This is a spiritual celebration of the life of the mind, through the stories of brave men and women who have suffered, lived, and died to use theirs.
I read in the weekend preview section of the Atlanta paper that every night of the week, in saloons, taverns and bars, folks are getting drunk — on trivia. On organized competitions around bits and pieces of information. As one young man told the reporter, Team Trivia isn’t the only game in town, but it’s the largest.
A good way to pack a place — with the lure of prizes, usually gift certificates for bar tabs, and as one Trivia game promoter points out, trivia can be a good way of meeting people. You might not go up to someone and say, Come here often? But you might ask, What’s the capitol of Mongolia? Or, What is the most famous invention of Alfred Nobel, for whom the Nobel Prize is named?
He said that couples have paired off with each other at trivia games and gotten married.
Back in the early 1980s when Trivial Pursuit first came out, and especially when the Boomer version hit the market, I will admit that I played my fair share of games in couples situations and did pretty well. A lot better than, say, on a bowling date. But when I scanned the sample questions in this week’s article, I got only one correct answer out of ten questions. Blame part of it on the culture gap between me and the Gen-Xers who are competing these days. I hadn’t a clue who or what the band Boston is, let alone their only number one song.
But part of my dismal showing this time around is simply age. A new study confirms what many of us might have realized individually, that our cognitive ability, the maturation of the part of the mind that lets us accumulate knowledge, starts to decline in the late teens on through adulthood. After that, nerve cell growth in the brain stops, sometimes even reversing.
That doesn’t mean that human beings get dumber as they age, researchers assure those of us who are 18 years old — and older — but it probably means that, except in rare cases, Trivia and cognitive dexterity is a younger person’s game.
Not always though, if the recent call for try-outs for the quiz show Jeopardy was any indication. Among the tens of thousands of people expected to apply for one of the 800 appointments to compete for a spot on the popular TV game show was Alan Rabinowitz, 50 years old, who welcomed the chance to prove to his family and friends that there is something useful, even profitable, in his ability, for example, to recall who played and won every World Series since l903. It’s a gift, he says, this knack for collecting semi-useful facts. A gift that he also helps along by studying the almanac, and then watching Jeopardy every night.
The awe and wonder with which this middle-aged father speaks of a mind/game approaches religious sensibility. The holiness of a fine mind, a well-trained, inquisitive mind, sometimes even a beautiful mind.
In that spirit, that reverence, for a fit, if not a beautiful, mind, I have recently given in to taking a daily multivitamin for “older” minds, with Ginkgo Biloba for “cerebral circulation,” and I might even consider learning to play computer solitaire or do crossword puzzles, if I were convinced that would help me keep using my head.
As my friend Angie, a data analyst, said the other day: my mother always told me that God gave us our brains, and it’s a sin not to use them. And she is a Lutheran.
I am unapologetically the daughter of Humanists who became, at least for part of their adult lives, Unitarians. The daughter of two bright and educated people, one a scientist, one a gerontologist — a specialist in aging — who saw in the Unitarian movement of the l950s a rational and enlightened alternative to blind faith and adherence to tradition, even when these flew in the face of all new learning — the products of our own human insight, intuition, and experience.
The Humanist movement within Unitarianism that appealed to my parents had its own manifesto, a document published in l933 and signed by some 30 ministers and lay members, declaring, first, that the time had passed for a mere revision of traditional attitudes, that there was a great danger of a final, and they believed, fatal identification of the word religion with doctrines and methods which had lost their significance, and which were powerless to solve the problem of human living in the 20th — let alone 21st — century.
While they acknowledged that the modern era owed a vast debt to the traditional religions, given the changing understanding of the universe, scientific achievements, and deeper appreciation of what they called brotherhood. What we would probably call the interconnected global community; religion had to change to reflect these enormous changes in our worldviews.
The manifesto affirmed that religious Humanists regard the universe as self-existing and not created, supporting the notion of natural causes and not “divine intelligence” as the genesis of our world and universe. And they affirmed their conviction that humans are a part of nature, emerging as a result of a continuous process.
