• Karl Thunemann

A primer on pot-lifters, figuratively needed today


Mary Scriver


Pot lifters are implements meant to lift the lid off a hot pot without burning oneself. The closest I have is the gizmo that lifts the lids of the burner holes on my little wood stove. Each lid has a little notch where the lifter sticks in to form a lever. Pot holders are usually fabric and meant to pick up the whole pot.

I like to think of concepts as “pot lifters.” Of course, ideas are not physically hot but they might be in terms of politics or emotion. In my ten years as a Unitarian Universalist minister, I saw it was a demographic marked by Enlightenment values. If you look at the list of UU “principles” you will recognize them as Enlightenment values.

This is a kind of thought that arose in the 18th century alongside the industrial revolution. Then inside of that “ism” — as often happens with isms — arose Romanticism. Some experts say that the “gothic,” the dark, the evil, and grotesque were part of the Romantic movement. The UU’s never accepted this though it has been popular among the young.

The seven principles that reflect the Enlightenment:

  1. The inherent worth and dignity of every person;[51]

  2. Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;[52]

  3. Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;[53]

  4. A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;[54]

  5. The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;[55]

  6. The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;[56]

  7. Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

The seventh principle is what grew into Romanticism. It has much influence on the six sources which form a bridge to the Post Modern, though no one thought in those terms.

  1. Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life;

  2. Words and deeds of prophetic people which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love;

  3. Wisdom from the world's religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life;

  4. Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God's love by loving our neighbors as ourselves;

  5. Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit.

  6. Spiritual teachings of Earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.

The Modernism movement Arising out of the rebellious mood at the beginning of the twentieth century, Modernism, was a radical approach that yearned to revitalize the way modern civilization viewed life, art, politics, and science.”



A Sunday on La Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat

The POST-modern is late 20th century: broad skepticism, subjectivism, or relativism; general suspicion of reason, and an acute sensitivity to the role of ideology in asserting and maintaining political and economic power. These ideas (above and below) moved people out of the churches. Leadership could not keep up.

  • Individualism. In Modernist literature, the individual is more interesting than society.

  • Experimentation. Modernist writers broke free of old forms and techniques.

  • Absurdity. The carnage of two World Wars profoundly affected writers of the period.

  • Symbolism.

  • Formalism.

The high value of the individual in all these movements has led us into a splintering chaos, one might say a harrowing time in the ag sense of pre-plowing. (These lists are all off Google’s collection.) When I ask the computer what comes after post-modern, the answer is post-post-modern which some call trans-modern.

Some identify three stages of modernism. First the academics were clinging to “euro-centric modernism,” then had to be pushed broader to “Western-centric” in order to include the empires, and finally “polycentric”, including Asia and the indigenous. Thinkers are still scattered along the spectrum.

But here’s the key: we have gone so far into individualism, suppressing emotion, and empowering technology that now our task is to consider the instrument, ourselves, and how it operates in the world. The “trans” is to cross the skin of a person into the global field of experience. What is “modern” here is local; and also there; and also the next place. Where you get to depends on where you’re coming from and how it has shaped you..

And it depends on the cultural context in which you, the instrument of the isms, were calibrated. There are NO universal, religious, or ethical laws that apply to everyone because of whatever bit of the world and time were pressing in on the formation and function of one’s instrument. This means both that one must respect difference, and also that one should know one’s own shape and force.

So the “trans” in question is really more like “inter” — the inter-play between in-the-skin versus outside-the-skin. The new instrumented and amazing knowledge from neuro-research is making the internal work both far more interesting and far more unreliable than we thought. Evolution has been sketchy and capricious at developing our brains. Sometimes we want what we had before. We don’t want change. But also we want arousal and then release/relaxation because it is going from one state to the other that causes us to sigh, “ah!”

We know that brain neurons by the zillions depend upon systems of connection that entrain selections of mere millions into a method, a concept, a system — forming a pot-lifter we might be able to call a name if it’s conscious. Many of them are not. We call them “instinct,” “gut-feeling,” “felt meaning.” They are not a faith, but they abide. Unlifted pot lids exist and some very hot pots stay covered lifelong. (repressed/stigmatized).

This is at the level of the life templates that babies form in the earliest years. It is the ground of what might be a reason for joining a formal church institution later. Today the shift in our lives is so great that there may not be a named denomination that is a good fit, thus the “not religious but spiritual” people. It’s important to go deep and early for explanations.