A sermon presented by Doug Muder at First Parish in Bedford, Massachusetts on 16 January 2000
Thought to Ponder at the Beginning
One of my friends had been asked by a friend about our collaboration with [Joseph] Campbell: “Why do you need the mythology?” She held the familiar modern opinion that “all these Greek gods and stuff” are irrelevant to the human condition today. What she did not know — what most do not know — is that the remnants of all that “stuff” line the walls of our interior system of belief, like shards of broken pottery in an archeological site. — Bill Moyers
Today it is everywhere apparent that WE are on the side of Light. THEY on the side of Darkness. And being on the side of Darkness, THEY deserve to be punished and must be liquidated (since OUR divinity justifies everything) by the most fiendish means at our disposal. By idolatrously worshipping ourselves as Ormazd [the Zoroastrian God of Light], and by regarding the other fellow as Ahriman, the Principle of Evil, we of the twentieth century are doing our best to guarantee the triumph of diabolism in our time. — Aldous Huxley, The Devils of Loudun
In a few minutes we’re going to sing hymn #114, Forward Through the Ages. Now I don’t know how many times I’ve sung this hymn, but it doesn’t matter. For me, that music is always going to be the great Christian battle hymn Onward Christian Soldiers. This is one of the most stirring hymns in the Christian tradition, and it very deliberately invokes the image of the great battle between Good and Evil. For those of you who don’t know it, I thought I’d share some of the lyrics with you. The refrain is
Onward Christian soliders, marching as to war
With the cross of Jesus going on before.
And the verses say things like
Like a mighty army moves the church of God.
Brothers, we are treading where the saints have trod.
At the sign of triumph Satan’s host doth flee;
On then, Christian soldiers, on to victory!
Hell’s foundations quiver at the shout of praise;
Brothers lift your voices, loud your anthems raise.
Now, usually when we think about these two hymns, we notice how different they are. In the UU version, Jesus and Satan are gone, and the battle imagery has been toned down. We are no longer soldiers in an army going to war.
This morning, though, I’d like to call your attention to just how similar the two hymns are. Most obviously, it’s the same music. This is marching music; it’s stirring, it’s rousing, it’s militant. And the battle imagery is not gone. We’re still conquering or falling, and heroes are still dying in this hymn. The saints have become prophets and poets, but we’re still identifying ourselves with the great ones who have come before us.
Both of these hymns serve the same important purpose. They are ways for a community of people to gather their collective courage to stand up for what they believe is good and resist what they believe is evil. And they do it the same way: by identifying us with heroes and by identifying our current struggle, whatever it might be, with the universal struggle of good people everywhere.
Now, it’s easy to criticize this kind of stuff: It’s simplisitic, it’s primitive, and so on. And later on in the service we’re going to get all analytic and rational about it. But right now I’d like you just to feel how powerful this is. I invite you to really try to cut loose on this hymn and let yourself get carried away with the idea that we represent the forces of good and we are going to stand up to the forces of evil. And it’s my job to put the brakes on before we go looting and pillaging. So don’t worry about that.
I’d like to tell you a couple of stories. I think you’ll recognize them. They’re very old stories. They’ve been told in a variety of forms by different people all over the world. Not all the details are the same in every versions, but the same general pattern is there.
The Battle at the Beginning of the World
The first story is about a battle at the beginning of the world. When people told this first story, more than four thousand years ago, they thought they were talking about a time long before them. So you know it was a long time ago. It was before there were any people, before the world looked anything like this, even before we started the building project.
Long ago, there was a monster. Depending on who’s telling the story, the monster has a different name and shape. The Babylonians called the monster Tiamat, the Greeks Typhon, and the Hebrews Rahab, and they described it as a kind of reptilian monster with a lot of heads and eyes and tentacles. The Hebrews also had a story about a sea monster called Leviathan, and the Norsemen said it was a frost giant that they called Ymir.
Anyway, no matter what you call the monster, it was very big and scary and all the gods were afraid of it. Finally one god decided to be a hero among the gods. The Babylonians called him Marduk, the Hebrews Yahweh, the Greeks Zeus, the Norsemen Odin. He went out and battled the monster, and he won. And when he was done, he used the monster’s dead body to build the world.
The Babylonian version of this is the most detailed. It says that Marduk sliced Tiamat in half, and with the top half he made the sky, while the bottom half became the Earth. Then he killed her husband Kingu and used his blood to make the first people.
