Science, Spirituality, and Service in an Evolutionary World

Science, Spirituality, and Service in an Evolutionary World
Karl E. Peters
January 20, 2013
University Unitarian Universalist Society of Central Florida
Twentieth Anniversary

We are here together this weekend celebrating our twentieth anniversary, celebrating our story, of become the University Unitarian Universalist society on January 19, 1993.

Today I want to leave you with two things 1) an image and 2) a story of how we came to be.

First, the image: A few years ago, a UU minister in Hartford suggested that the most stable foundation to support something has three legs–for example a three legged stool. Then she suggested that three legs for UU’s are science, spirituality, and service. The leg of science tells us intellectually that we all are interconnected. The leg of spirituality guides us in cultivating this idea as a feeling connectedness. The leg of service grows from our knowing and feeling connected to enhance our desire to serve others, and to participate in social action for peace, love, and justice on a sustainable planet.

Our story has five parts. (We might say that it’s like a five act play about a three-legged stood.) It begins with science. I’d like to tell this story in the first person plural. It is our story.

Our story begins when we were nothing, or almost nothing. There was no matter, no space, no time–we were a point of singularity, a “seed” of some mysterious creative energy that was not yet born.

Then, in a first stage of our existence, we evolved from ENERGY TO MATTER. Suddenly we rapidly started growing–inflation, a “Big Bang.”
At first we were so energetic that no matter could be formed. But as we expanded and cooled down, we became atoms of hydrogen, helium, a little lithium.

We did not expand evenly in all directions. If we had, we would have remained Hy, He, and a little Li. However, as we expanded, we became these atoms in varying densities–some more closely packed together than others.
This made it possible for another part of ourself–gravity to begin pulling our atoms together in clumps of matter. In each of many clumps, billions of atoms of Hy we pulled together by gravity until the friction resulted in so much heat that they ignited–nuclear fusion–and we were born as stars and stars and matter outside stars formed galaxies.

This continued until we grew to 100 billion galaxies, each with 100 billion stars.

The second stage of our evolutionary story is from MATTER TO LIFE.

It begins about 7 billion years after our big bang. By then there were many “Little Bangs” as massive stars exploded–supernovae–and at tremendous temperatures fused atoms together to create all the other the elements.

We became many new star systems, one of which was a system of sun and planets in a galaxy later called the Milky Way. We became a Solar System with a planet called Earth.

On earth life emerged and evolved: One billion species of organisms over 4.5 billion years–99% going extinct–until today we are about 10 million species of all kinds of organisms. All interconnected. Interdependent.
As life we discovered a way to continuously transform energy to sustain ourselves: food chains. We became a dance: a life-death two step as each kind of life tries to feed itself on other life forms, and defend itself against being eaten–long enough to reproduce.
Some of our species “discovered” that we had a better chance in groups–wolf packs, chimpanzees and bonobos–in their respective environments, competing with other packs or bands of the same kind.
Social animals were born: individuals in a group co-operating with one-another against those in other groups. We became in-groups and out-groups. This is an important part of our story, to which we’ll return later.

In the third part of our story LIFE GIVES RISE TO MIND.

About 12,999,990,000 years after the big bang, on planet earth, we (the universe) began to think. We became creatures with big brains, able to develop symbols and talk about what we experienced–we emerged as human beings.
As a symbolic species, we were able to engage in economics, politics, moral codes, literature, history, art and science. And through trial and error, and eventually with scientific understandings, we invented and developed technologies.
We also evolved into all kinds of communities. 12,999,999,980 years after we began with a bang, in a year called 1993, our energy, atoms, molecules, and human bodies became the University Unitarian Universalist Society of Central Florida.
After eight weeks of afternoon meetings in the Library of Trinity Prep, on this Sunday, the founding members voted to become UUUS. The following Sunday, next Sunday, we had our first official service.
We have evolved over 13 billion years until today. Each of us here today, each human being in the world, each plant, animal, the ground, the seas, the atmospheric gases–we all are one–parts of one grand universe of energy-matter evolving into its multitudinous forms. OUR SCIENCES TELL US WE ALL ARE CONNECTED.

HOWEVER WE HAVE A PROBLEM: Part 4 of our Story: January 20, 2013.
As humans we evolved through our connections with others in our own groups. And our particular groups were in competition with other human groups. For example, we evolved the love hormone-neurotransmitter, oxytocin. Oxytocin facilitates maternal bonding and friendships. But oxytocin also contributes to defensive aggression when we are threatened. This and other brain developments helped shape in-group out-group competition.
Because we found it difficult to connect with other humans who were different from our family, tribe, city state or nation, we often found ourselves in arms races, violence and war. Those of us who were in groups that were better organized, imaginative, and inventive of new technologies–often came to exploit other groups. We could be relatively peaceful in our own groups, and this very co-operative peace could make us more effective in dominating others. With the help of our symbolic power, we continue to engage in the life-death two-step of our predator-pray ancestors–only with more wide-spread and devastating effects.

