I’ll Take Door #4

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As I mention elsewhere on this site, UUs try to live by Seven Principles or ethical guidelines. These are not creeds or statements of faith but aspirations of behavior. A covenant, a promise, of how we’ll behave with each other. The one that caught my interest when I first started going to church was the Fourth Principle―we affirm and promote the free and responsible search for truth and meaning. It seemed absolutely revolutionary to me. It is revolutionary.

My personal theory is that the Fourth principle is the one that ropes most of us in. So many UUs are refugees from other faith traditions―and its still so early in the denomination’s history―that we can be surprised to meet someone born-and-raised. Many UUs are, theologically, the walking wounded, bearing the scars of dogma that made no sense to us, or worse, actually harmed us. How many Christians, or former Christian, women would like to string Paul up by the cajones for creating a culture of second class citizenship for us? I recently heard a Jewish UU talk about the liturgy of his youth in which every prayer just seemed to be a competition for which could most highly exalt god―the Highest on High, the Almighty Lord, most Holy of Holies. This became nothing more than a barrier for him against connecting personally with this divine, this source, this god.

So I think a lot of UUs come limping in on the crutch of the Fourth Principle and only, over time, as we heal these wounds and begin to discern our own theology, do we open to the rest. I also think we focus a lot on the word free over the word responsible when we first begin our search. I’ve had some interesting conversations with folks who’ve expressed their frustration with a sense by people outside the denomination―and sometimes within it―that for UUs, anything goes. That we’re ok with anything and, hence, don’t really have a discernible moral compass just be cause we don’t have definable dogma. Relatedly, they worry about cultural and religious misappropriation. Worry that in our free yet not very responsible search, we UUs stroll through other world religions like our own private gardens―admiring the pretty colors while ignoring the thorns, picking randomly hear and there, the flowers that we like best. I think this is a fair and reasonable concern. On the other hand, I like what Sera Beak has to say on the subject of “Miz Appropriation” in The Red Book (pg. 34-36):

“ . . . many traditionalists and politically correct types believe that such divine face-lifting is very disrespectful. They argue that it’s just horribly inappropriate to take part (or even all) of a religious practice, belief, or deity from a well-established religious tradition (as I did with Kali) and use it for one’s own selfish, pseudospiritual, or psychotherapeutic needs. I’ve heard it all: It’s theft. It’s misappropriation. It’s imperialistic and neocolonialist. It’s Western-centric, white woman-centric, horribly individualistic, highly egotistical, abusive, and, along with a host of other negatives, just plain wrong.

Ironically, I used to strongly agree, at least intellectually, with parts of these arguments. I knew that these perspectives, although somewhat uptight, provided the belief systems in question with an important theological weight in the West, especially in regard to their effort to control the rampant shallow consumerism that is often applied even to things spiritual throughout American culture.

But what do you do when the spirit becomes stronger than the rational brain? When divinity ignores what is “proper” or “culturally appropriate” and just shows up in whatever crazy form you need most? This is what happened to me. Here I was, plodding my way through grad school, intellectually tsk-tsking those who “misappropriated” spiritualities, but then I’d close my eyes at night and get my head chopped off by Kali in a crazy dream. . . . Should I have shut off all this divine twinkle? I sure as hell tried to, at first. But deep down, I knew I was missing out on what these energies were trying to teach me. I finally learned, despite my initial resistance, the importance of not limiting how the divine shows up in my life and, perhaps most important, not judging how it shows up for others.”

Share something of your search for truth and meaning. If you’re a UU, what principle spoke most to you in the beginning? And how do you think those adjectives in the Fourth Principle, free and responsible, should influence that search?

The Road: Part II

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When I was 15, I ran from my Episcopal church as fast as my legs would carry me. I think its something of a source of amusement to my family that I’m now the only one that goes to church.

As I got older I pondered more and more the human invention of religion. I imagined God shaking Its head and laughing, as perplexed by many of the rituals and dogmas that humans create as I was. Other times I imagine It weeping over our fragility and hope and need and suffering. I imagined these things in my head but in my heart, I didn’t believe there was anything there watching the chaos.

