Speak with Bravest Fire

Note: This sermon was delivered by Kasey Castleberry on 2018 July 15 to the congregation of Mountain Light Unitarian Universalist Church.  This copy is still being edited.

 “Speak with Bravest Fire”

Though I may speak with bravest fire,
And have the gift to all inspire,
AND have not love, my words are vain,
As sounding brass, and hopeless gain.

Though I may give all I possess,
And striving so my love profess,
BUT not be given by love within,

The profit soon turns strangely thin. [Hopson]

I loved this song from the moment that I first heard it, but the words gave me a bit of a challenge.  Trying to neatly fit philosophical concepts into lyrical constraints can be a difficult process, especially when I sang the words incorrectly: “I have not love” instead of “And have not love”.

Sung accurately, what had seemed like some sort of disillusionment becomes an examination of self-deception.

Mind, we UUs, being nearly perfect [grin], love to question just about everything.  As stated in our Fourth Principle: We covenant to affirm and promote a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.  So, like any good UU confronted with a conundrum, I sought the meaning.

The meaning of this song, as I now understand it is this: Whilst powerful oratory stirs us to emotional heights, it is not the words alone but also the deeds that follow which put promises into action that inspire.  However, powerful words and great acts are essentially meaningless if Love is not the intent that guides them.

Of course, my words as lyrics are harder to sing, though short enough to make many UUs very happy.  It also fit nicely within the space limitations of our Upcoming Services plug-in on our UUA-themed WordPress website.

Actually, this hymn is a cautionary tale of sorts, disregarding the fact that it is a song and not folklore.  But, since we live a time of alternative facts, let us just go with it as being such. [wink]

Cautionary tales have three parts: a taboo, the contempt for that particular norm, and the resulting dire fate for having been immoral, as it were.  The taboo, in this case, would be selfish behavior.  The contempt would be trying to persuade others to serve YOUR needs at THEIR expense, and the dire fate would be spiritual disenfranchisement.

If we, as UUs, respect the worth and dignity of all individuals, as stated in our First Principle, then we can not, must not, put our desires above others.  In fact, because of our interconnectivity, we would harm ourselves by trying to do so.  We understand this intuitively.  We may not all be Christians, but as good Unitarian Universalists, of all faith persuasions, in striving to honor our Seven Principles, we are often living our lives more in accordance with the teachings of Jesus than many who claim to be his followers.

UUs rock!  But, I digress…

Let us go back to the cautionary tale of our hymn and now search for truth in addition to meaning.  One truth is that love or compassion or just simple kindness and understanding makes us better people.  By extension, living moral lives means we use honest persuasion in guiding others, but sociologically speaking, we live in a dysfunctional society, especially in political terms.

[Have no fear, this is NOT a political essay.]

In today’s sociological landscape, not only do we have “alternative facts”, we have numerous individuals seeking their own glory at the expense of the community, all the while convincing their fellow citizens that their way is the only correct path to salvation, even when it harms those who accept this alternate truth.  Lying, swindling, and the breaking of covenant are seemingly no longer taboo.

That said, I would argue that some of our taboos should be disregarded or at least updated to modern times.  Many concepts,

such as those relating to homosexuality, gender roles, dietary restrictions, among others, have outdated moral constraints that need addressing.  However, taboos against harming others are basic to the wellbeing of society and should be embraced, and we must not forget that our words and our deeds are morally infused.

Unfortunately, there are individuals amongst us who can be selfish and manipulative, who try to get others to follow their lead, even when it is against the self-interest of the followers.  These megalomaniacs appeal to emotions, circumnavigating logic, convincing their followers that their lies are truth revealed, and amazingly it works.

One might say that people are gullible and easily manipulated and that they often let their emotions overwhelm their logic.  That might be true of some, but surely not all followers of misguided platforms can be so easily dismissed as naive or simple minded.  Why, then, does anyone believe fictitious and ludicrous statements?

There is a psychological concept called Cognitive Fluency.  Basically, it refers to how individuals feel, subjectively, about completing mental tasks, both easy and difficult.  It is not the mental process itself, and it generally operates on a subconscious level.  Importantly, preference is given to ideas that are easy to think about.

The more we are exposed to something, the more familiar it becomes.  Moreover, as the experiments of Robert Zajonc showed, we tend to like the familiar.  The Mere-Exposure Effect, as it is now called, refers to this phenomenon of preferring those things to which we are repeatedly exposed.

