July 30, 2008
This afternoon, sitting at a local Starbucks, I was reading chapters of Ahab’s Wife, purportedly written by First Mate Starbuck himself (actually written by UU author Sena Jeter Naslund). Cool coincidence.
A chapter or so later as the main character, Una, is having a last supper aboard the Pequod, she asks about religion in Nantucket, the town to which they are headed. Of course, in their listing they mention the Unitarians (who Una’s mom had described as letting people believe as they wished. “Only your behavior must be according to what is commonly held to be good. You must be kind…”) After Mr. Stubb calls one church “the Elephantists!”
Mr. Flask corrects, “Nay, it’s the Universalist Society.”
“What is their belief?” Una asks.
“That ye cannot be damned. It makes no difference if ye worship elephant Hindu gods or the crescent moon. There’s no hell, they say, and ye can’t go to it. Salvation is universal.”
At that moment Una’s husband, who is chained in the next room, crazy with grief and guilt and alcohol, cries out, “Hell.”
The point is that Hell is real and very much a part of our experience. We found that out in Knoxville this past Sunday. When children gathered before a UU congregation to sing “The sun will come out tomorrow,” a crazy man fired a shotgun three times, killing two adults in the audience and wounding five more.
That must have been a bit of Hell. In Church of all places. Watching the people that they loved, trusted and identified with being shot; blood splattering all over. I am glad the shooter still lives, to face what he did. To plumb the depths of his depression and insanity. Perhaps, to wring some vision of salvation, forgiveness and healing from it all.
It was the great American-Universalist theologian, Hosea Ballou, who insisted that freedom from Hell did not mean freedom from judgment for sin or from consequences of wrong belief. Hell was for him, and is for us, very much a reality in this world, even if there is no place for it in eternity. Hell is the world in which so-called ‘liberals’ are a scourge that is ruining this country and must be taken out with shotgun blasts. Hell is a world in which a person is isolated, without community, without family, without work and about to lose his food stamps. Hell is a crazy angry man with a gun in a church trying to end the worship of hope and love and courage.
Hell was in the world of his own mind, and so he made it tangible and real in the world of others.
July 25, 2008
I really love Krista Tippett’s show and website, “Speaking of Faith.” Her approach is deeply pluralistic, curious, and intelligent. Her show embodies the best of religious conversation and dialogue. I love that she spends more than an hour with each person and she gives us nearly 50 minutes of each conversation. I love that she take religion seriously as an essential and universal aspect of human living. I love that the website has pages to accompany each episode with extended quotes, links and music files. It is a great show.
One recent episode featured my UU colleague Rev. Kate Braestrup who works up in Main as a chaplain for the park service. The conversation revealed some classic elements of UU theology, very human centered and life affirming.
Today I listened to the full interview she conducted with Dr. Mayfair Yang on Chinese Religiosities. I liked the emphasis that Mayfair puts on the universal need for ritual and structures of meaning for facing death. It was interesting to hear of the Confucian ideals cherished by modern Chinese, so very humanistic and ethical. I found echos of my faith in the classic ideas of interconnectedness and reciprocity.
July 18, 2008
The few responses to my recent posts have mostly about UU lack of, or antagonism toward, God, monotheism, and the Christian faith. It seems a little troubling that after centuries of theistic tradition, and three decades of worshipping ‘The Goddess,’ goddesses, and almost constantly using the word “spirit” and all its variations in worship what we are still most known for is atheism (meaning literally not-god-ism).
Just the other day my Mormon neighbor, while she was weeding with her daughter on one side of the fence and I was putting away garden tools on my side, suddenly called out “Thomas, does your church believe in the Bible?” My immediate response was my usual response to such questions with uncertain agendas, “Yes… in a sense.” After a little conversation about this she said, “I ask because a friend at my church said that there were atheists in your church.” I pointed out that there were many different variations of theism there too, and that even many of the so-called atheists in our church believe very deeply in the power of goodness, even if they don’t call it ‘God.’ “What matters is how we treat one another and making the world a better place,” I said, “Don’t you think so?” and she agreed wholeheartedly.
I am sad, and I apologize, that some people have been hurt by angry atheists and frightened or self-righetous existential humanists in UU churches; but the domination of some parts of our culture by a particular philosophical and cultural thread is only one small part of our story. Both atheists and theists have been hurt and divided for too long by small definitions of the word “god.” Our power lies in our openness to the radical and transforming truth, known in all cultures and times and places and by many names. What we embody, at our best, is that aspect of reality which leads to a renewal of the human spirit and a vibrant alliance with all that creates and upholds peace and justice in life.
