The winner of the 2018 Dale Arnink Sermon Award is the Rev. Sean Neil-Barron, Assistant Minister of the Foothills Unitarian Church in Fort Collins, CO. Sean became a Minister at Foothills in 2016 after four years in the New England area where he completed seminary at Harvard Divinity School. Originally from Canada, Sean’s ministry is focused on creating 21st-century congregations of spiritual depth. His portfolio at Foothills includes pastoral care, adult faith formation, communications and membership integration. Outside of ministry, you will find Sean hiking or cooking up a storm with his partner Charles, and their dog Dollie.
A member of the committee that selected the winner offered the following in their reflections on Sean’s sermon (which you can read below):
I loved the comparison between evangelical Christianity to Humanism described as “using your imagination to imagine the unimaginable and this process of imagination creates vivid practices of imagery.”
More than No God – Humanist Becoming
A sermon preached at Foothills Unitarian Church by Rev. Sean Neil-Barron on Oct. 14, 2017
How many of you have been to a kegger before? I managed to escape, going through seven years of post-secondary education, ever going to a kegger. So I can only sort of imagine goes on at such gathering. The other day, I did stumble across a video from Princeton. It’s from about 2002 and it’s this recording of a frat party.
It has all of your typical antics. You have the mob of eight or so people trying to move the keg from wherever they procured it to the lawn. You have them tapping it, it spilling everywhere. You have the gathering of friends and people they don’t know but are attracted because there’s beer, and as the video goes on, everyone’s inebriation starts to deepens. You have the slurring of speech, you have the vomiting in the bushes, you have the person passed out on the lawn, everything you would expect from an overindulgence of alcohol.
The hilarious thing, though, about this specific kegger, was that the beer that was provided was actually non-alcoholic. They were all experiencing the butt of a rather ingenious prank, experiencing what we call the placebo effect, that sometimes our minds can convince us, or even create conditions in bodies mimicking another reality than our own.
You’ve heard of placebos before, right, they are used in medical studies? During a medical study, you take a group and divide them in half. Half gets whatever treatment you’re trying to test, and the other half gets kind of a fake treatment.
They get a sugar pill or something, so that they can test for effectiveness, because you would hope that your active ingredient would be more effective than just taking a sugar pill. Of course, this has tripped up much of the scientific community, because the power of placebos is, well, magnificent. They have found that placebos can inhibit things like irritable bowel syndrome, can replace effectively some types of antidepressants. The very partaking in these medical rituals changes us.
Now, I find placebos positively fascinating, because they have so many interesting nuances to it. For example, in different areas of the world, different types of placebos work better. For example, in the United States, if you’re in a study and your placebo is injected, it has much more effect than taking a pill, but that’s not true in Europe. It’s the reverse. They have found that if you print on the pill a brand name for the drug, it has more effect than a generic one. They found that even the color of the pills has an impact on this placebo effect.
For a long time we thought placebos were simply our brains imagining, our capacity to make something real that wasn’t, to block out symptoms, but recent studies have shown that placebos actually create the conditions, much of the time, that the treatments that they’re replicating would create. They’ve done brain scans in which they see the areas of the brain that you would associate with pain decreasing with placebos.
It’s also fascinating to learn that placebos work even when you’re told it’s a placebo, that in fact in studies, they divide groups up, giving some of them a placebo and giving the other group a placebo and telling them, “This is a placebo,” and they still see an impact. Placebos are no longer a medical annoyance that we have to account for, but are potentially part of a new healing regimen. We are moving past the conceptions of placebos as imaginary, but rather something being made real and impactful in ways that are sometimes hard to explain.
When I was in seminary, I went to the Harvard Center on Placebo Studies symposium, because why not, and I was treated to a conversation with Dr. Tanya Luhrmann. The topic of the conversation was talking about prayer as placebo. Luhrmann is a professor at Princeton, where she studies psychological anthropology. Her question in her studies over the past five years has been to try to understand the relationship between evangelical Christians and God, and what she has found is that for evangelical Christians, their experience of practicing prayer, that they are taught in their communities, helps them experience God.
This placebo study brought her in to talk about prayer as placebo, and she first starts by saying, “I don’t like that. I don’t make any claims about whether or not God exists or not, but what my research is telling me is that the cultivation of these prayer practices in evangelical Christianity makes real the experience of God for these people, so much so that within six months of active training, what was once non-existent can be made vivid and real.”
