rituals and worshiped in a temple.”  Brooks notes that Jeff Bethke, our video maker, “responded [to this criticism] in a way that was humble, earnest and gracious, and that generally spoke well of his character. He also,” Brooks writes, “basically folded.”

Bethke folded.  He agreed with what those with more experience said.  “It hit me hard,” he responded to that blogger. “I’ll even be honest and say I agree 100 percent… I realized a lot of my views and treatments of the church were not Scripture-based; they were very experience-based.”

So, to recap, Jeff Bethke formed a successful protest against organized religion, made a compelling argument that clearly resonated with others, got a lot of people to hear his argument, got the attention of the institution against which his protest was formed, and then, when pressed, ended up retracting quite a bit of his argument in favor of the institution whose practices he was complaining about.

“He…basically folded,” wrote David Brooks.  He goes on to say: “Bethke’s passionate polemic and subsequent retreat are symptomatic of a lot of the protest cries we hear these days. This seems to be a moment when many people — in religion, economics and politics — are disgusted by current institutions, but then they are vague about what sorts of institutions should replace them.”

“This seems,” Brooks writes, “to be a moment of fervent protest movements that are ultimately vague and ineffectual.” 

Witness the Occupy movement.  While youth-led protests in other countries have overthrown their governments, the American Occupy movement has not really made a dent in the way that our institutions function day in and day out.  Whether Occupiers are right or not, their protest has been functionally ineffective, at least so far.  Why?

David Brooks has a theory. It goes like this – I’ll just read it to you:

“For generations people have been told: Think for yourself; come up with your own independent worldview…[T]hat’s probably a bad idea. Very few people have the genius or time to come up with a comprehensive and rigorous worldview.”

“If you go out there armed only with your own observations and sentiments, you will surely find yourself on very weak ground. You’ll lack the arguments, convictions and the coherent view of reality that you’ll need when challenged by a self-confident opposition. This is more or less what happened to Jefferson Bethke.”

“The paradox of reform movements is that, if you want to defy authority, you probably shouldn’t think entirely for yourself. You should attach yourself to a counter-tradition and school of thought that has been developed over the centuries and that seems true.”

“[The belief systems that inspired past revolutions] helped people envision alternate realities. They helped people explain why the things society values are not the things that should be valued. They gave movements a set of organizing principles. Joining a tradition doesn’t mean suppressing your individuality. Applying an ancient tradition to a new situation is a creative, stimulating and empowering act. Without a tradition, everything is impermanence and flux.”

“Most professors,” Brooks summarizes, “would like their students to be more rebellious and argumentative. But rebellion,” he says, “without a rigorous alternative vision is just a feeble spasm.”

Hm.  Rebellion without a rigorous alternative vision is just a feeble spasm.

You might be thinking of this rebellion in the context of political actions that have occurred all of this year, but let’s take Jeff Bethke’s lead and talk about religious rebellion.  After all, we’re a religion.  And there is every reason in the world to think that Brooks’ theory about effective and ineffective protest movements would be tough medicine for Unitarian Universalists to swallow.  And not just about political movements like Occupy, but about the tenets of our religion itself, our faith movement.

Because UUs LOVE the religious protest, right?  You think Jeff Bethke has some tough things to say about the Christian church?  You’re sitting in the middle of a religion that protested the Christian church for so long and for so hard that we protested ourselves right out the front door of Christianity.  They don’t call us the most Protestant of the Protestants for nothing.

What’s more, the current culture of our UU congregations was formed by the influx of thousands of baby boomers, who individually decided that they had had it with the churches in which they grew up.  They had had it with the theology that didn’t make sense to them, and they had had it with the inability to ask questions or to have doubts, and ONE BY ONE they left those churches and found Unitarian Universalism. 

And for decades they have gathered, collections of individuals, and celebrated their freedom and their individual choices and their alternative beliefs and individualized lifestyles.  They raised their kids to believe that their individual voices matter, that they are free to choose, that their own perceived path is the one to follow in life. 

Jeff Bethke has got us thinking about religious transformation this morning.  He has introduced the concept that religious institutions are suspect.  If he were more flexible in his theology, which he may be, for all we know, he would likely LOVE Unitarian Universalism, right?  Because we are the kings and queens of the individualized religious protest.  We UUs are the champions of the individual search for truth and meaning.  So much so that it’s one of our principles, and we only have seven, and it’s right in the middle, there at number 4, the lynchpin, as it were.

Unitarian Universalism could be seen as a thoroughly individualized religion, at least in recent times. 

But what if we UUs believe David Brooks, too? 

What if we agree that if you really want to defy authority, you probably shouldn’t think entirely for yourself? 

What should we do, as a religion, a religion of protest, in fact, with the notion that if we really want things to change we should attach ourselves to a counter-tradition and school of thought that has been developed over the centuries and that seems true?


A religious counter-tradition and school of thought that has been developed over the centuries and that seems true.

Wait a minute.

How old is Unitarian Universalism? 

Well, the theologies of Unitarianism and Universalism were right there when Christianity was first being developed, so in some ways we are two thousand years old.  And American Unitarianism and Universalism was right there when our country was being formed.  So in most ways one would count, we’re at least two hundred and fifty years old.


Is it possible, just possible, that despite our rampant individualism, that WE, Unitarian Universalism, could BE the answer, the better set of authorities and institutions, that David Brooks is calling for? 

We are a religious counter-tradition and school of thought that has been developed over the centuries, that’s just fact.  And as for seeming true…a religion that seems true…for this, we need to check out the ideas in another video that I have brought to show you, a three minute video on the importance of religion in every person’s life.

