Of the billions of ideas put forward in history, some have proven so profound and of such lasting benefit that the course history was dramatically altered. Other ideas were simply silly. In Victorian England, a time period of extreme prudishness about sexual behavior, books written by women could not be placed on library bookshelves next to books written by men……unless the two authors were married. In seventeenth century Europe, high heeled shoes were invented for wealthy men – so they could physically announce their supposed superiority. In ancient Egypt, prospective brides were jailed if it was shown that their makeup disguised facial imperfections from potential husbands. And, during Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” to drugs campaign, millions of pencils were distributed to high school students with the motto “Too Cool to Do Drugs” printed on their sides. As with many silly ideas, this one ended badly. Students avidly used the pencils – but the more they were sharpened down, the motivational message on them soon became “Cool to Do Drugs” and, eventually, “Do Drugs.”
My message series this month will focus on three powers I believe are necessary for creating lasting change in ourselves, our Community or the world. The power of ideas, of character and of action sound like standard ways to succeed – but there is an ironic truth about each power that challenges us to move beyond prevailing thinking.
About sixty years ago the philosopher Thomas Kuhn coined the phrase “paradigm shift” to define a moment in time when the worldview fundamentally changes because of a new idea. Without ideas, progress is not achieved, change does not happen and human development stops. The power of ideas is in their unique ability to initiate change. As much as we might believe that brute strength, wealth or bombastic speech causes change, such abilities are nowhere as powerful as a simple, but profoundly innovative idea.
Imagine what the world would be like today had not a physicist in 1989, Tim Berners-Lee, lamented that research was inadequately disseminated between scientists? Those working in one lab or university were often unaware of developments discovered in others – even in labs nearby. He put forward the idea of computer to computer communication – a network to allow scientists access to research stored on computers at multiple locations. The internet was born and it has proven to be so monumentally significant that humanity will never again be the same.
Indeed, ideas such as farming, Newton’s mathematical principles of gravity, Einstein’s theory of relativity, Darwin’s ideas on natural selection, Enlightenment concepts of human rights, vaccinations as a way to prevent disease and even the health benefits of soap – these ideas have changed history. No King, army or demagogic Presidential candidate has achieved as much.
The history of spirituality has been much the same. As an idea, spirituality has been around since the earliest days of human evolution. Ancient spirituality helped make sense of a chaotic natural world. Early humans held ideas that natural things are governed by gods who must be kept happy. As humans moved from small clans to larger cities, spiritual ideas and gods became more complex. Powerful gods allowed societies to exert control over their citizens and that initiated greater progress. Eventually, so-called universal religions developed which were specifically intended not just for one nation, but to be spread to people everywhere. Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism are such religions and each has had deep impacts on history.
Within the last two hundred years, a response to those religions has developed. Exploring other religions is a hallmark of contemporary spirituality. That involves an inner search for meaning which relies on personal experience and reason. This new spiritual idea acknowledges an ultimate unknown reality but the emphasis is on improving present day life through humanist ethics of compassion, tolerance, patience and harmony. For many of us who subscribe to such spirituality, it is a hopeful idea – one that is not divisive but instead inclusive – and one that sees a realm of goodness right now and not in some unknown afterlife.
For each spiritual idea, human society was altered. Religious ideas have helped initiate social growth allowing for ever larger groups of people to live in common cause.
What is true about science and spirituality, however, is that the power of ideas lies in the concept that no idea should be fixed. It’s not just the novelty of a new theory or invention that has power. Ideas cause change and therein lies their power. Stop ideas and you stop progress. In order for ideas to have power, they must constantly be refreshed and replaced.
For instance, as much as Einstein’s theory of relativity was first hailed as an immutable law, it is now questioned. The continuous expansion of the universe, perhaps caused by something called dark energy, may well redefine Einstein’s relativity. Dark energy has opened up an entire new study into the nature of the cosmos and it might be the elusive unifying theory that scientifically explains everything.
Christianity, as a spiritual idea, has also underdone change. The current Pope has undertaken a modern effort to dramatically change Christian ideas. Responding to contemporary realities, Pope Francis is challenging boundaries of ancient dogma on divorce, sexuality, the environment and the ability of non-Christians to enter heaven. He’s also helping to initiate a paradigm shift in religion about what it means to follow God. Is the goal of any religious belief ultimately selfish – to assure the well-being of one’s eternal soul? Or should spirituality be more concerned about the present well-being of all creation?
Pope Francis chose as his papal name that of Francis of Assisi – a man who equally challenged and altered the prevailing ideas of his time. Born in 1181 CE to wealthy parents, Assisi was a playboy in his youth. After a paradigm shift in his thinking, he realized how miserably the poor in Italy lived – while Priests and Bishops basked in luxury. Francis renounced his wealth and founded the Franciscan order of monks who committed themselves to the idea of simple living. They dedicated their work to help the sick, marginalized and poor. Their guiding idea is something Jesus taught: Those who are great are not Popes, Princes, and the wealthy, they are humble servants.
Assisi’s idea was to build caring communities where each person renounces self-interest to serve the needs of others. By doing so, he saw the ironic benefit that if everyone cared less for themselves and more for the needs of community members, everyone got their needs met. Self-less-ness is a powerful idea for helping others, and paradoxically, it’s a powerful way to help oneself. If my concern is to help you – and your concern is to help me, we’re both better.
