As I write this it is still September 11th, the anniversary of the destruction of the
We have rightly honored the courage of those who gave their lives to save others, the police and firefighters in
Fear is inevitable, the natural consequence of our survival instincts, but it need not be what drives us because just as natural is the courage which is the first necessity for that survival. We all have at least a modicum of it. It takes courage to get out of bed in the morning, after all, to greet the dawn with hope, to celebrate a new day. If fear is the origin of evil, surely goodness is dependent on courage, which all of us have in some degree, and must have to live, whether we know it or not.
Courage is by no means fearlessness, nor is it always rational. People fear different things at different times, and a courageous person in one set of circumstances may be a quivering coward in others. I can speak to thousands behind a pulpit, but standing in front of a microphone to express my opinion on an issue at General Assembly sets my knees quivering so that I can hardly stand. I offered my life once to protect others and talked a holdup man into taking nothing but my friend’s and my available cash, but I can’t even watch other people go nearer than five feet from the edge of a precipice — much less myself. At all those times I am frightened, but the courage is there underneath the fear, and when we can find it we can combat evil, increase goodness, and find ways to help heal a hurting world.
Although it is a natural and necessary characteristic for simple physical survival, and therefore an evolutionary plus, I think that courage is more than that. It is for me the beginning of the life of the spirit. In fact, I can think of times that I have seen the words courage and spirit used interchangeably, and probably rightly so. The word “spiritual” is used without much precision, and I often wonder if it can be defined at all, but at its most basic level it merely means those aspects of our lives which transcend the material, that take us beyond our safety and our comfort to the higher values of truth, love, justice, compassion, honor, integrity and such other concepts that we may, and with sufficient courage will, value more than life itself.
Recently there has been an interesting theological development that seems to me to be creating a new idolatry. If you recall, some years ago the Unitarian Universalist president, Bill Sinkford, called for a new language of reverence among us. He was variously quoted and misquoted and it created quite a flap. He was accused of wanting to dictate a belief in a higher power of some sort, and he perhaps a bit undiplomatically used as part of his argument his own experience of relying on some strength that he felt had come to him from outside when he was in his darkest hour. Others’ experience of otherness will never justify to freethinkers a change in their own theological point of view. He should have stuck to the more viable argument that it would make it easier to talk to people in interfaith settings if we could bring ourselves to use the language that they were using. That is unquestionably true. The humanist chaplain at Harvard, Greg Epstein tells us of an interfaith group of college students doing good works together from which the humanist students had to withdraw because it was almost impossible for them not to argue against the theological stances of their fellow students. Interestingly, the believers seemed to feel no discomfort at all relating to the nonbelievers, as long as they were doing good and useful work together. Perhaps its just me, but an inability to work and play well with others seems to be to be a developmental problem that needs to be addressed, but I’ve already spent a sermon on that. Nevertheless, the point is that Bill’s call for a new language of reverence produced not only conversation but a book from, I think, William Miller, on his idea of what that might mean, as well as an essay by David Bumbaugh, and, of course, innumerable sermons. It has seemed to me that what they were actually doing was turning evolution/nature into a new idolatry. That’s less a language issue than a theological one. They were calling for reverence toward the processes of nature rather than toward some transcendent value.
A couple of years ago there was a proposal to change the principles in the UUA bylaws in some major ways, which I opposed, not because I don’t think there need to be some serious changes (my own preference would be to realize that such things as the principles and sources, are not actually bylaws and should be in a separate document) but because a couple of the changes were entirely unacceptable to me. The relevant one here is that they wanted to change the word respect to reverence in the one that talks about the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. So I stood there on my trembling knees and explained that although I had a great deal of respect, even awe, for the processes of nature and the interdependence of all life, I could not find it in me to revere a process in which those most fitted to survive succeeded on that basis alone, and the weaker went to the wall. The change did not pass, and sadly, because of that, none of the changes could be considered.
However, the important thing to me is that here is where I get into the spiritual, the transcendent, the improvable, sometimes — almost always — with some reluctance. I don’t like to stand on anything less than the most solid ground for my opinions. And yet, I can find nothing in evolutionary theory that tells me that human goodness is more important than human survival. Survival is simply not enough for me, and yet survival, ultimately, appears to be the only thing that nature is really interested in. It can be argued, and I would agree argued convincingly, that goodness in its various forms is itself a survival trait, that without it we would have managed to kill one another off before we became so wildly successful that the only natural enemies we have left are germs, weather, and one another, and we’ve managed often to make the first two less lethal. Perhaps, yet there is something more that tells me that with the death of goodness in the human heart our survival might be impossible but more importantly it ought not to be possible. Should human beings cease to strive for integrity, for justice, for truth, for respect for others, our survival would be contemptible. And yet in our primitive fears we are choosing hatred over love, chains over freedom.
There is the courage that is easily understood, the fight answer to our flight or fight reactions, protecting ourselves and our loved ones against attack, standing up to a bully, even getting us up in the morning, letting us make decisions about our wellbeing. But there is moral courage, the courage that enables us to put honor and justice ahead of survival. That, I think, is harder to understand, but is the first necessity for our full humanity. Paul Tillich is the theologian who probably wrote most about courage, entitling one of his works The Courage to Be. He talked about basic trust. It is the sense that despite tribulations and failure, the universe is nevertheless an essentially friendly place. Even when he discusses existential despair, it is only the idea of the meaninglessness of life that he deals with, not the despair that comes when life seems not only meaningless but desperate.
Although there is much in existentialism that I like and agree with, particularly that it is the human task to find and shape its own meaning, existential despair has always seemed a bit precious to me. It is all very well to think about how meaningless life is when all we do is made pointless by the fact that we will die and it will all be forgotten, but that is merely an intellectual exercise in despair. All you need to do is look around you to find the real thing, and there are times when you may even experience it yourself. Sometimes it may come as a consequence of failure so complete that to try again seems impossible. Sometimes it may be the result of a loss that is so great that all significance seems removed from life. It is, indeed, the loss of basic trust. One is betrayed by life itself. If courage depends on this basic trust, and therefore ultimately on hope, then there can be no courage in true despair which is beyond hope of amendment.
Yet I think such courage exists. I think that it is possible in utter despair, with no idea of improvement, no hope for the future, to continue the quest, to remain loyal to the values that you hold, to continue to worship and to celebrate. I do not know how it is maintained, but I have seen such courage and I reverence it more than I do that based on the hope that with persistence and courage matters will improve. But that’s okay, too. Any way that we can keep the courage alive that enables our spirits to persist in the journey toward the best that we can know and be is good enough. It is not always easy to do in a world where even our basic survival seems the enemy of our ideals.
I try to articulate, sometimes, the proper work of a religious institution. We are here to identify and celebrate ultimate value, and to nurture its influence in the world. But I think we have another purpose. I am not sure where courage comes from — courage, as opposed to fearlessness which may be, and often is, a product either of ignorance or denial of the real dangers that confront us. Although everyone has at least a modicum of it, there can never be too much. It seems clear that our task is somehow to nourish and enhance the courage that is necessary for our spiritual growth and health, or just our spiritual survival, the courage that we need for salvation. It is, at least in part, for this that we meet together in fellowship, to give courage to one another to continue to hold before us, even in times of danger and despair, the reality and power of human goodness.