Our Spirit of Life

Colin Doyle
Sermon Date: 
Sun, 02/03/2013


Today we will hear readings from six diverse sources that have each influenced some of us.


Our first reading is from The Social Conquest of Earth by Edward O. Wilson.

[Note: some paragraphs have been dropped, and rearranged in one case].

Are people innately good, but corruptible by the forces of evil? Or, are they instead innately wicked, and redeemable only by the forces of good? People are both. And so it will forever be unless we change our genes, because the human dilemma was foreordained in the way our species evolved, and therefore an unchangeable part of human nature. Human beings and their social orders are intrinsically imperfectible and fortunately so. In a constantly changing world, we need the flexibility that only imperfection provides.

[H]uman nature is … only one of a vast number of possible natures that could have evolved. The one we have is the result of the improbable pathway followed across millions of years by our genetic ancestors that finally produced us.

The dilemma of good and evil was created by multilevel selection, in which individual selection and group selection act together on the same individual but largely in opposition to each other. Individual selection is the result of competition for survival and reproduction among members of the same group. It shapes instincts in each member that are fundamentally selfish with reference to other members. In contrast, group selection consists of competition between societies, through both direct conflict and differential competence in exploiting the environment. Group selection shapes instincts that tend to make individuals altruistic toward one another (but not toward members of other groups). Individual selection is responsible for much of what we call sin, while group selection is responsible for the greater part of virtue. Together they have created the conflict between the poorer and the better angels of our nature.

[A]n iron rule exists in genetic social evolution. It is that selfish individuals beat altruistic individuals, while groups of altruists beat groups of selfish individuals. The victory can never be complete; the balance of selection pressures cannot move to either extreme. If individual selection were to dominate, societies would dissolve. If group selection were to dominate, human groups would come to resemble ant colonies.

Throughout prehistory, as humanity evolved its cognitive prowess, the [social] network of each individual was almost identical to that of the group to which he belonged. People lived in scattered bands of a hundred or fewer (thirty was probably a common number). They had knowledge of neighboring bands, and, judging from the lives of surviving hunter-gatherers, neighbors to some degree formed alliances. They participated in trade and exchanges of young women, but also in rivalries and vengeance raids. But the heart of each individual’s social existence was the band, and the cohesion of the band was kept tight by the binding force of the network it composed.

With the emergence of villages and then chiefdoms in the Neolithic period around 10,000 years ago, the nature of the networks changed dramatically. They grew in size and broke into fragments. These subgroups became overlapping and at the same time hierarchical and porous. The individual lived in a kaleidoscope of family members, coreligionists, co-workers, friends, and strangers. His social existence became far less stable than the world of the hunter-gatherers. In modern industrialized countries, networks grew to a complexity that has proved bewildering to the Paleolithic mind we inherited. Our instincts still desire the tiny, united band-networks that prevailed during the hundreds of millennia preceding the dawn of history. Our instincts remain unprepared for civilization.

The trend has thrown confusion into the joining of groups, one of the most powerful human impulses. We are ruled by an urge—better, a compelling necessity—that began in our early primate ancestry. Every person is a compulsive group-seeker, hence an intensely tribal animal. He satisfies his need variously in an extended family, organized religion, ideology, ethnic group, or sports club, singly or in combination. The possibilities are vast. In each of our groups we find competition for status, but also trust and virtue, the signature products of group selection. We worry. We ask, to whom in this shifting global world of countless overlapping groups should we pledge our loyalty?

Through it all our instincts remain in command and confuse, but a few among them, if we obey them wisely, may save us. For example, we feel empathy. We stay our hand. A great deal of recent research has made it possible to see how the impulses of morality might work inside the brain. A promising start has been found in explaining the Golden Rule, which is perhaps the only precept found in all organized religions. The rule is fundamental to all moral reasoning. When the great theologian and philosopher Rabbi Hillel was challenged to explain the Torah in the time he could stand on one foot, he replied, “Do not do unto others that which is repugnant to you. All else is commentary.”

All normal people are capable of true altruism. We are unique among animals in the degree that we attend to the sick and injured, help the poor, comfort the bereaved, and even willingly risk our own lives to save strangers. Many, having helped others in an emergency, then leave without identifying themselves. Or if they stay, they devalue their heroism by an all but mandatory dismissal, “It was just my job” or “I only did what I would expect others to do for me.”

Authentic altruism exists… It enhances the strength and competitiveness of groups, and it has been favored during human evolution by natural selection at the group level.


