Out On the Edge: Dancing with Kurt Vonnegut

Out On the Edge: Dancing with Kurt Vonnegut

Rev. Anthony David

Dec. 9, 2012


He has been called “our most distinguished and indispensable grouch” and “a satirist with a heart, a moralist with a whoopee cushion, a cynic who wants to believe.”

In one of his many books, Breakfast of Champions, we can find there a very short story entitled “The Dancing Fool” which is about the perennial human frustration of communication failure and breakdown. Here’s the plot: “A flying saucer creature named Zog arrived on Earth to explain how wars could be prevented and how cancer could be cured. He brought the information from Margo, a planet where the natives conversed by means of farts and tap dancing. Zog landed at night in Connecticut. He had no sooner touched down than he saw a house on fire. He rushed into the house, farting and tap dancing, warning the people about the terrible danger they were in. The head of the house brained Zog with a golfclub.”


“Laughs,” said our man of the hour, “are exactly as honorable as tears. Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion, to the futility of thinking and striving anymore. I myself prefer to laugh, since there is less cleaning up to do afterward—and since I can start thinking and striving again that much sooner.”

“Incidentally,” he says in a 2003 interview with The Progressive, “I am honorary president of the American Humanist Association, having succeeded the great science fiction writer and biochemist Dr. Isaac Asimov. John Updike, who is religious, says I talk more about God than any seminarian.”

Who is it? Kurt Vonnegut. “Our most distinguished and indispensable grouch.” Believer in the power of laughter in the face of frustration and exhaustion. Humanist who talks about God constantly. Who just happened to grow up in an influential free-thinking Unitarian family. His grandfather and father were the architects of the Unitarian church in his hometown, Indianapolis. He says he remembers how “The minister said one Easter Sunday that, if we listened closely to the bell on his church, we would hear it was singing, over and over again, ‘No hell, no hell, no hell.’” When he delivered the Ware Lecture at the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly in 1984, he said, “In order not to seem a spiritual quadriplegic to strangers trying to get a fix on me, I sometimes say I’m a Unitarian Universalist. So that denomination claims me as one of their own.”

We do that shamelessly this morning—claim Kurt Vonnegut as one of our own—as we explore his unique humanist vision and see how it might speak to the vision each of us brings to the world. (Warning: there will be some cussing ahead. Not that I personally ever cuss. But Vonnegut could talk like a sailor. I’ll do my best to keep it to a minimum.)

Start with something called “Bokononism.” Some of you may be familiar with the awesome UU adult religious education curriculum called Building Your Own Theology, and that’s exactly what Kurt Vonnegut did in all his books but most especially in Cat’s Cradle, where he fleshes out an entire new religion called Bokononism. Wikipedia gives us a wicked-good and wicked-fast summary: “Bokononism is based on the concept of foma, which are defined as harmless untruths. A foundation of Bokononism is that the religion, including its texts, is formed entirely of lies; however, one who believes and adheres to these lies will have peace of mind, and perhaps live a good life. The primary tenet of Bokononism is to ‘Live by the foma that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy.’”

What do you think about that as the foundation of a religion? Exact opposite of fundamentalism, right?

Reminds me of something I said to a reporter not long ago, which happened to get national press. “Rev. Anthony David, minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta … says that “Unitarians would rather be kind than right. In our tradition, you get to be wrong. God is big. God is magnificent. You can’t tell me that we know everything there is to know about God yet.” That’s the quote. We are just not about fear—fear that if we don’t get it right, right NOW, we’re going to hell. Fear that if someone we love doesn’t get it right, right NOW, not only are they going to hell, but we have to fix them, we have to force them to change their ways. (Let’s take that into the holidays with us, as we rub elbows with family and friends….)

I say we throw all that fear out, and so does Kurt Vonnegut’s Bokononism. “Live by the foma [harmless untruths] that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy.” The irony is that if we do, no doubt we will very spontaneously and very naturally live into the truth. And do that without being obnoxious towards others or ourselves.

Bokononism. Now a moment ago I said that Vonnegut made it up out of whole cloth, and he did a thorough job of it. He even gave it its own set of scriptures. You heard me. He sketched out the Bible for Bokononism. Title page says this: “Don’t be a fool! Close this book at once! It is nothing but foma!”

