Friday, May 31, 2013

Re-Imagining Unitarian Universalism: A New Name?


Let's just call ourselves: The Friends of Walt.  The Camerados y Cameradas.

Whoever you are, I fear you are walking the walk of dreams….
Your true soul and body appear before me….
Who ever you are, now I place my hand upon you that you be my poem,
I whisper with my lips close to your ear, 
I have loved many women and men, but I love none better than you.
I will leave all and come and make the hymns of you,
None has understood you, but I understand you,
None has done justice to you, you have not done justice to yourself.
None but has found you imperfect, I only find no imperfection in you
None but would subordinate you, I am only he who will never consent to subordinate you.
I am he who places over you, no master, owner, better, God, beyond what waits intrinsically in yourself. 
I give nothing to any one except I give the like carefully to you.  
I sing the songs of glory of none, not God, sooner than I sing the songs of the glory of you.

Whoever you are! Claim your own at any hazard!  

Set aside your scholarly quibbles about his literary merit.  And I am sure that one can find a retrograde line somewhere, some element of condescension, some phrase now understood to be insulting.  But, is there anyone in our national history who better embodies the wild expansiveness of the spirit that is our aspiration.  Name another who would look more at ease in bright yellow tee-shirt -- who would get without explanation 'standing on the side of love.' 

Such spirit comes from the depths. 

A sight in camp in the daybreak gray and dim,
As from my tent I emerge so early sleepless,
As slow I walk in the cool fresh air the path near by the hospital tent,
Three forms I see on stretchers lying, brought out there untended lying,
Over each the blanket spread, ample brownish woolen blanket,
Gray and heavy blanket, folding, covering all.
Curious I halt and silent stand,
Then with light fingers I from the face of the nearest the first
just lift the blanket;
Who are you elderly man so gaunt and grim, with well-gray'd hair,
and flesh all sunken about the eyes?
Who are you my dear comrade?
Then to the second I step--and who are you my child and darling?
Who are you sweet boy with cheeks yet blooming?
Then to the third--a face nor child nor old, very calm, as of
beautiful yellow-white ivory;
Young man I think I know you--I think this face is the face of the
Christ himself,
Dead and divine and brother of all, and here again he lies.

Allons! 

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Re-Imagining Unitarian Universalism, Worship: Another Case Study.

The Reverend Dr. Victoria Weinstein spoke of the purpose of worship in the service at the end of her candidating week at Swampscott-Greater Lynn, in the Commonwealth.   Go and watch the video.  It's only about 13 minutes long.

Like Kent Saleska's sermon in the last case study, it is artful.  The metaphor of birthing is right on the money for a mother's day sermon, and for a sermon at the start of a ministry, and for the process of being changed irrevocably by the new, for which you are not ready.

Her point, however, was that the purpose of church was to give us a context in which we can practice and develop competencies in compassion, solidarity, courage, intellectual rigor, etc.  And she placed herself squarely in the midst of the shift that is going on in Unitarian Universalism right now.

We are moving from a model of the church that exists to provide a community for the members, a care co-op, a child faith development co-op, a chaplain co-op to changing the people by equipping them in some way.

Victoria calls it developing competencies; I have called it developing virtues.  The Missional tendency is even more explicit: the purpose of the church is to find people to "send out" into the world to works of mercy and justice.

As I talk with ministers and seminarians, this sense of the church appears to be rising.  The old sense of creating and celebrating a particular community seems to be passing away.

If so, this is a big deal.  Just off the top of my head, I can think of four different conceptions of the liberal church in my lifetime.

There was a stage when UU churches were places when smart people gathered for intellectual exploration of life issues, in an atmosphere freed of religion dogma.  On Sunday, the church thought deep thoughts.  

There was a time when UU churches were one went to connect to the rebellious and counter-culture trends in the society -- you could meet more radical, committed and interesting people there than anywhere else in most small cities and towns.  On Sunday, the church learned about the world.

There was a time when UU churches served as a place of a forming community, a community more welcoming and supportive than any where else.  Sunday mornings felt good, like home, like a comfort.

And now, Rev. Weinstein quotes Annie Dillard that the ushers should be handing out crash helmets on Sunday, because the sleeping God might wake up and send us to where we are going to be uncomfortable, under fire, and off balance.

And if you think that Victoria is tough and demanding, read these words by Will Willoman, who is a big deal in Christian scholarship.  (hat tip to Wendy Bell, who passed it along.)

I think that our ministers and seminarians are moving to this "equip them and send them out" model of ministry and church.  I don't think that our congregations are in the same place.  I think that the average person in the pews does not appreciate being seen as a self-centered spiritual slacker, a surly serf in the Kingdom of God.  

So, building and sharing a vision of the liberal church and its worship is becoming really crucial.





Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Re-Imagining Unitarian Universalism, Worship, A case study

The Rev. Kent Saleska sent me a copy of a sermon about worship to read. You should read it, too. It is here. The words that caught my attention are near the end of the sermon.
Kent writes:
How can we regularly and intentionally place our values in front of us so that is what
dominates our imaginations so that is what we become? 
In worship, we come here as a group to mimic those feelings I know so many of you have had, of canoeing across a pristine lake, of cultivating a garden, of dancing at a rock concert, of listening to Thelonious Monk or Beethoven‟s “Ode to Joy,” of sitting on the edge of the Grand Canyon, of being filled with the holy spirit. By nature, our weekly gathering here is contrived, and ultimately this contrivance often fails because it is only an approximation of some other experience. Yet we come back again and again because we know, either consciously or unconsciously, that even though our weekly practice is a metaphor, it is also an honest and sincere weekly attempt to channel awe and wonder as we attempt to name the unnamable.
Two statements that describe different purposes and functions of worship.  The first: place regularly place our values in front of us so that is what dominates our imaginations, so that is what we become. 

The second statement come here as a group to mimic those feelings ... you have had...[list], of being filled with the Holy Spirit. By nature our weekly gathering here is contrived, and ultimately this contrivance often fails because it is only an approximation of some other experience.

They are two different understandings of worship.

(Time out for a pre-emptive non-apology: I am drawing a distinction here between two different approaches to worship.  I know that they are actually polarities.  And I know that "both-and" is so much nicer than "either-or".  I am not God separating the sheep from the goats for all eternity; I am just  making a distinction so we can examine this stuff more closely.)

I'll be blunt: I am in agreement with the first statement, the placing our values in front of us, approach.

I think that the second approach is problematic.  First of all, it is an admission of irrelevance.  If 
we are just trying to mimic other epiphanies, then why bother to come?  I could head out to the state park, or crank up the stereo, or failing, that read one of my shelf-full of Mary Oliver books.  She always delivers that epiphany.

It has been an article of faith among Unitarian Universalists that the worship experience is no better, no more worthwhile than the proverbial walk in the woods, or golf course.  That opinion was part of liberal religion's rejection of sacramental worship, where the worshipper directly encountered God, in the Eucharist.  No magic here among the liberals, no mumbo-jumbo; just one guy talking and everybody singing once in a while.  That belief that no one encountered the holy in worship is why UU's adopted one of our signature doctrines: the doctrine that you don't have to go to church every week, but only when you felt like it. And certainly not in the summer.  (Summer worship is for those old enough to be child-less and poor enough to be cottage-less.)

But what if it were possible to meet the transcendent, the holy, at a UU worship service? Not as a simulacrum, or re-creation, of another direct experience, but as direct experience in the sanctuary. How would that happen?

Evangelical worship (as opposed to pentecostal or sacramental) is a ritual of repeated choice.  Through the biblical text, and the words of the preacher, the Holy, in the form of Jesus, presents Himself to the worshipper every week, in the worship service, and the worshipper decides again to accept Him.  That's the theory.

We UU's are not convinced that the transcendent shows up in the one form of Jesus.  In fact, we aren't into making that kind of definitive statement about the Holy, such as it is.  We would simply assert that people are confronted again and again with decisions about the values or virtues that dominate their lives.  In other words, no matter what religious framework they have, or none, people are faced with spiritual choices.

Kent, you ask the question: how can we place our values in front of us so that is what dominates of our imaginations, so that is what we become?  

The how is the subject of the worship leader's art.  Your sermon is artful; you take us on a long motorcycle ride and we go with you to the rim of the Grand Canyon at sunset, where we sit in unspoken communion with a whole group of strangers in reverence and awe. That is the answer to the how question.