Our second reading is from The Faith of a Humanist, a pamphlet by UU minister Sarah Oelberg.

During the years of my formal education, I particularly valued that Humanism honors reason and encourages integrity. I liked that it invited me to think for myself, to explore, challenge, and doubt; to approach the important questions of life with an openness to new ideas and different perspectives; and then to test these ideas against reality, filter new knowledge through my own active mind, and believe according to the evidence. Humanism provided me with the "tools" I would use to pursue the "free and responsible search for truth and meaning." It invited me to ask about each idea, "Is it reasonable and responsible to believe this? Does it make sense in terms of what is known about the world and the universe?" This is not to suggest that we do not also learn and gain insights from intuition, hunches, flashes of inspiration, even emotion or unexplainable experiences—we do. But when making important decisions that will affect ourselves and others, it behooves us to test our perceptions against reality.

This testing led me to realize that we are all connected to the world, the cosmos, and everything therein. I discovered that Humanism teaches that our well-being and our very existence depend upon the web of life in ways we are only beginning to understand, that our place in nature has to be in harmony with it. Humanism leads me to find a sense of wider relatedness with all the world and its peoples, and it calls me to work for a sound environment and a humane civilization. Because everything is interconnected, I cannot be concerned with my own life and the future of humanity without also being concerned about the future of the planet.

My Humanist religion also prods me to consider the moral principles by which I should live. Humanist ethics, based on love and compassion for humankind and for nature, place the responsibility on humanity for shaping the destiny and future direction of the world. I am called to find my better self and to try to become the best person I can be. Humanism also makes me aware of the existence of moral dilemmas and the need to be very careful and intentional in my moral decision-making, for every decision and action has a consequence now and for the future. I am compelled by my own analysis of the world situation to become involved in service for the greater good of humanity, recognizing that things are changing so quickly that an open-ended approach to solving social problems is needed.


Our third reading is from the Gospel of Luke, chapter 4 [NRSV].

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

Our fourth reading is from the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 5 [NRSV].

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.


Our fifth reading is from Process and Reality by Alfred North Whitehead.

[T]he nature of God is dipolar. He has a primordial nature and a consequent nature. The consequent nature of God is conscious; and it is the realization of the actual world in the unity of his nature, and through the transformation of his wisdom. The primordial nature is conceptual, the consequent nature is the weaving of God’s physical feelings upon his primordial concepts.

One side of God's nature is constituted by his conceptual experience. This experience is the primordial fact in the world, limited by no actuality which it presupposes. It is therefore infinite, devoid of all negative prehensions. This side of his nature is free, complete, primordial, eternal, actually deficient, and unconscious. The other side originates with physical experience derived from the temporal world, and then acquires integration with the primordial side. It is determined, incomplete, consequent, ‘everlasting,’ fully actual, and conscious. His necessary goodness expresses the determination of his consequent nature.

Conceptual experience can be infinite, but it belongs to the nature of physical experience that it is finite. An actual entity in the temporal world is to be conceived as originated by physical experience with its process of completion motivated by consequent, conceptual experience initially derived from God. God is to be conceived as originated by conceptual experience with his process of completion motivated by consequent, physical experience initially derived from the temporal world.

The perfection of God's subjective aim, derived from the completeness of his primordial nature, issues into the character of his consequent nature. In it there is no loss, no obstruction. The world is felt in a unison of immediacy. The property of combining creative advance with the retention of mutual immediacy is what is meant by the term ‘everlasting.’

The wisdom of God's subjective aim prehends every actuality for what it can be in such a perfected system—its sufferings, its sorrows, its failures, its triumphs, its immediacies of joy—woven by rightness of feeling into the harmony of the universal feeling, which is always immediate, always many, always one, always with novel advance, moving onward and never perishing. The revolts of destructive evil, purely self-regarding, are dismissed into their triviality of merely individual facts; and yet the good they did achieve in individual joy, in individual sorrow, in the introduction of needed contrast, is yet saved by its relation to the completed whole. The image—and it is but an image—the image under which this operative growth of God’s nature is best conceived, is that of a tender care that nothing be lost.

The consequent nature of God is his judgment on the world. He saves the world as it passes into the immediacy of his own life. It is the judgment of a tenderness which loses nothing that can be saved. It is also the judgment of a wisdom which uses what in the temporal world is mere wreckage.