But now listen to the initial verses. I will leave it to you, to determine how harmless these untruths are:

Verse 1: All of the true things that I am about to tell you are shameless lies.

Verses 2-4: In the beginning, God created the earth, and he looked upon it in His cosmic loneliness. And God said, “Let Us make living creatures out of mud, so the mud can see what We have done.” And God created every living creature that now moveth, and one was man. Mud-as-man alone could speak. God leaned close as mud-as-man sat up, looked around, and spoke. Man blinked. “What is the purpose of all this?” he asked politely.

“Everything must have a purpose?” asked God.

“Certainly,” said man.

“Then I leave it to you to think of one for all this,” said God.

And He went away.

Every religion gives the world a creation story—Vonnegut knew this perfectly well, trained as he was in anthropology by his professors at the University of Chicago—and this is Bokononism’s version. Profound. The very first words out of the newly created mud-as-man’s mouth: “What is the purpose of all this?” That’s our fifth UU principle mythologized: affirming the free and responsible search for truth and meaning.

And we search from within the mud and mess of our ever-so-fragile lives… In Kurt Vonnegut’s case, he grew up experiencing the explosions of a mentally ill mother who would fall into fits of uncontrollable screaming and hurl horrible accusations against her husband, Kurt’s father. (My mother was like that too.) She went on to commit suicide on Mother’s Day, 1944, when Vonnegut was in the army.

You might not have known about his mother, but if you’ve read the book Slaughterhouse Five (or seen the movie), you know a little about Vonnegut’s army experience. At the Battle of the Bulge, his unit scouted for the army behind enemy lines and was captured by the Germans, taken eventually to the city of Dresden and forced to work in a vitamin factory. Slaughterhouse five was the meat locker they slept in at night and also what saved them when the Allies carpet-bombed the city, killing over one hundred thousand civilians. Even though Dresden was a purely civilian target and had had no militarily strategic value at all. After he was saved, he and the other POWs were forced “to work as corpse miners, breaking into shelters” and cellars “where 135,000 Hansels and Gretels had been baked like gingerbread men.” Later, when he returned home to the states, he discovered that there was little to nothing in the news about what happened to Dresden—the human tragedy there that he had lived through. It taught him to distrust government. Radicalized him thoroughly. A reason for why he was one of the pre-eminent protesters against Vietnam. Why he so thoroughly despised the foreign policy of W (“The only difference between Bush and Hitler is that Hitler was elected.”)

It’s all part of the mud and mess of Vonnegut’s life. I could go on and on. We all could, about our own mud and mess. We are so very fragile. And, says Vonnegut, there is no larger meaning to it. This is part and parcel of his humanism. We find ourselves existing. We find ourselves pregnant with questions. But whatever answers we come up with can only be temporary, useful in the here-and-now, not absolute, not rooted in a larger divine plan. “All persons, living and dead, are purely coincidental”: that’s how Vonnegut puts it. “We humanists,” he goes on to say, “try to behave as decently, as fairly, and as honorably as we can without any expectation of rewards or punishment in an afterlife.”

“Everything must have a purpose?” asked God.

“Certainly,” said man.

“Then I leave it to you to think of one for all this,” said God.

And He went away.

Vonnegut the humanist feels continually the absence of God and searches for the God who isn’t there constantly. He’s a cynic who wants to believe. He once said that “people don’t come to church for preachments, but to daydream about God.”


The daydream, in Vonnegut’s case, is wrapped up with his creativity. God leaves us holding the bag of all our questions, but we have something to bring to it: pluck, courage, determination, imagination, all that is best in the human spirit. “So it goes” (which is his famous catchphrase) is just a way of saying “Sh*& happens, yes, you betcha, but it’s also ok. It’s life. I can deal with it, one step at a time. I have what it takes. And I am not alone.”

So it goes.

Vonnegut experiences the absence of God, but in his daydream of God (and in ours), he and we become creators in our own right. Listen to some advice he gave to creative writing students. He advised them to be sadistic. “No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.”

Bad things happened to Vonnegut in his life—he even tried to end it once by suicide—but this is how he and we got to see what he was made of. Everything he wrote was a way to redeem his experience, give it the only kind of meaning it was going to get, given the absence of God. Awful things, if we just let them sit there and fester, drain us; but if we allow their energy to move us into some kind of creative work—if we tell stories about them or paint them or make a movie about them; if we find jobs that allow us to transform our hurt into healing for others; if we allow awful things to move us to organize and protest and promote a better social vision and raise more funds—if we can do this with the awful things of our lives, then we find the blessing in the curse. That’s how it works.