My question is to what end?

You don't say it, but I think that you know what you are doing.  You are placing a spiritual choice before the congregation, asking them:  will you decide this morning to let the values of reverence and awe dominate your imagination, so that is what you become?

You evoked an experience of another time and place, and you hope that it has triggered the memory of similar experiences in the congregants.  But as wonderful as those memories are, what matters are the decisions being made that day, in the sanctuary, in the worship service, right then and there, by the people there.  You have done your job well, and the transcendent and the holy are before them as an open question.  They are free to answer as they will, but they have to be asked.  

Thank you, Kent, for sharing this sermon with me.  I'd like to hear your thoughts on my response, and I would like to hear from others.  Some have the perspective of the pulpit and others the persepective of pew.  What do you think about the purpose of worship?





Monday, May 27, 2013

Re-Imagining Unitarian Universalism, Part 8: Honoring Human Agency

The issue of human agency divides religious thought.

On the one hand, there are many who hold to a "high doctrine of Providence".  They hold that everything is in God's hands, or fate's or destiny's or whatever they understand Karma to be. From a pop star winning an award, to a football team winning the championship, to good health, to disease, and to tragedy, and even to tornados hitting elementary schools, everything is the often inscrutable will of God.  It's both a comforting and terrifying way to look at the world.  

A "low doctrine of Providence" on the other hand holds that more of life is subject to chance, luck, happenstance and human agency.  Yes, tornados happen, and elementary schools can unluckily be in their path, but human beings have the power to build safer schools, and human beings have the agency to act appropriately in a tornado to save their lives.  Much of what happens is out of our control, but we do have agency to make a safer, better life for ourselves and others.  Agency is the ability to make potentially effective, purposeful, conscious self-directed action.

Liberal Christianity is Christianity re-interpreted in the knowledge of human agency.  It began in the period of the Enlightenment when the intellectual developments of the time reinvigorated the idea of human agency.  Human freedom was imagined. 

Reason, rationality, science were, at first, seen as the carriers of human agency.  It was thought that they were the means by which human beings could take active steps to assert some control over their lives.  Now, we know that they are only some of the tools that a person has to act in freedom.

(Because of the historic circumstances in which Liberal Christianity originated, it is often criticized for being the intellectual plaything of the elites, or being overly invested in rationality and the intellect.  The criticisms miss the point; it is not the intellect that matters.  The intellect is one of the faculties through which human agency works.  The education of the intellect is still a privilege of the elite, but human agency is an attribute of every human being, no matter their circumstance.)

Human agency is the possibility of human freedom.  It is not the idea of unlimited human power.  There are some things that are beyond our control, but agency describes that ability to make a conscious response to any circumstance one is in.

Unitarian Universalism has long been identified with the freedom to believe.  Given the belief-orientation of the religious environment from which we came, it is not surprising that we named our belief in human agency as the freedom to believe.  Now, we know that the religious life is so much more than what you believe.  It is how you act, it is your basic values, it is, to use Peter Morales's phrase, what you love. 

As I re-imagine Unitarian Universalism, I see us to be even more committed to human agency:  Each of us has the power to be the kind of person we want to be, to develop the virtues and character traits we want to have.  Agency gets called different things in different circles.  It can be called self-differentiation; some call it self-determination and see it in broader social terms; some call it empowerment; some call it freedom; some call it autonomy.  But everywhere around the world, you see people claiming that power for themselves.  We have faith in that claim.

$1,730,000,000,000.

That's $1.73 Trillion with a "T".

That is the amount of profits that American companies have accumulated from their offshore operations and tax havens, that they are unwilling to repatriate to the US, because they don't want to pay the corporate income taxes on it.

This is not a post about tax policy.

This is a post about the wealth of the country, who creates it, who owns it and who decides where it will be invested to create more wealth.

That $1.73T is not sitting in piles in some foreign storage shed.  American corporations are not stupid; they have given that money to banking entities to hold.  According to the accounting, it is still owned by Corporation X, but it is part of the capital holdings of a financial institution, and it is being re-invested in any operation that the financial institution sees as profitable in the short-term.  Financial institutions these days prefer to invest in financial instruments of every sort, more than investing in productive capacity of any sort.

Therein lies the central problem of the age.  The surplus wealth of the country, the money that should be being invested to grow the economy and create more wealth, is now being controlled by financial institutions, and is being invested in short-term financial speculative transactions.

None of that was inevitable.  If the money had been effectively taxed, that wealth could have been invested in infrastructure in the United States, creating more permanent improvements that would have made the US economy more efficient and productive. Better bridges rather than financial paper.  If there had been more effective banking regulation, that wealth could have been directed toward private productive investments by  companies that made things.  Factories rather than financial paper.  It could have been invested in the public health system of the US, resulting in longterm health care savings, and a healthier population.  In fact, if you simply divided up the $1.73T among every man, woman and child in the USA to spend on whatever they wanted, including cigarettes and beer, it would have lifted the US economy out of its recession long ago.

What is the core problem that holds back the world's economy?  Believe or not, it is not poverty, over-population, or even climate change.  It is that the wealth of the world, the wealth created by human beings all over the world, is controlled by the owners of the financial institutions.  It is controlled by finance capital, and it invested and deployed by them for their short term economic advantage.  This is not a conspiracy.  This is the way the world works.  They are proud of their work, because by the only standard that they use to measure, it is working very well.  After all, they put money here or there and they get back more at the end of the day.  They have a mystical and religious faith that somehow profits at their level translate into a better life for the many.

The priests of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem gathered the animals, grain, and oil brought by the people to the Temple as a sacrifice to God.  The priests ate well, and they sold the surplus in the market for the benefit of the Temple.  They believed that by buying and selling at their level, they were somehow gaining God's favor and that the lives of the people would be protected and improved.

What is going on now is no less strange.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Worship, some, more

Over on Facebook, Ron Robinson responds to my post of worship with this:

Worship and liberal churches. I will come back to this one; we here are now experimenting with de-centralizing and missionalizing worship, joining with others in a sense of "the church" instead of "a" church or tradition, at least as balance, but this part of the essay will help me think through these issues from a missional serving discipling communal sense. Though i might ask Tom if really taking kenosis seriously means emptying the way worship creates an "us" that's not them? I see him in this post moving in that direction by how you cast your message to whom, but when you still do it as a separate institution does that undercut the kenosis and service to others? Just my thoughts, especially if others are also generating those virtues? Hmm these are good thoughts for our experimenting discerning. — withTom Schade.

Let me go at this the long way around, and indulge my geezer prerogative to answer a question by telling a tale from long, long ago as though it was immediately obvious how it applied.

Back in the 1970's, in that period of when the Left was being defeated in the country as a whole, I observed two general responses emerging among leftists.

One was what I call fusionist.  We Leftists should do everything we can to fuse with the people in every way that we can.  Get factory jobs; move into working class neighborhoods; cut our hair and dress more conventionally; get involved in political struggles for stop signs in neighborhoods, better neighborhood development, etc.  In other words, fuse with the people as much as possible.  Fusionism is real attractive and romantic.

The other response was vanguardist.  In the 70's, some Leftists thought a time of contraction was a time to get clearer about what we wanted and who we were.  Speak more forthrightly about our vision. Organize ourselves into more effective, even though they might be smaller, organizations. Strengthen our self-identity, even if it meant that the differences between ourselves and the general population seemed greater.  Times would change eventually, and we would be more ready in the future.

To translate those terms into contemporary Unitarian Universalism, Ron Robinson is the ultimate fusionist.  I think that Missionalist tendency in UUism is very fusionist, which is why it is such a powerful critique.  Their critique of our focus on attracting people through worship is very cogent.

I wasn't such a fusionist then, and I am not now.  I am more inclined to think that what Unitarian Universalism needs to do now is make a full-voiced, self-aware, and vigorous defense of liberal theology. I see worship less as bringing together a community than as a public act of speech.  Our goal is to inspire the larger community, as a body and as individuals to the virtues of liberality.  We need to be more clear about who we are, what we are trying to do, and what we are asking people to do.

