Improvising a Life

It was my great privilege to be a guest speaker at the Unitarian Universalist Community Church of Southwest Michigan this morning. I am so thankful to be able to celebrate with this lovely faith community and make lots of new friends!

The meditation on which the sermon is based is the following video by Abigail and Sean Bengson.
I highly recommend watching it before listening to or reading the sermon.
It will lift your spirits and provide context for my message.

Here is a video recording of the message.
I apologize for the scruffy sound of the microphone on my shirt.
I didn’t realize that was happening during the talk.
If you would rather read than listen, the typed manuscript is posted below.

As I begin, I would like to express my sincere thanks to several people for the opportunity to join you in celebration on this beautiful Sunday morning. I would like to thank your minister, the Rev. Gy Ludvig-McCartney, for inviting me to join you and share my thoughts with you today. Our thoughts are with Gy and their spouse Patti this morning. I would also like to thank your Director of Religious Education, Miriam Epskamp, for her kind and helpful guidance in helping me navigate the technical challenges of online church during a global pandemic. Finally, I would like to thank all of you, the lovely people of the Unitarian Universalist Community Church of Southwest Michigan, for your warm welcome into this sacred space and time on this first Sunday of the year 2021. It is a great honor to participate in your worship service and I hope to make an inspiring and informative contribution this morning.

I love the video of the ‘Keep Going On Song’ for several reasons. First of all, it sends a message of hope and compassion in a year when we sorely need it. It comes from fellow travelers who were struggling through 2020 just like the rest of us. They used their powers of creativity to bring a little more light and goodness to a world that was (and still is) feeling like a very dark and lonely place.

But more than that: I love this video as a musician. The way that the singer improvises around the chord progression and returns to the chorus is magnificent. There is an orderliness in the structure of the song, and there is also chaos in the improvisation. This song could never be sung the same way twice.

I would like to talk with you today about this unfolding interaction. When order and chaos come together, they form something that is neither one nor the other. Nor do they reach a compromise between the two extremes. What they form is something new that includes and transcends both order and chaos in their fullness. The word I would like to use for this new thing is creativity. And creativity is what I would like to talk about with you today.

Creativity, understood as an emergent property of the interaction between order and chaos, is fully present in the natural world. I can see it happening particularly in the process of biological evolution, which has been happening on this planet for the last 4.5 billion years, and is still continuing today.

As many of you grownups will remember from your high school biology classes, there are two main components to the engine of evolution. The first component is genetic mutation. This the chaotic part. A mutation is a copy error that occurs in our DNA during the process of cellular division (mitosis). Something in the code unexpectedly changes, which alters the way the new cell functions when the code is read. Often, these errors are harmful to the new cell, but every now and then, a mutation happens that is actually helpful.

Now, the question arises: How do our cells decide which mutations are helpful and which ones are harmful? Well, that’s where the second component of the evolutionary engine comes in.

Genetic mutations cause changes that give either an advantage or a disadvantage to an organism’s chances for survival in its environment. A mutation, for example, that allows a cell to digest a certain kind of food in an environment where that food source is abundant will have a survival advantage. In other words, the new cell that can digest the food is more likely to survive than the cells that cannot digest that food. When this new cell later divides into daughter cells, it passes on its mutation to the next generation. The other cells, meanwhile, are more likely to die before they can reproduce. The name that biologists have given to this process is natural selection.

Natural selection is the orderly component of the evolutionary engine. It takes the errors provided by genetic mutation and determines which ones will provide a survival advantage for the organism. The process itself may be blind, but it is certainly not random.

Critics of evolutionary theory have sometimes used an imaginary example to explain why they think a blind process could not produce the immense diversity and complexity of life that we have on this planet today.

“Imagine,” they say, “a monkey in front of a computer, randomly pushing keys on the keyboard. What are the odds that this monkey could accidentally produce a Shakespearean sonnet? The odds are infinitesimally small.”

The purpose of this thought experiment is usually to demonstrate the idea that something as beautiful and complex as a Shakespearean sonnet can only be produced by a conscious entity with the intelligence of William Shakespeare. “So,” they say, “there must be some kind of intelligent designer at work, consciously directing the process of evolution in ways that are not random or chaotic.” Most proponents of this intelligent design hypothesis use this thought experiment as an argument in favor of the existence of God.

