William Zellner is a sociology professor at East Central University in Oklahoma, and his story began in the fall of 1991, when a local newspaper asked students, “Who is the worst professor on campus?” One girl, a member of a fundamentalist Christian church, answered, “Dr. Zellner. I don’t take his classes because he’s an atheist.” Now when Dr. Zellner found out, he merely thought, Okay, don’t take my classes. Nothing to worry about. I’ve never had a problem filling classrooms. But then horrible things started to happen. He started receiving anonymous notes from students under his door, damning him to hell. A fellow professor sent him a seven page letter, accusing him of being in league with Satan. Threatening phone calls were made to his home, insisting that he and his family get out of town. One church made up campaign-style buttons which read “I am praying for Dr. Zellner,” and they sold for a dollar each. His car was vandalized to the tune of $543. Worst of all, his daughter, six years old at the time, lost playmates. And his nine-year-old son was physically attacked during a little-league baseball game, all because his Dad was an atheist.
That’s Dr. Zellner’s story. Story of shameful prejudice and bigotry. How many of you have friends to which this sort thing has actually happened? Or it’s happened to you?
What we have in America is a knee-jerk dislike of atheists. We Unitarian Universalists know this much to our dismay and regret. A recent Washington Post article spells out the details: “Those who don’t believe in God are widely considered to be immoral, wicked, and angry. They can’t join the Boy Scouts. Atheist soldiers are rated potentially deficient when they do not score as sufficiently ‘spiritual’ in military psychological evaluations. Surveys find that most Americans refuse or are reluctant to marry or vote for nontheists.” And on and on.
No wonder there are some atheists who are angry, who fight back in “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” fashion—“end of faith” atheists like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens who espouse rigid, rampant intolerance against anything that’s NOT atheism, whose “one way, one truth, one life” mentality is just as narrow and fundamentalist as the bigots who attacked Dr. Zellner, except they’re going in the exact opposite direction. And many fellow atheists vehemently oppose this, including the great Carl Sagan. He writes, “The chief deficiency I see in the skeptical movement,” he says, “is its polarization: Us vs. Them—the sense that we have a monopoly on the truth; that those other people who believe in all these stupid doctrines are morons; that if you’re sensible, you’ll listen to us; and if not, to hell with you. This,” says Carl Sagan, “is nonconstructive.”
Definitely it’s nonconstructive for us in this congregation; in fact it blatantly contradicts our purpose as Unitarian Universalists, which is to create beloved community in which people don’t have to be alike or think alike to come alive. That’s a new way in this world full of polarizations of one kind or another—“one way, one truth, one life” ideologies constantly clashing, giving each other hell. But not here. We’re building a new way. “Give them not hell, but hope and courage!”
The world needs more of it. Especially our atheist brothers and sisters. For in this world, at least in the American world, there are as many as 60 million people who are nonbelievers. That’s the finding from one recent survey. A fifth of the population! And they, like everyone else, are just trying to get an honest handle on life, trying to come alive in a way that has integrity for them. Which is so hard to do in the face of widespread bigotry and prejudice, or when your profoundest sense of life—that there is no God who’s gonna take care of us, so we need to take care of each other—is co-opted and made into a rationale for yet more religious warfare.
What I want to accomplish today is to push aside the prejudice and push aside the reverse fundamentalism and get to a place that is far more quiet, far more profound—the heart and spirituality of atheism (or “humanism,” but I stick with the word atheism because that’s the word best understood outside these walls). And to go even one step further—to show that the atheist form of spirituality is one we can all learn from, no matter where we happen to stand on God and the supernatural.
Are you ready?
Here we go!
First thing to look at is language. “Spirituality.” Gotta come clean right off the bat about how that’s a word many atheists might struggle with. Say the word, and what springs instantly to mind are beings and forces from other mysterious realms: gods, spirits, angels, cherubs, angry father gods, suffocating mother gods, ascended masters, and on and on, perhaps even a flying spaghetti monster or two…. So when I say, “spirituality of atheism,” some of you out there might be sitting back going, “Yes, Rev. David, do tell….” “Really want to hear THIS.”
But listen to what atheist philosopher Robert Solomon, in his wonderful book Spirituality for the Skeptic: The Thoughtful Love of Life, does with that word. Clear away all the supernaturalistic connotations, and look at what’s left. “Team spirit” or “spirit of the times,” for one thing, suggesting that spirituality is inherently social, the undeniable yearning in us for a sense of connection with others and with the larger world. Then there’s “spirits,” as in high-alcoholic beverages—the image here is drinking in life to the full, reveling in it, being set free from whatever inhibitions prevent us from joining in. Spirituality is about feeling connected to something larger than one’s ego—feeling opened up, rooted in richness, being set free, enjoying life to the full. We feel this—we yearn for this—whether or not we’ve ever had a sense that there’s a Higher Power, a directing uber-force to the universe, or invisible presences that companion us.
Even if God goes, this does not mean that spirituality goes.
Perhaps that’s why, historically, we encounter full-blown religions that espouse versions of atheism. Therevada Buddhism is one of them. Here’s a story from that tradition to consider: “One day a man named Malunkyaputta questioned the Buddha about the need to have certain answers to the big religious questions of life. Shouldn’t ultimate happiness depend upon having certain answers to important questions like, Does God exist? Or, Do we survive bodily death? In response, all the Buddha said was this: “It is as if … a man had been wounded by an arrow thickly smeared with poison, and his friends and companions, his relatives and kinsfolk, were to procure for him a physician … and the sick man were to say, `I will not have this arrow taken out until I have learned the name of the man who wounded me.’ Or again if he were to say, `I will not have this arrow taken out of me until I have learned whether the man who wounded me was tall, or short, or of middle height.’” That’s what the Buddha said. Life is urgent, and the spiritual quest for healing and wholeness doesn’t have to be held hostage to beliefs. For 2500 years, Therevadan Buddhism has produced communities of spiritual seekers coming alive to love and compassion, and belief in God has never played a part in that.
This, I think, is the first gift to all of us out of the spirituality of atheism: a broader definition of spirituality that can create common ground between what appear to be insurmountable differences. Theists, on the one hand, and atheists and agnostics and humanists on the other, can all be growing into a deeper sense of meaning and purpose, and in that sense, they are equally spiritual, despite the different ways they might go about it. What divides them, in fact, is far less than what divides the person who seeks more love and justice in life from the person who is apathetic, who is self-centered, who just doesn’t care. Seen from this perspective, theists and atheists are on the same side, they are on the same team. But it’s atheism that helps us to this insight.
Atheism has things to teach everyone. It is a spiritual way of coming alive.
But now let’s get deeper into this “way.” Beyond a rejection of God and the supernatural, beyond a broader definition of spirituality, what does atheism affirm in a positive sense?
For one thing: the free-mind principle. Reason. It’s about counteracting ignorance and superstition keeping people in bondage in one form or fashion. From the free-mind principle so much follows: the separation of church and state; the advance of science; the support and preservation of a free marketplace of ideas; the nurture of a quality educational system that teaches people of all ages how to think critically and well—to tell the difference between truth and “truthiness.”
That’s one thing atheism positively affirms, and here’s another: reverence. Philosopher Paul Woodruff describes reverence as a basic human capacity (found in all cultures and all times) to appreciate and be in awe of things larger than oneself, like one’s family and community, or ideals like justice and mutual respect. Which means that reverence is also a capacity for feeling shame, when arrogance and pride have caused us to think that we are the center of the universe, or that other people are accountable to ideals like justice and mutual respect, but not me! And when someone else comes across all high and mighty, all puffed-up? Reverence can express itself in the form of irony and humor. It can lead us to mock pretentiousness, like Voltaire did, or like Stephen Colbert does in our day (thank God!)
Atheism affirms reverence. It invites awe at the greatness of the world in which we live. It’s our responsive reading from earlier:
Ponder this thing in your heart,
life up from sea,
Eyes to behold, throats to sing,
mates to love
Life from the sea, warmed by
sun, washed by rain,
life from within, giving birth,
rose to love.
What a mystery we live within! And how awe-inspiring to think that, through hundreds of millions of years, the world went on unheard, unseen, silently eating, giving birth, dying, until human consciousness was born, and now, we are the ones, we are the ones who give voice to all this, we are the precious eyes and ears, we are the witnesses!