To Ron's point, yes, that assumes an "us" and "them."  There is an "us" and a "them".  That's just self-differentiation.  I don't think that "kenosis" is dissolving that boundary.  It does mean that we give up speaking as though we had divine authority.  We speak on our own authority, as free and equal people in deep dialogue with others.  By the way, I also question the metaphor of "discipling."  It a romanticization of "commitment" by wrapping it in the mystique of subordination.

Of course, fusionist and vanguardist tendencies are polarities, not opposite.  They seem especially contradictory when a movement is on the ropes in the general culture, feeling defeated and isolated.  They seem more essential when one is pessimistic.

Religious Liberalism has been in that position for most of our adult lives.  The aggression against all forms of liberalism between 1968 and 2008 (and our corresponding low and slow growth) exaggerates the importance of our central unspoken anxiety:  what is wrong with us that we are not growing?

But I think those days are over.  So, I think there is room for a lot of experimentation with forms and content.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Re-Imagining Unitarian Universalism, Part 7: Worship

I know that I have been in the weeds for the last four posts -- trying to explain the big ideas of sacred secularism, the Holy Spirit Defender and Kenosis.

Those ideas are not the core of a re-imagined Unitarian Universalism.  They are part of my journey, but not our journey.  Those ideas helped me get out of the box that UU Christianity had taken me.  UU Christianity had defined itself over and against mainstream UUism for so long that it was no longer really in the internal conversation about UUism.  As a UU Christian, I needed to come to a new understanding of Unitarian Universalism, one that was not based in mimetic rivalry.  Girard and Cupitt helped me re-imagine UUism for me as an authentic and creative response to the main trends in Christianity in the 19th and 20th century.  And because it was a creative and authentic response to the religious trends of the past, it has the potential to continue to be an authentic and creative expression of religion in the 21st century.

But as I said before, all the time that I was thinking about these things, I was leading worship at a cathedral of Unitarianism, a successful church with a theistic liturgy and the expectation of good preaching and good worship.  I did not have the problem of many of my colleagues who reported that they would get pushback from the congregation if they talked of God, sin, or prayer.

But just because I could talk in those terms (to a congregation that is as theological diverse as any) didn't mean I knew what I should be saying, or the purpose of worship.

Worship is a problem for the liberal church.  We had gone so far away from claiming any sacramental quality for worship that is no longer clear why we gathered in worship.  After all, our unofficial position was that a person was just as likely to encounter the holy walking in the woods on Sunday morning as in church.  We said that weren't really doing anything on Sunday except giving "shape to things of worth", that artful etymological dodge used to placate the humanists who thought worship was groveling at the feet of God.

UU Worship now serves our highest purpose; it has become a celebration of the religious community that sponsors it.  It exists to please that community, be a pleasurable and meaningful experience for it.  For all the changes in our worship, there is a continuity between the old "concert and a book report" to the new "happy, clappy sing-along with a personal message from the minister's heart".  Worship is designed to please the present congregation, and show it off in a favorable light.  The danger is that worship is becoming a show put on by the congregation to attract new people to join the church, so as to balance the budget.  And so, the minister is up there tap-dancing and doing card tricks to keep folks entertained.

I'd like to see us shift from celebrating the religious community present to inspiring the larger community.

We should offer inspiration to all.  We should name and invoke a spirit that has the power to move people into new understandings of themselves, and toward renewed commitments.  Worship is not to inform people, nor entertain people, or even enchant, people.  It should be to inspire people.

And worship is a service the congregation provides for the community at large.  It is not about the congregation itself.  It is about the people in the larger community and what they need to hear and experience in order to be inspired to grow in the virtues of liberality.  (Do I need to repeat my list of the virtues of liberality: reverence, self-possession, openness, solidarity, honesty, humility, generosity and gratitude.)  Worship is the collective work of the church (congregation and minister) for the benefit of the community.  It is a worship service.

To even think in those terms requires tremendous self-confidence, which we now lack.

Why we lack the confidence to imagine ourselves as consciously offering inspiration to the general public is something to look into...

Friday, May 24, 2013

Re-Imagining Unitarian Universalism, Part 6: X Spirituality

I think that the UUA's efforts to become an anti-racist, anti-oppressive and multi-cultural movement is crucial to imagining a new Unitarian Universalism.

Unitarian Universalism can exist in multiple and diverse cultural settings.  I knew that there were Unitarians in India as a child.  And we all learned of the Transylvanian Unitarians more recently, after the Ceausescu regime was overthrown in Romania.  But somehow we thought that in the United States, Unitarian Universalism was inherently WASPish, New England-flavored and carrying all the cultural markers of the intellectual middle-classes.

But we were challenged, mostly by UU's of color, to imagine that there could be an African American urban Unitarian Universalism, or Spanish speaking UUism, or a country-western UUism.  There could be a Brooklyn hipst UUism and a punk UUism.  Just because we didn't see these things didn't mean that they were impossible.

It was the same problem that Theodore Parker faced, except along a different dimension.  He asked what was "transient" and what was "permanent".   We are being asked "what is cultural specific about UUism?" and "what is universal?"

[Cautionary note: terms like "permanent" and "universal" are also relative terms.  Nothing is really permanent and universal.]

Do you see where this took me?  At the same time that I was getting from Rene Girard this vision of a Holy Spirit of justice that was remaking the world, independent of Christianity, and I was getting from Cupitt and Geering an understanding of secularism as the fulfillment of the western religious tradition, and I was imagining the self-emptying of Christianity through Kenosis, right in the UU movement, people were talking about a UUism that had transcended its particular cultural manifestation. Unitarian Universalism self-emptied of its cultural power.

There was unknown X Spirituality out there: that which was left after all the transcendence and self-emptying and internalization.  I could see that Unitarian Universalism had its roots in the process of defining what is left, but it, too, was now ripe for self-emptying.

All this time, I was also one of the ministers of an old New England church, one of the cathedrals of Unitarianism.  I had to preach regularly, and think about programming and worship, and the development of an institution and the nurturing of a real community.

So, a search for the undefined X Spirituality could not be abstract, a process of theological essentialism.  It was not enough to define the X Spirituality.  It had to be a sermon, not a philosophical essay. The question was how to promote it, and how to inspire it?

So,  I defined the question in the terms of a parish minister: what happens to people when they join a UU church?  How are they changed?  What are they looking for, and what do they need?  Where are we taking people?  Are we taking people toward this remarkable power? Or just making them happy where they are?

Re-Imagining Unitarian Universalism, Part 5, Kenosis



Way back when, in the early 2000's, I went to a Jesus Seminar or Westar conference in New York City. It was a power lineup of everyone who had ever written a book re-examining Christianity. Karen Armstrong, Marcus Borg, John Shelby Spong, Robert Funk, Jon Dominic Crossan, Don Cupitt, Elaine Pagels. There wasn't another UU there, among the hundreds in attendance.

I was on a mission trying to find a way of understanding Christianity and Unitarian Universalism that reconnected us to emotional states that we UU's had ceased to feel: being called, being held accountable; being forgiven.

The speakers were stimulating, but the crowd was uninspiring. They were largely older, quite academic, and bewildered. Why did it seem impossible to build a church movement when their ideas about religion were so well-thought out, modern and humane? Why were churches so uninterested in the reality of Jesus? Why were secular people uninterested in a version of Christianity that was shorn of everything that had driven them away from the church?

Like I said, I was the only UU there, but I felt oddly and comfortably at home.

I think it was Don Cupitt who suggested that we needed to understand secularity differently, to understand the situation of religion correctly.

Secularity was a form of the European and North American religious tradition. It is not a rejection of Christianity but a fulfillment of it.

I think it Lloyd Geering who pointed out that the trajectory of the Jewish and Christian traditions is that God starts out "out there" (separate) and ends up "in here" -- a spirit within us. It starts out concerned with rituals and sacrifice and ends up as ethics and ends up as personal ethics and morals. God starts out omnipotent and ends up needing our hands to get anything done. It starts with religion being the governance of society and ends up as personal spirituality. The secular society is the fulfillment of the western religion tradition. Free people, who carry God in their hearts, doing good works, united by a spirit. When people say that they are 'spiritual but not religious', they are living out one strain of Biblical theology.

This put the progression of Unitarian Universalism into humanism in an entirely different light.

Perhaps we, the Unitarian and Universalists, were 19th century manifestations of the movement out of the Temple into the world, shrinking religion down to human size. Is that what Channing meant by 'pure and simple Christianity?"

