Beginning Again

Rev. David Herndon
First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh
January 3, 2016

First Sunday in the New Year

In 2010, Karen Armstrong wrote a book called Twelve Steps to a More Compassionate Life. In this book, she spoke about the so-called Axial Age, which took place from about 900 BCE until about 200 BCE. The Axial Age witnessed the simultaneous rise of many of the world’s major religions and intellectual traditions. This creative spiritual and ethical activity took place in China, with the development of Taoism and Confucianism; in India, with the development of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism; in Persia, with the development of Zoroastrianism; in Palestine, with the development of Judaism; and in Greece, with the development of classical philosophy and literature.

Common to most of these religious and intellectual traditions was the introduction of the Golden Rule. People were asked to look at situations not only from their own personal perspective, but from the perspective of others as well. In other words, people were asked to be compassionate. Thus, according to Karen Armstrong, “compassion is aptly summed up in the Golden Rule, which asks us to look into our own hearts, discover what gives us pain, and then refuse, under any circumstances whatsoever, to inflict that pain on anybody else.”[1]

In Twelve Steps to a More Compassionate Life, Karen Armstrong drew insights not only from the history of religion, but also from neuroscience. She pointed out that many of our instinctual behaviors are driven by the part of our brain called the hypothalamus. Also known as the “reptile brain,” the hypothalamus first evolved about 300 million years ago. The reptile brain is entirely self-centered. It has no capacity for empathy or compassion or sentiment or humor. It narrowly focuses one’s behavior on one’s own survival.

In contrast, the part of our brain known as the neocortex, or “mammal brain,” first began to develop about 200 million years ago. The neocortex provides us with a capacity for empathy and compassion. The neocortex makes it possible for us to be relational and benevolent toward one another.

Summarizing the presence of two different kinds of neurological structures within us, Karen Armstrong wrote: “It seems, therefore, that the more aggressive instincts of the hypothalamus exist alongside other brain systems that make empathy possible and that we are hard-wired for compassion as well as cruelty.” [2]

This morning, as we celebrate the first Sunday in the New Year, I am inviting you, the citizens of First Unitarian Church, to reflect on our human capacity for self-transcendence. More particularly, I am inviting each of us to reflect on how we might strengthen our personal capacity for self-transcendence, that is, our ability to emphasize the more cooperative guidance of our mammal brains over the more self-centered guidance of our reptile brains. Because this is the time of year when many of us generate New Year’s resolutions, my invitation will be a set of suggested resolutions for you to consider. In this Unitarian Universalist church, we affirm freedom of the pew as well as freedom of the pulpit, and therefore you are free to accept these, you are free to set these aside, and you are free to write your own resolutions instead.

In that spirit, I invite you to consider the following six resolutions for self-transcendence:

  1. In my own spiritual development, I will set aside spiritual guidance that leads toward self-centeredness or self-indulgence. Instead, I will affirm spiritual guidance that includes the self-transcending development of my regard for others.
  2. In the course of my daily life, I will become better able to distinguish between problems and inconveniences. For perspective, I will make of list of true problems, including such things as serious illness or disability, poverty, systemic racism, loss of a loved one, loss of a job, loss of a home, and so on. When I experience a challenge, if the challenge is not a true problem, first I will be grateful, and then I will not give it more of my time or energy or attention than is necessary.
  3. At a time of the year when so many people focus on losing weight and getting more exercise and adopting healthier eating habits, if I resolve to do these things, part of my motivation will be that in caring for myself, I will be better able to care for others.
  4. If I am a person with white privilege, or male privilege, or heterosexual privilege, or cisgender privilege, I will learn to be more intellectually and spiritually humble in my assessment of the lives and situations of those who have not had these privileges.
  5. I will become more comfortable being moved out of my comfort zone.
  6. If I have extra time on my hands, or if I am frequently bored, or if I find myself wondering about the purpose of life, I will find a way to devote myself to the service of others for a specific number of hours each week. For example, keeping in mind that the standard work week is forty hours, then each week I could devote one-tenth of forty hours, or four hours, to serving others. Alternatively, keeping in mind that I am awake every day for approximately sixteen hours, then every day I could devote one-tenth of sixteen hours, or about one and one-half hours, to serving others.