For more than two decades I didn’t go to church except in foreign countries. I love the architecture. I always felt at home in cathedrals. The immensity of the silence. The feeling of all those people building something together (I tried not to dwell too much how many of those people lost life and limb in the endeavor, or were simply worn down by a lifetime of work building a cathedral). Since the services were in a foreign language, it meant I could ignore the dogma and the pissed off feeling it always evoked in me as a child. Even though I couldn’t understand the words, I knew when to stand and when to sit. I knew when they were saying the Our Father. I’ve been to church in Paris’ Notre Dame, at cathedrals in Madrid, Cologne, and Santa Fe, NM, in the Duomo and in Santa Croce in Florence, at the cathedral in Siena (my favorite), the mission in Santa Barbara, CA.

Most of my life, I continued to find the idea of religion beautiful while the reality proved sometimes mind-numbingly boring, sometimes offensive and destructive. Almost any one who’s studied history can go off on a long, long rant about the horrific-ness of the Crusades. Almost anyone who saw those planes fly into those Towers, who watched people jump from them rather than go down with them, must wonder how anyone claim to do something like that in the name of “God.”

One day in my 30s, I found myself in a deep and unrelenting depression―in therapy and on meds―and I knew that something in me was crying. I’d been pursuing a Masters in Medieval Studies and noticed that all my classes were in religion. I thought about how often I visited churches and it occurred to me that the something in me that was crying was my soul. I walked by a church everyday on my way to work, wondering what the heck Unitarian Universalism. One day, instead of walking by, I walked in.

Are you part of a spiritual community? If so, what kind? If a church, mosque, or synagogue, include a link. Maybe a coven or humanist discussion group? Or maybe you’re part of a hiking group. What does being part of a spiritual community, however you define that, mean to you? How does it challenge you? Support you?

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Remembering

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“All knowledge is remembering.”
­-Plato, Meno

I was sitting in church the other day, listening to a sermon about the tension between wanting to be happy and wanting to be “good.” At some moment, the minister was talking about Joseph Campbell’s oft-quoted advice to follow our bliss. We Americans have certain ideas about how, exactly, bliss is defined. I’ll tell you right now that my definition includes Hagen Däz Peanut Butter and Chocolate ice cream. But Campbell was thinking more of the Pali word that we might translate as “nature.”

Follow your nature and you will find your bliss.

In fact this is not a revelation. We’ve heard it many times, in many ways. It is essentially the theme of the entire self-help aisle and at least 50% of Oprah’s programming. The problem is we get a lot of other messages too―from TV, movies, magazines, our families, and our culture―that drown out this simple, profound, and true advice. And so we need to hear it over and over and over, just to have a chance at holding on to it. That’s why the self-help aisle keeps selling.

And if asked I would say this is one of the myriad reasons I go to church. Remembering. Church helps me remember what I already know but forget over and over.

Not only does it help me remember that if I follow my true nature I will find my bliss. It also reminds me what my true nature is―under those layers of grasping and looking out for myself and all my insecurities. When I am reminded of my true nature, I find I quite like myself.

What do you do to remind yourself of your true nature? What is one of the things you like about your church/synagogue/mosque/pagan circle/hiking club, etc? What is one of your valuable takeaways?

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The Road: Part I

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As I mentioned in the first post of this blog, I thought of myself as an atheist for a significant portion of my life. When I became a UU I tried to live up to the denomination’s ideal of open-mindedness and converted to agnosticism.

But I was raised low Episcopal. Many of the trappings of Catholicism but none of the fun as far as I could tell. No incence. No confession to lighten the load of childhood misdemeanors―I was just going to have to walk around with the guilt after that time I shoplifted from the Five and Dime. No saints to ask for advice, towatch over me. And as a girl, for better or worse, no whispering to Mary in the dark (I say that cogniscent of the harm her spector has caused so many of my Catholic sisters).

Part of me desperately wanted to be Catholic, like my best friend Guilaine, who parents were from Haiti. I was secretly jealous when I went to Mass with her and she could take communion but I couldn’t because I hadn’t been confirmed yet. I grasp the irony of this for a girl who didn’t believe in God and who spent most of her time in church not merely bored, like most kids, but actively pissed off.

Of course I didn’t know then how messed up the Catholic Church could leave some people. All I could see was what seemed like beauty and mystery, and maybe even a little magic (an opinion which, I’m sure, would have horrified the CC).

In my Episcopal pews though, despite the array of drawing implements and paper my mother always supplied, I spent most of my time at a low boil, which threatened to spill over whenever I had to stand for the creeds, those statement of beliefs that―as I later learned―separated our version of Christianity from everyone else’s, staking out our turf as the “true” one.

