All Souls Kansas City

January 27: “Swerving” with Rev. Kendyl Gibbons

Click here to start at the sermon.

I was raised – in a Unitarian Universalist church – to be a theological pagan in a puritan protestant liturgy. May I just say at the outset that this is not always a comfortable fit? This year’s auction sermon assignment from Butch Murphy has recalled me to our roots in the origins of the western intellectual tradition; specifically, the philosophy of ancient Greece, and the literature of classical Rome. In much the same way that most UUs, if you scratch the surface, are humanists of one variation or another, so we are also largely at some level Epicureans, often without really knowing what that means. Steven Greenblatt, author of the 2012 Pulitzer-prize winning book The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, sets out to raise our awareness of what the culture of our present time owes to its pagan forbears. This is a history that we Unitarian Universalists and religious liberals in general would be well advised to pay attention to, lest we espouse these ideas as if we ourselves just came up with them, or as if they did not carry with them any ancient baggage. We didn’t, and they do.

As our reading from Ross Douthat earlier suggested, these pagan ideas are of more than intellectual interest at this cultural moment. The long-standing comfortable low-key Christian majority of American society may be at a significant inflexion point just now. Diverse religious traditions – not just the sibling Abrahamic faiths like Judaism and Islam, but even more unfamiliar traditions like Buddhism, and Hinduism – are growing in popularity in our nation, both by immigration and by adoption. Roman Catholic Christianity is facing severe challenges not only from sexual abuse scandals in the clergy, but resistance among independent-minded American adherents who are not comfortable with its long heritage of sexism, homophobia, and reproductive control. Fundamentalist Protestant megachurches have notorious difficulty with succession once the career of a charismatic founder ends. The pews of mainline and progressive Protestant congregations are aging and emptying. The ‘no religious affiliation’ is the fastest growing category in all surveys – as many as 36% among millennials, and 23% overall. While not all of the ‘nones’ are atheists, not all of the religiously affiliated are theists, either – leading to an estimate that close to one quarter of Americans do not believe in a conventional idea of god, regardless of their reported church membership or attendance. The question of whether pagan ideas about nature, morality, and the meaning of a good life might find renewed relevance in our time is not just intriguing; it is urgent.

In The Swerve, Greenblatt traces the adventure by which Poggo Bracciolini, a Renaissance scholar and notary in the papal court, rediscovered a copy of a long Latin poem entitled De Rerum Natura – On the Nature Things, or perhaps more colloquially, How Things Are. This six-volume work, composed about 60 years before the birth of Jesus, was intended to lay out the basic ideas of the Greek philosopher Epicurus as guidance and reassurance for Roman politicians of the poet’s day. You might think of it as a science-based version of How to Win Friends and Influence People, or perhaps an early humanist take on The Purpose Driven Life. There are some textual infelicities – repetitions, and gaps, as well as a strangely abrupt conclusion – which suggest that the poet, Lucretius, may have died before his work was fully edited for publication. Nevertheless, it was meant to be a high-brow self-help book, advising tribunes, judges, governors and senators to dismiss any fear of the gods, either in this life or after death, and to seek the rational pleasures of this world as the highest good.

Today, an ‘Epicurean’ is most commonly thought of as someone who is both eager and picky about food, and it is true that a banquet shared among friends is one of this philosophy’s images of the greatest pleasures in life. The Epicureans delighted in food and drink, in sex (of which more in a moment), in the beauties of art and of nature, in intellectual satisfactions, and in human friendship. However, they were not extravagant hedonists, merely seeking a succession of agreeable sensations. Rather, their ultimate goal was a peace of mind which the Greeks called ataraxia, that is sometimes translated as ‘serenity.’ Epicurus taught that this state, in which the mind was free from worry or distress, was necessary for the absence of pain, which is the essential condition for pleasure. This is why there can be no true or lasting pleasure in excesses, because they always lead to pain, like a hangover the next day, or else to worry, like not having enough money, or the memory of having behaved badly. But once you realize that there is no reason to fear the gods, and learn to regulate your actions so that they do not create painful situations in the future, then you can live in serenity, and enjoy the goodness of life without anxiety. From this position, Lucretius counseled his Roman audience, it is possible to exercise political power without creating injustice or sacrificing your own well-being.

