(c) Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved
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The “Goldilocks” principle, as I assume many know, applies to anything that is just right – not too hot, not too cold, not too soft, not too hard. For our planet and for all life on it, the principle is essential. The earth is situated in a “goldilocks” zone within our solar system. It’s not too close to the sun and thus too hot, like the planet Mercury, and it’s not too far away, like Neptune, such that it’s too cold.
Interestingly, the same “goldilocks” idea applies to the universe. There are a few principles in physics that are perfectly attuned to allow for the universe, as we know it, to exist. And that equally applies to our existence. Physicists indicate that if the Big Bang explosion that created the universe had been one, one-millionth more powerful, the expansion from that explosion would have been too fast to allow for the formation of planets, stars, galaxies – and us. The Big Bang was a goldilocks explosion – not too powerful and not too weak.
The physics law of electromagnetic force is also a goldilocks principle. It allows for atoms, and their parts such as protons, electrons and neutrons, to function as they do. Without the precise mathematical constant for electromagnetic force, which is 1/137 of any mass, atoms could not exist and thus neither would any compound, substance or, again, us. Electromagnetic force is not too strong such that all atoms stick together to form one huge blob, and its not too weak so that atoms cannot bind together. The great physicist Richard Feynman called electromagnetic force, “one of the greatest mysteries of physics: it’s a magic number that comes to us with no understanding.”
The obvious question physicists and many others ask is, “How were these so-called goldilocks laws of physics set?” Many theists, religious people, and Intelligent Design advocates say they are proof that there is a god, and that the universe was specifically designed for human life. Principles with mathematical values that come from no other physical or scientific reality cannot just randomly happen, they say. How else could these physics laws have been mathematically set to allow for human life…without a god?
That’s a difficult question to answer – one that physicists, philosophers and even psychologists have deeply considered. Many of them now say that the universe only exists because humans perceive that it exists. We are the one’s who essentially create the universe by our awareness and definition of it. This is heavy philosophical and psychological stuff, but the idea gets at what the Enlightenment philosopher Rene Descartes famously asserted about human existence, “Cogito, ergo sum”, “I think, therefore I am.” Our sense of being, the reality of our very existence, comes solely because of our awareness that we exist. If we and others don’t perceive our personhood, we’re simply not here.
And multiple experts and great thinkers apply the same idea to the existence of the universe. The goldilocks principles allow for everything to exist because we see, understand and define them. We not only bring the universe into existence through our perception of it, but we are the very center of it. It’s existence depends on, and revolves around, us.
As I said, this is heady stuff and I don’t blame you if you are scratching your heads right now. Many very intelligent scientists, theologians and philosophers support this notion, however. It is similar to the question about whether a tree that falls in a forest, with no life in it, makes a sound. We know sound waves happen because we can detect and measure them, but do they really happen with nothing to hear them? The spiritual and philosophical answer is “no.”
This introduction to my message is not just to consider why we exist. The question of where we and the universe came from is one I encourage us to reflect on. How we think we were created will determine many of our values and beliefs.
More importantly, my introduction is intended for us to consider the implications of the idea that humanity is the center of the universe. Indeed, that idea supports my personal theology that it is people who are the goddesses and gods of the universe. We are the verifiable beings, not any supernatural gods, that can improve or destroy life.
If we are the center of the universe, as I’ve just suggested, then it follows that our attention and concern should flow from us outward – to family, neighborhood, churches, cities, towns, nations, and then persons around the globe. In terms of my message today, we must have a local viewpoint before we can have a global viewpoint.
I make that claim because the wider world is only as healthy as each of its individual parts – all of us. This makes sense from any number of moral or spiritual ideals. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “We must be the change we want to see.” If I want our nation and world to take action against climate change, for instance, then I should first begin by decreasing my carbon emissions footprint – by choosing the most gas efficient car to drive, buying and using less resources, heating and cooling my home efficiently, etc, etc.
More importantly, this idea of focusing first on the individual and local first also speaks to whether or not we’re hypocrites. How can I condemn the President for pulling the US out of the Paris Climate Change Treaty, for instance, if I am not personally doing my part to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases I cause?
As we know, hypocrisy was the human attitude that Jesus condemned most. Don’t talk about love and goodness unless you speak and act with love and kindness. Don’t cast a stone at a woman caught in adultery, unless you yourself have committed no ethical or sexual misdeeds. In other words, walk your talk – or else……shut up!
For my message series this month that asks “Who is We?”, walking our talk is not easy. As Unitarian Universalists, we are naturally concerned about the well-being of people around the world. But an important question to ask, since changing the world must begin with us, is whether we are first and foremost locally concerned servants, educators, and activists?