July 14, 2008
The second most striking thing for me about the Pew Center Religious Landscape results is their decision to place us in the category of “Other.” Not “Other Christian” (as we have generally been listed for most of the past century of sociological studies) not “Other World Faiths” but a strange border category of “Other Faiths;” and most of us seem to find this perfectly acceptable. It speaks to me of our changing identity, which is never fully formed from within, no matter how lovingly we work at our congregational “mission and vision statements.”
In recent decades we have been dedicated to growing “our movement.” Part of that effort has been a clarification of our “core” and that, I think has put us on a crossroads. We are determining, some of us consciously, and others unknowingly, if we are to be a liberal religious movement or a liberal religion.
For a long time Unitarians especially, but also most American Universalists, have insisted that “we” are not another “denomination,” that is: just another variety of Christian. In part we avoided that label because in connoted a distinct creed and we were non creedal, but more than that we sought to draw on the living “Truth” rather than any human denomination of it. In fact many, even Ministers, referred to us simply as “Liberal Religion,” as if we were all the liberal religion in the world. In the 1800s we were primarily liberal Christian. Interfaith work expanded that identity through the 20th cent. until we began to see religious liberals in Hindu, Buddhist, Pagan, Existetialist, and even Muslim forms.
The result was that we created places that promoted certain values in the world; nice communities to be sure, but with a rather vage “liberal” identity. Thus, it did not matter so much if we created more U, and then UU congregations or even more U or UU people. What mattered was if we established and nurtured the values of justice, equity and compassion, openmindedness, and reason in the world. It did not matter if 90% of our youth left our churches never to return, what mattered was that our children were kind and educated: willing to work for peace and justice and a healthy environment. (I even know of a member of a UU curchwho did not mind at all that her son had decided to go along withhis wife and have a Catholic wedding or raise their children with a Catholic identity. But when he said he was thinking of voting Republican she became unhinged.) As long as there was a general liberal secular culture and liberalism in mainstream religious societies we could ride easy on the waves of culture.
But if we are to be more than an embodyment of Liberal Religion, and are to become A Liberal Religion, then what is unique to us will have to grow in importance. Our rituals will have to take on a stamp all our own and spiritual depth will be described as UU interpretations of ancient concepts rather than liberalized borrowings. Above all we will have to see our young adult children not joining a UU church as a failure or an insult or rejection rather than an inevatablility. We will become not just an “other” religious movement, but a true alternative religion. We could still serve the larger cause of liberal religion, but as one of its children rather than as its presumptive head. Someday we might even move from ‘other religions’ to ‘world religions.’ I don’t know for sure, but I think the Pew Survey is one more mark of a turn in our history from mere liberalism to UUism. I know this path has its dangers. But it excites me to think that we might someday be even more than 0.3% of the world, because if what we say is true, then we and the world will all truly be changed for the better.
July 11, 2008
The wonderful thing about the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life survey results is that they proclaim for all to see that we are not that special. Our attitude of tolerance as one religion among many for example: 70% of all respondents, and 57% of Evangelical Christians (!) say that there is more than one path to “eternal life.” Now maybe some of those evangelicals were saying that eternal life means eternal damnation and suffering, but I think it means that most are open to the idea that there are many paths to God and Heaven. Nationally most people have accepted that there are many ways to interpret their own religions. So diversity and inclusively are everywhere.
What I have long maintained is that we UUs are wrong when we make no distinction between UUism and liberal religion in general. “We” talk as if our commitment to “freedom, reason and tolerance” are “so unique,” and we do come up some 20 or more percentage points above everyone else on most liberal religious questions. But we are not liberal religion, it is everywhere.
Now we can keep pretending that we are the “one true” expression of liberal religion, or we can continue the work we have begun of shaping ourselves into a faith, rather than the anteroom to faith. We must struggle with these questions: “What is different about us?” “What do we keep of our Channing and Murray roots and what have we given up?” “What practices and rituals are truly ours and no longer mere liberal reinterpretations and borrowings from Protestantism (or Native American traditions, etc.)?” What is the difference between a UU Buddhist and just a Buddhist, what is the difference between a UU Pagan and a Pagan, or a UU Christian and all other Xians?” And above all we should answer “Why should anyone be active in a UU church?” Since answering that question will answer why those 200,000 who say they are UU but aren’t in our churches, should be.