…[W]e conceive of the patience of God, tenderly saving the turmoil of the intermediate world by the completion of his own nature. The sheer force of things lies in the intermediate physical process: this is the energy of physical production. God’s role is not the combat of productive force with productive force, of destructive force with destructive force; it lies in the patient operation of the overpowering rationality of his conceptual harmonization. He does not create the world, he saves it; or, more accurately, he is the poet of the world, with tender patience leading it by his vision of truth, beauty, and goodness.


Our sixth reading is “Buddhism And UU Principles” by Phyllis Culham, published in UU Sangha: Journal of the Unitarian Universalist Buddhist Fellowship

The relationship between Buddhism and UU principles is a deeply “natural” one. I mean that if one accepts the tenets of Buddhism, it inevitably follows that one acts in accordance with the Seven Principles. Four major tenets of Buddhist philosophy illustrate this innate relationship.

The first of these is one whose basic utility is apparent to most UU’s. That is ahimsa, the Sanskrit for NON-HARMING. No Buddhist principle is to be interpreted rigidly or formulaically. That would violate the Middle Way, the path of reasonableness and moderation. So we are not talking about anything like the Jain practice of sweeping all paths as one advances to avoid stepping on bugs too small to see. Ahimsa might be best understood as the famous provision in the Hippocratic oath to “First, Do No Harm,” only recommended to everyone, not just physicians. Clearly, if we are committed to ahimsa, we will learn about others and their situations and aspirations before we blunder into their societies and economies. We will automatically foster an international atmosphere favorable to UU Principle 6, the “goal of world community.” But ahimsa does not merely apply to people. We will not act or consume unmindfully in such a way as to harm whole ecosystems of, as Thich Nhat Hanh puts it, “animals, plants, and minerals.” We will embody UU Principle 7, highlighted on UUCA ’s [Annapolis’] web site: “respect for the interdependent web of all existence.” Finally ahimsa requires us to act locally as well as globally. The oldest extant Buddhist documents already recognize what the west had to discover with the rise of psychiatry in this century: words and attitudes injure too, and ahimsa can apply in every conversation.

The second set of Buddhist tenets to which I want to refer to are those of metta (loving- kindness or goodwill) and karuna (compassion.) These probably seem like a good idea too, nothing terribly novel. Goodwill is an outlook we try to maintain within our- selves, probably as much for our own benefit as that of others. Compassion often requires action, if that is only a touch or a word. It is important in difficult times to remember that com- passion is universal. It encompasses the perpetrator of violence as well as the recipient, since both are inevitably injured. Good will and compassion do not mean that we give a free hand to those who were injured and now have the propensity to injure others. We can maintain complete good will and compassion toward them while we restrain them. That is the Middle Way again. This is the embodiment of the first and second UU Principles. We act to protect “the inherent worth and dignity of every person,” and in looking at the Second Principle we allow for that “justice” and “equity” along with that principle’s understanding of compassion. Good will and compassion intrinsically lead to action under UU Principle 3’s “acceptance of one another.”

The third Buddhist tenet I want to use is not as user-friendly to the novice as the first couple were. DETACHMENT is easily misunderstood as not caring, and somehow contradictory to metta and compassion. Actually com- passion and detachment enhance each other; they wrap around each other like the yin and the yang. Real, vital detachment is detachment from the separate self, seen as having interests opposed to or in competition with those of all other separate selves. Detachment means that we can step off our personal standpoint from which we ordinarily view things and adopt the standpoints of others. It is detachment which enables us to act with genuine compassion without regard for recognition. An even more complicated formulation is that detachment also means detachment from outcomes. We act for the best in this moment, detached from expectations about the future. That means that even if there is little apparent chance we will succeed, we still do the right thing. We persist in that even if we have repeatedly failed. Our goal is the good of all and not our advantage or convenience. That too ensures that we work toward UU Principle 2 again: “justice, equity, and compassion,” as well as Principle 6’s “world community” with “liberty and justice.” Within our own church as well as our society, detachment from one’s own stand point deepens respect for the “democratic process” specified in UU Principle no. 5.

Finally, the most abstruse and least culturally familiar of the tenets I am using is UNIVERSAL BUDDHAHOOD. So I left the most difficult for last. Gautama Buddha was a human who attained enlightenment as a human. Mahayana [Northern] Buddhists would say that each and every one of us has an innate buddhanature. It has just been obscured by fears and attachments and western materialism. Every one of us has the potential to jettison all that baggage and get back to the original buddha within. Mahayana Buddhists would further say that we do not merely have this potential; we are all going to do that sometime, albeit maybe not in this life or this world. That ought to appeal to the Universalists among us. In any case, we are all in words the Nicene creed uses of divinity, “of the same substance” as the Buddha and of the innumerable buddhas who have come and gone without our particularly noticing them. There’s an “encouragement to spiritual growth,” in the phrase of UU Principle 3. Universal Buddhahood intrinsically implies that everyone can successfully engage in the “free and responsible search for truth and meaning” of UU Principle 4.