In evangelical Christianity, they have this conception that God wants to be your friend, and it’s through prayer and attention to your inner world that you’re able to discern what God is pushing you to do. You do this by figuring out how to discern the thoughts and the impulses that you experience in the world, to discern between the ones that come from you and the ones that come from God. In your mind, you may hear or think or see images or feel the moving of the Spirit so vividly, and that through prayer, you’re able to figure out if it’s God.
In fact, what you’re doing is using your imagination to imagine the unimaginable, and this process of imagination creates vivid practices of imagery. One person described her experiences of prayer and the messages of God that they are so vivid they are like a PowerPoint presentation, that prayer and these practices act as an emotional management system, a type of self-therapy that helps us cope with the everyday life.
I used to think that God truly was a placebo, back when I was an atheist, and so I would look at studies like this and say, “Well, of course, evangelical Christians are teaching people to experience something that is not real,” and yet when you put these Christians in MRI machines, you see parts of their brain light up when they talk to God and when they hear God talking back, the same parts of the brain that would light up as if they were hearing you or me speaking.
The New York Times book review of Luhrmann’s book, “When God Talks Back” may capture what some of you might be thinking. Secular Americans’ worst fears have come true. There is now scientific evidence that evangelical Christians brainwash their believers. It continues. They don’t merely teach that Adam and Eve actually existed and that gay marriage is abomination, they change the way their members brains’ work.
Many of you probably came to Unitarian Universalism specifically to avoid this type of supernaturalism in religion, being asked to subscribe to beliefs that seemed fantastical at best and most definitely ahistorical. You might have come to Unitarian Universalism trying to escape blind faith that seemed inconsistent within itself, trying to move away from a church that told you there was an all-powerful God that seemed to be somehow impotent in our daily life, and told to just trust that God works in mysterious ways.
I think for many of us, this is the fertile ground for atheism. Atheism erupts as a rebellion to this sort of dangerous supernaturalism, these beliefs that there is some all-powerful being in the universe that determines everything, that we as humans have no real power other than gods, that our lives should somehow be centered on appeasing said beings’ rather jealous tendencies, more so than helping our fellow human, rejecting the beliefs that somehow our human minds are so inferior that we have to confirm to the will of God or face eternal punishment. “Conform to the will of God” doesn’t make sense to us because there is a wisdom higher than ours that only God understands, even though it seems to always be doled out by humans, right?
Many of us found this faith because it doesn’t ask us to subscribe to myth as though it is fact, myths that have real-life consequences for our life on earth. For if you are a religious person, whether you are a Christian or a Muslim, that believes Armageddon is coming, that the world is almost over, you have very little get-up-and-go to act on things like climate change, right? Because if this world is disposable and God has a plan, climate change could even be a good thing, because for many evangelical Christians, it actually harkens in the coming of Jesus.
I think this is why many of us have found this faith, because these supernatural claims don’t jive with not only what we experience in the world, but also the type of world that we want to live in, a world in which we share responsibility for our lives and not gift it away to some being that seems ethereal.
It reminds me of a joke, actually. A humanist farmer purchased an old, run-down, abandoned farm, with plans to turn it into a thriving enterprise. Now, if you can imagine, this is a place where the fields are grown over with weeds, the farmhouse is falling apart, and the fences were broken down. On his first day on the job, the town preacher stopped by to bless the man’s work, saying, “May and you God work together to make this the farm of your dreams.”
Well, a few months later the preacher stopped by again and called on the farmer, and lo and behold, it was a completely different story. The farmhouse was completely rebuilt and in excellent condition. There was plenty of cattle and other livestock happily munching away on their feed in well-fenced-in pens, and the fields were filled with crops planted in neat little rows. “Amazing,” the preacher said. “Look what you and God have accomplished together.” “Yes, Reverend, but remember what the farm was like when God was working it alone?”
I think it is natural for us in our society to see atheism spring up against these types of supernaturalism. Atheism, this conviction that there is no God, and yet I think atheism in itself is wholly insufficient for meeting the challenges of our day-to-day life, and this is why. We have seen, alongside the atheist impulse, the humanist one. Humanism is a belief system that kind of sidesteps the question of atheism, even though we tend to think of them as going together. For humanism, as Anthony Pinn writes, begins with the rejection of superstition and supernatural claims, but doesn’t let it be the end of the conversation, but in fact only the beginning. It was a starting point that quickly followed with attention to what humanists believe and what their values would do with our world.
John Dietrich, one of the first humanist ministers in our Unitarian movement, who had a pulpit in the Midwest, said this about what the core of humanism is. “Humanism in religion is the shifting of emphasis from God to humans,” making the enrichment of human life the object of our allegiance, and somehow within us is a voice which urgently calls us. It is the life urge. It is the aspiration after better things. It is humans at their best and their bravest. It is what many call divine, some even call God. In any case, it is religion.