One of us, the distinguished scientist Franz deWall, puts our problem this way in the concluding chapter of his book The Inner Ape. He writes that
“human nature . . . is inherently multidimensional and the same applies to chimpanzee and bonobo nature. . . . Being both more systematically brutal than chimps and more empathic than bonobos, we are by far the most bipolar ape. Our societies are never completely peaceful, never completely competitive, never ruled by sheer selfishness, and never perfectly moral. Pure states are not nature’s way. What’s true for human society is also true for human nature. One can find both kindness and cruelty, nobility and vulgarity–sometimes in the same person. We’re full of contradictions. . . .” (de Waal 2005, 233).

Part 5. How will our story progress? At this time in our story of evolution, what is our future on Earth? In this place, the community we are celebrating today, can we and others evolve spiritually to overcome in-group out-group ways of thinking and feeling? Can we not only realize we are connected through science but feel connected? Feeling connected is what I mean by spirituality.

So far we have been telling our story with the findings of modern science. I think this is one of the key elements for Unitarian Universalists and other religions to bring to the fore in their congregational thinking. In addition to Science, however, we need Spirituality and Service to make a strong foundation of our community as a three legged stool.
Spirituality: feeling connectedness, feeling empathy–putting ourselves in others’ shoes.

Feeling empathically connected is biologically based: regions of our brain such as mirror neurons are unique to humans and help us imitate others and build connections between us. Another area of the brain helps us recognize faces and facial expressions. This also helps to develop empathy.

Brain areas such as these work most effectively when we are directly connected with each other, but pictures and videos can also activate these empathic regions.
So can our own inner imaginations. Like basketball players, who in practice imagine shots to the basket in their minds eyes over and over before they shoot, we can engage in meditative imaging practices to develop those parts of our brains that contribute to empathy and effective action on behalf of others.
Our task is to expand our empathy to feel connected to one another and to all things. Expanding our circle of care.
This can be cultivated with meditation. Tibetan Buddhists offer us a practice of “compassion meditation.” Let’s briefly try to see how it goes.
Sit relaxed, downcast eyes, focus on breathing–in and out, in and out, in and out. . . .
Let a person come to mind whom you really care about (mother-father, brother-sisters, child-grandchild, husband-wife-partner, dear friend.)
Let your mind be filled with the feeling of love and compassion for that person (wishing for freedom from any suffering they are undergoing and for their and well-being).
Now, let that feeling of love and compassion expand to all beings without thinking specifically about anyone. Continue.
Come back to your breathing, open eyes.

One of our neuroscientists, Richard Davidson, has shown that such a practice has an impact on our brain development in a way that increases empathy.
With such practices, perhaps even in our Sunday services, we can expand the circle of connectedness in our University UU Society, so we feel responsible for others. We can add the third leg to the stool: Service to others.

We can expand who we include in the in-group, so that, in the future if we and others follow this path, there will no longer be out-groups. We will all feel connected.

We will feel that all are a part of the amazing story of the universe that has brought us to this place of remarkable human and animal diversity.
Through such practices we feel more deeply responsible for helping all those
who are suffering from enslavement in American sex-trafficking, child neglect and abuse, racial and religious discrimination, economic and social injustice.

We also can in meditation bring to mind and with our behavior follow as models and heros those to have engaged in non-violent political action to change society to reduce and eliminate such practices that are part of our biological and cultural stories.
Martin Luther King leading the African American Civil Rights Movement.
Ghandi who led non-violent protest against the rule of England.
Jesus who engaged in non-violent resistance agains the domination system of the Roman Empire.

Let’s return to our image of the three legged stool.
Science helps us set the 20 year history of University UU Society in a magnificent story that shows we all are connected.
Practices of meditation help us enhance love and compassion toward others so that
We are led to social service and social action that breaks down in-group out-group distinctions and frees people for various forms of oppression.

With science, spirituality, and service, the future of our Universe Story on Earth could become a cooperative world-wide civilization, living peacefully, cherishing differences, and, in the name of justice, helping all to equally flourish as much as possible to sustain humanity and the rest of life on planet earth.

The Mission of our community, the University UU Society, is to join with other religious and secular communities and movements to work toward such a future.

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