And the gods were so grateful to be rid of the monster that they made this hero their king. And he went out and made all the rules that define how the universe works. He made the Sun shine in the daytime and the stars at night. He said that heavy things should fall and light things should rise, and things like that. In short, he made the world be the way it is now.
The Battle at the End of the World
The second story is about a battle at the end of the world. This story is a youngster by comparison; it’s less than three thousand years old. And we even know the name of the guy who is supposed to have written it: Zoroaster, who was the founder of a religion that isn’t very well known these days, but has had a big influence on a lot of the more popular religions.
In Zoroaster’s story the whole world is a battleground, and there is a war that is going on all the time. It started thousands of years ago, and it’s going to last for 12 thousand years altogether. And this is the war between Good and Evil, between the Army of Light led by Ahura Mazda and the Army of Darkness led by Ahriman. Everybody has to choose to join one side or the other, and this is the most important choice you make in your whole life: Are you going to fight on the side of Good or the side of Evil?
The war is destined to go back and forth, and at times it will look as if Ahriman is going to win. But no matter how bad things look, you shouldn’t be fooled and go over to join the Army of Darkness. Because at the end of the 12 thousand years there will be one final battle, and the forces of Light will defeat the forces of Darkness once and for all. And all those who signed on with the Army of Light and fought for the Light in that great battle will be rewarded.
A little bit later we’re going to leave myth and start talking about history. One thing I think history shows is that the forces of Darkness are almost always well funded. Let us bear that in mind as we collect the offering.
By now I’m sure that a lot of you are asking the same question: We’re educated, rational people of the 21st century. What are we doing talking about creation myths, or the end of the world, or the battle of Good against Evil?
I started thinking about these particular myths because of the significance they have for me in this period of my life. These stories have been sitting in my unconscious and influencing the way that I think about my life. And when I began to unravel that influence, I realized that it was bigger than just me. So I thought I would tell you about it.
Now almost everybody enjoys myths as engaging stories to tell children — even if they do get a little bloody sometimes. But many of you may be uncomfortable with the idea that myths do something, that they have real effects in the world. So let’s take another look at those two stories I told, and consider what they do.
The Battle at the Beginning of the World is a story that people tell to justify the established order. It says that the status quo was established by god. But it also explains how our god in particular got the right to define the status quo: He won it by being a hero. Psalm 89 says, “You have crushed Rahab a mortal blow; with your strong arm you have scattered your enemies. Yours are the heavens, and yours is the earth; the world and its fullness you have founded.” That’s the pattern: first you defeat the monster, then you found the world.
The second story, Zoroaster’s, is actually a pivotal point in Western history. Let me explain: Before Zoroaster, my allies and enemies were the allies and enemies of my tribe. And that was all part of the order that had been defined by god at the beginning of time. Nothing in my world view told me that I could do anything about it.
But then Zoroaster moved the great battle from the beginning of time to the end of time, and that changed everything. If the great battle is still to come, then it’s not too late to get new allies. And suddenly it doesn’t matter whether your grandfather and my grandfather were mortal enemies. If you are going to join the Army of Light, and fight by my side in the great battle at the end of time, you’re OK. Zoroaster’s story makes multi-ethnic empires work. It’s no coincidence that Zoroaster’s Persia became one of the first cosmopolitan empires in the West.
These days, of course, most people don’t even know who Zoroaster was, but his story is still sitting in the back of our heads, shaping the way that we think about events. Consider World War II, which was before my time, but is remembered by many people in this room. The war against Germany is almost always described as an apocalyptic battle of Good against Evil. Hitler and the Nazis played the role of the Army of Darkness as well as it has ever been played. The SS even wore black.
And if they were the Army of Darkness, then we were Army of Light. And that unleashed the kind of energy that you may have felt during the hymn. When you are convinced deep down that you belong to the Army of Light, it is easy to get up in the morning. World War II motivated this country in a way that it has never been motivated before or since. We produced, we invented, we innovated, we did difficult and courageous things that we never thought we could do. And we won.
A funny thing happens when you win a battle of Light against Darkness. You suddenly leave the Zoroastrian story and re-enter the Babylonian story. The great victory, which for so long seemed to be in the distant future, so distant that nothing beyond it really mattered, now is in the past. And now, nothing before it really matters, because the whole world is different. In an instant, the victory stops marking the end of time and starts marking the beginning of time.