Don’t tell me that “this world is not my home, I’m just a passin’ through!” Don’t tell me that! (I say this even though I’m a theist, I believe in reincarnation, I believe all that stuff! But atheism teaches me a better attitude towards the here and now.) Just don’t tell me “this world is not my home.” The thought lacks reverence!
And now the third of atheism’s affirmations: ethics. “My fate and your fate,” says Unitarian Universalist atheist Mark Hertzog, “are to a great extent bound together. It may be enlightened self-interest after all—the next person in trouble could be me—but I think it is more than that. As an atheist who believes there is no god who is going to take care of us, I am far more conscious of our need to take care of each other and this fragile environment in which we make our home—and far more conscious that, if I don’t do something that something is not going to be done.” I mean, you listen to a voice like this, and set it side by side with the widespread stereotype that atheists are somehow immoral, and it makes your head explode. Fact is, atheists tend to be more ethical than their God-professing counterparts. If you want to find the states with the highest murder rates, for example, just look at church attendance. The higher they are, the more murders.
(ok waitaminute… Now I’m suddenly realizing that what I just said might take us down a rabbit hole…. I’m not saying stop coming to church, OK?)
But you get my point. Ethics—making the world a better place—is a burning passion for atheism. Consider all our human potentials for love, for reason, for compassion and ethics, for creativity and the appreciation of beauty, for self-transcendence and service: but how are they going to become real if a person has no home to sleep in, no food to eat, no family situation that is secure? How is it going to happen when poverty and racism cripple people’s freedom—when consumerism and affluenza wither the soul? How’s it going to happen?
That’s why an atheist’s true prayer is this-worldly service. Why, for example, the atheist might be driven crazy by the remarkable indifference of so-called right-to-lifers to family services, educational facilities, and child welfare laws—to all that would ensure the health and well-being of children in THIS world. They do everything to prevent abortions from taking place, but when the new life is born, that’s it. Hands off. “This world is not my home, I’m just a passin’ through!” But that’s not reverential, to the atheist. It’s not ethical.
There’s a fourth thing that atheism affirms—we can’t finish without acknowledging it: community. Theologian Anthony Pinn puts it this way, “There is nothing behind the symbol God. In its place, I affirm the idea of community. It is in community that we are encouraged to develop our full human potential and overcome oppression.” I am because WE are. You and I get to be here, atheists and theists and all sorts of whats-its in-between, because WE are. Community. It’s where we feel the music of life most intensely, and we dance. We are carried out of ourselves, connected to something larger. If the Spirit of Life is truly anywhere, it is in our relationships, in our friendships, in our loves.
This world IS our home, says atheism. We aren’t just passin’ through. This is IT! So carpe diem-—seize the day! Open ourselves to every moment with reverence, because we trust that every stage of life has its unique inherent worth and dignity, and we can expect something meaningful to come our way even if it’s full of pain and sorrow, even if it spells our end. Life is like wine, so drink it in deeply. Life is like a dance, so let the music move you, let it harmonize you to the movements of another, get lost in the revel.
[T]he dancers go round (says a poem by William Carlos Williams)
they go round and
around, the squeal and the blare and the
tweedle of bagpipes, a bugle and fiddles
tipping their bellies (round as the thick-
sided glasses whose wash they impound)
their hips and their bellies off balance
to turn them. Kicking and rolling
about the Fair Grounds, swinging their butts, those
shanks must be sound to bear up under such
rollicking measures, prance as they dance…
That’s what atheism can teach all of us: rollicking passion for THIS world (whether or not there’s another), unstinting intensity for THIS world, love of THIS world, courage for THIS world, THIS precious life.
If ever there was a story that captures the religious predicament of humankind throughout time, it’s that of the blind men and the elephant. There is a great mystery called an “elephant” six people have heard a lot about, but because of the human condition (which the story symbolizes as blindness), they are incapable of ever seeing it completely and as a whole. One day this great mystery elephant comes near where they are, and each has the opportunity to put their hands directly upon it. They do that, and each comes away with a piece of the truth which is more like poetry than anything else. Metaphor. The great mystery elephant is like a wall or a spear or a snake or a tree or a fan or a rope. All true—but none capturing the whole truth.
At this point the story shifts to the issue of human relationships—what people do with their separate pieces of the truth. And here the story is less optimistic. Humans are simply built for community, but we also know that pieces of truth have a nasty tendency to make people quarrel. For my piece to be true, yours must be false. Six blind men who have somehow forgotten they are blind, and there is no indication in the story that the quarreling ever stops.
Not a happy ending. But if there is anything that Unitarian Universalism has faith in, it is that the story need not end like this. “We are here dedicated,” says the Rev. David Bumbaugh, “to the proposition that beneath all our differences, behind all our diversity, there is a unity that makes us one and binds us forever together, in spite of time and death and the space between the stars.” That’s what I want to talk about today: this unity which binds Unitarian Universalists together. A unity of understanding about the nature of sacred reality; and a unity of spiritual practice. Unity, in spite of all.
Start with the unity of understanding about the nature of sacred reality. Three main things to say here.
The first is this: our Unitarian Universalist conviction that the spiritual meaning of the universe is open. Part of this is due to the sheer BIGNESS of God. We put our hands upon God, in our blindness, and come away with images of walls or spears or snakes or trees or fans or ropes. More to the point, some people address a cosmic conscious personality in prayer and feel responded to; others meditate and experience nothing personal but rather a simple sheer unity of all things; still others experience a world in which there are many, not one, sacred forces with conscious intent. And on and on. Different people experience all sorts of different things—and this may very well owe to the fact that the great mystery elephant has lots of different places where we can grab ahold of it. A side, a tusk, a trunk, a leg, an ear, a tail. Where sacred reality is concerned, it’s both/and, not either/or. We must not underestimate its subtlety, its complexity, its paradoxicality.
Sacred reality is not one way—it’s open, ambiguous. And contributing to this is of course our own human diversity. We don’t all observe the world from the same place, or with identlcal understandings. Some of us can be up on the balcony; others of us can be on the floor. Unitarian Universalist author Kurt Vonnegut makes this plain in his book Breakfast of Champions, when he says of the main character, Kilgore Trout: “Kilgore Trout once wrote a short story which was a dialogue between two pieces of yeast. They were discussing the possible purposes of life as they ate sugar and suffocated in their own excrement. Because of their limited intelligence, they never came close to guessing that they were making champagne.” Now I have a feeling that the conversation between the pieces of yeast was fairly grim. But does this grimness lose its validity in the face of the ultimate champagne result? I say no—it faithfully reflects where the pieces of yeast were. Have to honor that. But the champagne result is important too, and lifts up the significance of it all, gives it a direction. On difficult days when we are feeling too much like the pieces of yeast, it’s healing and hope-inspiring to remember that there’s some kind of champagne in the making, though we may have no idea at the time what it might be!
We’re talking openness of spiritual meaning in the world, because of the sheer SIZE of God, together with the diversity of human perspective. And Unitarian Universalists celebrate this. People who are theistic, people who are atheistic, people who are agnostic—all kinds of people—are welcome in our congregations. This fact about us is nothing less then scandalous to some, to others confusing and perplexing, but for us, it flows out of our integrity. What is sacred is too big to be captured by any one creed or way. And one-size-fits-all religion makes for some mighty uncomfortable spiritual clothing for everybody.
This leads very naturally to the second Unitarian Universalist conviction about the nature of sacred reality. That sources of truth are many. We believe it. Even though no single religion or way captures the whole truth about sacred reality, still, each one has a piece of it. It’s just like a jigsaw puzzle. The more pieces we have, the more of the whole we can experience. “We receive,” says the Rev. Sara York, “fragments of holiness, glimpses of eternity, brief moments of insight. Let us gather them up for the precious gifts they are and, renewed by their grace, move boldly into the unknown.”
As Unitarian Universalists, we formally acknowledge the manyness of truth sources with our statement called, very simply, “The Six Sources.” Goes like this: “The living tradition which we share draws from many sources: (1) Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life; (2) Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion and the transforming power of love; (3) Wisdom from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life; (4) Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves; (5) Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit; and (6) Spiritual teachings of Earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.” I love it! We absolutely stand within a tradition of abundance. Ours is a spirituality of adventure!
