A Semi-Private Idaho and Life in the Goldilocks Zone


Living in your own private Idaho

 underground like a wild potato

 The B52s

You’ve heard about the “Goldilocks Zone,” that temperate place where H2O exists in the form of water and scientists speculate life might exist on other planets. I think a Unitarian Universalist congregation should be a Goldilocks Zone where the free exchange of ideas concerning ultimate meaning and purpose flows like life-giving water.  After all, the fourth principle of the Unitarian Universalist Association is, “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”

Now, I know that actually the UUA principles are only agreements between congregations, underlining the right of each member congregation to respect the particular theological stance of the various congregations. But, in practice, these principles have been embraced more by individuals within congregations than between congregations, where there is pressure to conform to the franchise—a topic for another day.

I mention this because the congregation I serve, First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, has historically embraced humanism and has its own set of aspirations, the fourth of which is, to “support one another’s journey toward meaning and connection in the here and now.”

That’s a more humanist slant than the fourth principle of the UUA, but aimed toward the same ideal, a Goldilocks Zone for the free flow of ideas concerning ultimate meaning and purpose. This is the ideal. As with most ideals, the congregation falls short in reality.  But reaching toward an ideal is a good thing. That’s what ideals are for—to stretch us.

Three methods help get us to the Goldilocks Zone:

Hit the pause button on being right.

Hang your inner judge and jury.

Trust everyone’s path.

Easier said than done. But one way to get there is to become a pragmatist. As in the philosophy called Pragmatism. Sure, you can remain an idealist or a cynic or whatever in other matters, but try pragmatism when it comes to creating a Goldilocks Zone.

Listen to what psychologist and Pragmatist philosopher William James had to say about that most contentious of issues, theism:

If believing as though we have free will, or as if God exists, gets us the results we want, we will not only come to believe those things; they will be, pragmatically, true.

Now, by “free will,” James meant “non-theist” according to the theological understandings of the time. In that light, consider what he said again:

If believing as though we have free will, or as if God exists, gets us the results we want, we will not only come to believe those things; they will be, pragmatically, true.

A pragmatist is a Pragmatist due to a deep skepticism concerning the human ability to ascertain ultimate truth. Since Pragmatists aren’t sure we can do that, they put air-quotes around “truth” and examine not what a truth is but how it affects human behavior.

In that light, notice what William James is saying: belief in a god or belief in no god works when it works. When it “gets us the results we want.” Whichever way we choose, the path we are on becomes “pragmatically” true.

If we can get there, we’re in the Goldilocks Zone for multi-faith communication and understanding.

This way of thinking led William James to write his great book The Varieties of Religious Experience, which makes most short lists for the greatest work of non-fiction in the Twentieth Century. And this way of thinking creates the Goldilocks Zone for both the free and the responsible search that each of us must make for truth and meaning.

Notice that this pragmatic approach accomplishes all three of my criteria for the Goldilocks Zone:

Hit the pause button on being right.

Hang your inner judge and jury.

Trust everyone’s path.

“But wait: my path is better!” Just add a couple of words to that statement: “My path is better FOR ME.”

“But my beliefs are objectively true!” No: your beliefs are objectively true FOR YOU. Both pragmatically—and scientifically—objective reality is always subject to further examination. The Pragmatists knew this in their bones.

Consider the words of a couple more great Pragmatists. Philosopher George Santayana said, “There is no cure for birth and death save to enjoy the interval by discerning and manifesting the good without attempting to retain it.”

Let it go.

Consider the words of Pragmatic philosopher John Dewey: “Growth itself is the only moral end.”

Who am I—and who are you—Dewey points out, to judge the religious and philosophical understandings of another person? Maybe you have a PhD in religious studies. That’s great. Maybe you were born UU and have a very open mind and no emotional baggage about religion. Bully for you. Remind yourself: anyone who walks into a Unitarian Universalist congregation for the first time is saying, “I need to think about this ultimate meaning and purpose stuff. I’m not satisfied with the off-the-rack, one-size-fits-all answers.”

Remember that NONE of us have the ultimate answers. The answers that work for others. I don’t have all the answers. I’m still thinking. And as a minister I get paid to think about these things. I thought about titling this, “What I Really, Really Think About God (this week).”

Try this: avoid going “underground like a wild potato.” Share your subjectivity but remember that it is a subjectivity, and we all live in some kind of private Idaho. Insisting on our own rightness leads to an icy world; saying there’s only one way leads to a steamed planet.

The Goldilocks Zone, where the fresh water flows, is only possible when we get outside our own stuff and listen.

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