As we become more and more familiar with things, they become more attractive to us.  This is called the Beauty-in-Averageness Effect, also, because of studies using photos of faces, and it extends to all things to which we are exposed, including ideas.

Cognitive fluency is both subtle and pervasive in its influence.  Its power comes from attributing the ease or the difficulty in our thinking as an attribute of the thing of which we are thinking.  That is, concepts with which we struggle are felt to be unattractive and ideas easy to think about feel appealing.  Thus, we think that the hard concept is less appealing than the one about which we find it easy to conceive.  We can attribute, therefore, undesirable characteristics to things that are actually good for us and vice versa.

This familiarity is a helpful tool because it makes our daily lives easier.  If we had to evaluate every single thing that we encounter, fully and completely, and every time we encountered it, we would have little free time to enjoy the benefit of the wisdom we would acquire through such a laborious process.

For instance, walking across a lawn in bare feet, deliberating each strand of grass to determine if it is indeed grass and not poison ivy or some other harmful vegetation would find us exhausted, both mentally and physically, before we made it a few meters.  Then, the sun would set on us, and we would never make it back in the dark, unable now to see and evaluate each respective strand to make our “deliberate” journey home.

Familiarity allows us shortcuts, making mental processing less laborious, and as such it feels fluent.  Interestingly, this correlation works the other way as well.  That being, if something is easy to comprehend, then it feels familiar to us.  As a result, fluency tends to make us think that familiar things are good, desirable, and safe.  Disfluency tends to make us think that unfamiliar things are bad, unpleasant, and dangerous. [Roller1]

Experiments confirm this.  A study by Hyunjin Song and Norbert Schwarz presenting hypothetical food additives found that hard-to-pronounce names were more likely to be perceived as unsafe than those easy to pronounce.  Another of their studies found that participants When asked to estimate the time to do an exercise increased the predicted time when the font was more difficult to read. [Roller1]  That which was simply hard-to-read became hard-to-endure through transference. This demonstrates that cognitive fluency can attribute characteristics that may have no innate relationship to a thing at all.

Maybe that is why I like studies by authors whose names I can pronounce more than those by authors with indiscernible names. [smile]

All this becomes extremely important in the adoption of new behaviors and in how we relate to new beliefs, for it turns out that the familiar can influence our perception of truth, as well.  This was demonstrated in a study by Rolf Reber and Norbert Schwarz which found that increased readability lead participants to conclude that a statement was more truthful than the same statement read with poor print-to-background contrast.  Because it was easier to read, it led to a subconscious assumption of familiarity.  Therefore, it seemed to have been encountered numerous times, and because it was popular, it must be true. [Roller2]

Because people tend to be bad at tracking occurrences, this assumption of familiarity can occur when statements are easily understood, even when they may not have been encountered often at all.  Regardless, repetition leads to persuasion.

In PsyBlog, British psychologist Dr. Jeremy Dean says:

It seems too simplistic that just repeating a persuasive message should increase its effect, but that’s exactly what psychological research finds (again and again).  Repetition is one of the easiest and most widespread methods of persuasion.  In fact, it’s so obvious that we sometimes forget how powerful it is.

People rate statements that have been repeated just once as more valid or true than things they’ve heard for the first time.  They even rate statements as truer when the person saying them has been repeatedly lying. [Begg et al., 1992]

And, when we think something is more true, we also tend to be more persuaded by it.  Several studies have shown that people are more swayed when they hear statements of opinion and persuasive messages more than once.

This is what psychologists call the Illusion-of-Truth effect, and it arises, at least partly, because familiarity breeds liking.  As we are exposed to a message again and again, it becomes more familiar.

Because of the way our minds work, what is familiar is also true.  Familiar things require less effort to process and that feeling of ease unconsciously signals truth (this is called cognitive fluency).

As every politician knows, there’s not much difference between actual truth and the illusion of truth.  Since illusions are often easier to produce, why bother with the truth?

The exact opposite is also true.  If something is hard to think about

then people tend to believe it less.  Naturally, this is very bad news for people trying to persuade others of complicated ideas in what is a very complicated world.  [Dean 1]

Repetition need not come from different sources either.  There have been numerous studies demonstrating this rather interesting phenomenon.  One, a 2007 study by Kimberlee Weaver and colleagues concluded that in group settings, a single person repeating the same opinion three times is 90% as effective in creating the perception of representing the entire group as three different people saying the same thing. [Dean 2] The loudest voice effectively becomes the majority, and as we have already seen, the majority opinion, representing familiarity, equates to truth, or at least the illusion of truth.