And what’s especially cool about this listing of sources is how in it we can read our growth over time as a religion. It all starts with the fourth source, Judaism and Christianity. Originally Unitarianism and Universalism were beliefs that some of the earliest Jesus followers had and held dear. Unitarianism said that God is one; Jesus is not God but rather a man who lived a truly God-inspired life; Jesus saves not by virtue of his death but by the example of his life, if we live as he lived. Universalism, on the other hand, said that God is like the father of the Prodigal Son in the scriptures, and it does not matter what our sins are—God in the end will never turn a soul away. There is no such thing as eternal hell.
2000 years ago, this is what our religion was: two precious beliefs held by people who were in the end declared heretics. It was only with the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century and beyond that these beliefs started to take institutional form, and people called themselves Unitarians or Universalists. In America, the first Universalist church was founded in 1780, and soon after that, in 1794, was the founding of the first Unitarian church.
For these religious communities and the ones that followed, the overarching mandate was connecting with God’s truth which, for most of our history, took the form of applying reason towards the interpretation of the Scriptures. That’s where spiritual wisdom resided. Yet our communities were also connected to the larger world and to developments in scholarship, social conditions, and international relations. All these would eventually lead a Unitarian pastor named Ralph Waldo Emerson in the mid-1800s to go way beyond the sensibilities of most people in his time and say, “Live after the infinite Law that is in you, and in company with the infinite Beauty which heaven and earth reflect to you in all lovely forms.” Essentially, Emerson was saying that revelation can’t possibly be contained just within the Hebrew or Christian Bible. The wellspring is fundamentally within each of our souls; revelation bubbles up out of the spark of the Divine in our depths. Add to this the revelation of nature, as well as the revelation embodied by the Bibles of many times and lands, such as Hinduism’s Bhagavad Gita. This is what Emerson said, as well as his circle of friends and colleagues whom history calls the Transcendentalists. Transcendentalism would come to infuse many of our congregations in the later 1800s, such that it became regular practice for Unitarians and Universalists to aspire to direct experience of the Mystery, to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature, and to read the Hebrew and Christian scriptures side by side with the Bibles of many lands and times.
Beyond all this, add Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species: publication of this in 1859 hit our congregations like a meteor; and subsequent progress in science and technology taught us that we could not in all good conscience say we were a truth-seeking people unless we added science as one of our formal sources of knowledge and wisdom.
Finally, the early 20th century saw the rise of humanism, which envisioned the healthy and responsible spiritual life as one without conceptions of God or an afterlife or anything smacking of the supernatural—one that relied upon humanity and human efforts and our usual five senses alone.
All our Six Sources are evident in this whirlwind tour of our history of growth over time; and whereas from the 1950s to the mid-1980s humanism was our central and main source, today we are a fully pluralistic people and aspire to draw from all sources in robust ways. Individual Unitarian Universalists will have their favorite Sources, for sure (you know who you are!); but as a community, our proper and right commitment is to welcome them all.
Now let’s pause for a moment and see how far we’ve come. What started us off was that lovely quote from the Rev. David Bumbaugh: “behind all our diversity, there is a unity that makes us one and binds us forever together, in spite of time and death and the space between the stars.” So far we’ve been exploring part of what makes up this unity—a unity of understanding about sacred reality. The spiritual meaning of the universe is open. The sources of truth about the sacred are many. Now we turn to a third conviction, that the test of an idea’s truth is how it changes lives. Also very much a shared Unitarian Universalist conviction. We’ll look at this, and then finish up by exploring some of the ways we Unitarian Universalists put all this into personal and communal practice. Are we blind men fated to never get to champagne? Fated to get stuck in that miserable phase that comes right before? Let’s see!
But first: the test of an idea’s truth: how it changes lives. Doesn’t matter who says it, where it comes from, how respected or rarified the pedigree. Not origin, but consequence. Not roots, but fruits. Sometimes we are talking theoretical consequences, as in, does the idea or practice extend existing knowledge? Does it help us connect the dots more simply, or more comprehensively? But all the time, we are talking practical consequences, lifestyle consequences. Truth allows life to flourish and brings people and planet together in harmony; whereas falsehood denigrates life, violates our relationships, destroys our world. “In the end,” says the Rev. John Morgan, “it won’t matter how much we have, but how generously we have given. It won’t matter how much we know, but rather how well we live. And it won’t matter how much we believe, but how deeply we love.” That’s it! Truth takes us into the Spirit of Life, which is a Spirit of richness and creativity and love and forgiveness and compassion and activism. That’s where we want to go!
And this is the context within which another major statement of our faith tradition needs to be understood: our “Seven Principles.” We use the Seven Principles as a yardstick with which to measure the degree of truth in us. Here’s what it sounds like:
Unitarian Universalist congregations seek to affirm and promote (1) the inherent worth and dignity of every person; (2) justice, equity and compassion in human relations; (3) acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations; (4) a free and responsible search for truth and meaning; (5) the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large; (6) the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all; and (7) respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.
To the extent that we do this, and empower individuals to do this wherever they happen to go, our faith has power and validity and TRUTH. This is what we believe. Individual Unitarian Universalists will disagree on the question of whether an actual afterlife exists, or an actual, literal heaven. But as for whether we want to bring heaven to earth, and make this world a better place now—we believe!
But how exactly does that happen? What does a Unitarian Universalist’s personal practice look like? And how do we come together as community, pull together and not apart?
Unitarian Universalism envisions the spiritual life as a lifelong journey in which people never stop learning. We have permission to make mistakes. We have permission to believe things that later turn out to be false. This too is progress. There is never a point where we can say, “I’ve arrived!” June Bell, a Unitarian Universalist activist in Scotland puts it like this: “I believe not just what I like, nor what I am told is true, but what I can. That truth I see is not necessarily the same today as yesterday, nor tomorrow, but part of my spiritual journey through life.” I love this quote, especially because it illuminates how Unitarian Universalists come to their personal beliefs. Our religion itself holds back from dictating specific theological conclusions (about God’s existence and the like) because it knows that all such specific beliefs are way too important to be answered for us by someone else or something else. We must come to our own detailed answers, in our own good time, for them to be truly meaningful. And the genuine answers we come to, which are truly ours: hard won. It’s a true spiritual discipline, not for the faint hearted. For some people who are not Unitarian Universalist, the hard part about religion is believing stuff you know ain’t true. For us, in our religion, the hard part is listening to our lives and getting unstuck from hardened attitudes and prejudices; the hard part is dwelling in ambiguity without being overwhelmed or paralyzed by it; the hard part is maintaining deep commitments which are also open-ended. Not for the faint-hearted! But we believe that this makes for a healthier spiritual life for people who are ready for it. It’s the journey. It’s the process, says the Rev. Timothy Haley, “of becoming more whole—of living more fully, of giving and forgiving more freely, of understanding more completely the meaning of our lives here on this earth.”
And we journey together. That’s something else to take special note of. We journey together, but in a way that we believe is best for supporting the individual’s growth in community. That way is called covenantalism, in contrast to creedalism. Now creedalism basically says that the best way to organize as a group is everyone believing in the same things, down to the details. To this way of thinking, you can’t really have a religious identity otherwise. Identity means uniformity. Covenentalism, on the other hand, is when a group organizes itself around shared values and purposes and practices, and leaves the details of particular beliefs to individuals themselves. Through covenentalism, we learn that we need not think alike to love alike. Through covenentalism, the six blind men can find a way to talk about their separate pieces of the truth and to do it in a way that leads not to quarreling but further learning and growth. Building more and more of the cosmic puzzle. Champagne! “The religious community is essential,” says the Rev. Mark Morrison Reed, “for alone our vision is to narrow to see all that must be seen, and our strength is too limited to do all that must be done. Together, our vision widens, and our strength is renewed.”