I had no desire to become a humanist, at least no more a humanist than is everybody now. But I was becoming a Kenotic Christian.

I want to go back to the story we tell of Jesus, and trace another story from then until now:

If Jesus was the Son of God, and had performed countless miracles, why did he not save Himself from arrest, torture and crucifixion? Surely, He had the power to do so. He chose not to.

Paul offers this description:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 6who, though he was in the form of God,

did not regard equality with God

as something to be exploited, 7but emptied himself,

taking the form of a slave,

being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, 8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—

even death on a cross. (Letter to the Philippians 2-5-8a.)

The a
ncient fathers of the church referred to this process by which Jesus emptied himself of his divinity as kenosis – a greek word meaning emptying.

Jesus did not hold his divinity (equality with God) as something to be used, but “[he] emptied himself.” Paul suggests that we ought to think the same way about ourselves.

What if Paul is not only speaking to us as individuals, but as the body of Christ, the church universal? How do we, as participants in organized Christianity take on the same mind that was in Christ Jesus?

For centuries, the Christian church has declared itself to be God’s sole and exclusive agent on Earth. It claimed that it alone held the keys to eternal life and has used the human fear of death to hold earthly power. For centuries the Church had hegemony over the thoughts of men and women; it amassed great wealth and allied herself with every system of oppression and exploitation under which the world has suffered.

The Church moved through the world as though Christ had saved himself from the cross with divine violence, an army of angels called down from heaven to defeat Rome.  The church moved through the world as if it alone knew how and when and against whom that heavenly violence, that band of angels that could have rescued Jesus from the Romans, would be deployed. 

But those days are over. For the last few centuries, men and women have carved out a secular sphere with some independence from the hegemony of the church. Many in North America and Europe have thought of themselves as no longer under the influence of Christianity at all. A wall has been built to keep the church away from the levers of state power; the sword of the Prince is no longer wielded by the Church. What was Ceasar’s was rendered unto him; and only the free human spirit was left.

I argue that the emergence of secular society can be seen as a fulfillment or the completion of the Western religious traditions, an age when, for ordinary people, their spiritual lives are conducted without regard to duties to religious institutions, rituals, formalized creeds or ordained religious leaders. A person’s spiritual life is manifested in ethical living, gratitude, compassion and reverence, the virtues of liberality.  Everyone who cares to be is a free-lance seeker of the truth or a plain-clothes monk.

Now the church stands chastened and humbled, rapidly becoming powerless in the larger society. Its sacred book, the Bible, is either unread, or plundered for political gain; its mainline Protestant churches and the Roman Catholic churches are empty, its doctrines are metaphors and archaic phrases. Its preachers use stories of daily life to prove the relevance of the Bible, in a reverse flow of meaning.

The church is being emptied and being humbled, often against its will. The church is losing its social power because no one outside of itself trusts its sources of authority.

The fundamentalists and evangelicals fight back against the tide of secularism and modernism, reasserting the authority of the Bible, even if they have to claim that dinosaurs walked with humans, and the gays and lesbians we all know are abominations unto the Lord. There is a desperate and visible will to believe at work there. More often that not, the authority of Christianity is being asserted to justify other long-standing oppressions and injustices. There will be an institution known as the Christian church in the future, of course, but in North America and Europe, it will survive as a backward looking instrument of survival for embattled ethnicities.

The mainline Protestants don’t know what hit them. They covet the enthusiasm and fire of the evangelicals, but cannot generate it themselves.

Can Christianity exist in the world without its claim to power and authority, without claiming some unique status of a special relationship to God? Without claiming "an equality with God, as something to be exploited."

Nineteenth century Unitarians, and to a lesser extent, the Universalists, started to move in this direction. The Unitarians developed an approach to doctrine that favored individual freedom of belief; the Universalists a doctrine of salvation that extended to all. Their points of departure were different, but the effect was the same. Both were imagining a Christianity that had renounced its claim of a God-given authority to coerce.

Unitarian Universalism, if you squint a little, can be seen as an unplanned experiment in kenotic Christianity, or self-emptied Christianity. It jettisons all claims to being anything other than a human institution, it places Christian doctrine and teaching on an equal level with all other forms of human attempts at understanding, it promises neither reward nor punishment. It retains the
ethical and moral teachings of the church, the organizational structure of the free church. In the beginning, it operated within the culture of Christianity, but that has broadened in recent decades.

But it may be that Unitarian Universalism is Christianity self-emptied, renouncing and putting aside what is essential to its identity as a special separate thing, and retaining only what is necessary to a good and faithful and ethical life.

It is like a death to empty oneself of that which makes you special.

But, death is not the end, but a part of renewal and resurrection. “Let the same mind that was in Christ Jesus be in you.”

“The hour is coming and is now here when the true worshippers will worship in spirit and truth. God is spirit and those who worship God must worship in spirit and truth.” Jesus, John 4: 23-24.

We, as religious liberals, enter into this "hour [that] is coming, and is now here" holding onto two distillations of the western religious tradition. One is the ethical and moral teachings of the tradition. They are a powerful and transforming set of teachings, which are not separable from their sources.

Walter Rauschenbusch wrote that if it were not for the Christian scripture (i.e. the ethical and moral teachings of the church tradition), no one would know that God loves the poor. After all, one would never draw that conclusion from watching the news.

The other distillation of the western religious tradition that we carry is the structure of the church. And now, even that seems shaky and suspect. It can seem, that our commitment to institutional maintenance of the church and the congregation gets in the way of fulfilling our ethical and moral duties.
Now, we come to where faith comes in....

We are religious liberals, living in a secular age. We don't know if this thing called religion is going to survive in the new age where we are going. We don't know what it is going to look like. We don't know how the relentless drives of globalization and science and revolution and climate change and everything else that looms in the future are going to change it, or kill it. We don't know if the institutions that carry religion now are going to survive, or how they will be changed. We really only know one thing: that everything out of that tradition which carries the best of humanity comes down to us as a moral and ethical imperative -- that we must love, that we must embody love, that we must empower love, that we must incarnate love, that we must, as the tee-shirt says, stand resolutely on the side of love. To me the call to love comes down to a call to develop the virtues of liberality as the operating orientations of our characters.

Everything else we know about religion may die in this secular age. Certainly, all of us will die before this story is over.

But faith says that love is stronger than death. So, we need not fear, nor cling, nor resist. We need no fear of this present age -- it was made for us -- we, who have already lightened our loads, jettisoned so much dead weight that would only burden us -- this present age was made for us and us for it. Let us worry less about what kind of church we will be, and focus instead on what kind of people we will be.

“Be ours a religion which, like sunshine goes everywhere; its temple, all space; its shrine, the good heart; its creed, all truth; its ritual, works of love; its profession of faith, divine living.” 

Theodore Parker


Thursday, May 23, 2013

Re-imagining Unitarian Universalism, Part 4: Secularity



Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4:  Re-Imagining Unitarian Universalism, Part 4: Thinking about Secularity

I became uncomfortable with the way that UU Christians had dichotomized the situation within the UU movement: a dominant humanist hegemony that placed all its eggs in the basket of "religious community" and a suppressed theistic and Christian past and future that called UUism into a more purposeful religious life.

Rene Girard's vision of the gospel floating free of the religion that tries to contain it rocked this understanding. I started to think about secularism, from biblical perspective. I was inspired by Lloyd Geering's and Don Cupitt's presentation at a Jesus Seminar conference in New York.

We now live in
A Global Economy and
In a Globalized Capitalist Civilization
A Pluralistic Culture
A Secular Society and under a Secular State
with Voluntary Religious Associations
and
Personal Spirituality

There are counter trends -- each of these are resisted in some way.

Indigenous peoples and local cultures resist globalization. Reactionaries resist pluralism in favor of monoculture. Religious fundamentalists want state favor

I got from a Robert Coles book (the Secular Mind),  the idea that secularism is a concept that has no meaning except in a religious context. Secularism is a religious word, just as atheism is a religious word.

The secular realm is that realm of life out of the reach of the religious: not governed by religious teaching, religious rules, religious authorities.

Did the secular realm always exist? Did the ancient Hebrew woman see her daily domestic activity as something outside of the religion -- "oh, those men, always thinking about Yahwah, and arguing about Him, while I am just grinding the grain and making the bread." Or was she doing the work in a manner prescribed or shaped by religious teaching"

Did she compartmentalize her consciousness in the way that we do?