Humanism as a philosophy that was birthed really in the 20th century holds humanity as totally accountable and responsible for humans’ conditions, and holds us totally and completely responsible and accountable for correcting humanity’s plight. There is no God that will descend from Heaven to make it all okay.
Humanism also holds that truth is ever-evolving. Spurred on by the conceptions of evolution that Charles Darwin brought us, they perceive of truth as something that is quested for continuously, and we must work diligently to see the new truths that are revealed from many sources, from scientific exploration, from the work of logic and philosophy, from the experience of our world, that revelation is not sealed.
Thirdly, humanism holds that we are of this world, that we are part of the natural systems of it, that we are not set aside from the world to somehow lord over it, that humans are this chance of fate, evolved from primates to inhabit the world and to maybe seek a way of living in harmony with it rather than in dominion over it.
Finally, a core tenet of humanist belief is that this life is all we probably get, and that we should make it enough to joyfully experience it. Now, I say “probably” because humanism is generally agnostic on questions like the existence of God or the existence of the afterlife, because for them, they move the spotlight of concern from that of God and what might lie beyond to what is here, to what is now.
It is natural, I think, for Unitarianism to be the fertile soil for humanist thought, and we saw in the beginning of the 21st century the emergence of a Unitarian religious humanism in the Midwest, people taking the Unitarian tradition that said that we are worthy and not depraved, and extending it to think that we could find a humanistic, human-centered religion, that we could do away with the rituals and superstitions of religions past and create a new form of religion.
In 1933, it came together in what was called a Humanist Manifesto. It begins, “The time has come for widespread recognition of the radical changes in religious beliefs throughout the modern world. The time is past for mere revision of traditional attitudes. Science and economic change have disrupted the old beliefs.” “Today man’s larger understanding of the universe, his scientific achievements, and deeper appreciation of brotherhood, have created a situation which requires a new statement of the means and purposes of religion.”
It took them a while, you know, to expand outside of maleness, and then they went on to list a bunch of core conceptions of humanist belief, but they ended with this one that I think helps summarize them. This is 1933. “We assert that humanism will: (a) affirm life rather than deny it; (b) will seek to elicit the possibilities of life, not flee from them; and (c) endeavor to establish the conditions of a satisfactory life for all, not merely for the few. By this positive morale and intention humanism will be guided, and from this perspective and alignment the techniques and efforts of humanism will flow.”
You might find that you are in kinship with this type of humanism, that you were maybe raised by in our tradition or found refuge in in Unitarian Universalism, but humanism in this incarnation, as defined in this manifesto, went through a deep evolution in the 20th century. You can imagine that it was in 1933 when that Humanist Manifesto was written, and then this continent slid into the Depression, and into a world war, where millions died on the battlefields of Europe, where the pain of the Holocaust could not be hidden from our eyes, and the humanistic optimism contained in statements like this, for our capacity to reform ourselves and the world towards the upward potential of our humanity, was challenged.
It was hard to find faith, and it is still I think hard to find faith simply in humanity, when we truly witness humanity’s destruction. Humanism had to evolve, to find a way of finding sustenance simply in the struggle for that world, not its eventual creation, but that wasn’t it. As you can imagine, these humanist beliefs started to take form, and people took them up with gusto and started to look at the religions of the day, and seeing that many of them were not conforming to the pursuits of truth and reason and scientific knowledge, they started to demand that these religions be held accountable. They started to articulate a certain perspective on what religion should be.
Historian of humanism William Murray writes this as what humanism saw as the place of religion. Quote, “To codify and put into enduring poetic form the highest moral values of a society, consistent with empirical knowledge, and to lead in moral reasoning.” one of the signers of the Humanist Manifesto, Oliver Reiser, captures the essence of this perspective I think perfectly in his parody of a humanistic prayer. Now, I offered a humanistic prayer a few weeks ago. This one’s a little different, so are you ready?
“Thou Cosmic Movement, Cosmic Continuum! We petition thee to lend auditory discrimination to these, our laryngeal contractions. May our cortical pathways always keep vigilance over our lower reflexes. May our endocrines not hypertrophy nor our hormones become toxic. Increase our opsonic index. Though we walk through the valley of depressed metabolism, may we secrete no useless adrenaline.”
As the Reverend Victoria Safford writes, “It is respectable to have this humanistic understanding of the role of religion, but it’s not what people dance to. Ask them why they’re here on Sunday morning; only rarely do they say, `I’d like to codify and put into enduring poetic form the highest moral values of society, consistent with empirical knowledge.” Humanism needed to find itself able to express its truth in metaphor, in poetry, song and maybe even prayer, in a way that captured the esthetical power of knowingness that transcends simple cognition, to put into truth what may have been revealed in science in a way that transforms the heart.