One aspect of our Unitarian Universalist covenantal way is called “freedom of the pulpit/freedom of the pew,” and a key quote on this comes from a remarkable man known as King John Sigismund of Transylvania, the first and only Unitarian king in history. In 1568 he said, “In every place the preachers shall preach and explain the Gospel, each according to his understanding of it, and if the congregation like it, well. If not, no one shall compel them for their souls would not be satisfied….” It means that if you saw my statement in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution this week decrying House Bill 87, which was co-signed by practically every Unitarian Universalist pastor in the entire state of Georgia; which pulls no punches and describes the bill (which Governor Deal is probably going to sign) as racist, neither workable nor fair, as bad for business, as reflecting Georgia politicians acting far beyond the bounds of their proper jurisdiction, as potentially costing millions of dollars in litigation fees, as reflecting fundamental spiritual blight—is you saw all this—how I am calling that bill straight out a WALL—and you said to yourself, Nuh-uh, I don’t agree—guess what? You get to. To be in this place, you don’t have to agree with the preacher. You are on a spiritual journey, and so am I, and as I speak out of the integrity of my experience and understanding, I can only hope that there will be many points of meeting. But sometimes we won’t meet. And that’s OK. I’m still your pastor, and we are united by a larger spirit of love. I say wall, and you say spear, and Rev. Keller here says snake, and Don over there says tree, and on and on. But our covenantal way makes it all work. We can go straight to champagne.
There is just so much beauty in this world. There is so much pain and sorrow. Unitarian Universalism wants to create a Love and Justice people, a Spirit of Life people, who can witness it all faithfully, and live courageously and creatively. So we say, The spiritual meaning of the universe is open. We say, There are many sources of truth. We say, Truth is known by how it changes lives. We say, The spiritual life is a journey. We say, The best way to support a person’s growth over time in community is through covenant, not creed. We say all these things. This unites us, in spite of all. In spite of time and death and the space between the stars. It gathers us every Sunday, and all through the week, and we love it. We want it. It energizes us. Fires us up. “Be ours a religion which, like sunshine, goes everywhere.” This is what we say, with the Rev. Theodore Parker. “Be ours a religion which … 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.” We are a Spirit of Life people!
What are ten things that all Unitarian Universalists need to know about their faith community? Ten things that are distinctive and unique? Each month we’re counting down, from Number 10 all the way down to Number 1, as a way to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Unitarian Universalist Association, in May 2011.
This month, we’re looking at item number 6, which is the title of not only one of the best loved pieces of liturgy in Unitarian Universalist congregations around the world, but also is a popular name among Unitarian Universalists for the Sacred. Number 6 is “Spirit of Life.”
Listen to what Kimberly French, writing in the UU World, has to say about “Spirit of Life” the hymn: “No other song, no other prayer, no other piece of liturgy is so well known and loved in Unitarian Universalism…. It is our Doxology, or perhaps our ‘Amazing Grace.’ Many congregations sing it every Sunday, or at least enough to know the words by heart. Sermons have been devoted to this one song. A new adult religious education curriculum being field-tested this fall is based on the song. It is sung at weddings and memorial services, around campfires and at demonstrations, at cradles and hospital bedsides. In six short lines “Spirit of Life” touches so much that is central to our faith—compassion, justice, community, freedom, reverence for nature, and the mystery of life.”
Spirit of Life, come unto me.
Sing in my heart all the stirrings of compassion.
Blow in the wind, rise in the sea;
Move in the hand, giving life the shape of justice.
Roots hold me close; wings set me free;
Spirit of Life, come to me, come to me.
Kimberly French is right. For me, there is something about this song that sends shivers up and down my spine. The kind of Unitarian Universalism that matters is the kind that does exactly this sort of thing—gets under your skin, becomes a part of you. “Spirit of Life” does this for us.
In her UU World article, Kimberly French also said this: “[‘Spirit of Life’] finds the common ground held by humanists and theists, pagans and Christians, Buddhists and Jews, gay and straight among us.” I think she’s right about this as well—not just about the song, but also the language in itself. “Spirit of Life” is language that is rich enough to speak to people whatever their personal theology happens to be. It’s theological common ground. For most everyone, if not all, “Spirit of Life” can name those things that bring hope and renewal to us, as well things that inspire wonder, awe, and reverence.
It certainly worked out that way for the writer of the hymn, Carolyn McDade. Kimberly French tells the story of how the song was originally written. “Late one night in the early 1980s, [Carolyn McDade] was driving her close friend Pat Simon home from … a meeting for Central American solidarity, probably at a college. What she remembers most clearly was the feeling she had. ‘When I got to Pat’s house, I told her, ‘I feel like a piece of dried cardboard that has lain in the attic for years. Just open wide the door, and I’ll be dust.’ I was tired, not with my community but with the world. She just sat with me, and I loved her for sitting with me.’ McDade then drove to her own home in Newtonville. ‘I walked through my house in the dark, found my piano, and that was my prayer: May I not drop out. It was not written, but prayed. I knew more than anything that I wanted to continue in faith with the movement.”
For Unitarian Universalists, “Spirit of Life” has become our name for whatever brings hope and renewal to us, whatever inspires wonder, awe, and reverence. Whatever keeps us from dropping out. Whatever keeps us keeping on.
That’s number 6 in our Unitarian Universalist Top Ten countdown!
Rev. Anthony David
I begin with a quote from writer Oscar Wilde: “Children begin by loving their parents; as they grow older they judge them; sometimes they forgive them.”
I begin with this because Christianity is the direct spiritual parent of Unitarian Universalism, and as such, we bring to it the same kind of “stuff” we might bring to understanding our own parents. Even if, as individuals, we have good stories about our experience of Christianity, we are still influenced by the collective status of our faith tradition, which is this: just 50 years old. From the perspective of other world religions, 50 years old is miles away from maturity. Miles away from adulthood. We’re more like a teenager whose very real dependence upon his elders can at times feel utterly humiliating. “Mom!!” whines Unitarian Universalism at its Christian roots. “Mom, stop embarrassing me!” The reason is developmentally appropriate and understandable: we are trying to stand on our own two feet, as the independent post-Christian, more-than-Christian religion we are becoming. We are busy establishing our own traditions and rituals and stories and symbols and on and on. But we can go overboard in our quest for independence. We can think everyone else has wisdom for us, but not Mom. Not Dad. No way!
So we’re trying to do something very difficult this morning: to see our parent with an open heart and a clear mind, despite our collective teenage tendencies. And doing so is urgent. Every other world religion is of course important to us; and Judaism is our grandfather and grandmother. But Christianity is our parent; its specific DNA is ours. We just won’t grow as a people until we find ways of being ourselves even as we accept how our parent has gotten underneath our skin and we say some of the same things it says and we do some of the same things it does. We just won’t thrive as a religion until we honor our parent’s hard-earned wisdom despite all its other shortcomings which we’ve seen up close and know only too well.
So we start with the Jesus story we heard a moment ago. Goes like this: Jesus went out and saw a tax collector named Levi sitting at the tax office, and he said to him, “Follow me.”
So Levi left everything, and rose and followed him. Levi made him a great feast in his house; and there was a large company of tax collectors and others sitting at table with them. But the Pharisees and their scribes murmured against his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat with tax collectors and sinners?” And Jesus answered them, saying, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire compassion and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”
That’s the story, and I have to say, it reminds me of one of those old pictures in my Mom and Dad’s photo album that’s odd and needs explanation. Why did you care so much, that you kept the picture?
One reason is this: It gives us an authentic glimpse of rabbi Jesus. Fact is, Jesus did not say everything or do everything that the Christian Bible says he did. That’s why today’s biblical scholars are hard at work discerning who Jesus the rabbi really was and what he really said, as opposed to what was put into his mouth, for one reason or another. But there is consensus on Jesus’ practice of table fellowship. Jesus eating with the “wrong” people is considered to be one of the most historically reliable actions recorded in the Gospels. It is utterly and uniquely Jesus.
But what made the tax collector and others sinners “wrong”? Why was it so radical to share a meal with the “wrong” people? In Jesus’ day, being a sinner meant that you were not following Jewish ritual law (or “halakha”) and so were forgetting God in your life. Break a religious rule (like taking too long a walk on the Sabbath, or not observing the ritual washings before eating) and you became impure. Belong to a certain kind of social group (as in, you are a tax collector or a shepherd or a gentile) and you were, by definition, impure. Didn’t matter if you were, ethically speaking, a really good person. Didn’t matter what was in your heart, or the kindness of your actions. Right mindfulness of God—purity—was all about following religious law. Now, couple this with the additional insight that, in the Middle East, to eat with another person is to signify acceptance on a very deep level, and we have our answer: rabbi Jesus eating with the wrong people telegraphed the radical message that God doesn’t care about the purity system. Absolutely nothing separates us from the love of God. Doesn’t matter who you are, or what you do. Love wins.