At the end of World War II, the Allies were the hero god. They were Marduk. They were Yahweh, Zeus, Odin. They stood over the corpse of the great beast, and that gave them both the right and the responsibility to remake the world. And they did: the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank — all the institutions that define how nations interact with each other come from 1945 and 1946. Truman’s Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, named his autobiography Present at the Creation. That’s how he thought about it: on his watch the world had been created anew.
OK. Talking about history is a little more down-to-earth than talking about mythology, but still: What does this have to do with us, sitting here in this room right now? Let’s talk about a more immediate problem, something that each of us has to deal with every day. Let’s talk about anger.
Anger is probably the most inconvenient emotion we have. It’s the way in which we are most poorly adapted to the modern world. Anger is our natural reaction to realizing that the world is not the way we want it to be, and it gives us a jolt of energy to help us make things right.
Back when human beings were evolving on the plains of Africa, that jolt of energy was probably just what we needed. When someone tried to grab our food away from us, that jolt of energy helped us grab it back. It helped us run when we were in danger. It helped us fight off predators. It helped us jump a little higher when the fruit was just out of reach.
We still get that jolt of energy when we discover the world isn’t the way we want it to be, but it is a lot less clear what we are supposed to do with it. When the VCR tape runs out in the middle of my favorite TV show, I get angry. How does that help? Am I supposed to run somewhere or jump or hit something? Long experience with computers has taught me that if I get angry with the machine, I should turn it off and come back when I’m calm. Because anything I do when I’m angry is likely to be wrong.
I’m told that the same principle applies to parenting. Children often behave in ways we don’t want them to. But if one parent is angry about that misbehavior and the other one is calm, probably the calm one should deal with it, because the angry parent is likely to do more harm than good.
One of the biggest problems of everyday life in modern civilization is figuring out what to do with our anger. We constantly run into situations that are not the way we want them to be, but our anger doesn’t help us resolve them. Anger makes us strong, but it also makes us stupid. It gives us courage, but it takes away our patience and our judgment. In the modern world, that’s a bad trade.
And we know it’s a bad trade. So we end up spending a lot more time than we would care to admit counting to ten, taking deep breathes, going for long walks, doing whatever we can to deal with this ever-present, totally useless anger.
And that, I think, is why the Battle of Light and Darkness is such a tempting myth to get involved with. Someone with a cause shows up, a recruiter for the Army of Light, and tells you that the world needs your anger. There’s a battle to be fought against the forces of Darkness, he says, and we need you to fight it with us. We need you strong; we need you courageous; we need you angry.
These days you can hear that message as often as you want. A popular bumper sticker says: “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” Every time you turn on your TV, you can see stories about how the world is not the way it should be; stories of violence, of corruption, of hypocrisy, of hate. And like a drumbeat in the background is that message: Get angry, get angry, get angry. Every time you open a letter from some good cause that’s seeking your support, the message is there: Something outrageous is happening. Get outraged. Get angry. The world needs your anger.
It’s hard to overstate what a tempting, seductive, addictive message this is. This anger, this emotion I’ve been sitting on my whole life — somebody values it. Somebody needs it. The world needs it. Why does the world need it? Because someone has to stand up to the Forces of Darkness. Someone has to fight for the Light.
Once you have fought for the Army of Light, once you have been in a Battle of Light and Darkness, nothing else measures up. Especially if you won.
Ever since World War II, America as a country and Americans as individuals have been out looking for another Battle of Light and Darkness. For some people, the Cold War was such a battle. When Ronald Reagan talked about “the evil empire,” when JFK urged us to “pay any price, bear any burden,” they were casting America as the Army of Light.
And now that we have won the Cold War, and slain the dragon of Soviet Communism, how are we acting? Like Marduk, Yahweh, Zeus, Odin. President Bush wasted no time in declaring a “new world order.” We’re claiming our right to remake the world, because we slew the monster. Why are we doing this? Because we are trapped in a myth. America doesn’t really know what the world should look like; we aren’t up to the task of remaking the world. But that’s the way the story goes — we don’t know what else to do.
Many Unitarian-Universalists, including some people in this room, fought in another Battle of Light and Darkness, the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Like World War II, this was a case where our side was right and their side was wrong. It was a situation that called for strength and courage. The world needed people to get outraged and to use that outrage as motivation to make substantive change.
Since that time, what has measured up? The Vietnam War? Both the hawks and the doves tried to cast their story as a Battle of Light and Darkness. The hawks were fighting the Cold War battle of Freedom against Totalitarianism. The doves were fighting for Peace against War, or for Self-determination against Colonialism. One of the reasons we’re still having that argument today is that neither side could make their story work. Did Major Calley belong to the Army of Light? Did the Khmer Rouge?
