In this sermon, we explore the idea of what it means to be human–and how that relates to the dream of building a new church in Wayzata, Minnesota. From ancient ruins in Turkey to the physiology of the human brain, I suggest that our humanity is intimately tied to our yearning for social justice.
Last week, Rev. Kent Hemmen Saleska, the minister here at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Minnetonka, presented a sermon that outlined a vision for the future of this church. It followed the unexpected news that our congregation was successful in its federal lawsuit against the City of Wayzata, meaning that we will be able to build and move into our new church within the next six years. Kent ended his sermon by saying:
Conflict becomes an opportunity for intimacy when we engage it with a sense of humility, knowing that we hurt… we get scared… we make mistakes…[and] we are imperfect beings, too.
Over the past three years, particularly in the realm of our legal struggles, we’ve been providing leadership … by engaging in a lot of doing. Maybe it is time that we lead simply by being….
This is our … chance at emergence and evolution. As we learn to lead by being, may we learn to be the change we want to see in the world.
Kent’s challenge to you was to learn to “lead by being.” I’m curious how you will carry out this vision of being the change you want to see in the world. We are, after all, human beings. Last week, Kent also made some connections to our Puritan roots. He said:
It seems to be ingrained in us that if we are not doing something, then we are useless. Even closer to the bone, perhaps, it seems to be our sense that if we are not doing something, then we are not worthy or worthwhile people.
With this sentiment, we sometimes think that we are human doings instead of human beings. I wonder, when we all come together on Sunday mornings, are we expecting to do worship, or be in worship? Can we ever really accept that “we are not human beings having a spiritual experience, but rather, we are spiritual beings having a human experience”?
Doings. Beings. Human beings. Being human. …Doing…human?
Are we doing human? Or are we being human? Are we any good at it? Do we consider ourselves worthy of our humanity? And what in the world does it mean to be human, anyway?
And here I bet you were wondering what you could possibly teach me this year! Or maybe you already suspected that such lofty questions were yours to explore with me.
The question I have for you is this: How does your humanity relate to the ongoing efforts to build a new church and relocate? What does being human have to do with the way we move forward? I hope to hear your thoughts on that.
But first we need to explore what it means to be human. Is there one singular, definitive trait that encompasses our humanity so thoroughly that, without it, we would no longer be human?
In the fall of 2010, I signed up for a Unitarian Universalist Worship class. Our first assignment was a short paper—only three pages. And within those three pages, that was the question we were supposed to answer. Define one archetype of human behavior.
I’m sure it wasn’t meant to stump me. But the enormity of the question boggled my mind. What does it mean to be human? What sets us apart from other animals? If a gorilla has characteristics that make it a gorilla, and a dolphin has qualities that separate it from being a whale or a shark, then do we humans have some sort of non-physical quality that makes us definitively, uniquely human?
This assignment sent me on a quest for answers. I have spent the past year and a half posing this question to all sorts of people—challenging my classmates over the lunch table at school, posting it as my status on Facebook, bringing it up at family gatherings (which I’m sure they appreciated). And I’m sure that I will spend the rest of my life teasing out answers to this question. One sermon is nowhere near enough space to explore the full potential of our shared humanity. But it is a starting point.
The problem I ran into wasn’t that I couldn’t think of any answers at all. I’m sure that just within the past couple of minutes you’ve already started thinking up your own answers. But the problem I had was that, for every answer I came up with, I could think of another animal species that exhibited the same quality.
For example, I thought of language. Whether we speak English or Spanish, Tagalog or Tzotzil, or even sign language, humans around the world all communicate their ideas to one another with words and phrases. And yet, I listen to the rest of the animal kingdom, and I can hear the echoing underwater songs of whales and dolphins, and even the subsonic rumblings of elephants. Scientists have already been experimenting with speaking back to these animals in their own languages. And earlier today, we heard about Koko the gorilla, communicating with over 1,000 words in American Sign Language. So while language is something that humans do, it does not define us.