Now I don’t want you to go away thinking that the Pharisees were heartless. Phariseeism was a first century religious movement in Judaism that contained within it a lot of diversity, and the story portrays Jesus confronted by some hard-liners. What made them hard-liners was the larger culture war they were fighting with Rome. Jew after Jew was giving up the traditional Jewish way of life in favor of taking up Roman habits, Roman patterns of thought and dress and relaxation. So the Pharisees looked to Jewish law as a way of fighting back. Jews would save their way of life if they resisted the temptations of Rome and practiced Jewish religious law faithfully. That’s how God’s chosen people would survive. In short, the hardliner Pharisees believed that Jesus was betraying his own culture and helping to erode the entire Jewish way of life.
The Pharisees had their reasons. But so did Jesus. For Jesus, it all had to do with his experience of God. That experience trumped every other consideration. “Go and learn what this means,” he says to the Pharisees: “I desire compassion and not sacrifice.” We just don’t get the radical quality of this statement until we know that the word “compassion” in Aramaic—the actual language Jesus spoke—meant “womblike”: God is like a mother’s womb, God is life-giving, God is all-encompassing, all embracing, all inclusive.
So when Jesus sees the tax collector Levi who by virtue of his social class is impure, Jesus says, “Come follow me.” How could he not? Jesus will happily eat with this man, he will happily eat with the “wrong kind of people” because that is what the Kingdom of Heaven is like, the Kingdom that unites all that the world in its cruelty divides, the Kingdom that shakes up all our understandings of right and wrong, the Kingdom in which the King himself comes to us in the form of the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the poor, the sick. “Whatever you do for one of the least of these,” says Jesus, “you do for God.”
This is why the story of Jesus eating with Levi the tax collector is a keeper. Christianity our parent shows us this page of its photo album proudly. Absolutely nothing separates us from the love of God. Doesn’t matter if you are the “wrong” kind of person. Love wins.
And now we, Christianity’s child, turn the page. The snapshot here is of the Apostle Paul, who was instrumental in the growth of the Christian faith and whose influence on Christian thought has been arguably greater than any other New Testament author. In the picture we see Paul teaching a group of people who are not Jewish, with his hand upraised and his mouth open. A caption underneath the picture says, “There is one Lord … Jesus Christ.” That’s all the caption says. But what does it mean?
Today, we are very familiar with this Christian language of Jesus as Lord, Son of God, Savior of the world, whose story comes as a Gospel, or Good News. But most of us have forgotten the context out which Paul spoke. In Paul’s time, the only other person ever described in such terms was the Roman Emperor Augustus. Augustus as a Roman emperor was considered divine and called Son of God, Lord, Redeemer, Savior of the world, Lord of history, cosmic Savior, God of God. Everywhere you looked—coins, cups, statues, altars, temples, and forums—you saw it. It was the Roman imperial theology, and, as scholar Keith Hopkins points out, it’s how Rome unified all its conquered lands: “The stories told about emperors,” he says, “were the currency of the political system, just a coins were the currency of the fiscal system. […] The unity of a political system rests not only in shared institutions, taxes, and military defenses, but in shared symbols, in the minds of men. Emperor cults, and all that they involved … provided the context in which inhabitants of towns spread for hundreds of miles throughout the empire could celebrate their membership of a single political order and their own place within it.”
It’s Roman imperial theology. Peace comes only through the Roman way of life, which was rigidly hierarchical, with the Emperor at the top of the pyramid, then wealthy men right below. Only these people had inherent worth and dignity, and everyone else was used to serve them. The people at the base: women, poor men, slaves, the conquered. People at the base controlled, subjugated, humiliated. No compassion. Women in particular relegated to home, silence, and childbearing. Nothing egalitarian about this at all. But it was the way of Rome, the way (said Imperial theology) to a unified empire, the way to true peace. Fight Rome on this, and it’s go-time, it’s war.
Imperial theology also said that “no one shall have gods to himself, either new gods or alien gods, unless recognized by the state.” That’s Cicero talking. Follow any God you want, in other words, unless that God starts disagreeing with Rome. Believe as you like, until you start believing that it’s OK to share a meal with the wrong kind of people, that God actually cares for the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the poor, the sick. Follow a God like that, and, says Rome, you’ve fallen into superstition. Romans did not understand that word like we might today. For them, superstition wasn’t so much about irrationality as it was about beliefs and actions that undermined the power that the Emperor and wealthy men had over everybody else.
So you can imagine what Rome felt about Paul and his proclamation that Jesus is Lord. Paul’s non-hierarchical egalitarian teaching, inspired by his Lord, that “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Everyone has inherent worth and dignity, not just some. Teachings like this made Paul and every person who received them criminals. Calling Jesus Lord—following a different vision of peace—was treason. And we already know how Rome responded—with bloodshed.
But Christianity spread anyhow. Jesus’ Kingdom message of radical hospitality—his Kingdom message of peace through Justice—would not die. People at the base of the social pyramid, suffering the greatest miseries under the thumb of Rome and its imperial theology, found their lives transformed. Justin Martyr, one of these early Christians, who lived around 70 years after Jesus’ death, testified, “We who formerly valued above all things the acquisition of wealth and possession, now bring what we have into a common stock, and communicate to everyone in need; we who hated and destroyed one another, and on account of their different manners would not live with men of a different tribe, now, since the coming of Christ, live familiarly with them, and pray for our enemies.” Today, two thousand years later, most forms of Christianity seem totally defined by right belief—if you don’t believe the right things you don’t belong. But back when the religion was young, and finding itself, what attracted convert after convert wasn’t right belief. It was the Christian community’s vision of justice and radical hospitality. “Wrong” kind of people, all over the world, under the thumb of Rome, wanting to be accepted for who they were. Churches knew what their true purpose was back then. To recreate that experience in Levi’s home, where Jesus is sharing a meal with anyone who’s hungry. Where love wins.
This is our parent at its finest. Christianity our parent. Behind and beneath our Unitarian Universalist Seven Principles is the inspiration of Jesus’ welcome table, the memory of those ancient churches which were more about love to God and love to humankind than dogma and doctrine. This is our parent’s undying gift to us, the child.
But now the page turns, to this picture.
What we are seeing is from the 6th century, about 450 years after Paul was murdered by Rome. Paul is here joined by a women named Thecla. Both are of the same size, and according to the logic of iconography, it means that they are of equal importance. Both have their right hands raised in a teaching gesture, meaning that both are of equal authority. But do you notice how the eyes and upraised hand of Paul are untouched, while Thecla’s eyes and upraised hand have been scratched out? The message is clear: Paul’s and Thecla’s equality is unacceptable. Only the man gets to be an apostle. The authority women used to have should be taken away.
Just listen to what scholar John Dominic Crossan says about all this: “The authentic and historical Paul, author of the seven New Testament letters he actually wrote (Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, Philemon), held that within Christian communities it made no difference whether one entered as a Christian Jew or a Christian Pagan, as a Christian man or a Christian women, as a Christian freeborn or a Christian slave. All were absolutely equal with each other. But in 1 Timothy, a letter attributed to Paul by later Christians though not actually written by him, women are told to be silent in church and pregnant at home. And a later follower of Paul inserted in 1 Corinthians that it is shameful for women to speak in church, but correct to ask their husbands for explanations at home.” John Dominic Crossan concludes: “Those pseudo-Pauline, post-Pauline, and anti-Pauline obliterations of female authority are the verbal and canonical equivalent of that visual and iconographic obliteration of Thecla’s eyes and hand…. But both defacements also bear witness to what was there before the attack. Pauline equality was negated by post-Pauline inequality.”
There’s a lot going on here, so let’s pause for a moment. We are hearing several things: that the original Kingdom message of radical equality and hospitality in Christ was over time sanitized by Christians themselves. We are hearing that lots of words were put in Paul’s mouth, after he died, words that are directly counter to what he said in his authentic letters. We are hearing that the Christian church, which is supposed to enact Jesus’ practice of table fellowship, started to limit who was welcome.