I didn’t, in fact, believe in the communion of saints or the forgiveness of sins. I didn’t believe in sin at all. And I sure as hell didn’t believe in Jesus Christ as the son of God, in the intricate convolutions of “begotten, not made” and “of one substance with the Father” and the incarnation through Mary. The whole Trinity debacle. I mean WTF? Who the hell made that up? And what is the Holy Ghost anyway? No adult seemed to be able to answer that for me or even be willing to tackle it. I’m sorry but when you tell me a baby has to be baptized for the remission of sins―a baby!―you’ve lost me. And the Christian church lost me early and over and over again, any given Sunday. I knew in my young brain that nothing like this system could possibly be right. It seemed, in fact, so ludicrous that it also must mean that God couldn’t really exist. This is what my adolescent brain festered on every Sunday.

My parents and I had an agreement. Church and Sunday school every Sunday until confirmation and then the choice was mine. And at 15, with the oil still glistening on my forehead, I hauled ass down the aisle in my beautiful white dress and patten-leather Mary Janes as fast as was decently possible. Basta!

What tradition were you raised in? Did it bring you comfort? What questions did it prompt in you? How did it affect your world view? How did it shape your notion of the divine?

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Comprehensible Human Justice?

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“In Polkinghorne’s description of the world physicists know, I began to hear about a
cosmic extension of the morality tale of Genesis. Every minute aspect of the living world,
he said has free will―not just human hearts and minds, but animals and plants, storm
clouds, cancer cells, tectonic plates. This sets up a constant jostling, competition and
collision between strong given natures, and inevitable shadow side to creation. There is
suffering, and there are losers, and there is muddle. But Polkinghoren adds that quantum
physics as it has evolved is describing something more ‘supple’ and ‘subtle’ than a world
merely left to the restless inertia of natural laws. It sees a back drop of interplay between
order and disorder, between patterned structure and open possibilities. Multitudinous life
functions in its essence and moves forward relentlessly―human beings breathed; grass
grows; storm clouds gather. But there are also places of randomness, openings in fixed
processess, that might have implications for something like prayer. The laws of nature make
room for human action and possibly for God to act in time and space.”

―Krista Tippett
Speaking of Faith (pg. 86)

“Now I understand that God is not just rooting for the [humans]. We and our vermin all
blossomed together out of the same humid soil in the Great Rift Valley, and so far no one is
really winning. Five million years is a long partnership. If you could for a moment rise
up out of your own beloved skin and appraise ant, human and virus as eually resourceful
beings, you might admire the accord they have all struck in Africa.”

―Barbara Kingsolver
The Poisonwood Bible

“It was a memory, he seemed to say, that challenged the belief of his childhood, not in the
existencev of God, but in a God who practiced comprehensible, human justice.”

―Tracy Kidder
Strength in What Remains (pg. 150)

BME (before my experience), when I was an atheist I didn’t really think about why things happened, since I didn’t tussle over questions of free will or predestination or “God’s will.” Biology was the answer to why people died of disease, bad timing covered why they got hit by buses, and messed up psychology covered things like the holocaust, grinding poverty and power struggles answered Rwandan genocide.

I thought those answeres might change AME (after my experience). But in the end they didn’t all that much. I still don’t really believe in a God whose got Its fingers in our pies. Deciding who lives or dies. Answers the prayers of some but not others. Letting these ones die of cancer or get hit by a bus or get raped and left to die in an alley while those ones over there It saves from similar fates. If God made me and It made the AIDS virus, who am I to presume I’m the prodigal daughter? As Kingsolver suggests in The Poisonwood Bible, perhaps we were all created equally resourceful. It goes to the presumption of understanding God’s motivation or even presuming It has motivation. It goes to the presumption of a plan, a purpose. Oh how we torture ourselves trying to divine Divine purpose.

Even BME I thought one of the best explanantions for God was a little thing George Lucas called the Force. A creative but not conscious force that flowed through everything and which we all had the opportunity to tap into if we so choose. We all stood in the stream of the force and it was our choice to keep standing there, to try to swim upstream, or to pick up our feet and float on down. The metaphor is a bit labored, but it still often makes a lot of sense to me. Except when it doesn’t . . . .

If you believe in God, where do you stand on the whole question of It’s involvement in the universe or, as Kidder asks, a “God who practice[s] comprehensible human justice.” What kind of decisions do you think God makes, if any? If you don’t believe in a God who’s in control, how do you envision how the universe “works”?

What’s in a Name?

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This blog is about religion and theology and ethics. About life, the universe, and everything.