There is a great deal of evidence that in the ancient world religion was a separate sphere.

In the stories and myths that the ancients told, the Gods, including Yahwah, once walked upon the Earth and related directly with human beings. Recall that story from the second chapter of Genesis, which describes how God was walking in the Garden in the evening, "in the cool of the day" and he encounters Adam and Eve, all dressed up in their fig leafed finery. It's a lovely image, but we can tell that the authors of that story did not believe it to be literally true.

And through the stories of the Genesis, stories which for the most part were collected and recorded by the writers in the court of King David, God withdraws from the world, making fewer and fewer personal appearances, and even then, appearing mysteriously and in disguise. Three strangers appear at the door of Abraham's tent -- were they God? A mysterious stranger wrestles with Jacob throughout the night -- some say that was God, but perhaps not. God appears in the visions and in dreams.

It is said that Moses is the last to see God face to face and still live -- up on Mount Sinai. God calls Samuel in the night, three times before he realizes that it is God calling him.

And then, there is that scene in which Elijah, on the run from the false prophets of the court of Queen Jezebel, hides in the mountains, and pissed off and harassed as he is, asks to see God. And God tells him to hide in a cleft of a rock, because God will pass by -- and there is wind and earthquake and storm, but God appears as a still small voice in the quiet after the storm.

By the time we reach the era of King David (which is the beginning of the Bible describing real and historic events, past the age of stories and legends and myths, God is enclosed in the ark of the covenant and then in the Temple. God is far away; God is remote. The Temples are only occasional residences of the divine.

People reach God through the Temple, through the Priests of the Temple who have access to God that the ordinary person does not. Over time, all the Temples were consolidated into the Temple on Mount Zion, Solomon's Temple.

God was remote, inaccessible. God was present in one special place. God was approachable only by special religous people. And one interacted with God through rituals performed by the intermediary priests. God demanded one's obedience and loyalty and one demonstrated one's obedience and loyalty through the rituals of sacrifice.

Bad fortune in your life showed that you had somehow displeased God. You then made an appropriate sacrifice to show one's obedience and loyalty to retain to God's favor.

Whatever the earlier stories written in the scroll in the Temple, when we first see the practice of the organized religion that shaped our civilization and culture here in the West, it is temple based religion of sacrifice to remote and invisible God, with a professional priesthood.

The story of King David in the two books of Samuel tells of how this royal family of David and the priests of the Temple and individual prophets split and divided over where access to God was located. Who spoke for God? And in that we see the beginning of a split between the royals (the state) and the religious authorities (the priests). Was this the beginning of a division of the culture into religious and non-religious spheres.

And during this period of time (roughly between 1000 BCE forward about 400 years) we have writings some of which are clearly Temple writings and some of which are on religious subjects but do not refer to Temple religious practice at all.

Well what happened next? The Kingdom of Judah is defeated by Babylon and leadership of the Hebrew people are taken into exile. The Temple is destroyed.

God begins his journey. God is delocalized. God no longer lives in the Temple on Mount Zion, but God is everywhere and nowhere at the same time. God is able to be with the Hebrews in the Babylon. God is also back in Jerusalem, waiting for them to return. God is in the wilderness making a path for them through the desert.

God is "out there" and whereever we go, we are still in relationship with God.

The Deuternomic historian rewrites the previous histories of the Hebrew people to emphasize a different nuance in the relationship to God. The point is no longer that God brought these people to the promised land -- but that God and the Jewish people are in a permanent, unbreakable covenant with one another. The point about the promised land is not the land but the promise. The promise and the covenant go with the people whereever they are.

At the same time, in another development, prophetic writers downplay the role of the Temple and Temple rituals during the same period.

These are writings that we religious liberals love and quote and hopefully, live by: what does God require of thee, asks the prophet, Micah: but to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God.

Another prophet, Isaiah writes 
the ministry is to to bring good news to the oppressed,to bind up the brokenhearted,to proclaim liberty to the captives,and release to the prisoners;.
Amos says: 
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them; and the offerings of well- being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harp. But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever- flowing stream.

You see what is happening here. Religious duty is shifting from ritual to ethics and morality.

The exile ends and the people return to Jerusalem. There is a counter-tendency to anti-Temple, anti- sacrifice and pro-justice strand of the some of the exile prophets.

The Temple is rebuilt in Jerusalem and a sacrificial religion is re-established at it. There are a couple of developments that are important to note at this point.

God is made cosmic. In this post-exile period, the first chapter of Genesis is written and added to the bible. In it, the transformation of the God from the warrior God of the Jewish People to the cosmic creator of all of heaven and earth from the beginning of time is complete. God can get no bigger, nor more powerful from this point on.

Secondly, during this period Jewish law is fully fleshed out and detailed. What God wants of us is made quite explicit. And our duties as a religous person is simple -- to obey all of God's laws and commandments. And those laws cover great expanses of life -- how food is prepared, financial and legal matters, family life, sexual conduct, diet etc.

Religion at this point is quite totalistic -- an ominipotent, omnipresent God concerned about all aspects of life.

One could say that at this point in time, the secular realm of life is minimized and the religious realm is maximized.

Well, what happens next?

In a stunning development, God comes to Earth again.

This far-off distant God, who deals with people through accepting their sacrifices offered up by priests, and who regulates all aspect of life through rules and regulation shows up on earth again. Well, his son does.

And his son, first name Jesus, Last Name Christ, is resurrecting understandings of God that had not been heard since the time of exile, hundreds of years before.

The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath.

The kingdom of God is at hand, and within you.

Our father, who art in heaven.... you can directly address a prayer to God.

He points again to the temporary, transience of the Temple. He drives the merchants from the Temple, attacking the sacrifice practice of Temple ritual.

He says all the rules and laws come down to standing on the side of love -- loving God and loving your neighbor as yourself -- and that if you cannot love the neighbor whom you can see, how can you love God whom you cannot see.

Someday all who worship God will worship him not at Temples, but in spirit and truth.

Jesus is the return of a suppressed theology in religious history that is a counter gesture to the totalization of the religious realm.

Instead of God Omnipotent: God Incarnate. Human sized.

Instead of Ritual: standing on the side of love, morals and ethics. Reverence and Gratitude.

Great Stuff.

Too bad he got killed.

Then, the story goes, something quite unexpected happens.

He is resurrected, appears several times -- to 500 people, Paul says. And then ascends into heaven.

And then, God returns to Earth as the Holy Spirit, tongues of fire, at the Pentecost, inspires the faithful and establishes God's presence on Earth -- not in a land, not in a temple, but in a group of people who become the (hear this phrase with new ears) Risen Body of Christ-- the church. God is dispersed into humanity, as an internal spirit carried within. An inner light.

So let's review.

God starts out in story as a present as God's self on Earth -- walking in the Garden in the cool of the day -- over time becomes the cosmic, omnipotent, remote, unapproachable God of everything and all, to whom we owe sacrifice.

And then in an opposite motion, God comes to earth as a man, and dies and is resurrected as a people who are filled with his spirit.

God goes from way out there to in here.

God goes from demanding our loyalty, obedience and sacrifice to wanting our love, and for us to love each other, and treat each other with compassion, justice, ethics and morality.

God's truth has gone from divine commandment to human wisdom.

Our duty becomes to live by the inner light of God in the world as it is.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Re-Imagining UUism: Part 3: Rene Girard

Part 1

Part 2

I don't know why I first read Gil Bailie's Violence Unveiled. It was quite a while ago, perhaps ten years or more.  I don't even remembering reading it for the first time.  I do remember leading a discussion group at the church about it.

I read it after I had identified as a UU Christian.  Bailie introduced me to the thought of Rene Girard, and by Girard I was inspired to a much larger vision of the work of the Holy Spirit.  An expanded view of the Holy Spirit is an important part of how I re-imagine Unitarian Universalism, today.

Let me explain:

Violence Unveiled is an exposition of the thought of Rene Girard.  Rene Girard is a living French literary critic, anthropologist, philosopher and Christian apologist.  He is probably 90 now and teaches at Stanford.  He has influenced a whole school of thinkers in a variety of fields.

How to explain Girardian theory?

There are really two parts to it.  One is a theory about human beings, how they relate to each other, and how that shaped human culture.