It’s the daydream. Vonnegut may be a grouch—the world may be absurd and empty of ultimate meaning and flying saucer creatures names Zog are coming to us all the time in some form or fashion with cures for cancer and recipes for world peace but they are always misunderstood and end up being brained by golf clubs—BUT life is still worth living, laughter is still the best medicine. “When you’re dead, you’re dead,” he says. “Make love when you can. It’s good for you.”

Above all, be kind. Now Vonnegut is perfectly clear on people’s vast capacity for inhumanity. As the Fourteenth Book of Bokononism says, “What Can a Thoughtful Man Hope for Mankind on Earth, Given the Experience of the Past Million Years?” Answer: “Nothing.” Vonnegut is cynical, he is. But his heart still beats. He hasn’t given up. “So it goes.” And for him, the kindness message is given near-to-perfect expression by Jesus. As he puts it, “I say of Jesus, as all Humanists do, ‘If what he said is good, and so much of it is absolutely beautiful, what does it matter if he was God or not?’ But if Christ hadn’t delivered his Sermon on the Mount, with its message of mercy and pity, I wouldn’t want to be a human being. I’d just as soon be a rattlesnake.”

Ugh, the need for kindness is so great…. Care for the earth, care for each other. Conflict is going to happen. No one gets out of this earthspace alive without breaking some eggs. “There are plenty of good reasons for fighting,” he once said, “but no good reason ever to hate without reservation, to imagine that God Almighty Himself hates with you, too.” In one of his books, he has the main character, Eliot Rosewater, craft a speech to celebrate the baptism of his neighbor’s twins, and it goes like this: “Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”

I’m going to close with an excerpt from an interview Kurt Vonnegut did several years before his death in 2007. In it, we hear some classic Vonnegut concerns: his concerns about technological development threatening human dignity, his worry that America is a land of loneliness where people languish from disconnection. (Which helps us understand why Bokononism’s supreme act of worship is boko-maru (that’s what it’s called): you take off your shoes and socks; you lie down on the floor with another person, feet to feet; and you touch naked soles to each other. Sole to sole. Opposite of loneliness.)

But back to the interview. His freethinking, Unitarian Universalist, Sermon-on-the-Mount loving spirit moves between the lines. Listen for it:

On replacing human contact with electronic contact: I work at home, and if I wanted to, I could have a computer right by my bed, and I’d never have to leave it. But I use a typewriter, and afterwards I mark up the pages with a pencil. Then I call up this woman named Carol out in Woodstock and say, “Are you still doing typing?” Sure she is, and her husband is trying to track bluebirds out there and not having much luck, and so we chitchat back and forth, and I say, “OK, I’ll send you the pages.”

Then I’m going down the steps, and my wife calls up, “Where are you going?” I say, “Well, I’m going to go buy an envelope.” And she says, “You’re not a poor man. Why don’t you buy a thousand envelopes? They’ll deliver them, and you can put them in a closet.” And I say, “Hush.” So I go down the steps here, and I go out to this newsstand across the street where they sell magazines and lottery tickets and stationery. I have to get in line because there are people buying candy and all that sort of thing, and I talk to them. The woman behind the counter has a jewel between her eyes, and when it’s my turn, I ask her if there have been any big winners lately. I get my envelope and seal it up and go to the postal convenience center down the block at the corner of 47th Street and 2nd Avenue, where I’m secretly in love with the woman behind the counter. I keep absolutely poker-faced; I never let her know how I feel about her. One time I had my pocket picked in there and got to meet a cop and tell him about it. Anyway, I address the envelope to Carol in Woodstock. I stamp the envelope and mail it in a mailbox in front of the post office, and I go home. And I’ve had a hell of a good time. And I tell you, we are here on Earth to fart around, and don’t let anybody tell you any different.

Electronic communities build nothing. You wind up with nothing. We’re dancing animals. How beautiful it is to get up and go do something. [Gets up and dances a jig.]

That’s the daydream of God right there.

Communities of love and hope.

Down at the newsstand. Right here.

I hope you get up and dance a jig sometimes today.

Do it in honor of Kurt Vonnegut.

Do it in honor of your own life.

So it goes.