Keeping Score

Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence

David A. Mix Barrington

4 August 2019

Good morning. In many churches a "sermon" is a reflection on a particular biblical text or texts, read earlier in the service. Today, we've had as texts some popular songs and an excerpt from a comic novel, and I'm now going to present our primary text, which is a TV show. Since only some of you have ever seen The Good Place, I'll need to bring you up to speed.

The first episode begins as a young woman named Eleanor, played by Kristin Bell, wakes up and sees a sign that says "Welcome. Everything is fine". An older man named Michael, played by Ted Danson, explains that she has died, been judged, and sent to "The Good Place", where she, along with a few hundred other good people, will spend eternity in an idyllic village that he had designed and now manages. She has earned this by all of the good deeds she committed in her career as a human rights lawyer.

This all sounds great, but Eleanor knows that there has been some administrative mistake -- she is not a human rights lawyer but a telemarketer from Arizona, who sells worthless dietary supplements to the elderly. Furthermore, as we later see in flashbacks, she was not a very good person on Earth: selfish, rude, and unreliable. She soon learns that "The Bad Place" exists and is not unlike Amos Starkadder's description -- apparently no butter to be had at all. The first season deals with her efforts to escape detection and to also become a better person, with the help of her assigned soulmate Chidi, a philosophy professor played by William Jackson Harper.

How do the authorities decide who goes to the Good Place or the Bad Place? Every deed a person commits is observed and evaluated with a positive or negative score. If, at your death, the net total is positive, you're in. The authorities have access to apparently unlimited computing power, though whenever a human sees their equipment it looks like something from the 1950's. They also treat the relative goodness or badness of each act as objective truth, reducible to a single number by their superior knowledge and understanding.

This is very much a system for our times. In my day job as a computer scientist, I am constantly told that this is the Age of Data. We have a new Center for Data Science, which includes about half the activity of our college, and all our students want courses in data science to become data scientists. What is a data scientist? Someone who develops systems for “discovering knowledge” in all the huge piles of data we are now able to collect. Often this involves general-purpose learning algorithms to find patterns in the data, that might allow us to predict future events or design strategies to influence future events.

The Age of Data is a particularly familiar concept to sports fans. In his 2003 book Moneyball, Michael Lewis described how the Oakland A’s were able to outperform their limited financial resources by using “analytics” to make more informed decisions about which players to hire or trade for. Baseball has kept statistics for over a century, but the new generation of analysts argued that they were the wrong statistics and led to sub-optimal decisions. The right statistics measured how each at-bat, pitch, or fielding play contributed to the team winning or losing the game. The new favorite statistic is “WAR”, for “Wins Above Replacement” —- how many more or fewer wins did the team get because they had this player instead of the “replacement level” player they would get from the minors if this guy got injured. In hockey or basketball, the key statistic is “plus-minus” — whenever a goal or basket is scored, you count it in favor of every player of the scoring team who was on the ice or court at the time, and count it against every player of the other team. Does this sound familiar? Good deeds get positive points, bad deeds get negative points. If your balance is high enough, you get the big contract; if not, back to the minors.

Another place I see the Age of Data in my day job is in the evaluation of teaching. It’s a simple idea, right? Some teachers must be better at teaching than others, so if you can find out which you can pay them more and get rid of the other ones, the latter requiring getting around those pesky unions. There’s even data, because the students all take tests, and some teacher’s students are going to do better on those tests. It’s all very scientific and rational, and only a teacher’s union could possibly object to it, right?

Well, I’m willing to bet that most of you in the education field will agree with me that this system has been a disaster everywhere it’s been tried. Different teachers teach different students under different conditions, and it’s difficult or impossible to control your experiments for those differences. More importantly, once teachers’ salaries depend on test scores, the teachers will teach to the test and some of them will even help their students cheat. We may be able to measure the good deeds and bad deeds on the baseball field, but it’s a lot harder in the classroom.

In fact labor historians consider this Age of Data to be a natural progression of the 20th-century notion of “scientific management” called “Taylorism”, after Frederick Winslow Taylor, the efficiency expert I spoke of here two years ago. The workers, in this theory, have to be told exactly how to do their jobs best, and management needs to watch them all the time to see that they’re doing it, and replace them if they don’t — remember all the “replacement level” players in the minors? The scientifically managed workplace has workers frightened for their jobs, knowing they are under constant surveillance, punished for any deviation from their orders — it’s like prison, like torture, dare we say it’s “hellish”?