So the word God is bound to get tossed around a fair bit. It’s a word I’ve been extremely uncomfortable with most of my life and one you rarely hear in a UU church. Well, one you rarely hear in my UU church anyway. We did a big congregational survey when we were searching for our new minister and we overwhelming described ourselves as Humanists. I believe earth-centered spirituality came in second. This to say, we’re not big God-talkers.

I lead a covenant group at my church. In many places this is called small group ministry, something used widely in the mega-church movement in order to create intimacy in large congregations. They are essentially groups of about 6-11 that meet monthly to discuss a particular topic like gratitude or forgiveness or service.

In April the topic was “Pray, Meditate, Contemplate.” I’d written the session and it was a conversation I’d been longing to have for some time. Why not just “Prayer”? Well because in a UU church not everyone prays since not everyone believes in something to pray to. During the “prayer time” of our service, our minister invites us to pray or meditate or contemplate ultimate things, as a way to cover all the bases. As might be predicted, there was lively discussion on this topic. But I had thought the lively discussion would center around the various practices people chose to pursue and why. I was wrong. In fact I am almost always wrong when I try to guess what our discussions might focus on, one of the multitude of reasons I love covenant groups so much.

In fact we spent a lot of time talking about names. What we call the divine, if we call it anything at all. God is a word that sent cold shudders through me for decades because it recalled the frustration I felt towards religion as a youth, as well as its present-day use by fundamentalists as a standard around which to rally the “saved” and a judge by which all legislation should be measured. For UUs the word God seems to be utterly co-opted by the conservative right. BME (before my experience), it is not a word I said comfortably, if at all. But over the last year I have begun to reclaim it. Phrases like “the Divine”, “Spirit of Life” or “the Creative Force” suddenly just don’t cut it for me anymore.

But when I used the word God in my covenant group discussion, it immobilized some people. They admitted that just hearing the word put up a big wall that made it difficult to participate in the conversation, even though God wasn’t the stated topic. It wasn’t a road block I had expected, though I absolutely understand these feelings. Just because I’ve been able to free the word from so many associations―the wrathful vengeance of the Old Testament, the judge of Revelations, the voice of Sarah Palin and Pat Robertson and Rick Warren―I understand why it still affects many UUs so profoundly. I want to help reclaim the word God for progressive churches, and for my progressive movement in particular, for those who care to use it. I’m not really sure if this is possible. Or even necessary

What do you call the Divine, if anything? What associations do you have with the word God?Do you think the word God needs reclamation by progressive faiths? If so, is it possible or too late? Does new language need to be created? If you’re visiting here from another faith or denomination, what’s you’re response?

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What’s it all about?

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I used to blog, somewhat haphazardly, at a wonderful little cyber-community, first called Zaadz, then called Gaia, for about three-and-a-half years. In March 2010 the economic recession had its way with Gaia and that IP address is now a dead-letter office. The community is trying to reform but it seemed the opportune moment to create something more intentional.

Although I was a self-avowed agnostic/atheist for my first forty-one years, I have held a life-long fascination in and with religion and spirituality―an insatiable curiosity about what others believe regarding life, the universe, and everything (to quote the awesome Douglas Adams). Several years ago I began attending a Unitarian Universalist (UU) church because I was hungry for spiritual growth, though I didn’t know what that would look like for an atheist. UUs have no dogma, require no confession of a creed. Its members support and encourage each other in the individual search for truth and meaning. My particular church leans heavily towards Humanism, though I may see glimmers of that changing.

In the spring of 2009, after four years as a UU, the most unexpected thing in the world happened to this old unbeliever . . . . I had a personal, real-time, mystical experience of God. Many things in my life have fallen away since then, other things taken up. But what remains is the overarching question, “Well, now what?”

This blog is a contemplation and a conversation. I admire, to the point of obsession, Krista Tippett’s amazing radio show “Speaking of Faith.” I’m sure I will reference it far more than anyone wants to hear. I freely admit that I hope to have some similar conversations here, thought perhaps of a slightly more personal nature, about  spirituality, religion, theology, ethics, and finding our way through this life as best we can.

Although I feel like I know things I didn’t know BME (before my experience), I don’t feel like I suddenly have the answers. Far from it. A million more questions have, instead, been unearthed. And while, I believe there are universal truths, I paradoxically also believe there are individual truths that are equally valid, equally powerful. I want to hear your truths as much as I intend to work out my own in this space.

Namaste and blessed be,
a cUrioUs gUUrl

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