Epicurus was not so much interested in talking people out of believing in the gods; he just thought that gods were nothing to be afraid of. If they exist at all, he reasoned, they have far more interesting and pleasant matters to think about than us annoying humans with all our dramas and complaints. The gods are absorbed in the contemplation of divine things, he told his followers; they have no concern at all about us, either to reward or punish us, so there is no need to fear them or to try to placate or please them. Whether or not they exist, it is rational for us to behave as if they do not. Their assistance is not necessary in order to construct a pleasurable, satisfying life, or to understand the origins and nature of the universe.

If you don’t hold to the proposition that all things have been created by the gods for the purpose of setting a stage for human action, then you might end up being curious about how it all got here in the first place. And this is where the ancient Greeks bust out both the theory of atoms, and the theory of evolution – well before our modern Enlightenment scientific method. The universe, says Lucretius, following Epicurus, is made up of tiny, eternally existing particles. After all, if we can simply postulate god as an eternally present reality, why can’t we just suppose that the basic building blocks, the seeds, or atoms as Democritus calls them, have always been? Just eliminate the intervening step of imagining the gods to create them. These atoms, these infinitesimal elements, are falling through the void of infinite space, and that is all that really exists – tiny particles, and the void. Epicurus of course did not understand the realities of gravitational laws as we do now; he imagined these basic seeds all in the act of falling through space that has no bottom. They were already in motion, and just like Newtonian billiard balls, they would remain in that uniform motion until acted on by some other force. It was only by their random collisions that they connected to form larger bodies, and ultimately the matter that we know in the world.

And this is where the idea of ‘swerve’ becomes significant. The non-theistic Greek philosophers recognized three basic causes – necessity, chance, and human choice. Necessity was seen in the laws of what we think of as Newton’s physics, of action and re-action, where observable cause produces predictable result. Human agency arises in cases where people exercise their will based on “whither pleasure leads us,” or “just where our mind takes us” as Lucretius says in his poem. It is important to assert human will, because., according to Epicurus, “necessity destroys responsibility and chance is uncertain; whereas our own actions are autonomous, and it is to them that praise and blame naturally attach.” There can be no moral accountability if our actions are determined by an inevitable chain of causation. This is the long vexed problem of free will, which Epicurus was one of the first philosophers to articulate.

But Lucretius also needs chance; for it is only if those eternally falling infinitely small particles occasionally collide, and sometimes connect, with each other, that matter – or life – can come to exist. Modern physics teaches that all atomic motion is random, and it is only by statistical average that relatively large objects behave predictably; neither Lucretius nor his master Epicurus thought of it that way. For them it was that tiny swerve, that smallest of incidental chance motions, that set the whole universe into unfolding, as matter began to gather together and experience impact from other matter. There were any number of basic principles of today’s science that Epicurus and his followers did not understand, but what is important about their speculations is that they constructed a reasonable account of the origin and functions of the universe that did not depend on any form of intelligent design by the gods. Who may or may not exist, but have no interest in our world, or our problems.

Epicurus was convinced, and Lucretius agreed, that the conflicts and anxieties that prevented human beings from treating each other with compassion and reason had to do with fear of the gods. Once that was laid to rest, then we could undertake the project of learning to live together in happiness and serenity. They observed that in nature, all creatures, including humans, seek to satisfy their needs, and to avoid pain. This becomes the framework of understanding what constitutes a good life – one that is free of pain, and full of satisfactions. Both pain and satisfactions can be either physical or mental; hunger, for instance, is a physical pain, and eating to satisfy it is a physical pleasure. Fear is a mental pain, and knowledge is a mental satisfaction. The mental qualities are more enduring, because we both remember and anticipate in our minds, while immediate physical sensations are quickly replaced in succeeding moments. The best kind of life, then, is one in which our physical needs are satisfied, so that they do not cause us suffering, and our minds are without distress, enjoying what they called ataraxia, and we translate as serenity.