Our sixth reading is from “Many Religions, but Only One Earth,” by Patricia Montley, published in UU World.

For the ancients, interdependence was clear. Humans played as important a role in the renewal of the earth as the earth played in their renewal. On the eve of a new season’s beginning, the people (or the king in their name) fasted in order to purify not just their own bodies but the land itself. The fires that encouraged the fecundity of the land also made its people fertile. And the ritual mating of their leaders, replicating that of their deities of the earth and the sun, produced both children and crops.

For us moderns, distanced from the earth by technology, interdependence is not as clear. And we are paying the price: in polluted air and water, in soil erosion, in deforestation, and in global warming.

How different the condition of the planet might be if we allowed ourselves to be renewed at each turning of the wheel of the year, if we took the time periodically to celebrate the beauty and bounty of nature.

Celebrating the renewal of the earth gives us an opportunity to become new ourselves--to let go of old hurts and failures, to forgive ourselves and others, to get on with life as nature does, to open ourselves to hope and possibilities, to welcome the fertility of spirit that gives life its richness.

And because we all share the same earth, we can celebrate its renewal together, no matter what our theological differences may be. Recognizing our mutual bond with the earth can strengthen our bonds with one another and put into perspective the things that separate us. If together we respect our Mother Earth, will we not learn to respect one another and begin the work of peace?


Those new to Unitarian Universalism often ask what it is that we believe, and are told that we are a creedless religion.  We have common principles but not common beliefs. It is true that we have no creed, and we leave the search for metaphysical truth largely to individual reflection. Indeed, even a small congregation like SCUU accommodates many diverse theologies. However, one way of thinking about all of our diverse theologies is that they share a key truth. This common belief is rarely stated explicitly, but it finds it's best expression in the defining hymn of contemporary Unitarian Universalism, Spirit of Life. It is worth reproducing the lyrics here:

Spirit of Life, come unto me.
Sing in my heart all the stirrings of compassion.
Blow in the wind, rise in the sea;
Move in the hand, giving life the shape of justice.
Roots hold me close; wings set me free;
Spirit of Life, come to me, come to me.

This most sacred of our hymns contains the key UU truth: that there is a guiding principle in the universe, in life itself, which calls us towards compassion and justice. The Spirit of Life.  Our understanding of what this is varies among us:

·       To a UU atheist, the Spirit of Life might be an inherent moral sense and capacity for love that evolution has encoded in our very DNA by the mechanism of group selection.

·       To a UU humanist, the Spirit of Life might be the sense “that our well-being and our very existence depend upon the web of life in ways we are only beginning to understand.”

·       To a UU Christian, the Spirit of Life might be a loving and redeeming creator God.

·       To a UU theist, the Spirit of Life might be a process-relational God who is “the poet of the world, with tender patience leading it by God’s vision of truth, beauty and goodness.”

·       To a UU Buddhist, the Spirit of Life might be the principle that all suffering arises from selfish grasping and that happiness is as near as a selfless thought or deed.

·       To a Pagan UU, the Spirit of Life might be the elemental forces that permeate all that surrounds us and weave the world into one interdependent whole.

·       To a Jewish UU, the Spirit of Life might be an individual commitment to God-oriented, community-guided personal choices.

All of our diverse theologies share this essential truth: that love is an animating principle of the universe, calling us towards a world of compassion and justice. UUs are fond of quoting Martin Luther King Jr.: "The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice."

An oft-quoted critique of UUs is that "you wouldn’t recite the seven principles for comfort as the plane goes down." After all, not all of us pray, as many religious would do in that situation. Recently, we at Sugarloaf had an opportunity to discover what it is that UUs actually do as the plane goes down. Doubtless, many of you remember.

A member passed out during service and had trouble breathing. An ambulance was called, and the paramedics brought this member into the ambulance for treatment. While the congregation waited for news the accompanist began to play Spirit of Life. Soon the musicians of the ensemble joined in. Finally Rev. Megan led the congregation in singing along. This is what UUs do at such times, as the plane goes down: we sing Spirit of Life. For it contains our essential truth. It is what UUs believe.