The manifesto declared that religion consists of those actions, purposes, and experiences which are humanly significant, with nothing human being alien to the religious. Whether labor, art, science, love, friendship, recreation — anything and all that is expressive of intelligently satisfying human living. The distinction between the sacred and secular, they argued, could no longer be maintained.
Their faith, as it were, was in the full flowering of each individual’s human personality and potential, and in the institutions that promoted and supported this.
While this was a line in the sand statement of enormous impact, this emphasis on the here and now, on human agency, human responsibility in and for this world, was not new to liberal religion in l933. In fact, it might be said that those of us who identify as religious liberals actually have always had our own kind of trinity. As church historian Earl Morse Wilbur noticed, freedom, tolerance and reason are the essential principles that have bound us together over the centuries.
UU minister Tom Owen-Towle, who has come to describe our faith communities as being made up of free-thinking mystics with hands, says that we are truthers, inveterate truth-seekers, members of a reasonable faith.
We have been drawn to our religious heroes and heroines, and they to us, because, more than any other quality, they have been courageous in seeking truth, speaking truth, living truth, and sometimes dying for truth.
Treasuring the revelations of their own minds.
The huge loss, the tragedy of compromising or denying our minds, struck me recently in reading a book about Galileo, not his theories so much — while a scientist’s daughter, much of math and science makes me go numb. But his struggles to remain within his own religious tradition, the 16th-century Catholic Church, while also remaining faithful to his own beliefs, which were based on empirical knowledge. For example, that the Earth, indeed, revolves around the sun, instead of the insistence of the Holy Church fathers on the stationary position of the Earth, because the Psalms declared it so:
Oh Lord, my God, Thou Art great indeed… Thou fixed the Earth upon its foundation, not to be moved forever.
Ultimately, Galileo chose life, even a life of house arrest — cut off from contact with any visitors who might discuss scientific ideas with him — over a possible heretic’s death in the face of the Roman Inquisition.
He chose to obey the Pope’s order to quiet his own intellect, to denounce and withdraw his support for the Copernican theory of a sun-centered universe. Even when that also meant spending his remaining intellectually-barren years in perpetual melancholy and poor health.
While our gratitude for his pioneering scientific discoveries and sympathies are with him, our UU badge of honor and glory tend to go with figures like Michael Servetus, whom we used to call and celebrate as a martyr for our faith in the days before religious martyrdom has taken such a deadly and perverse turn.
Servetus, a Frenchman and also a Roman Catholic, went to a university where he read the Bible for the first time, and was surprised to discover that the Trinity was nowhere to be found. He did not believe or find to be true in scripture that Jesus was part of a three-part Godhead, but, in his opinion, God come to Earth to model the divinity any Christian might obtain if he or she lived a holy life. He rejected the doctrine of original sin and the entire theory of salvation based upon it. He did not believe that Jesus’ death was a vicarious atonement for the sins of the people of his time or any other time.
A physician as well as theologian, Servetus suggested a theory of circulation that predated later discoveries by Unitarian scientist William Harvey. But, unlike Galileo, it was not his scientific views that did him in with both the Inquisition and the early Reformation leaders.
It was his rejection of the theory of basic human depravity, not his work on blood, that so inflamed the temper of John Calvin and his fellow French Protestants.
It was his insistence on free religious inquiry, the use of his brilliant and beautiful mind to test doctrines based only in tradition, that led to his being burned at the stake.
I would assume that most of us either would basically agree with Servetus’ ideas about Christian doctrine as reasonable, or at least not dangerous. They arose from his thoughtful, clear-headed reading of text and his own experiences of moral growth and development.
We religious liberals have, for the most part, been optimistic about the capacity and uses of the human mind, and therefore our human ability to be in charge of the care, growth, and development of life on this planet. Much of our faith has been, pun intended, staked on this.
But if we can use our minds to create and perceive the good, we can, if we are true truthers, open our eyes and minds to the misuse, abuse, and distortion of intellect.
The second Humanist manifesto, published in 1973, signed by thousands of men and women, acknowledged up front that in the 40 years since the first manifesto appeared, world events had made the earlier statement seem far too optimistic. Science had sometimes brought evil, instead of good, and human leadership had proven just as capable of genocide as wisdom and compassion.