Back to Eleanor and her problems in the Good Place. At the end of the first season, as she is tortured by the increasing complications of her attempts to stay, she realizes the truth. She’s not in the Good Place. She’s in the Bad Place. Kindly Michael is actually a demon, who has convinced the Bad Place authorities to let him experiment with methods of torture much subtler than roasting people without giving them butter. The residents of the neighborhood, except for the four real humans, are more demons acting out their parts at Michael’s direction, bringing their subjects into psychologically more and more tortuous situations.

But there’s a flaw in Michael’s plan. The humans figured it out. He reboots their memories and starts over — they figure it out again. And again and again. His demon superiors are ready to not only cancel his funding but cancel him, permanently, so he switches sides and tries to help the humans into the Good Place. He thinks they deserve it, because they actually seem to be growing into better people.

Let’s leave the story for a bit and consider that last idea. The whole premise of judgment in the afterlife, not just on The Good Place but through centuries of religious thinking, is that some people deserve eternal reward and others deserve eternal punishment, and that a just God or a just universe will give it to them. So, you’d best be good and try to get the reward. Even if you believe, as I do, that there is no afterlife, you should still be good because of “Pascal’s Wager” — look it up. And it’s a close decision, where any good or bad deed might make the difference. One more roll of craps or one more drink of whisky might put you on the negative side and wash you off the boat.

In our readings today, though, we’ve seen two alternatives to this premise. Our Universalist forbears, such as John Murray, rebelled against the idea of Hell. If God is good, could He really damn people forever without giving them a chance? The Universalist message was the “kindness and everlasting love of God”, and those who truly understand that message might exhibit that love in their own lives. Even the worst of us, as Arjuna Greist imagines Fred Phelps, deserve this kindness and love, and can be transformed by it. Freddy in the song doesn’t get into Heaven for free — he appears to understand all the harm he’s done and is suffering in the realization of it — but God the Mother is there to welcome him in.

Amos Starkadder preaches exactly the opposite view, of course. Everyone, including his parishioners, especially his parishioners, is going to Hell to be roasted with no butter, and they fully deserve it. There’s no bargaining, of the kind that Lucinda Williams’ character offers to “get right with God” — there’s no good deeds that any of us can perform to save ourselves and deserve better. We’re all damned.

I have to admit that there are many times when this view of humanity looks right to me. Remember the balance of pluses and minuses? Last year here in a Social Justice Minute, Bill Diamond told us of a book that helped you measure how each of your actions affected the carbon dioxide balance of the atmosphere. If you take an airplane flight (very bad) you can offset it by paying to plant trees in Guatemala (good). When you plan tonight’s dinner, you can look up the scores for each ingredient. The problem is, does anybody really think that anybody here has a positive balance on this scale? As Geoffrey Hudson asks in his oratorio (that we heard pieces of here earlier this summer), “What have you done with the blue, beautiful earth”? I don’t want to minimize all the good work that so many people here are doing, trying to influence the behavior of masses of people towards a sustainable future. But when you look at it, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that we are all, at least here in America, sinners on a scale that makes Nicely-Nicely Johnson’s drinking and gambling look pretty trivial. I’m reminded of Thomas Jefferson’s words in 1781, though he was talking about slavery: “Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever”

And in fact when our heroes on The Good Place, on the run from the demons, wind up in the Accounting Office that is neutral territory between the Good and Bad Places, they make another surprising discovery. The system of accounting for good and bad deeds is just as Michael described it, but no human has reached the Good Place since the fifteenth century. Michael can’t believe this and delves further — it turns out that in a modern society every good deed, like buying someone flowers, has untold bad consequences, like the damage done by pesticides and fertilizers used to grow those flowers, or the unpleasant conditions of the workers that grow them. They meet a character who understands the accounting system, and has lived his whole life in a remote Canadian cabin trying to keep his balance positive by avoiding bad actions, but they learn that he is damned too.

Michael’s next move is to report this finding to the Committee that governs the Good Place, who turn out to look to our human eyes exactly like a bunch of Unitarian church leaders. (I said “Unitarian”, not “UU” — I’ll get to that later.) They are very concerned and promise immediate action. Forming a preliminary working group to study the problem further should be possible in only a few centuries. But they really care and are very concerned. Fortunately, they are intrigued by the notion that these four humans have actually improved themselves in the afterlife, and agree to let them run another experiment to see whether this phenomenon is general. How this turns out will be the subject of the fourth and final season of the show, to air this fall.