Another curious way to influence the illusion of truth is by swearing.  In their 2006 study, Scherer and Sagarin tested to see if the inclusion of a mild swear word, damn, inserted into a speech had any effect on participants. It did.  Participants reported increased levels of persuasion when it was used. [Dean 3] Swearing or increased intensity is perceived as sincerity, making the speaker seem more credible overall.

Whilst these studies seem to double back to the premise that people are simple minded, that is, not dedicated thinkers, it should be noted that even deep thinkers with highly logical minds are subject to cognitive fluency.  It is just that some people are more aware than others on certain topics of interest.

So, if you want to take advantage of cognitive fluency, especially to manipulate others, then all you need do is make their thinking processes easier, hopefully in an area where they are not being dedicated thinkers, like we UUs tend to be.  All that you need, to create the illusion of truth, is to be loud, be rude, and be repetitive.

Suddenly, our current political situation makes a lot more sense to me, but I am not here to talk politics.  I am here to address spiritual disenfranchisement and how to avoid it.

As UUs, we are obligated to speak up when we encounter someone who is:

  • not respecting the worth and dignity or others,
  • not showing compassion,
  • not accepting other beliefs,
  • not honoring the search for truth,
  • not protecting the democratic process,
  • not promoting world peace,
  • or not protecting our planet.

And, by understanding the mechanics of how the manipulators gain control, we can combat them by repeating the truth as often as necessary, maybe loudly, maybe even with a little light swearing; however, we must not give in to the very behavior that we deplore whilst resisting it.  Instead, we should forgive them, for they know not what they do. [wink] They may gain the world, but they have lost their souls in the process.

What I am advocating in response is a special sort of strength, the power of righteousness, Biblically OR humanitarian.  To love all.  To love thy neighbor as thyself, and forgiveness is key.

Nadia Bolz-Weber, an Evangelical Lutheran minister, speaks of forgiveness in a radical way.  It is not an act of niceness or being a doormat, she says.  And that holding onto resentment does not combat evil, it feeds it.  She suggests that forgiveness cuts the chains, freeing us from the connection to our tormentors.  For her, forgiveness is about being a freedom fighter,  And there is a lot of power in that freedom. [Bolz-Weber]

Long before this radical notion, Booker T. Washington said: “I shall allow no man to belittle my soul by making me hate him.”  What is a powerful statement!   No matter how evil our foe, if we forgive him, he loses power over us, and we win by holding fast to our principles.

In summary, if we are not guided by love, then every word that we utter and every deed that we deliver, no matter how glorious they appear, are nothing more than illusions of truth.  It matters not if our intent is to mislead others or if we are simply deluding ourselves, without Love, we are broken.

We may not be able to cure all the ills of the world, but by embracing our Seven Principles fully, with diligence and honesty, we can find the forgiveness of others and ourselves that we need to become truly free.

Come, Spirit, come, our hearts control,

Our spirits long to be made whole.

Let inward love guide every deed;

By this we worship and are freed. [Hopson]



Hopson, Hal. “Though I May Speak with Bravest Fire“.  Traditional English melody, arranged by Hal Hopson.


Roller, Colleen, a column by. “How Cognitive Fluency Affects Decision Making”. Decision Architecture. Designing for decision making.



[Roller1] Song, Hyunjin, and Norbert Schwarz. “If It’s Hard to Read, It’s Hard to Do: Processing Fluency Affects Effort Prediction and Motivation.”PDF Psychological Science, Volume 19, 2008. Retrieved June 12, 2011.


[Roller2] Reber, Rolf, and Norbert Schwarz. “Effects of Perceptual Fluency on Judgments of Truth.” Consciousness and Cognition, Volume 8, September 1999. Retrieved June 12, 2011.


[Dean 1] Dr. Jeremy Dean. The Illusion of Truth. PsyBlog. https://www.spring.org.uk/2010/12/the-illusion-of-truth.php

[Dean 2] Dr. Jeremy Dean. Loudest Voice = Majority Opinion. PsyBlog. https://www.spring.org.uk/2007/07/loudest-voice-majority-opinion.php

[Dean 3] Dr. Jeremy Dean. The Persuasive Power of Swearig. PsyBlog. https://www.spring.org.uk/2010/10/the-persuasive-power-of-swearing.php


Bolz-Weber, Nadia. Forgive Assholes | Have a Little Faith. YouTube video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VhmRkUtPra8 Published 2018 May 30.


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