At the lowest end of society in Francis’ time were the lepers who were forced to live outside any village. To get food and water, they could enter towns only at night and had to ring a bell to announce their presence. Most villagers ran away, hid themselves inside their homes and locked the doors. But Francis and his fellow monks did the exact opposite. Instead of running away from lepers, they ran to them with food, clothing, and compassion. It’s this idea of radical disregard for one’s own well-being that still clashes with the desire to primarily look out for oneself.
After Francis was ordered to accompany a Christian crusade against Islam in the Middle East, he was so horrified by the slaughter of innocent Muslims that he sought out the Arab Sultan and asked for forgiveness in behalf of all Christians. The Sultan was so impressed that he agreed and reached a peace treaty with Francis that ended the crusade. On his return to Italy, Francis ordered all Franciscans to no longer evangelize and convert non-Christians. His idea of peaceful cooperation between religions is one that, again, was far ahead of its time and it still has the potential to change humanity.
Francis of Assisi was also an early environmentalist. Depictions of him show a man who is surrounded by animals. He spoke about nature in ways similar to native-Americans – the fire, moon, forests and animals are our sisters and brothers. We must therefore care for them and tend to their well-being.
Francis’ ideas were spiritually revolutionary for his time – as they still are today. The modern Pope Francis has reminded the world of those old and yet new ideas which hold the promise to fundamentally alter society – if humanity would only heed their goodness. If we serve others at least as much as we serve ourselves, if we are truly tolerant of people who are different from us, if we cherish and tend the environment, the world will be better and, as I’ve said, we will each individually be better.
The power of ideas therefore speaks to us on multiple levels. Ideas promote change. We cannot fear change as much as we ought to fear stagnation. As individuals, as a spiritual community, as a city, nation and one human family, we must be creative, thoughtful and idea oriented. No practice should ever be safe from a new idea. Too often, it’s a standard refrain in many cultures and churches that whenever something new is proposed, the idea is rejected because it’s not the way things have always been done. That way of thinking is fear based and leads to the demise of any society or organization.
Being open to new ideas is a way of thinking that asks questions more than it accepts dogmatic answers. Binding ourselves to any belief which is not open to exploration is a declaration that reason and intellect are worthless. The power of ideas is, in truth, the power of our minds, spirits and hearts to innovate and explore.
In that regard, it’s essential for us to always question the way we live. What paradigm shift in my thinking or actions do I need to move beyond safe but stagnant waters? What paradigm shifts must you undertake? What new ideas do we need for this Spiritual Community?
I used this argument in favor of our recent merging efforts. Unfortunately, the merger idea resulted in some members departing, some difficult moments of transition, and some expense of time and resources. I personally embraced the merger because I saw in it both a new opportunity and a new challenge for myself as a minister. How can I take my abilities to a new a level? How can I expand my horizons?
And I asked the same questions of both congregations. It felt safe to stay within the familiar confines of our former communities instead of moving to a new place or adding different people to our midst. While our merger has so far succeeded, many mergers do not and ours certainly could have failed. Most of us did not allow that possibility to deter us. Ideas do fail, but, as Teddy Roosevelt said, “It is not the critic who counts; not the person who points out how the strong one stumbles…the credit belongs to the person who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who errs…who comes short again and again, but who does actually strive to do the deeds…who spends himself (or herself) in a worthy cause.”
The power of our idea of a new and combined spiritual community was found in its worthiness. I firmly believe that the Gathering at Northern Hills is now many, many times stronger and more influential than either the Gathering or Northern Hills Fellowship would be alone.
But we cannot let the power of that idea to allow us to be complacent. We need continually new and creative ideas. I love the ideas that sometimes percolate up from our groups and committees – new ways of organization, new social justice efforts, new Sunday practices. But there are far more ideas we can and should pursue: new collaboration with other congregations, new ways to serve others, new statements of justice to publicly proclaim. There may also be paradigm shifting ideas to ponder that would fundamentally alter what we currently do.
I don’t, however, support change and new ideas simply for the sake of change. At heart, I’m a cautious person. Reason demands that we use prudence when considering any idea. But, I strongly support us being a place where ideas, good or bad, are always welcome and always given careful consideration. I challenge myself – I challenge each of you – do not be afraid of new ideas and do not hesitate suggesting any innovative idea to our Board, a committee, to me or during our talk back time.
Perhaps we might treat ideas as if they are like our children. We enjoy creating them. We nurture them. We hope for their best. The scope of their ambitions are not belittled – but instead championed. And, even if they fail, we still love them as we learn from their mistakes.
Within ourselves, within this spiritual community, within our nation and world, we must continue to plug into the power of ideas to advance the well-being of humanity and all creation.
I will each of you peace and joy.
For our Talk Back time, I’m interested in three possible comments from you. Your thoughts on the topic that ideas do have power, OR, an idea that has was a paradigm shift – an “aha” moment in your life, OR, an innovative idea you suggest for this congregation….
I welcome your thoughts.
Thank your comments! While Michael plays some background music, let us now take a few moments for silent reflection or prayer on ideas of goodness at work in our lives and in the world. Let us pray for good ideas, that they might spread far and wide, that you and others here this morning will promote them, and that ideas such as servanthood and humility will change the world as we know it.