So what does this TV show say about us? As far as we know, in the world we live in, there is no afterlife. It’s conceivable we could create one, as in the novel Fall, or Dodge in Hell by Neal Stephenson, where first a dead billionaire and then millions of other dead people have their brains scanned and are simulated in a digital world where they wind up more or less reenacting the story of Paradise Lost. But right now, at least for people like me who demand evidence to believe in anything supernatural, this life is it. In that case, though, what does it mean to be a Unitarian, defined to mean believing in one God rather than three, or a Universalist, defined to believe that everyone will be saved? The short answer is that a modern Unitarian Universalist can be both of these things, and neither, at the same time. We partake of and embrace both of our religious traditions, whether we subscribe literally to their core beliefs, or not.

Thomas Starr King, a Universalist minister, in 1860 famously explained that Universalists believed that God was too good to damn people, and Unitarians believed that they were too good to be damned. We just sang "Amazing Grace", which is in many ways a Universalist song about God’s love being powerful and universal enough to save even wretches like all of us. John Newton, who wrote the words to the hymn in 1773, became an Anglican priest after a long career of wretchedness which included being the captain of a slave ship —- he did not choose the word “wretch” lightly, and he believed that he had won through to lead his relatively good life only through God’s grace. I expect Thomas Starr King would share my distaste for the little note you may have noticed in the hymnal, giving you permission to replace the word “wretch” with “soul”. Unitarians don’t need permission to change hymn lyrics, and there’s often good reason to, but this particular edit strikes me as moral cowardice. In many respects, we are all wretches, despite having inherent worth and dignity, and sometimes we should acknowledge that.

What is the “grace” that Newton means? It’s undeserved reward. In traditional Christian theology we are indeed all wretches, partaking of the original sin of Adam and Eve, and because God is just our sins must be paid for, literally in blood. But the blood sacrifice of Jesus can pay the price for us, even though we don’t deserve it. In the traditional view he pays for all those who accept him as their savior, and in the Universalist view he pays for everyone, but the idea is the same. It’s a random act of kindness, like a stranger paying for your drink at the bar. Or pennies falling from heaven, so that you can pay for the good things in life, which you have to do because God is just.

We all need some kind of grace, some kind of undeserved reward. Maybe a just God or a just universe will give it to us, but that’s not looking too hopeful these days. What we can do, to some small extent, is create grace for one another. We can form communities that model the kind of world we want to live in, where people are kind to one another. This Society, at its best, is one such community. The Pioneer Valley, particularly the city of Northampton, is another. Many of us moved here because we chose to live in a place where diversity is more or less respected and where there is some tradition of people caring for one another. We chose to be here, and in effect we chose one another.

There’s a danger in going off by ourselves, of course, which is that we disconnect ourselves from everyone else. There are a lot of people out there who disagree with us about a lot of things. As UU’s we are supposed to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of everybody, even Fred Phelps. That doesn’t mean condoning their bad actions, of course, but it does mean acknowledging that they are people too, sharing our city, our nation, and our planet. Sometimes, I think, we need to remember to be Universalist as well as Unitarian, and preach the kindness and everlasting love of God (or of the Universe) rather than Hell.

Last month, as I was thinking about this sermon, I had the great fortune of attending all three days of the Green River Festival in Greenfield, where the headline acts (from my point of view) were Lucinda Williams, Angelique Kidjo, and Rhiannon Giddens. The few thousand of us in the audience formed our own temporary intentional community, and although the festival had no explicit political agenda like Pete Seeger’s Clearwater Festival in New York, we were to some extent a community of shared values. On Friday night the music was paused so people could hold up their iPhone flashlights in solidarity with the people being mistreated on the border. The food, the goods for sale, the kids’ activities, the booths for non-profit organizations, were all pretty representative of the values that people move to the Valley to find.

The performers, particularly the three I mentioned, were willing to commit to being the temporary focal point of that community with those values. Lucinda Williams said before one song that she was “preaching to the choir”. Rhiannon Giddens placed her research into and revival of African-American string music in the context of slavery and cultural appropriation. But the words that were most relevant to my theme today came from the great world musician Angelique Kidjo, originally from Benin and leading a band from around the world. She said, as best I remember, that it was easy to hate someone you’ve never seen. It’s much harder to love someone you’ve never seen, though it’s necessary that we all do that for our world to survive. The reason it’s hard is that you have to love yourself first. She chose members of the audience to dance on stage with her and pointed out that they were all beautiful in different ways, just as the music she chose from around the world was beautiful in different ways.

So maybe our arrogant, self-satisfied Unitarian side has something to contribute as well. We have to love ourselves enough to be able to love everyone. It might be the only way everyone can be saved, in this world or the next.

Last modified 5 August 2019