It’s very rare when we see a picture of shame like this in a parent’s photo album. We don’t usually keep pictures like this. But here it is. Christianity, at some point in its growth, wanted to become respectable. Jesus is Lord, yes … but Rome’s not so bad after all. The conversion to Christianity of the Roman Emperor Constantine in 312CE proved to be a big factor in this. One of his main acts was to impose uniformity of Christian belief across his empire, which he did through the Council of Nicea in 325 CE. But if this isn’t Rome all over again, together with its sensibility of social control and rigid hierarchy, then I don’t know what is.
Fact is, neither people nor religions are undamaged by the circumstances of their upbringing. Christianity our parent recreated, over time, the very same oppressive dynamics that the religion originally aimed to transform and transcend. Imperial Roman theology is there every time we hear that salvation is only through the right kind of Christianity, never through the wrong kind of Christianity and definitely never through any other world religion or belief system. Rome’s logic of control is there whenever we hear the message that’s it’s not OK to have your own ideas and to believe as reason and conscience lead. Rome is behind the scenes when so-called Christians in our state legislature refuse to make room at the welcome table for the wrong kind of people, people like illegal immigrants (whose only hope is to create a better life for themselves, and if we can find ways of supporting them, the result can only add to our prosperity as a nation). But no! Rome says no. Rome is right there when so-called Christians in Congress make cuts to the national budget that punish women and their reproductive rights and punish the poor and punish the middle class (who are the least able to pay) because tax-cuts for the rich are hands-off, corporate welfare is hands-off, the people at the top of the pyramid (who are the most able to pay) are hands-off. The governor of Wisconsin blaming state employees and unions for the budget crisis, when the blame actually rests with Wall Street. State employees seeing salaries and benefits slashed and jobs cut, while Wall Street titans paid out more than $20 billion in bonuses last year, and Wall Street profits totaled more than $27 billion, the second highest total on record. In Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom of heaven, the King himself comes to us in the form of the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the poor, the sick. But in today’s America, too often we slam the door on the King. Right in his face.
This is the mixed legacy of our parent, Christianity. And over the years it’s given birth to many children who objected, who said, This is wrong. Lots of followers of Christ today, objecting. If ever there’s a religion that is well schooled in self-criticism, it’s Christianity. That’s where we come from. When our parent gave birth to us, one word was on our lips: REFORM. Go back, said our Universalist and Unitarian ancestors, to the vision of love wins. Go back to Jesus sharing a meal with the “wrong” kind of people, because nothing can separate us from the love of God, ever, in this life or the afterlife. No hell! Go back to Paul when he said, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female”—and then add to this: “there is neither gay nor straight, there is neither Christian nor Buddhist, there is neither atheist nor theist.” For all are one in the Spirit of Life, the Spirit of Love, which bears all things, hopes for all things, endures all things, is greater than faith, greater than hope, never ends. Love wins. Going forward, as a religion formed from the combination of Universalism and Unitarianism just 50 years ago, that’s what we say, and we say it because our power to say it is in our blood, in our DNA.
We flip one more page in our parent’s photo album, and look: there we are.
The two major scriptures of Judaism are the Tanakh and the Talmud. In the Tanakh we find such well-known stories as Adam and Eve in the garden, Noah and the Flood, the Exodus from Egypt, Moses delivering the Ten Commandments, David and Goliath, and on and on—it’s what Christians call (incorrectly, from the perspective of Judaism) the OId Testament.
As for the Talmud, this consists of no less than 63 volumes of Jewish wisdom teachings and tales, edited over eighteen hundred years ago and continuously added to over the centuries.
Both are part of what Judaism calls Torah, a word which means “teaching” or “guidance” and which brings to mind Hinduism’s concept of “dharma.”
It is from the Talmud that we receive today’s wisdom story. The time is the first century, during the Roman occupation of the land of Israel, and also when a fellow Jew named Jesus lived and died. A man comes to talk with Rabbi Shammai, says, “I would like to convert to Judaism and become a Jew, but I don’t have much time. I know I have to learn the entire book you call the Torah, but you must teach it to me while I stand on one foot.” Now this story is going to teach us a lot about Judaism, but it also teaches us about people in general. The man who comes to talk with the Rabbi wants a sound bite! He wants an elevator speech, an executive summary. Why does he feel so rushed? Does he have a Superbowl to go to? The more things change, the more they stay the same.
But that’s a striking image, isn’t it? Standing on one foot. Unless you’re a stork, or a yogi, it’s not a very stable position. What is the story really trying to say about this man who wants to convert to Judaism? I’m going on about this because the Talmud is a subtle teacher, and much is between the lines. A rabbi from our time, Adin Steinsaltz, who is widely considered to be a genius—the first person in a thousand years to single-handedly write a complete Talmud commentary—says that “we kiss the Talmud before studying it and when we finish, but while we are studying from it, we pound it!”
Needless to say, this is a religion that values scholarship. The life of the mind is spiritual practice. Underlining is spiritual practice. A Yiddish proverb says it like this: “A table is not blessed if it has fed no scholars.”
Back to the story. The man in search of a religion comes to Rabbi Shammai, and it doesn’t go well. Rabbi Shammai happened to be a quick-tempered and impatient man, strict in his views, and to him, the sound bite approach to his religion was absolutely not going to cut it. He knew that people spent years learning the Torah, and perhaps the most important part of this learning isn’t available from a book. When Moses received the written law on Mount Sinai, it is said that alongside this written revelation was an oral one, meant to help interpret the written law, passed on by word of mouth, community wisdom. To plug in, you have to be part of this community. Community, in fact, is the starting point and the purpose for the entire religion. What was created at the foot of Mt. Sinai, after the Exodus from Egypt, was a holy people. And keeping these people on the straight and narrow is what the religion is all about. This is what Rabbi Shammai knows. So he pushes the man away. Pushes him with a builder’s yardstick—and this little detail in the story reminds us that the Rabbi had a day job. He was a builder of homes. That’s what he did.
But the man in search of a religion, God bless him, is persistent. Doesn’t let Rabbi Shammai rain on his parade. Perhaps it’s because he is so inspired by things he’s already heard about Judaism. (Of course—otherwise he would not have sought out Rabbi Shammai to begin with. We shouldn’t underestimate him.) One of these things probably had to do with the unique character of Judaism’s God, and religion scholar Huston Smith, in our study text for this year, The World’s Religions, says it well: “The Greeks, the Romans, the Syrians, and most of the other Mediterranean peoples would have said two things about their gods’ characters. First, they tend to be amoral; second, toward humankind they are preponderantly indifferent. The Jews [however] reversed the thinking of their contemporaries on both these counts. Whereas the Gods of Olympus tirelessly pursued beautiful women, the God of Sinai watched over widows and orphans. While Mesopotamia’s Anu and Canaan’s El were pursuing their aloof ways, Yahweh speaks the name of Abraham, lifting his people out of slavery…. God is a god of righteousness.” That’s what Huston Smith says. Judaism’s conception of the Divine was very different from that of its neighbors, and not just because of its monotheistic affirmation that God is one. God is also good, God is ethical, God cares. In the Tanakh, from the book Isaiah, chapter 58, we read, “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.”
The man in search of a religion wants to know more about this God, unlike any other God he’s ever heard of before. So he does what today we would call congregation shopping, church shopping. Finds another Rabbi, who happened to be a woodcutter, Rabbi Hillel. And Rabbi Hillel is a completely different story. “Certainly,” he says, when the man lays down his strange condition—“teach me the essence of Judaism while I stand on one foot.” “Certainly.”
