Sunday, February 10, 2013

A Coherent Spiritual Mission

Christine Robinson writes in a comment to a previous post:

Besides the dysfunctions you mention in your piece that center around our understanding/misunderstanding of political theology, we suffer from having no coherent spiritual mission to offer in most of our congregations. . . .
I think that our spiritual mission is incoherent because it is largely unarticulated.  And it is unarticulated because we have not developed and used the appropriate language to describe it.  We can't talk about our mission as promoting certain beliefs.  We could never agree on them.  And we can't talk about our mission as promoting certain practices for the same reason.

But I think we can define our spiritual mission as the promotion of certain virtues.  We encourage people to exhibit certain character traits in all areas of their lives.  Which ones?  No list is entirely comprehensive or accurate; after all, these are virtues, not beliefs.  Here are seven, though, (because seven is a magic number among us.)

  1. Self-Possession.  Our mission is to empower people to think for themselves, freeing themselves from the tyranny of group-think, of conventional wisdom, of the limitations that society may impose on aspects of their identity, or the family system that they grew up in, etc.  Read Channing's "I call that Mind Free" for a catalog of just some of the ways that people's individual agency is limited by social forces.  
  2. Honesty.  Our mission is to encourage living in the truth, recognizing reality: scientific reality but also the concrete social realities of power, the economic realities of wealth and poverty, the environmental realities of our planetary peril.
  3. Humility.  Our mission is to encourage awareness that each person's perspective and beliefs are necessarily partial and incomplete.  
  4. Reverence.  Our mission is to encourage awe and tenderness in people, for the world, for all the plants and animals, for each other, both known and unknown.  Reverence is a virtue, not a belief.
  5. Gratitude/Generosity.  Our mission is encourage people to hold their material being with a lightness.  Everything we have, including life and health, is temporary, having come to us unearned and unasked for, in order that we might share it freely with others.
  6. Openness:  Our mission is encourage people, and ourselves, to take a delight in all the differences in the world.  We encourage curiosity about each other and about the new and unexpected. 
  7. Fairness:  Our mission is to encourage people to be alert for injustices, and to create mutual and reciprocal relationships everywhere.  


Our mission is character development, by encouraging people to make these virtues the bedrock of their thinking and doing in the world.  It is slow work of self-transformation when we apply it to ourselves.

Our mission as churches and congregations and beyond is to encourage and to exercise such virtues together.  Our worship practice, whatever its form, is a means by which we remind our selves of their importance; it is an opportunity to re-commit ourselves to them for another week.  That's what people mean when they say "it gets me through the week."

Our mission as churches and congregations and beyond is also to practice these virtues, as we are given to see how they apply, in the larger world. (My whole purpose in this blog at this time is to write rants on the subject that we are not doing this part of our work with the honest recognition of the facts of our national life.)

It all fits together -- the personal self-transformation, the life of the church and our social and political practice as religious body.

We recognize each other by these virtues as markers and signs.  And we hope that the world recognizes us as the people who can be counted on to bring these virtues into whatever situation we go.

And it goes without saying, but of course, I am going to say it, that they are broadly held virtues and independent of a particular set of beliefs.  That is why we are able to contain such diversity of belief in our congregations, and why we are linked to so many people at large.  They are the basis of our evangelical strategy.

We say to the world: come and join us as we try to live in a better way together.  It will change you, and it will change the world.




2 comments:

Judy Welles said...

I can't believe no one has commented on this wonderful essay! Tom, this will preach! Of course, you and I are now out of the preaching business (you perhaps only temporarily), but I admire what you are now doing with your blog - raising issues that should be raised, and speaking intelligently about them. It's like preaching, only with a bigger audience.

I'm curious about something. Where is God in this? (Not that I couldn't find God in here myself, but I'd like to hear how you write about these virtues with reference to our relationship with the divine.) Of course you couldn't get God into a widely accepted statement about UUism, but just for yourself, how about writing some more about these virtues within the context of our connection to God.

Paul Beedle said...

My thoughts parallel Judy's: good articulation of our tradition, and also of its skew toward works and relative neglect of grace. What are we to do to find a healthier balance in what we pass on to the next generations?