I also explored the idea of coming together in community. We humans gather together in pairs and clumps, defining ourselves by our social groups. We sign up to be members of secular organizations and religious communities. But while our intentions may be somewhat more sophisticated, humans certainly aren’t the only animal that has social groupings. Wolves have packs, bees have hives, birds have flocks, fish have schools, horses have herds. Within various animal groupings, we can find evidence of social structure and hierarchy. Humans are certainly not unique in their desire for a community in which they can find belonging.
So I moved on to the earmarks of civilization—art, music, math, agriculture, religion. I’ve seen paintings done by gorillas and elephants, so it would seem some other animals are capable of producing art, and though those paintings don’t approach the caliber of Picasso or Monet, they did show another animal’s ability to grasp abstract concepts.
As far as music goes, I think of course of songbirds and whales, even wolves. There’s no doubt that these animals sing. But is it “music” in the same way that humans compose music? Perhaps not. But I still don’t think that the distinction between mockingbirds and Mozart, or between bluebirds and Britney Spears, is enough to define all of humanity.
I thought perhaps math or agriculture could be something that defines us, but I can’t even claim that the majority of humans are capable of solving an algebraic equation or running a farm. And then to top it off, I look at the complex math that honeybees instinctively use to build their hives and harvest pollen, and I watch leaf-cutter ants using bits of foliage to farm a specific species of fungus that they use to feed their colony, and I don’t see that humans necessarily have the advantage after all.
So is there nothing, then, that separates human beings from other animals? Some would say so. But this negation of our distinctive humanity presupposes that nothing separates different animal species from one another—that an eagle is just a sparrow with a bigger beak, or that a polar bear is just a panda without the black. In my experience, there are traits that make these animals distinct from one another not just as physically individual creatures, but as an entire species. And so there must be something that defines humanity, something that is accessible to every person on the planet, something that other animals don’t have.
The first quality I found was that humans are adaptive in ways that no other animal species is. Human beings have found ways to survive in almost every environment ever discovered: tropical rainforests, arctic glaciers, barren desert, high altitude, deep ocean, outer space. And it isn’t physical evolution that allows certain groups of our species to survive in these places—an individual human being can take the appropriate measures to adapt to any one of these environments in his or her lifetime.
This means that human beings are capable of perceiving the future. We don’t just live in the present moment; we remember our history, and we find patterns that allow us to predict a likely future based on our present circumstances. Unlike any other species, human beings have the ability to plan for the future in a way that moves beyond our survival instincts. We are able to envision a new and better reality, and then work toward achieving it.
This congregation’s dream of building a new and better church is possible because, as human beings, we are able to imagine a different reality, and then work toward achieving it. As you come together to plan this bright future together, remember that it is your humanity that allows you to do so.
Part of this ability is due to our physiology. In the book “A General Theory of Love,” we learn that humans have a triune brain, which means there are three layers to our brains, and each layer has a separate function. The reptilian brain is wrapped around our brain stem, right at the base of our skull. This is where all of our survival and defensive instincts come from. It is also the part of our brain that monitors our involuntary functions, like holding our breath underwater or making sure our heart keeps beating.
Wrapped around the reptilian brain is the limbic brain. The limbic brain is what allows us to form social connections with others—whether they are friendships, family units, or the bond between a human and another animal. Any animal with a limbic brain also uses vocal communication, including singing or murmuring to their young. And the limbic brain permits playing—an activity that has nothing to do with survival. For animals—including humans—play is physical poetry.
The outermost brain is the neocortex, and in humans, it is the largest of the three. This is the center that controls our conscious will, our ability to think abstractly, and our rational processing. Human beings have the largest neocortex-to-brain ratio of any creature, which confers upon us the ability to reason through problems and come up with creative solutions.
Evolutionary psychology, based in the reptilian brain, urges us to hoard our resources; instinct tells us that we could run out, and this might mean we don’t survive. All animals have this instinct—it is what urges us to eat and drink, to save food for the winter, to hibernate and conserve energy, and to migrate to more hospitable climates. In human society, this evolutionary instinct compels us to create savings accounts, or have a nest egg, to keep our pantries stocked, and to not give too much away in case we later find ourselves wanting.