In the pages of the Talmud, this is not the only time in which Rabbi Shammai and Rabbi Hillel, the builder and the woodcutter, disagree. If we include not only their direct disagreements, but those between their followers, we end up with over 300 instances. All of them recorded in the Talmud. “It is,” says writer Arthur Kurzweil, “probably the only sacred document that objects to itself. Within the Talmud, you will read passages that object to the very point of view it had just expressed a moment before.” In other words, here is a religion that, like Unitarian Universalism, loves the questions and loves the disagreements and does not envision religious identity as a matter of unanimity of belief. To be a Jew, you don’t have to believe certain things. You don’t even have to believe in God! “To some people,” says Woody Allen, “I’m an atheist. To God, I’m the loyal opposition.” Rabbi Adin Steinzaltz puts it like this: “Every person has to, at some time, recreate Sinai for himself. We believe that the Law has at least 600,000 different paths within it for individuals to enter. There is what is called the ‘private gate’ for each of us. And we have to find our own gate.” Rabbi Steinsaltz also says this: “The Talmud has kept us sane by showing us that there are contradictions in the world and that we cannot solve them. We must learn to live with them.” Judaism’s argument, in short, is that religious identity can’t be a matter of everyone believing the same things because the Law is big, with many paths to enter in; people are different; and life contains contradictions that can’t be smoothed over. Because Judaism accepts differences of belief—because Judaism embraces questions and arguments and disagreements—it proves its relevance to real life. Says religion scholar Stephen Prothero, “What is required in Judaism is not to agree, but to engage.”
We see it in the pages of the Talmud. People engaging questions and issues of every size, from all sorts of perspectives. Rabbi Shammai’s perspective was characteristically strict, concerned as he was about the Roman occupation of the lands of Israel and how to keep Judaism strong and intact in the face of Roman cultural influences. Rabbi Hillel, on the other hand, did not share this concern, and so he was more liberal in his views. More open to people like our man in search of a religion. Yet the views of both are considered equally inspired and worthy. Said the sixteenth-century Jewish scholar Isaac Luria, “not only are both the words of the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel enduring on the conceptual level but each has its time and place on the pragmatic level as well.” Each has its time and place, and we pound the Talmud to get clear about which of its teachings can best fit here and now circumstances.
Back to the story. We’re near the end. Rabbi Hillel has the man stand on one foot, and then says, “Repeat after me. What is hateful to you, don’t do that to someone else.”
It’s a great answer, a great summation of Judaism, for two reasons. First, it’s in line with the God of Judaism’s character. Be ethical, because of the God of Judaism is ethical. Second, it echoes Judaism’s primary emphasis on practice—not to believe something, but to do something: tikkun olam, “repair of the world.” So the man stands on one foot and repeats it, and then what Rabbi Hillel says next is super sneaky. “That is the whole law. All the rest of the Torah, all the rest of the oral teaching, is there to help explain this simple law. Now, go and learn it so that it is part of you.” The end.
See how he’s sneaky? What he says is not so different after all from what Rabbi Shammai believes. For the Golden Rule to become a part of you, you’ve got to give yourself to the larger tradition that supports it and gives it meaning. Sound bites and executive summaries go only so far, and never far enough. It’s true of Judaism, it’s true of Unitarian Universalism, it’s true of anything. Armchair quarterbacks will never know what it’s like to really play.
Rabbi Hillel says to the man, “Go and learn.” If he follows the advice, then part of what he does is learn and practice the “halakha” of Judaism, which means way or path—the Dao of Judaism, if you will. The path consists of rules for living, including basic ethical guidelines like “you shall love your neighbor as your self” as well as detailed laws concerning all aspects of life like land ownership, civil and criminal procedure, family law, dietary restrictions, and sacred observances like weekly Shabbat, or Passover, or the High Holy Days. A rule for practically everything. 613 of them, found in both the Tanakh and the Talmud.
613! Now from the perspective of the man who wants sound bite answers, this might sound absurd. What kind of religion is this? Give me unanimity of belief any day, over all these rules and constraints and spontaneity-killers! Yet I like how scholar Stephen Prothero illuminates the ultimate value of halakha. He relates a story about the last time he was in Jerusalem, and a Jewish friend was showing him around the city. “On two different days,” he says, “ I offered to buy him ice cream. In each case, because of the dietary requirement not to mix meat and dairy, he had to recollect when he had last eaten meat (his community’s rule was a three-hour wait.) This,” admits Stephen Prothero, “may seem irrational, but for him my offers appeared to engender Buddhist-style mindfulness, prompting him to be mindful of what he was thinking about eating and of what he had eaten in the past and when. More important, they prompted him to be mindful of God.” In other words, halakhic living brings transcendence to even the humblest activity. It’s how a Jew finds the sacred in the everyday. That’s how. Do that, and the spirit of the Golden Rule is never far way.
Go and learn, says Rabbi Hillel. And not just halakha. Learn also the history. Let the history of the Jews solidify the full import of the Golden Rule, what’s at stake, what it means. And if we the man does, if we do, what we learn is that the Golden Rule and all the rest of the rules come in the form of a covenant with God. Scholars say it happened around 1200 BCE, when Moses led the Israelites out of their brutal slavery in Egypt. Out from underneath the heavy hand of Pharaoh. Then the miracle parting of the Red Sea. Imagine now the moment when they all stand at the foot of Mount Sinai. Moses comes down after being with God high up in the mountain, he comes down bearing the sacred tablets of the Law. He comes down from the mountain, communicates the Torah to the Israelite elders and then says, to them and to all, wash your garments and be ready on the third day, for on that day God himself shall come down from Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people. And God does—thunder and lightning on the morning of that third day, a thick cloud over the mountain, a trumpet blast shakes the Israelite camp and sets everyone to trembling, and there is God. The people meet God.
And God says, “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagle’s wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.” In short, uphold the Torah and all its commandments, and God will preserve the Jewish people and make them prosper, preserve them upon the face of the earth. That is the promise.
At least one side of it. The other side, the implied, shadow side, is that should the Israelites fail to uphold the Torah and break faith with God, destruction shall come upon them, swift and deadly. Turns out, then, that the main story line of Judaism is covenant, then violation of covenant and exile, then return. We see this pattern played out over and over again. It’s not easy being a Chosen People. Thus, around 500 years after the Exodus event, after such leaders as Saul, David, and Solomon, Israel entered bad times. Bad leadership split the kingdom into northern and a southern halves. Into this moment in history steps a prophet like Amos. A prophet who saw the corruption.
A prophet who said to the corrupt Jewish rulers, Look, remember what life was like in Egypt? Remember how we had been treated by Pharaoh? Well, congratulations. The way you rulers are running things, it’s as if you had re-established Egypt right here in Israel.You have become just as brutal as Pharaoh. The Torah says we must treat the poor and the weak with dignity, but you have made them your slaves. You oppress them, you break their spirit, you kill them. And now that you have broken covenant with God, God will come down like a hammer. And indeed, the retribution came. The cost of disobedience was destruction. The Northern Kingdom was destroyed in 722 BC. The Southern Kingdom was destroyed in 586 BC. Break the covenant with God, and you are in trouble. God is a God of mercy, but also of justice. This is the fundamental storyline: covenant, then violation of covenant and exile, then return.
All this—the way of halakha, and the history—is what the man searching for a religion must go and learn, to make the Golden Rule a true part of him. The learning continues, even in the face of the Holocaust and questions about whether God is truly just or even exists. Even in the face of the Middle East crisis, where Israel and Palestine are locked in a state of mutual cruelty and crisis. Even in the face of all the contradictions in the world that we cannot solve and must somehow learn to live with. To be a Jew is just as Rabbi Abraham Heschel once said: “[To] remember that there is meaning beyond absurdity. [To be sure] that every deed counts, that every word has power, and that we all can do our share to redeem the world in spite of all absurdities and all frustrations and all disappointments. And, above all, [to] remember…to build a life as if it were a work of art.”
The man in search of a religion balances on one leg to recite the Golden Rule, but unless he commits to the larger faith supporting this rule, it’s as if he stays standing on that one leg, perpetually imbalanced, perpetually unsteady. The message is to us all. Only when he commits does he stand on both legs and stand firm, on solid ground. To only half-like something, or like it from afar, is to be half-baked. What is required in religion is not to agree, but to engage. What is required is to do practical and concrete things which bring heaven to earth and illuminate the sacred in the everyday. What is required is to belong to a history and a people larger than your single solitary self, and to share in both the sorrows and the joys, all the exiles and all the returns. Forever, in the pages of the Talmud, Rabbi Shammai and Rabbi Hillel disagree on many things. But on this—what it means to be truly religious—the builder and the woodcutter agree.