Nonetheless, this revised manifesto still affirmed the potential of humans and the human mind, the beautiful minds of dedicated, clear-thinking men and women able to marshal the will, intelligence, and cooperative skills for shaping a desirable future.
Reason and intelligence, they affirmed, are the most effective instruments that humankind possesses. There is no substitute, they believed: neither faith nor passion suffices in itself.
The preciousness and dignity of the individual person is a central Humanist value, they wrote. Individuals should be encouraged to realize their own creative talents and desires.
We reject all religious, ideological, or moral codes that denigrate the individual, suppress freedom, dull intellect, dehumanize personality.
That is why we have had among us a large number of people who might be described as “heady,” whose spirituality — whose sense of wholeness and holiness — is based in this reverence for human potential, and faith in human intellect, creativity, and responsibility.
That is why, I believe, we can claim among our ranks people like Dorthea Dix, who has been described as a fiery, single-minded Unitarian who made the appalling plight of the mentally ill — condemned to almshouses, prisons, and the streets — her life’s crusade. Her interest and passion was in the best care and treatment of the mind, because, for her, this was where holiness and salvation lay.
When she was old and ill and penniless, Dorthea lived on the ground floor of Trenton State Hospital in New Jersey, in an apartment set aside for her by its grateful trustees.
Dorthea worked, lived, and died in the same mental hospital that, at one time, housed Nobel laureate, mathematician John Nash, whose brilliance and psychosis have now been documented with a critically acclaimed book and Oscar-winning film A Beautiful Mind.
Nash’s story, his lifelong struggle with schizophrenia, has earned huge audiences and box office receipts, based in our collective fascination with, as one critic noted, the thin line between genius and madness, the gift and curse that comes with minds that perceive far more than most, but who also suffer from a sometimes unspeakable anguish.
The same beautiful mind that made a major contribution to game theory — about which I understand little — was also the driver of his lapses into clearly disturbed behavior. Talking to squirrels and carrying around notebooks with circled words from magazines, which he was convinced would reveal international secrets.
Like other mentally gifted people, many of our famous intellects, writers, and artists, Nash has had to balance for himself the benefits of “quieting” the crippling, even dangerous, aspects of his mind, returning, as he wrote, to interludes of forced rationality, with the loss of what he experienced as cosmic, even divine, insights.
Exchanging what he experienced as an exalted state for being a human of more conventional circumstances.
In a PBS documentary on Nash, Nash confesses his ambivalence about submitting to psychotropic medications and other forms of therapy. To some extent, he says, sanity is a form of conformity. People are always selling the idea that people who have mental illnesses are suffering. But it’s really not so simple.
He gave up the escape that his illness provided him in the 80s, he has admitted, not because his visions and voices disappeared, but through what he calls a diet of his mind, he decided to reject them.
Any of us who have experienced depression, simple or bi-polar, or any other form of mental conditions that can both energize or inspire us — and make our lives and those of our loved ones a living hell — know well what Nash is talking about. That compromise we must make between a life of highs and lows and sometimes exhilarating madness, or a life that is taken down a few notches, calmed, and perhaps even deadened.
The challenge to all of us, those of us, especially, who have placed some small or larger portion of our faith in human creativity and inventiveness, is to take up the cause of promoting, preserving, and enhancing beautiful minds.
By being active, as UUs have always been, in advancing quality universal public education and brain-based learning across the life span. Education that uses all parts of our brains — physical, emotional, and social too.
By being active, as we always have been, in forwarding the cause of humane, compassionate, and effective mental health treatments and facilities, ones that allow for the fullest development and use of each person’s potential.
By encouraging and rewarding social, as well as scientific, inventions, devising exciting and creative ways for people to thrive together in their communities through idea banks, websites, publications, and even prizes.
Remembering and affirming the glory of reason and truth-seeking.
The sacred potential based in human thought, followed by human action.
Mind and spirit, brain and heart, we religious liberals are called to experience the holy, that which makes us, each one of us, fully human, fully divine, in both and all places.
All the products and all the passions of our Beautiful Minds.
In the closing words of the second Humanist Manifesto, using both reason and compassion to produce the kind of world we want — a world in which peace, prosperity, freedom, and happiness are widely shared.