Rene Girard
Girard says that people operate by mimesis or imitation.  We want what other people want; we imitate their desire. Basically, we don't really see the value of anything or anyone until we observe someone else valuing it, and then we imitate their desire.  It's why kids surrounded by toys, will want the same one.  It is why fashion works.  It is why we think Brad Pitt is handsome.

It means that everyone is both a model and a rival: a model because we are copying what they want, and a rival because now we are competing for the same object of desire.

Mimetic rivalry leads to conflict, because each member of a group wants the same thing.

Conflict leads to scapegoating. Not only do we imitate each others desires, we imitate each others' rejections and condemnation. In a situation of great conflict, suddenly everyone unites against one, who now seems to be the cause of all the conflict in the system.

Scapegoating creates unity, as the group is united, the many against the one.  It also creates sacrificial violence, as the scapegoat is expelled or killed.

Up to now, this is not hard to understand, although it is a bleak view of human nature.  And it is
more mythic than research based as anthropology.  But here is where Girard has his most profound insight.

Sacrificial violence, the killing of the scapegoat, produces myths, or more bluntly, lies.  A story must be told that justifies the violence of the many against the one.  What emerges is a set of lies about the victim and another set of lies about the group.  The victim was extraordinarily evil, and we, well, we were extraordinarily brave when we turned on him or her.  You might even say that we were acting for a divine power.  We see this at work even today.

That's part one of Girardian theory.  It's interesting, but frankly, I didn't need to read another big theory that explains all of human behavior.  After all, I've read Marx and Lenin already.

On the other hand, Girard's analysis of the Bible rocked my world.

Girard believes that the ancient Hebrews and the early Christians decoded and deconstructed this process of sacred scapegoating and myth making.  For Girard, the Bible is multi-voiced and contradictory, but it wrestles with mimetic rivalry and violence. There are stories on all sides of this: many stories of rivalry and scapegoating violence, but also stories which begin to raise doubts about those narratives.  Stories to consider from this point of view are Cain and Abel, the story of Hagar and Ishmael, of Abraham and Isaac, the story of Jacob and Esau, Joseph thrown into a pit by his brothers who envied his coat.  The Story of Job; Girard says that the misfortunes of Job are mythic justifications for the crowd turning against this leading man of the community -- and the desperate effort of his friends to make Job understand and accept the lie that somehow he deserved it.  It is not resolved in Job, because Job ultimately gives up.  But the process is finally resolved in the story of Jesus, according to Girard.

Jesus was an innocent victim and scapegoat; the crowd mysteriously turns against him and he is executed. (The great unexplained hole in the center of the Passion story is "what is the crime?".) And his followers, despite their initial vacillation, document his innocence.  They resist the myth-making that Jesus claimed to be a rival King, or a military messiah.  They say he was innocent.  And in so doing, they exposed the power structure of Jerusalem, calling out the complicity of the leaders of the Temple, the Roman authorities, even the people in the street in the wholly unnecessary death of an innocent man.  The story even spotlights the vacillation of Peter, the most stalwart disciple, showing how even the most committed can be caught up in the contagion.  It's an interesting read of a familiar story.

But Girard says that this exposure of the myth of sacred violence is at the heart of the gospel. The heart of the gospel is humanity has a capacity for sacrificial violence,  but it has learned to recognize it and to rejects the myth it creates. It is a contested gospel, because the church itself has fallen backwards from its own knowledge and makes Jesus into a sacred scapegoat.

But the real gospel is that the victims are innocent, and that the powerful justify their power with lies about their victims, themselves and the meaning of their violence.  Jesus says in the gospel of John that when He has gone, He will send a Holy Spirit who will be the Advocate and the Defender.  The Advocate of whom? The Defender of whom? The innocent victims of our human scapegoating.

Rene Girard says that this Holy Spirit is active in the world, and is remaking it, step by step and year by year.  Everywhere, in every situation, we are now acutely aware of who is a potential innocent victim, and what are the stories being told to justify their victimization. Watch to see how alert people are to the potential of victimization. Such a Holy Spirit is not confined to the church, nor to the believers, but is everywhere at work.  (And when the UUA announces its intention to be an anti-oppressive institution, is it not aligning itself with that spirit?)

This rocked my world; I had reconsider the dichotomy that had been set up between mainstream Unitarian Universalism and Unitarian Universalist Christianity.  It was no longer so clear that mainstream UU's had abandoned the gospel to which the UU Christians had remained loyal.  When we UU Christians said that we stood on the gospel, did we have a cramped vision of the gospel in mind?  Perhaps we had more to do than convince our congregations to observe the Christian year, and to pray together on Sunday, and to study the Bible on occasion.

Perhaps the gospel had broken free of the religion built to contain it, and was free in the world, moving anyone who could see it. How did Unitarian Universalism, with its reflexive antipathy to conventional Christianity fit into a world like that?

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Re-Imagining UUism -- Part 2

Part 1, in which I describe becoming disenchanted with the theory that providing "religious community" was the purpose of Unitarian Universalism.

"Religious Community" did not answer the question, "how does Unitarian Universalism change a person?".  There are those who argue that they don't want to be changed, or that asking the question implies a judgement against who they are right now.  You know, that's OK.  Each of us has those seasons in their life.  But a religion still needs a vision of the transformation it is working in adherents, because there are other seasons in life.

So, what was the alternative to the self-satisfaction of Unitarian Universalism?  For myself, I yearned for the moral grandeur of Christianity.  I did not want to emulate the real and actual Christian church, but I was deeply attracted to an idealized version of it: a living historic community of people, humble and self-aware of their sins and shortcomings, relying on God for mercy, doing God's work in the world, embodying a universal good intention and love for all.

I was raised a UU -- my father was a Unitarian minister in my early childhood -- and grew up in the faith, until I went to college. I returned to it twenty years later.  Six years later, I was in a Methodist seminary, and shortly thereafter, I was singing and testifying at the first Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship Revival in New Orleans in 1999.

The first Revival was a watershed moment in my life, and I think in some others' as well.  It made space for a kind of Christian piety, new to UUism.  The new UU Christian piety did not try to stay separate from popular Christian piety, but embraced it.  We sang "Jesus Loves Me" and had healing services.

But we also embraced our fallen-ness, and our need to be healed and transformed and changed, and our dependence on a power greater than ourselves to save us and the world.

There are three moments from that stage of my life that I remember expressing where I was at.  The first was a spontaneous testimony in New Orleans.  I reacted viscerally to what seemed like an over-politicization of Gospel. I stood before the group, and recounted my long involvement with the Left (which is another longer story) and how I had come to realize that I, and the world, could not be saved merely through our good works, but only through our faith.  It was pretty much straight up Pauline theology, with no chaser.

The second was a sermon: "Ten Things You Gotta Love About God."

And the third was a Communion Sermon in which I asked the congregation to reflect on the seven deadly sins, one at a time, and confess to themselves how their lives had been damaged by each one: lust, anger, pride, sloth, gluttony, greed and envy.

In my mind,  I saw this new UU Christian piety as the alternative and antidote to the self-satisfaction of contemporary UUism.  And even more than an alternative, it was a submerged and repressed part of us.  It's who we could have been if we had not become so humanistic in the mid-20th century.  It's the kind of church that we wished our churches were now, but too many other UU's were so allergic to Christianity and any form of "God language" to let us.  Understand me, it is not the totality of the theology that many of us yearned for, but that energy.

I hear that yearning in the voices of so many of my colleagues in UU ministry still.

But I have come to think that it is not the answer to the self-satisfaction of contemporary UUism.  It is instructive to me that I would think it was.  It is a nostalgia for what was once an alternate future, like a yearning for the golden age that would have been the Robert Kennedy presidency.

Where my interest in Christianity led me is for tomorrow.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Re-Imagining Unitarian Universalism: Where I started

You should read the last couple posts on this blog.....


Like everybody of my era, I started thinking about Unitarian Universalism by thinking about the problem of how to define what we believe.  The basic problem of UU identity.  And like most of my generation, I adopted "the covenant, not creed" answer to that problem.  That quote by John Wolf - "I am not sure that I believe in God, but I sure believe in the church" was important to me.

That led to the belief that the congregation was the place of definition of Unitarian Universalism.  With that, congregational polity became the "thread that you follow", to use William Stafford's metaphor, through the history.