Former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill once said that all politics is local. His belief underlines the idea for us to first be local activists. With our activism and emphasis on serving others, I believe we must primarily focus on local concerns – beginning in our homes, local schools, churches, and nearby communities. If we think about it, the decisions made at the local level – in school Boards, city councils, church Boards, and local charities – they affect us far more than those made at the national level. How we fund our schools affects a substantial portion of the property taxes we pay, as well as the value of our homes. Infrastructure decisions about roads, parks, trash collection, police and fire departments, sewers, libraries, and business zoning all directly impact our individual and family qualities of life far more than many decisions made in Congress or by the President.
All of that is not to say that their policies are not important to our well-being. They are. But they often only affect us indirectly. The greatest impact on each of our lives comes from local governments. And that fact emphasizes the priority we should give to local issues of poverty, homelessness, child education, and hunger.
In that regard, if we want to promote equality, we should begin here in our church, in our city councils, and in our neighborhood schools. We’ll have far greater influence and impact if we do. Studies show that local governments are far more effective in getting things done than is the Federal government because local councils and boards are less partisan. Over 75% of US cities and townships hold non-partisan elections with their candidates not identified by a political party. That reduces political posturing and helps foster, instead, a stronger ethic for officials to collaborate and actually accomplish things.
That is why I don’t support contested Board of Trustees elections in this congregation, or the division of our members into competing factions. I don’t want internal politics within our community. We can debate various issues without dividing into bitterly opposed groups. Our goodness, and our effectiveness, lies in our loving and caring unity.
Former US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once said local governments are like experimental laboratories that help our nation determine the policies and programs that are most effective. Obamacare, or the Affordable Care Act, was first tried in Massachusetts – begun ironically enough by then Governor Mitt Romney – where its success proved it could be adopted nationwide.
Same-sex marriage was first legalized at the local level when San Francisco Mayor, now California Governor Gavin Newsom, pushed through a city ordinance legally recognizing GLBT weddings in 2004. This was done almost ten years before gay marriage was nationally legalized. Studies done in San Francisco showed gay marriage encouraged more marriages in general – and that showed the nation it was a beneficial thing for everyone.
In 1960, civil rights activist and now Congressman John Lewis led a sit-in campaign in Nashville, Tennessee to integrate diners and lunch counters. The white Mayor of Nashville at the time, Ben West, agreed with John Lewis and pushed through a city ordinance banning restaurant segregation – the first city in the nation to do so. Nashville set the example for the nation that integration was not just the right thing to do, but that it could be widely accepted even in the South. The 1960’s civil rights movement thus began at the local level and culminated in the national Civil Rights Act.
Last year, after hearing how many progressives around the country supported a $15 an hour living wage for all, I asked our Board to bring both Michael’s and Adrienne’s wages up to at least that standard. Despite our budget shortfalls, the Board and all of you, at our annual meeting, approved those raises. They will of course benefit our staff, but they will also insure the success of this congregation by having loyal, dedicated and hard working employees. On this one issue, GNH will both walk its talk and help show that, here at a very small local level, living wages help everyone – including those who pay them.
These examples are why I believe we should define ourselves as grassroots, local activists first and foremost. If we do, I believe we can then strategically set 3 or 4 priority local goals that this small congregation can realistically achieve with excellence.
One of our current priorities expressed in our Unison Affirmation is our commitment to the future of all children. Time and again I’ve been emotionally touched by the many lives of children we help make better. Our RE and OWL programs, our volunteering for UpSpring, Lighthouse, the Freestore, and InterFaith Hospitality Network all show the high level of concern this congregation has for children.
The suffering and pain we see children in our families and communities experience compels us to do something. Yes, we want Congress to approve funding for universal pre-kindergarten childcare, and yes, we want the President to stop separating undocumented infants and children from their parents. Those are moral and spiritual concerns for us. But equal to those concerns are the homeless gay and lesbian youth in this city, the young kids in area communities who don’t know if their family will have enough food for them this weekend – this congregation loves all children and youth and are truly committed to loving and serving them. When we touch their lives with love, counseling and instruction, when we help insure they have enough to eat and a safe place to sleep, we enable their ability to learn, work and grow. We literally change the universe’s future by our work right here for the youngest ones among us.
And when we help save one young life, we save the world entire – that’s an old Jewish proverb that is very true. We are each, as I said at the start of this message, the center of the universe. That does not mean it exists to serve us, but rather that it exists because we see, touch, hear, feel and define it. Our perspective thus begins with us and moves outward so that those nearest to us are the first we help.
With that in mind, I submit to you that a compassionate and loving universe is only created if it begins FIRST in our hearts, homes and neighborhoods.
I wish you peace and joy…