This video was created at a TED conference – TED stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design – and TED conferences gather experts in really almost every kind of field and have them offer 20 minute talks about their area of expertise or something they’ve come to know or understand.  This video was created by Jonathan Haidt, who is a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia.  Haidt’s talk is on the evolution of religious impulses, or why we are biologically driven to be religious.  Luckily, he has created a short version of his overall theory for us to watch today, and here it is.

[video] [3]

In this presentation, Haidt essentially tells us that human beings have evolved to seek the highest.  Humans want to connect with each other and with the world they live in.  They want to transcend themselves and the everyday, and become closer to the creation of which they are a part.  We are hard wired to do this, to “climb the staircase,” as Haidt puts it.

And yet, he says, in recent decades and centuries, we human beings – at least we westerners – have been encouraged to spend our lives individualizing ourselves and perfecting our mundane, everyday, profane worlds, and to ignore our higher calling to self-transcendence and connection to things bigger than ourselves. 

“One great challenge of modern life,” Haidt says, “is to find the staircase among all the clutter.  Most people long to overcome pettiness and become part of something larger.”

No man is an island, apart to himself, even Unitarian Universalists.  People have tried for decades to deny the fact that they want to have at least part of their lives dedicated to something sacred, something bigger, something that means more than individualized comforts.  This is really what kids are telling us when they say they aren’t connecting with religious groups.  The religious groups are not able to show the young people, in ways that they can understand, how those young people can make meaning of their lives, how they can contribute to a greater good.

Or, I should say, religious groups from mainstream Western, liberal culture are not able to show youth how to make meaning of their lives.  There are plenty of religious groups which show youth how to make meaning.  They are very adept at it.  It is no accident that the paratroopers of religious extremism are young people, between the ages of 15 and 30, all over the world.[4]

Our culture, including our UU culture, tends to see young people, teens and young adults, as sort of goofy, disorganized yokels.  But if American youth protests this year have shown us anything, they have shown us that youth are aware of what they are missing, painfully aware of what we haven’t given them – a connection to truth, to something important, something good – and that they are looking for a remedy to that.  When we – we UUs, we mainstream Americans – ignore that call from youth, discounting it as just another ineffectual protest movement, we miss an opportunity to show the next generation where their staircase is and what might be at the top of it. 

Other religious groups, ones more extreme and radical than ours, do not miss this opportunity.  They make sure that they educate youth to believe in the extremist views that they believe in, because youth are so eager to find something that matters to them.  “The totalitarians have put their resources into building youth programs,” writes author Eboo Patel.  “The pluralists haven’t.”[5]

There have been many threads to this sermon; let’s try to pull them all together for some take-aways. 

First point:  Youth worldwide are calling out for change in our institutions.  Jonathan Haidt says they are answering their genetic call for self-transcendence.  They want to climb the staircase to something meaningful and collective.  We see an example of that in Jeff Bethke’s video.

David Brooks says that these youth have been misled into believing that the path to change is through new, individually-created belief systems.  Brooks argues that the protests would be more successful if the protesters instead adapted counter-cultural movements from the past and used them to create a better set of institutions and authorities than the ones we currently have.

Second point:  One of the institutions that youth are protesting is the mainstream church.  Again, they are calling out for an opportunity to make meaning of their lives, to find the good for all and make it so.  Unitarian Universalism, despite our individualist trappings, are well placed to be this better institution, the one that means something, the one that shows the way to self-transcendence and the betterment of all.  We, among all religions, already live out values of freedom and truth, accountability and spiritual encouragement, that could be compelling to these seekers.

Third Point:  If we don’t do it, if we UUs or mainstream Americans don’t provide the staircase to deeper meaning and transcending of pettiness, then it is likely that a group with more sinister intent will.  Fundamentalist religions and totalitarian political groups know how to grab the attention of young people and channel their desire to change the world into action that supports their agenda.  If we mainstreamers miss the opportunity to get youth involved in making the world better, then extremists will be able to find a way to get youth involved in making the world worse.

“Effective rebellion,” David Brooks concludes, “isn’t just expressing your personal feelings. It means replacing one set of authorities and institutions with a better set of authorities and institutions.”

“Authorities and institutions,” he goes on to say, “don’t repress the passions of the heart, the way some young people now suppose. They give them focus and a means to turn passion into change.”

Unitarian Universalism can be, often already is, the institution that turns passion into change.  Can you see ways where we UUs, we here at Sugarloaf, are showing the world how to make meaning out of daily living, and showing how to make living better for all of us?  How can we do more of that?

As one of the few institutions going that has protest and freedom imbedded in our culture and our philosophy, isn’t it on us to be the one of the better institutions that youth movements might choose to replace the old?  Isn’t it on us to tell the world that here we work on love and justice, here we work on freedom and accountability, even when it’s hard, even when we disagree?  Isn’t it on us to show the world how?

People need that staircase to greater meaning.  Let us be the staircase that helps turn this year’s disconsolate protests into determined progress.









[1] “Why I Hate Religion, but Love Jesus” by Jeff Bethke - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1IAhDGYlpqY


[2] Brooks, D. (2012, February 2). How to Fight the Man. The New York Times.


[3]  Haidt, J. (2012, March). Jonathan Haidt: Religion, evolution, and the ecstasy of self-transcendence. Retrieved March 2012, from www.ted.com: http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/en/jonathan_haidt_humanity_s_stairway_to_self_transcendence.html.  Minutes 15-18.


[4] Patel, E. (2012, Spring). If We Don't Invest in Our Youth, Others Will. UU World Magazine, pp. 50-52.


[5] Patel, E. (2012, Spring).