But not only congregational polity as a principle, but religious community as what we offered to people.  Become a Unitarian Universalist and let your life be transformed by belonging to a religious community, a group of people who gathered together to celebrate their relationships and to practice mutual care and support.

That is a powerful message, and attractive to people who hunger for community, which turns out to be a smaller group than we thought.

My dissatisfactions rose with that understanding of Unitarian Universalism, which I think is still the common denominator way we think of ourselves.

A community is less than humanity, so it is partial.  Building a religion based on making comfortable and supporting communities leads to consumerism.  It does not challenge people.  It makes all ministry pastoral at heart.It's prophetic witness becomes us vs them.  It either reinforces an unspoken set of assumptions as normative within the congregation, or it becomes a masochistic testing ground of how much disruptive difference the community can endure.

Most of the critiques of contemporary Unitarian Universalism from younger ministers and laypeople echo these concerns.  They say that Unitarian Universalism is self-satisfied.  My hypothesis is that the "religious community" as defining UU function is the problem.  It is an answer to a real problem, but not a good answer.

So, how to re-imagine UUism?

I needed a starting question.....

I started on this path at a Large Church Conference that was held in Boston.  I don't think that I really qualified to be there, but I remember asking Stefan Johanson if he could explain what transformation people should expect if they joined a UU congregation.  How does becoming a UU change a person?  Not, what benefits does a person get from being a UU?  I had heard that discussion lots of time, but "how will this change me?"

I had come to the conclusion that if we did not know the answer to that question, that our efforts to grow were going to fail.  Not only were our efforts to grow going to fail, but that we were failing in some fundamental way because we didn't know what we were doing, or even trying to do.

If we did not know the answer to the question "how does UUism change people?", then we had become a religion about itself.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Those Who have Influenced My Present Thought

First of all, I am inspired by the Deuteronomist historians.  At a time when the old ways of the ancient Hebrews had come to naught -- their kingdom defeated, the Temple fallen, their religious and political leaders taken off into exile in Babylon, they re-imagined their relationship with G-d.  They re-thought their earthly Kingdom given to them by G-d, and they re-imagined it as a Kingdom in covenant with God, and conditioned on Israel's faithfulness.  But that faithfulness was not just at the level of the state, but at the level of the person, as well.


“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 5 You shall love theLord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. 6 And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. 7 You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. 8 You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes.9 You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.  (Deut: 6:4-9)
They made faith an inward attitude, love to G-d 'on your heart", a covenant made in the heart of the individual and the people, with G-d. They  re-imagined a religion that could be taken anywhere and survive any outward circumstance. Everything of lasting value in Judaism and Christianity has been along that inward path first suggested by Deuteronomist.

And I am profoundly influenced by Jesus, the Christ.  Not just the human Jesus, the man of prophetic utterances, farmboy wisdom and healings, but the Christ of the story, who was the Son of God, and who could have saved Himself from the cross with an army of angels, but who renounced divinity, and took on the life and death of a common man, even to the point of death on the Cross.
who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.  (Phillippians 2:6-8)
He calls to us now to set aside "divinity" as a subject of our religious life and discourse.  We know not God, and we know not how to defeat, evade or transcend Death, nor do we know what lies beyond its horizon, that only horizon that comes closer as we travel.  Religion must take on the life and death of the human person as its subject.  Christ was the founder of humanism, and humanism remains to this day, Christianity taken at a slant.

And I am influenced by Theodore Parker.  Let James Ford of Providence describe him.  I think the
stuff about the pistol of the desk is really cool, but it is this sentence that sums up the inspiration that I take from Parker:

“Christianity is not a system of doctrines, but rather a method of attaining oneness with God. It demands, therefore, a good life of piety within, of purity without, and gives the promise that whoso does God’s will, shall know of God’s doctrine.”
"Whoso does God's will, shall know of God's doctrine."  We know of God's will; it has been declared again and again, and it has nothing to do with temples, and bloody sacrifices, institutions and saying "Lord, Lord" with the lips.  It has everything to do with loving mercy, and walking humbly, and doing justice, and serving the least of these, and worshipping the Father in spirit and truth. Need we say more? No.

And I am influenced by Rene Girard, who convinced me that the Gospel of Jesus that is actually remaking the world is not information about Jesus at all.  It is the truth that his followers revealed about Jesus, a truth hidden since the foundation of the world.  It is that the victims of sacrificial violence are indeed innocent.  Jesus was innocent,  a truth once grasped reveals that the world has been from the beginning, a system built on the murder of the innocent, and justified by lies.  Rene Girard says that the gospel that decodes our reality is to look for the victims, and once seeing them to deconstruct the lies that hide their innocence, and thus reveal the true nature of the world.  It is a gospel that is not always carried by the religious, but often carried by those who are not religious.  As a religious people, we need to remember that.

And I am influenced by Don Cupitt, who intimated in a talk at a Westar Institute conference that
secularism was the culmination of the inward journey taken by Western Religion that was started by the Deuteronomist.  What was formerly the subject of religion has become the subject of all our thinking about Life-With-A-Capital-L.  The world over is thinking about Life.  There are so many that are no longer interested in Religion, but are intensely interested in Life: what is a good life, how should we live within ourselves and together.  Life is a word that describes a reality greater than God.  When the ex-Christian minister, Jim Palmer of Nashville, says that "religion is my life", he is talking Don Cupitt.

And I was profoundly influenced by the subtitle of a book I bought at the same Westar Conference.  It is by David Boulton.  "The trouble with God: Religious humanism and the Republic of Heaven."  I want to be citizen of that Republic.  Think how much more I will be moved when I get around to reading the book.

This is not the exhaustive list of those who have shaped my religious journey.  But they are the ones who have moved me to try to re-imagine Unitarian Universalism as a Great Awakening of the Liberal Spirit, a mass movement of people trying to embody the virtues of liberality in their everyday lives, a people no longer just religious, but spiritual, no longer just spiritual, but engaged, alive and becoming, citizens of heaven.


Links:

Theodore Parker:

Rene Girard:  I recommend "I Saw Satan Fall Like Lightening" as an introduction to his thought.

Don Cupitt: 

David Boulton: 

Re-Imagining Unitarian Universalism

The pieces are coming together in my mind to reimagine Unitarian Universalism.

First of all, we need to really, actually and truly shift from belief to practice as the core of what the spiritual life asks of us.  To make as one's central claim that we have no doctrine is as much a belief-based system, as a catechism teaching doctrine.  It's just a negative doctrine.

Imagine a different core identity.  No longer: "UU's can believe anything". Or: "UU's accept all."  Instead: "UU's act a certain way". "UU's are good people".

So, let's turn our attention to virtue and character.  Let's re-imagine our spiritual work as learning new habits of the heart, learning to practice the virtues of openness, solidarity, self-possession, reverence, gratitude and generosity, honesty and humility in our daily lives.  Let's re-imagine our spiritual work together as being witnesses to each other's efforts, and catching each other when we fail and fall.

Let's re-imagine the ways that we gather people together.  First, let's explore all the new ways that people come together: networks, and small groups, and on-line groups.  Whereever people gather to explore and embody the virtues of liberality, we respect that spirit, and want to be there, in spirit.

And then, let's re-tell the stories of our congregations: how our history of performing rituals of worship and reverence has helped change people and communities.  Congregations make those rituals possible: the core community, the ritual leader, the sacred space all supported and tended by a group of people democratically working together.  A congregation is a crucial node on a much larger network of  people living the liberal spirit.

We have to re-imagine our congregations, from being "community organizations" of themselves, to "worship leaders" who provide worship experiences to a wider network.  What's a worship experience? A chance to place yourself before God, or to contemplate the ultimate source, a time to re-dedicate yourself to what is the best, a time to see your life from the largest perspective.

The worship service is not the show a congregation puts on in the hopes of enticing people to join their religious organization, so they can give money and serve on committees.

Re-imagine the worship service as a public ritual of self-reflection and re-dedication offered to one and all in the hopes of changing people's lives.

Let's shift from trying to build up our own religious communities to trying to build up the wider community.   We need to move from membership growth to virtue oriented evangelism.