What else? We’ve fought a War on Poverty and a War on Drugs. We’ve fought a few actual shooting wars. We saw homeless Albanians on television and we got angry, so we bombed Belgrade. Did that help? Maybe; it’s hard to tell.
The political issues of the last few decades — abortion, economic inequality, globalization, the environment — have been complex and filled with ambiguity. People have tried to make Battles of Light and Darkness out of all them, but it just doesn’t work. You can’t take any of those issues and draw a nice, clean line and say “This is right and this is wrong.” In every case, we need more than just the strength and courage to do what we know is right.
I was born in 1956. Too late for World War II. Too late for the glory days of the Civil Rights movement. I grew up surrounded by people who believed that in their day they and their country had fought for the Light. And I thought: That is what a good life is. That’s what a person is supposed to do. I grew up reading comic books about Superman and Thor. I had a very clear idea of what it meant to be a hero, and I dearly wanted to be one.
I am 43 years old. I am at the point in my life where I can see my powers beginning their long, slow decline. And I still have not found the Army of Light. I have not become a hero.
A lot of people in my generation are finding themselves in this situation, and they’re starting to get depressed about it. Or cynical. Or bitter. Some of us blame ourselves: We didn’t find the Army of Light because our moral compass was defective. Or we were lazy. Or we were cowards. Or we just weren’t committed enough. Some people are struggling against that depression and cynicism and bitterness by singing the old songs and repeating the old slogans about fighting the good fight. But it’s not working.
I think our problem is that we’re trapped in a myth. We’ve been looking for our World War II, our Civil Rights movement, our chance to join the Army of Light. Maybe we should be looking for something else. Maybe we should be trying to tell a different story.
I have come to some difficult conclusions about all this. I don’t expect all of you to agree with me, but here’s what I think: Battles of Light and Darkness are rare. I may live the rest of my life without ever running into one. I may live out the rest of my days without ever having the opportunity to join the Army of Light.
There’s a very personal, emotional consequence of that, one that I find even harder to accept: The world does not need my anger. I’m starting to wonder if it needs anybody’s anger.
Yes, the world has a lot of things wrong with it. Yes, we’re going to notice that wrongness. And yes, it’s going to make us angry. That’s all natural and there’s nothing wrong with feeling that way. But if we start acting like soldiers in the Army of Light, if we take our anger out into the world, out into that muddy, messy morass of problems that characterize this age, the odds are excellent that we are going to make things worse. Because — in spite of what the TV says, in spite of all those letters we get from the good causes — the world does not need our anger. It needs our compassion, it needs our intelligence, it needs our creativity, it needs our persistence. But it doesn’t need our anger.
A few minutes ago I said that when you are a soldier in the Army of Light, it is easy to get up in the morning. Well, if I am not going to join the Army of Light, how am I going to get up in the morning? If I am not going to fight the good fight, what am I going to do? How am I going to live a life that is meaningful and worthwhile and significant without that story? Because there’s one thing I do know about these archetypal stories: It’s not enough to say “I’m not going to live by that story any more.” You have to replace it with something. Because, consciously or unconsciously, we’re always living by a story of some kind.
If the world is not a battleground between Good and Evil, between Light and Darkness, what is it? Let me close by making a couple of suggestions.
Perhaps the world is a garden. Perhaps we are here not to fight the good fight, but to nurture the crops — to plant, to water, to weed, and generally watch over with compassion and love. Perhaps we can tell this story: That if we are persistent, if we are watchful, diligent, careful, then, with a little luck and a little cooperation from the rain and sun, the harvest will come.
Or perhaps the world is a canvas. Perhaps we are artists, and this life is our masterwork. This life I am living, is it beautiful? Does it speak to me? Does it shine with inspiration? Can I show my life to others and say, “Here, look, this is a Life!”
And the story, perhaps the story is this: That if we stay true to this Art of Life, if we learn the craft of living, if we listen to the voice of our highest inspiration, and if we stay with it, year in, year out, then someday we will step back from what we have done, both individually and as a community, and say “This life, this family, this church, this country, this world — this is beautiful. What a privilege it was, that the materials were there, that the inspiration came, and I was allowed to help create this.”
Responsive Reading #584: A Network of Mutuality
Hymn #121: We’ll Build a Land
From the Epistle of James, chapter 1, verses 19 and 20: “Therefore, my people, let everyone be swift to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger. For the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God.”