But there is a key piece that intelligent design proponents leave out, and that key piece is natural selection. If we were to adapt the monkey/computer thought experiment to account for natural selection, we would have to add something like the following:

Imagine that there was some kind of system in place that rewarded the monkey with a banana each time it pressed the correct key in the correct order. Over time, the monkey would be able to realize and remember that pressing certain keys in a certain way gave that monkey an advantage. And now, imagine that there was some way to keep each correct letter on the computer screen while erasing the incorrect letters. Finally, imagine further that there were millions of monkeys working on this project at the same time, and each time a monkey anywhere pressed the correct key, the letter on the screen would be kept. Suddenly, it is not at all inconceivable that the monkeys might be able to produce a Shakespearean sonnet in a very short amount of time! And all this would happen without any of the monkeys being aware of the literary masterpiece they were creating. (See Endnote 1)

This is how the creative process of evolution works. It uses the interaction between chaos and order to improvise increasingly diverse and complex forms of life, up to and including you wonderful homo sapiens who have gathered together online to reflect on the meaning of life this Sunday morning.

Music and evolution are not the only places in the universe where chaos and order come together to improvise bonds of creativity. We humans, individually and collectively, have an opportunity to make our own unique contribution to the ongoing creativity of the universe.

You and I experience the interaction of chaos and order in our lives on a daily basis. The chaos has been particularly evident over the course of the year 2020. We are currently living through a global pandemic that has claimed nearly 2 million lives, so far. We have endured quarantine, lockdowns, and violent reactions against those lockdowns. Frontline medical workers, such as myself, have put our lives on the line to care for those who have contracted and sometimes died from COVID-19. We have all witnessed (and some of us have participated in) protests against acts of police brutality that disproportionately impact people of color in the United States. Many of our fellow citizens (including my wife) have been tear-gassed, beaten, and shot by the very officers we commission to keep us safe from unlawful acts of violence. We Americans have endured the spectacle of a particularly contentious presidential election and watched in horror as the legitimacy of that electoral process was called into question by those who have sworn to uphold it. The collective chaos in 2020 has indeed been particularly evident.

In the midst of chaos such as this, it is not uncommon for humans to grasp at straws for meaning. We say things like, “Everything happens for a reason.” The more religiously inclined among us might say, “God has a plan.” In the midst of chaos, many of us might ask, “Why is this happening,” or, “What is the meaning of life, anyway?”

I think we humans tend to ask these questions because we are afraid that the alternative to an orderly plan is a universe that is entirely chaotic and meaningless. We have already observed, however, that life is not entirely chaotic or orderly, but the product of a process that includes and transcends both chaos and order: the universe is a creative process. (See Endnote 2)

I would like to propose a new question this morning: What if the meaning of life is not something we find, but something we make?

The making of meaning is how we humans participate in the process of creativity. Things happen to us that seem chaotic: The lost job, the failed relationship, the missed opportunity, the unforeseen disaster, or the chance encounter. What is ultimately important about these events is not the events themselves, but the story we tell ourselves about them.

When a relationship ends, we can say to ourselves, “That’s just proof that I will never be loved in the way that I want to be,” or we can say, “I have made many mistakes in this relationship, but I will work on myself, learn from my mistakes, and act differently the next time I am in another relationship.” When a baby unexpectedly dies, we can say, “This is evidence that I am just not ready to be a parent,” or we can say, “I will join a support group to help other parents, who are enduring this inestimable loss, and make a way through the darkness of grief.” We cannot control what happens to us in life, but we can decide how we will respond to our chaotic circumstances.

When the unexpected happens, will I choose respond with faith or fear? Will that which does not kill me make me more cynical or more sensitive? Will I use my experience of pain to hurt or to help? The choice is up to us.

May the powers of creativity, compassion, and courage, which are already within you, be your guide, your strength, and your hope as you go out into the world. May each of you become meaning-makers in the midst of chaos, today and every day.

So say we all.

Endnotes

1. I adapted the extended metaphor of the monkeys at the computer from Breaking the Spell: Religion as Natural Phenomenon by Daniel C. Dennett.

2. I am indebted to Karl E. Peters for the conception of creative process as an interplay between chaos and order, especially in regards to genetic mutation and natural selection. See especially his book, Dancing with the Sacred: Evolution, Ecology, and God.

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