Imagine a public voice, clear and strong and present, that speaks always for holding the Earth and all her peoples with reverence, as due the body and images of God.  Imagine a public voice that counsels openness and curiosity for the "other", a voice that reminds each of us that all our views are partial and incomplete, and that the truth really matters. Imagine an always audible voice that whispers privately to every individual that they have a right to be their true selves, to think what they think, to love who they love, to be who they know themselves to be. Imagine a public voice that insists that we live amidst actual abundance of all we need most.

We could be that voice.  We say those things now inside our walls to each other and to our children.  We need to imagine ourselves turned inside out, telling the same things to the world.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Afraid to lose ourselves

Be the change you want to see.
What we need is a world that operates by the values of liberality: openness, reverence, honesty, humility, gratitude and generosity, self-possession, solidarity. We need a world where people live honestly and lovingly in a mutual atmosphere of respect and solidarity.
We have to find, and inspire and activate the people who are willing now to live into the future -- who are willing to be the change that they want to see.
Those people are everywhere, in every city and town, in every ethnic and cultural group, of every religion, of every economic and social class. They are men and women and both and neither. They are gay and straight and all kinds of queer.
They are already living into a better future for us all, leaving aside the values of the grim and indifferent world that seems to be dominant now, but is dangerous and doomed.
But they need inspiration and support.
Unitarian Universalism is a faith community of mutual inspiration and support. It is only now growing into its possibility.
Its job now is to catalyze that world wide coalescence of people who can be persuaded to live by the virtues we need for a humane society. Our job now is to inspire people, especially to inspire ourselves to the reverence by which we hold the Earth and her people as sacred and worthy of awe and wonder. It is our work now to also hold us in our inevitable failures of judgement, nerve and courage, and let us start again. We are to be a community and a means of grace, and even a source of salvific knowledge, for it is not immediate obvious that this world is in the process of being reclaimed through us, by a power greater than us.
The present generation of Unitarian Universalists are anxious and full of self-doubt. They live in a world where they think that a 5% or 10% growth in our tiny numbers would be astonishing. They think that only those who understand their very peculiar historical path would be willing to join them. What they don't realize is that their very peculiar history has been a process of shedding everything that stands in the way of their universality. They now stand naked, shorn of dogma, shedding their ethnicity and class, clothed only in their willingness to be open, to be reverent, to be in solidarity with others, to embrace the limits of their knowledge, to hold to their own self-possession. They are only afraid now of losing themselves in a rising tide of humanity committed to a better world.
Now is the time to be the change that we wish to see.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Principles, Virtues, Growth and Evangelism

I have been arguing that UU's ought to de-emphasize our "principles" as the basis of our moral and ethical work, and turn instead to promoting a set of virtues that make up liberality, or liberalism, or liberal religion.

I think that we ought to state explicitly that the purpose of our common religious life is to promote reverence, humility, self-possession, openness, gratitude, solidarity, and honesty as personal and public virtues.  I don't want to make them a code, so you may have a slightly different list, or different words, but you get the idea, I hope.

Our worship are public and inclusive rituals that inspire us to recommit to these virtues in our daily lives.  Our congregations are covenanted communities for the purpose of mutual inspiration of ourselves and others to make these virtues the defining signs of our character.

It doesn't much matter why people think that these virtues are important; it's that they do.  And it doesn't matter much how people understand how they come to them -- whether through introspection, detachment, divine grace, or intellectual clarity; it's that commit themselves to that process.  As long they understand that the process of personal and social transformation is on-going, uneven, and filled with trial and error, we are partners.

Principles are things that one believes in.  They are intellectual propositions.  It makes our work of growth and evangelism a process of persuading people of things they should believe in.  Which, of course, we don't like to do.  As much as we try to avoid it, we end up persuading.

Virtues are habits of the heart -- ways of acting.  Our work of growth and evangelism is inviting people to practice these virtues in their lives, and to reflect on the results and on the obstacles to them.  Our role is to inspire, more than persuade.

Concretely, and this is a distinction that others have made: Principles ask people to believe first, then belong and then behave.

Virtues turn that around: behave first, then belong, then believe.

What a difference it would make if we stopped the search for like-minded people, and just tried to inspire the people in our communities to adopt the virtues of liberality.  Suddenly, instead of thinking that the people who are our potential companions are a tiny group open to a particular set of religious propositions, we see that we are part of a much larger body of people trying to lead lives open-hearted reverence, honesty, humility, conscience and justice.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Persuading people to Principles or Inspiring them to Virtue

An excerpt from the sermon today -- delivered at the Greater Lansing UU Church.


I think that there are two different ways, probably many more, to approach morality.  I think of one path as being principle based.  The other virtue based. 

A principle based moralist starts from basic principles and then applies to the world and its problems.  

We understand this because, after all, Unitarian Universalism has for the last 20-30 years organized itself around seven principles, which are principles for action -- moral guideposts. 

They make the first "whereas" statement in our moral resolution making process.  

Take our first principle :  we affirm the inherent worth and dignity of each person. 

So we start with that 

"Whereas, every person has inherent worth and dignity, 
and 
"Whereas dignity for a person includes a decent burial after they died
and 
Whereas Tamerlan Tsarnaev is a dead person
Therefore 
Tamerlan Tsarnaev should be accorded a decent burial."

Ifyou are "principle-based", you logically work from the principle through the actual conditions we are in to come to what we think is the right thing to do.

Virtue-based moral thinking works differently.  

A virtue is a habit of the heart -- a character trait.  Kindness is a virtue, and we speak of such and such a person as being a kind person.   We would say that about a person who acts in a kind manner in most situations.  

You develop your virtues over your lifetime as your character develops.

Liberality is a particular set of virtues, it is a kind of character. And I  think liberal religion in general and Unitarian Universalism in particular inspire us to practice the liberal virtues, to make them an essential part of our character. 

What are the virtues I am talking about? 

The first is reverence:  reverence is character trait, not a belief. No matter what their religious beliefs are, anyone can feel awe and wonder.  Really, it doesn't matter why someone would want to bow before the wonders of this world, but that we do.  Reverence sees the amber waves of grain in a loaf of bread, and marvels at all happened on the way to your toaster this morning. On Sunday morning we gather to reawaken reverence within us.  There hardly a page in our hymnals which is not a reminder to stop and see again the wonder in the ordinary around you. Why? Because we believe that those who practice the virtue of reverence are happier, healthier and make the world a better place. 

The genius of Unitarian Universalism is that we figured that you don’t have to have a particular belief system to be inspired to awe, wonder and reverence. So, we offer these services to anyone and everyone who needs a little inspiration to reverence this week. 

We want other virtues to be part of our characters:  honesty, living the real world, and humility, knowing that we think and know is partial and that it's not about me, all the time.   And we are trying to develop the twin virtues of gratitude and generosity, that we give and receive whole-heartedly and joyfully.  

The virtue of openness, open-mindedness, open-heartedness, being eager to see things in a new way, or to encounter the diversity with the world with curiosity and eagerness.  This is a key component of liberality, a virtue that is very important to us as religious liberals.  in some ways, it is the one by which we want to be known, and the one where we monitor ourselves most closely.  We want to be welcoming, and check ourselves often to make sure that we really are welcoming.  We hold ourselves to high standards on that.   We know that we cannot predict every situation where we will have to be open-minded and open-hearted, so we know that there is no code of behavior that will always result in being open.  But if we have developed the virtue of openness, we hope that we will respond with openness in any situation we find ourselves. 

Another virtue that is very important to liberal religion is self-possession:  we think that it is important to think for ourselves, and especially that we are able to think for ourselves when we are in stressful situations, or times when the crowd is headed in the wrong direction.  You have to be you, everybody else has been taken already.

And finally, I think that we are trying to develop the virtues of empathy, solidarity, compassion, kindness, or mercy.  That we never become indifferent to other people, to how they feel, to what they need, to how they are suffering.  That we never harden our hearts.  That we hold off on our judgements, and that no matter how we have judged them, we show mercy to them.  

We come together on Sunday morning, I believe, to make a space and time for each one of us to recommit to the virtues of liberal religion.  We may believe different things, and we may tell different stories, but we are each inspired.  

There are so many people looking to be inspired. It is not complicated or hard:  if you want to be more reverent, more open-minded, more generous and more grateful, if you want to be more compassionate and merciful, and more self-possessed, come here and help us inspire each other to live a better way -- why? because it makes us happier, and healthier and the world a better place.