Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Theological Reflection

You may be here because of the commentary that arose from one of my more flippant Facebook posts.

I said: "I'm in that kind of mood when I want to tell people caught up in the spiritual significance of today being the shortest day and this the darkest time of the year to just turn on the lights and get on with their life." 

And I posted a picture of a light switch.  I would have labeled "Darkness Dispersal Device" but that would have been too much work, and probably overkill in explaining the joke. 

Anyway, much commentary ensued -- some silly, some very serious, but all missing my point, which I will now over-explain. Bear with me, please. 

We do theological reflection. It's our main duty as ministers. We think about the events and circumstances of the lives around us and draw out the connection between them and the conceptions of our highest values and ultimate realities of our religious tradition.

We have to be aware of the direction of the flow of meaning that we are demonstrating. Our purpose, if we are to be relevant, is to bring the wisdom of the religious tradition to the real, pressing and felt issues in the lives of the people we are ministering to. We do this to bring comfort and clarity to people. 

It is not  our purpose to show that the issues in our congregants' lives prove the relevance of the religious wisdom we hold. 

Our 21st century lives are not fodder for sermon illustrations to prove the relevance of ancient texts. 

No, our job is to marshall whatever wisdom of the ancient texts that is actually useful to the lives of  of our friends, neighbors, congregants and bring it to them. (And if the ancient texts are not useful to lives today, then to not try to force them to fit. See Ephesians for ancient and bad advice on how to have a successful marriage.)

Now, to the subject at hand. The point of my comment is that the length of the day, the length of the night, the number of hours of sunlight in a day are not pressing issues in the lives of most of the people we know. Thomas Edison, Lewis Latimer and the Rural Electrification Act have made the length of light per day a non-issue for most people in our ministerial settings. [Winter is, but cabin fever doesn't really set in until weeks after the winter holidays. Preach, if you must, about the crankiness that besets us in early March, when the snowdrifts are blackened heaps, slowly melting to reveal layers of frozen dog poop, and your housemate went in the basement two weeks ago to "check on something", didn't return, and you don't care.]

But the length of day (and the Solstice) gets talked about, though, because it is an observable fact that is connected to some religious traditions.  It gets talked about not to bring comfort and clarity to the pressing issues of the people, but to teach them about religious traditions that they do not know. It also gets talked about now, because it is the holiday season and some religious leaders to not want to have to talk about you know who.

The flow of meaning is going in the wrong direction. It's using theological reflection to speak to a problem which is not a problem. Which is why a smart-ass will ask, "Why don't you just turn on the lights and get on with it?"

Saturday, December 19, 2015

The Fear of Death

Events that vividly remind us of our mortality push people into extreme stances.

The attacks in Paris and San Bernadino inflame Islamaphobic bigotry, because people have been reminded that there is the possibility that might die at the hands of a radicalized Muslim militant. The vividness of the reminder overwhelms empirical risk assessment. We have a far greater chance of being killed by a lightening than being killed in a terrorist attack.

From what I read and hear, it appears that the energy of the Black Lives Matter movement is being driven by the constant reminders that any black person may be killed by police in any situation. I have read people who sum up their demand as simply "Stop Killing Us."

And what about the random, mass shooters? Every time we see another on the news, we are reminded of the possibility of our own death. It is one thing to think of one dying some far off day of old age or disease. It is another to think that it could come today because you were in the wrong movie theatre.

The fear of death starts a search for a solution to find safety again.

The remedy for the fear of the death has been, and still is, the transcendent - what is it that gives life meaning no matter how it ends?

"Keep Calm and Carry On." These are words not heard on the Republican Debate stage last week. Notice, though, that the words appear under a crown, a symbol of the transcendent nation of Britain. No matter what happened to you personally, your life or death was subsumed into the preservation of Britishness. Carrying on calmly was your role in a greater drama, and knowing that brought both clarity and comfort.

The crown and the nation are atavistic, backward looking and dangerous agents of transcendence. There are those who would love to post these posters everywhere but replace the crown with the flag. Among conservative politicians the desire to play Churchill is comically obvious.