One of the things I loved about going to seminary was we had a great archive, and I really got to know the research librarian. I would kind of walk into Gloria’s office and I’d be like, “Gloria, I’d really like to see the minutes for the 1942 meeting of the American Unitarian Association,” and she’d get very excited because not very many people wanted to see those sorts of things. One of my repeat visits was to read the “Zondervan Guide to Cults and Religious Movements.” It’s a great series, 13 parts, each of them identifying a cult or religious movement of our day, and providing helpful tips to try to convert these heathens. They usually begin with a summary of the worldview of said religion, so I’ll let you guess whose religion and whose worldview this is.
“Although they are not large in numbers in the United States today, the influence of their worldview on law, education, politics, popular culture and public policy is enormous. If you have ever been told that the Bible is mostly a myth, morality is relative, believing in the exclusivity of Christianity is intolerant, that abortion is a fundamental human right, and that human sexuality should be limited only by the choices of consenting adults, then you have been confronted by aspects of the Unitarian Universalist worldview.” It includes sort of helpful questions to trick Unitarian Universalists, one of them being, “How do you justify thinking that you should trust your own moral intuition above the morality of Jesus Christ?” I don’t think many Unitarian Universalists would struggle with that.
While this worldview that is described in this evangelical book on cults I don’t think is entirely accurate to our Unitarian Universalist worldview, I think it caricatures a fundamental truth about our faith, that we, Unitarian Universalists, have a humanist faith. It just so happens that we have a humanist faith that is filled with theists, atheists, agnostics, Christians, Buddhists, Jews and more, because elemental to our worldview and perspective, shared even by the most theistically inclined … like myself, remember … is that we accept responsibility for this world and ourselves, and don’t expect God to do it for us. That no matter our beliefs about God, we are all open to the evolving understandings brought to us through science and exploration, that we center humanity … this life, being the one we have … in the center of our religious practice.
I do not think we are truly divided between humanists and theists in this faith. I think we are truly only divided between varying comfort levels with being religious. I think that the fear of supernaturalism that corresponded with a secularizing urge that was aimed to contain supernaturalism in the private lives of those who wanted to believe it, to protect governments and society from its power, was translated by many Unitarian Universalists, atheists and humanists to try to secularize our church. Too great was the power and fear and distrust and wounds of supernaturalism, that we tried to remove these parts, its trappings, its languages, its practices, from our faith.
Bob Bacon bought this sermon last year at the auction. It’s funny, it’s kind of become like an auction, promo, and he asked me to preach on what’s next for humanism. Humanism needs to learn from evangelical Christians and pranking frat boys, because I think what humanism and Unitarian Universalism needs to do is to help us cultivate practices that help us experience in our bones this humanist story of belonging to each other, this world, and holding responsibility, that our humanist worldview needs to be practiced not in the head but in the heart, that in this age of contested beliefs in which the world has been disenchanted of its inherent divine power, we are left with depleted stories of a god who might have been real, or of humans’ capacity that seems so fragile.
I think for Unitarian Universalism and for humanism, we need to be able to answer the question “Is this it” not with arguments based on facts or scientific probability, but with practices of being that cultivate an answer deep within our bones that says even if it is, it is simply enough. I call this experience human becoming, a word that I’ve borrowed from Foothills member Karen Harber. It is when we experience this becoming of who we are already, of what is possible, when we feel rooted, meaningful, connected.
It is the experience that Carl Sagan talks about when he views this picture, taken from the Voyager space station. Exiting our solar system, it turned around and took a picture, and that tiny dot … that because of our new projector, you can see … is Earth. Everything we love, everything we know, every single part of humanity, every single creature that we’ve been able to identify, exists on that mote of dust caught in a sunbeam.
I think we need to kindle a love affair between humanity and this world in which we experience our responsibility, our connectedness, so viscerally that we cannot not act, we cannot not reach out, we cannot not set the boundary, and that we don’t need billions of dollars of spacecraft to get us to this experience of becoming, of what we are, of what this place is, of who we need to be.
For me, most vividly this experience of human becoming comes to me from when I was in Boston. I was part of a Black Lives Matter protest of more than 40,000 people, snaking our way through the streets of Boston chanting that black lives matter, that people should not be shot because of the color of their skin. I found myself with this deep-seated experience that I was a part of the immune system of this world. May we find these moments of becoming in our everyday life. Amen.