Back in 1998, a story appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about a Catholic priest who had been sent from his home country in Eastern Europe to a parish here in Pittsburgh. The priest was not thrilled about moving to a strange and distant land where he did not know the culture, the language, or the geography. “But I am a religious priest,” he said in the article. “I made vows, and so because my superiors wanted me to move, I moved.” And then he added these startling words: “What happens in my life is not about me.”[3]

Surely this attitude represents an honorable spiritual achievement resulting from an honorable spiritual journey. When he says, “What happens in my life is not about me,” he is at the opposite end of the spectrum from the attitude of the hypothalamus, the “reptile brain,” which basically says, “What happens in my world is entirely and exclusively about me.”

But there is another way of demonstrating compassion and empathy that does not require complete personal disappearance. In the context of community organizing, the term “self-interest” is a cornerstone concept. But in this context, the term takes on an unexpectedly benevolent meaning. Consider the word “interest.” “Interest” is built from two Latin words, “inter” and “est.” “Inter” means “among.” “Est” is a form of the verb “esse,” which means “to be.” Literally, then, “interest” means “to be among.” The term “self-interest” can therefore take on the meaning “to be a self among other selves.” Thus, in the context of community organizing, self-interest does not mean taking on the self-centered attitude of the hypothalamus, or “reptile brain,” and focusing only on what is good for oneself. But neither does it mean taking on the attitude of self-negation, where what is good for oneself does not matter. Instead, the term “self-interest” recognizes that every person’s well-being matters – the well-being of others, and the well-being of oneself. This is a kind of middle path between self-aggrandizement and self-denial. It holds out the hope that together we can create social arrangements that support the well-being of every person in the community.

This suggests a seventh possible New Year’s resolution:

In 2015, here in America we experienced a resurgence of Islamophobia in the wake of events in other parts of the world. In the spirit of empathy and compassion, and for the purpose of building greater intercultural understanding, I would like to close with this passage from Twelve Steps to a More Compassionate Life by Karen Armstrong.

She writes: “After the world wars, genocide, and terrorism of the twentieth century, the purpose of the tribe or nation can no longer be to fight, dominate, exploit, conquer, colonize, occupy, kill, convert, or terrorize rival groups. We have a duty to get to know one another, and to cultivate a concern and responsibility for all our neighbors in the global village.”[4]

To illustrate this, Karen Armstrong recounts the story of the Night Journey of the Prophet Muhammad. “Instead of glorifying hatred and war, it is a story of harmony and transcendence of the tribal group. One night . . . [Muhammad] was awakened by Gabriel, the spirit of revelation, and miraculously conveyed to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. There he was greeted by all the great prophets of the past, who invited him to preach to them before he began his ascent, like a Jewish mystic, through the seven heavens to the throne of God. . . . Instead of shunning the newcomer as a pretender, the other prophets welcome him as a brother. At each stage of his journey through the seven heavens, Muhammad meets and talks with Adam, Jesus, John the Baptist, Joseph, Enoch, Moses, Aaron, and Abraham. . . . It is a story of pluralism: the prophets pray together, embrace one another, and share their insights. It has become a paradigm of authentic Muslim spirituality, representing the perfect ‘surrender’ of both the personal and the tribal ego.”[5]

© 2016 by David Herndon


[1] Karen Armstrong, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010), p. 9.

[2] Ibid., p. 17.

[3] Diana Nelson Jones, “A move west to a new life,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, June 4, 1998, p. G1.

[4] Armstrong, p. 144.

[5] Armstrong, pp. 153 – 154.

Come to be moved and held in mutual embrace. Come and be made whole.
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