But we know that the nation and the flag are not transcendent. We have the experience of the first decade of this century, when 9/11 brought up a resurgence of transcendent and mystical patriotism that was exploited for senseless war, partisan gain, corporate profits, and the ambition for presidential greatness. Again, it is comically obvious that these small men and women want to be a great war-time President in whom the frightened nation places its trust. The only obstacle is that we apparently are not quite frightened enough to be that desperate.

How do I name the transcendent that give me hope against the inevitability of my own death, even if my death is not a "good death", in a bed, at home, surrounded by loving friends and families? How do I name the transcendent that makes bearable the possibility that I could die violently at dinner in a cafe on a Paris vacation?

I tremble at the question I am asking.....

I know that the easy answers, God and Country, are not really transcendent but brand-names by which I am to be seduced and dragged backwards. I know that there is a God beyond the God conventional preachers talk about, but that seems awfully theoretical to me, except as seen in the humanity beyond the humanity that we see.

I look to humanity's urges toward love, and justice, and solidarity. O, they can be so weak, and so easily misdirected, and thwarted. Really, about the one thing that you can say about them is that they are resilient. And that is enough for me.

I have a sometimes dim faith that no matter what happens to me, even the worst possible, there will be human beings who respond with a resilient love and desire for justice. If I die of a disease, there will be those who research a cure, there will be someone who comforts my family, there will someone who makes of my life an inspiration or a warning to benefit the young. If I die in a burst of random hatred, there will be those who lay a flower in the street to help heal a community, and there will be someone who seeks a dialogue across the battle lines, and there will be someone who raises a righteous protest.  My dim faith is in the humanity beyond the humanity I usually see, and it does suggest to me a God beyond the God our tribes usually claim.

I will give witness to the particular fact of my life story -- that my dim faith in the resilience of human love was formed in my faith tradition of Unitarian Universalism. I would not create a new Keep Calm and Carry On poster with a flaming chalice above the words. Far too narrow and sectarian.

But I would make one with a broken heart at the top, for broken hearts still carry on, and still love.

It is what lets me keep calm and carry on, unafraid.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

White, Angry, Male and Old

OK, the base of the Donald seems to be old, angry, white, and male. Not exclusively, but still.

And not everybody who is old, angry, white, and male. Me, for example, and a lot of my friends and acquaintances.

So why not?

I have to believe that my faith formation has made a huge difference.

I grew up in a UU household; my parents had converted from a liberal, social gospel oriented Baptist faith just before I was born.

I grew up in UU churches, attending UU Sunday schools, daydreaming and squirming through UU worship services and sermons.

I grew up being taught, and learning again and again, that the world was not fair, but should be, that every person should count, but does not, and that it is simply wonderful when people came together to change life for the better. These were not just my conclusions from observing events; I was instructed in them by my parents and my faith community. They were taught to me; you could say that I was catechized in them as articles of faith.

I was disillusioned with Unitarian Universalism for decades. But it was not I did not believe what it taught me. I was appalled that it seemed that the UU's I knew did not actually believe what they said they believed. But Bob Dylan nailed that kind of disillusion, "I was so much older then; I'm younger than that now."

Today, I am contrasting the faith I was taught and the promise that white supremacy has made to white people in the USA.

The promise that white supremacy makes to white men is that you are the equal of any politician, corporate leader, celebrity, or tech billionaire. This is America and you are as good as anybody. You are in the world's inner circle, and not everybody is. In return, "work hard and play by the rules." Compliant willingness to be exploited.

Whatever the church, or no church, the real religion of much of white America is a faith in the promises of white supremacy. And that faith is being proven to be untrue. The vast inequality between the 1% and the rest of us tests that faith. And instead of being equal to the elites, white men must accept equality with those they had thought below them.

Our work and mission are the religious tasks of evangelism and conversion. We must persuade people that to put one's faith in the promises of white supremacy is to build one's house on sands that will be swept away by history. We have to testify that our faith has not left us bitter and vengeful. We have to convert people.

It will be hard work.

But it matters what we teach the young.