(Remember this instinct when your dream for a new building includes members of your finance ministry asking for financial contributions!)
Our own animal psychology tells us to hold on to our money and our belongings. And yet these are only instincts. They form our subconscious habits. But habits can be broken. Humans have the ability to overcome our own evolutionary psychology with an ethic of generosity, and this is due to that outermost brain.
Because of our enormous neocortex, humans have the ability to adapt to extreme external environments, to reason our way beyond simple survival instincts, and to think of such abstract concepts as “the future” and plan accordingly. When you stop to think about it, that’s pretty amazing.
But then I ran across this June’s issue of National Geographic, and I read about Gobekli Tepe, the world’s first temple. 11,600 years ago, before any other form of civilization or agriculture was conceived, human beings came together to worship. It doesn’t matter what they worshipped, or whom they worshipped. All that matters is that they worshipped. The uniquely human desire to worship could be what sparked civilization.
As Unitarian Universalists, we think of worship as something that allows us to give shape to that which we find worthy. Or another way of putting it is that when we worship, we allow ourselves to be shaped by that which is most worthy. Emerson’s warning to be careful what we worship is good to remember, because what we are worshipping—what we are lifting up as most worthy—we are becoming.
So what is it that we find worthy? And how is it related to our humanity?
Our unique brain lets us perceive the future, adapt to changing circumstances, and reason our way through complicated questions. We have a unique urge to worship—to pause on the edge of the Grand Canyon at sunset, to gaze up at the stars and make up stories of how we came to be here, to come together in gatherings like this one to wrestle with the questions whose answer is beyond our current understanding.
Our human understanding allows us to envision a better reality, a new way of being in the world. Our human brain allows us to dream of a brighter future, one where we are able to gather in a building that suits our needs and reflects who we are; where we are able to be in right relationship with our neighbors and our city. We can dream of a future where peace exists among nations, where no creature is left to starve, where diseases have cures, where all people have inalienable rights. We are able to dream of justice. Somehow, in the middle of the messy jumble of who we are, our humanity is tied up in our ability to dream of justice. Unlike any other creature, we are able to adapt and make plans and work together to make this world a just place.
So what does justice look like? I think that question finds its answer within our houses of worship. As James Luther Adams said, “Church is a place where you get to practice what it means to be human.” And if building justice is an essential part of our humanity, and church is where you practice being human, then church must also be the place where we come together to figure out what justice might look like.
All I know is that when we’re talking about justice, I can hear the grief and longing in people’s voices. I hear a yearning for welcome and belonging. I hear love and compassion and humbleness, but also hope and passion and incredible courage. We come together, in all our humanity, to lift these things up as most worthy, to ask our questions, and to dream of justice in a future where all people can have a place.
When we worship—when we really worship—we can feel our hearts leaping with all these emotions. Then our lives continue, and we go back to doing the daily tasks of living. We go back to doing human. But I hope, as we conclude our time together and move out into the world, we can remember that even as we are doing human, we are being justice.
So may it be, and amen.
This sermon was presented to the Unitarian Universalist Church of Minnetonka in Wayzata, Minnesota on January 15, 2012. The original draft was presented to The Unitarian Universalist Church in Rockford, Illinois on November 27, 2011. Readings included Responsive Reading #437 (Let Us Worship), #441 (To Worship), #563 (A Person Will Worship Something), the beginning of Rev. Kent Hemmen Saleska’s sermon “Worship? To Whom? For What?“, and excerpts from “The Birth of Religion” in the June 2011 issue of National Geographic Magazine. Hymns included #298 (Wake, Now, My Senses) and #2 (Down the Ages We Have Trod) from the UU hymnals Singing the Living Tradition. For a story for all ages, the Rockford Church used “Is There REALLY a Human Race?” by Jamie Lee Curtis, and the Minnetonka Church used the story of Koko the gorilla.