In order to achieve the kind of serenity which allows for the enjoyment of pleasures, it is necessary for the individual to be able to control desire, because desire is a kind of distress, or pain. Wanting food is a reasonable need; craving elaborate dishes or elegant food is a desire which causes us unnecessary suffering if we don’t get it. Aspiring to great wealth or power is also a distress which prevents the experience of serenity. Epicurus believed that it was important to live in a society where people agreed not to harm each other, so that they could pursue serene pleasure without worrying about being taken advantage of by their neighbors. His collective morality was based on a very early version of a social contract – that we enter into a government by everyone constraining their own behavior so that we do not injure anyone else. It is also possible that to be in the presence of suffering is to suffer, either from sympathy or else from revulsion, so that it is in our own interest not to cause pain.

The mutuality of friendship among equals was a high value for the Epicureans; so long as friends are not manipulating each other in an exploitive way. The best human relationship they envisioned was between two happy and self-sufficient people, who could enjoy their companionship freely without becoming dependent or controlling. The pursuit of serenity and the enjoyment of friendship were compatible and mutually reinforcing. Sexuality was a different matter. The casual sexual act was a source of pleasure, as long as it caused no pain or harm to anyone. However, enduring passionate love can never be really satisfied with any sexual encounter – the true lovers want to melt into each other and become one, which cannot actually happen. So they are left still longing for each other, anxious for their next meeting, and prey to jealousy and fear of loss, all of which are fatal to the serene freedom from discomfort that is the Epicurean’s highest good. Romantic, courtly love they saw as a trap, that could never end well, and should be avoided by the right-minded.

There is a great deal about the Epicurean philosophy that is reasonable as well as appealing. It offers the natural world as beautiful and comprehensible; a network in which human consciousness is both a product and a participant. There is no reason to waste pleasure or embrace pain; this neither benefits people nor pleases the gods. Instead, each of us should seek the wisdom to modulate both our behavior and our desires. Once you achieve that ability, you are no longer at the mercy of chance events, or other peoples’ choices, or your own cravings; instead, you can act out of the self-possessed serenity that absorbs the least possible pain, and enjoys the maximum possible pleasure. You will be able to judge fairly, and to govern in the public interest, without sacrificing your personal well being.

Ancient Rome was a place of political intrigue, and self-seeking hidden agendas, of madmen and power brokers offering deals and threats, of shifting alliances and insatiable egos, not unlike our own day. Lucretius offered an alternative vision; the ability to enjoy what we already have, in a conscious way, not driven to consume and accumulate power beyond all rational necessity. It is a pleasant faith, joyful and grateful, humble and reflective, unfazed by mortality or the wrath of divine beings. It offers no afterlife, only a heaven in this world; the gathering of happy friends among the beauties of nature, for intelligent conversation accompanied by agreeable food and drink. Nothing in excess, no occasion for regrets or anything that brings harm to others. In a culture like ours, hypnotized by demands for better, faster, richer, stronger, sexier, more glamorous, more powerful, more everything, it is a welcome breath of calm.

The question is — and this is what Ross Douthat challenges us to consider today — how do you affirm and celebrate such an unassuming, positive set of beliefs? Lucretius did it with exquisite Latin poetry; it could be argued that a truly compelling translation of his work into beautiful English has yet to be achieved. Epicurus never made a case against uplifting religious ritual or community celebration, only against fearing the wrath of the gods, or trying to placate them. Again and again in the intervening centuries, humanism has been accused of joylessness, and of elitism. As Douthat puts it, “[Because it] invites its adherents to commune with a universe that offers suffering and misery in abundance, [intellectual Paganism] has a strong appeal to the privileged, but a much weaker appeal to people who need not only a sense of wonder from their spiritual lives but also, well, help.” Which, in moments of loss or disappointment, is all of us.

I believe that this project is at least part of what we are about, in the liberal religious tradition; to affirm just such a sensible, natural, grateful, unafraid view of the way things are, and then build the reasoned community of mutuality and compassion that it pre-supposes as necessary to the good life for us all. Nothing supernatural or superstitious about it. After two thousand years, this might be the moment, again. The two challenges that the Epicureans faced then, continue to confront us today; first, is it only the privileged who can afford a rational faith, and second, now that the lovely Latin of Lucretius no longer speaks to us, can we make it sing?