Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Reading Francis

I have been plowing through Francis's Evangelii Gaudium, his "APOSTOLIC EXHORTATION ...
ON THE PROCLAMATION OF THE GOSPEL IN TODAY’S WORLD".

It is an appealing document; many have been attracted by his condemnation of contemporary capitalism and his call to a mission-oriented church.

But the title is something like "The Joys of Evangelism," not "The Joys of Mission".  He grounds the mission in evangelism.  That connection is hard for our Unitarian Universalist movement, given our reluctance to take up matters of what we believe.

Take for example, a statement given to me by leaders of a group planning worship at General Assembly in Providence this year.
A core purpose of our faith is to help people grow in spirit and in service. We believe that our faith provides a path for each of us to unlock our transformational capacity to serve the world with love. We want to expand our faith not just to grow Unitarian Universalism, but also to better achieve this transformational purpose.
UU theologians, writers and preachers need, not so much to "unpack" that statement, as "fill it in."   It abounds in mysteries.  What is this "faith" of which they speak?  Why the word "provide" versus "show".  A "path" goes from here to there, does it not?  Where is here and where is there?  Why the metaphor of a lock?  You get the idea.

I'm not being condemnatory; but only critical.  I keep coming back to these questions: "how does the experience of Unitarian Universalism change a person's life?  What is the conversion process of liberal religion? What is transformed and how?"

Reading Francis is following a progressive Roman Catholic mind as it explores analogous questions.

But the same mysteries are there, but with considerably more detail.

The very first paragraph:
1. THE JOY OF THE GOSPEL fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness. With Christ joy is constantly born anew. In this Exhortation I wish to encourage the Christian faithful to embark upon a new chapter of evangelization marked by this joy, while pointing out new paths for the Church’s journey in years to come.
What happens in the encounter with Jesus and what his offer of salvation? It has been my theory that our liberal religious impatience with these phrases was once rooted in disbelief (how could we now 'encounter' someone dead for 2000 years?), but is now in their opaqueness.  What on Earth are they talking about?

But the functional definition of salvation is descriptive: "set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness."

So, working backwards and algebraically:  If X sets me free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness, what is X?

(If you are reactive to the word "sin", you can just call that "Not X", leaving: If X sets me free from not-X, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness, what is X?

More in the second paragraph:
The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience. Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades. This is a very real danger for believers too. Many fall prey to it, and end up resentful, angry and listless. That is no way to live a dignified and fulfilled life; it is not God’s will for us, nor is it the life in the Spirit which has its source in the heart of the risen Christ.
The desire to do good comes from hearing X, and feeling X.  What is X?

Francis solves X as "God's voice and God's love." And the obstacle to the hearing and the feeling is that our interior life has become "caught up in its own interest and concerns."

I know that many liberal religionists can't get the "God's voice and God's love" part of Francis's thoughts here.  But UU ministers have been valiantly trying to humanize and naturalize such language for decades now.  Whether Christian or Humanists, we spend a lot of time finding ways to make those concepts meaningful to skeptical people, so I trust that those words are not an obstacle.

But I think that UUism and liberal religion question the metaphor of an interior life being a room with a limited amount of space.  In that room, according to Francis, our own interests and concerns struggle for space with concerns for others, and concern for the poor.

This is an old trope of spiritual discourse.  The Self vs God.  The Self vs Others.  It is now the fashion among UU's to talk about the Individual vs the Community.

Liberal Religion is a rare strain of spirituality that does not treat these opposites as a zero-sum game.  The 'interior life' is not a over-crowded room where someone has to leave to make room for God.  Liberal Religion does proceed down the road from ditch to ditch, first overemphasizing the self and then overemphasizing the other, but we have never whole-heartedly embraced self-negation as the path to spiritual growth.

To return to my question above: how does the personal transformation happen?  By the second paragraph, Francis begins to lay out his vision: the person mades room in his/her interior life for the voice and love of God.  I think UU's and liberal religion have a different understanding, but this will become more clear as we proceed into Francis's statement.

More reflections on Francis to come.  Gather your patience with Christian traditional language, set aside your absolutely justified impatience with the retrograde policies of the Church, and read Evangelii Gaudium.  There is much there to argue with and learn from.

2 comments:

Clyde Grubbs said...

The UUA staff seems to be working off a style sheet that 1) assumes Unitarian Universalism is a new world religon and 2) that our gospel is to offer everyone a do it yourself kit, which we can use while we remain in commitment to other UUs also using their do it themelves kit.

Where we decided that we were not a radical universalizing tradition emerging out of but still rooted in Protestantism aludes me. I try to go to all the meetings and vote in all the proceedings. But I missed the decision. Perhaps it was subtle and gradual but this is a significant new understanding of who we are. Morales said that at the recent meeting of world religions for peace, we were the smallest religon there!

If I recall our idea of salvation back when we were on the edge Protestants was "living the love into being" which was a "empowered by the Spirit of Love." Sort of plain English version of the reign of God is present,among us, within us and still to come.


Clyde Grubbs said...

If Unitarian Universalists are going to maximize their power and live into all that we say we want to live into, I think we need to tackle sectarianism. Our greatest connection is as Protestants in a post Vatican 2 ecumenical movement. Imagining ourselves the smallest religon in the world (but somehow influencial nevertheless) does not lead to a vision of how to be what we won't to be.

Being on the edge Protestants gives a purpose, to constantly reform and renew the Church Universal.