From Rabia of Basra comes today’s story, of the water pot and the thief. A true story, from more than 1200 years ago. A robber breaks into Rabia’s home, but to his eye, she’s got nothing worth stealing. There’s only a sleeping mat, a brick which is her pillow, a Quran, and the water pot she draws from five times daily, at dawn, noon, midafternoon, sunset, and at night, washing herself of life’s impurities so as to prepare for prayer. He’s about to leave, but what happens next is not what he or anyone would expect. Imagine a regular person in Rabia’s situation. Cringing in fear, or reacting in outrage and reaching for a weapon. Remember also that Rabia is a woman, and a man has just broken into her home. Very bad things are possible here. Yet what happens next is evidence of religion at its finest. Rabia acts from the place that Islam has taken her, which is a place of spaciousness. Rabia sees before her a human being with inherent worth and dignity. Rabia says, “If you are indeed a robber, surely you cannot leave empty-handed”—and then she gives him the practice of prayer. It seriously confuses him. Not what he was looking for. Not what he was expecting, at all. But the confusion works to open up the tightly shut door of his heart. He gives prayer a serious try, and it surprises him with joy. He experiences God’s forgiveness. He taps into the sort of richness that is worth more than even the most expensive trinket. He can have it all, freely. No need to steal, ever again.
Fundamentally, this is what Islam is all about. All people are ultimately in search of fullness and richness in life—we are driven by the ceaseless hungers of a restless spirit to find peace. But in the pursuit of this noble goal, we can be mistaken about how to actually go about doing it. We can use our freedom destructively. We become robbers. We break in and steal. Yet Islam says it does not have to be this way. The robber does not have to remain a robber. The robber can be transformed into a saint like Rabia. Islam says this universally, to all of us, but it also says it to itself. I’m talking internal crisis within the worldwide Muslim community of 1.2 billion people in more than 60 countries. People calling themselves true Muslims, but they are nothing like Rabia at all. They are radical, fanatical, extremist, terroristic, robbers of the faith—and even though they represent a minority of Muslims worldwide, they get most of the media spotlight, eclipsing the vast majority of people who are moderates or progressives and who are talking back to them, trying to take back their religion. Right now is internal crisis in the faith, and we need to talk about this as well. A tall order for today’s sermon.
We begin with the theme of transformation. How it happens. Listen to these Islamic wisdom quotes:
“The spiritual warrior is he who breaks an idol; and the idol of each person is his Ego” (Imam Abul Qasim al-Qushayri).
“Fight against your ego with the four swords of training: eat little, sleep little, speak little, and be patient when people harm you. Then the ego will walk the paths of obedience” (Yahya ibn Mu’adh al-Razi).
These quotes equate the mentality of the robber (from our story) with the ego: the part in us that separates us from God. Separation is the problem; separation is the motivator of actions and habits that try to heal the restlessness but only exacerbate it; separation is why our restlessness never goes away. So fight the ego. Eat little, sleep little, speak little, and be patient when people harm you. Another quote puts it like this: “When someone criticizes or disagrees with you, a small ant of hatred and antagonism is born in your heart. If you do not squash that ant at once, it might grow into a snake, or even a dragon” (Rumi).
And with this, what comes to mind is a snippet of dialogue between “Religion and Ethics” reporter Bob Abernathy and Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl, a Professor at the UCLA School of Law. “Professor El Fadl, the Qur’an is very clear about not killing innocent people. Why has it been so difficult for some Islamic leaders to condemn terrorism?” Dr. El Fadl’s reply: “Well, in many ways because they are human. The Qur’an is very clear about the prohibition against killing innocent people and against punishing people for the sins of others. The problem is that for many leaders, there is a sense that they are the victims of some injustice or another. There is a very strong sense of victimology, and when you have that sense of being aggrieved, people start finding creative ways to say well, I am actually not killing an innocent, I am killing someone who is guilty of something.” That’s the telling dialogue. Terrorism is a dragon born of an ant of hatred and antagonism not squashed. Ego running rampant. Self-deception. Victimology.
The fight against this is all important. Internal jihad. And one of its primary expressions we have already seen: prayer.
Five times a day, at dawn, noon, midafternoon, sunset, and at night. In the direction of Mecca, Islam’s holiest city. Standing, bowing, prostrating, and sitting. Saying words like this:
In the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.
Praise be to God, the Cherisher and Sustainer of the world;
Most Gracious, Most Merciful;
Master of the Day of Judgment.
Thee do we worship, and Thine aid we seek.
Show us the straight way,
The way of those on whom Thou hast bestowed Thy Grace,
Those whose portion is not wrath, and who go not astray.
About this, religion scholar Diana Eck makes a key observation: “Muslims speak not just of praying every day but of ‘establishing’ prayer as a part of everyday life. In Islamic understanding, our human condition is not so much a matter of original sin but of perpetual forgetfulness. We do forget God and thus fail as well to remember who we are as human beings.” That’s Diana Eck. Muslims hope to establish prayer in their lives so thoroughly that, even when they are not literally praying, their hearts and minds are still inclined towards Mecca, towards the larger sense of who they are as spiritual beings. What we habitually think on and love, we become.
That’s Islam’s question to all of us here this morning, as we begin a new year. What do we truly think on, and love? How might we establish prayer in our own lives? What ants of hatred and antagonism are running around like crazy in us, becoming snakes or even dragons? How serious are we in the fight against things like victimology and self-deception, self-pride and ego?
There’s so much more that could be said here, about Islam’s basic beliefs and principles, but we must move on to the issue of Islam’s internal crisis. Robbers trying to steal the religion and make it serve a radical, violent political vision. It’s like the proverbial elephant in the living room. Can’t really pay attention to anything else until it is named.
Fact is, this fastest growing religion in all the world is also one that raises up big questions in the minds of many people today. Raises up confusion, suspicion, fear. Listen to the voice of Thomas Friedman, Pulitzer-prize winning author and columnist for the New York Times. In a column from several years ago, he writes, “As someone who has lived in the Muslim world, enjoyed the friendship of many Muslims there and seen the compassionate side of Islam in action, I have to admit I am confused as to what Islam stands for today. Why? On the first day of Ramadan last year, a Sunni Muslim suicide bomber blew up a Shi’ite mosque in Hilla, Iraq, in the middle of a memorial service, killing 25 worshippers. This year, on the first day of Ramadan, a Sunni suicide bomber in Baghdad killed 35 people who were lining up in a Sunni neighborhood to buy fuel. […] I don’t get it. How can Muslims blow up other Muslims on their most holy day of the year—in mosques?” This is Friedman’s honest question, and it is ours as well.
Do you know what the word “Islam” actually means? It’s a verb that denotes action, the action of seeking peace through a life lived in submission only to God, shorn of every idol that stands in the way. Islam is the activity of seeking peace. But many sincere people wonder about that today. Is Islam a religion of seeking peace? They say, I hear you about all its blessings, but I also read website and newspapers and watch the news. Tell me: what is going on?
And here it is: what’s going on. Four things. First is just the basic risk inherent in any and all religion, part of which is that people might not learn what it really is. They don’t know what their Bible or their Quran really says. They don’t know that they don’t know, so it becomes altogether too easy for themselves or their leaders to take religion’s power and make it serve unholy ends. People can SAY they are Christian, or Muslim, or Unitarian Universalist, or something else—they can protest this all day long—but it doesn’t necessarily mean anything. They’ll say it because it’s to their advantage to do so; part of religion’s power has always been to rally gathered communities to action. But their motivations might be more about venting rage or securing political power or satisfying greed than anything else. The ancient message of love to God and love to humanity somehow gets transformed into the ugliness of suicide bombing.
Then there’s a second thing going on. If the basic risk of all religion is people stealing its power, then who are the people whose understanding is so distorted that they hear in Islam justification for the atrocities they commit?
Here’s the ground-floor reality of many would-be terrorists: They feel betrayed by their government’s inability to provide basic services and protect human rights; they are shaken by the collision of modernization and globalization with traditional values and commitments; they endure some historical injustice that seems like it will never be righted; they suffer the failed promises of military intervention in their country to bring security, rebuild the economy, and ameliorate poverty. All this amounts to a felt sense of humiliation and weakness and pent-up rage. And into this picture comes the terrorist leader and the terrorist group. Leader and group bring these people in, who are feeling humiliated and weak and angry, and they give them friendship, they give them them a sense of adventure, they give them the glamour of belonging to a militant group, they give their families cash payments and all sorts of goods, and above all, they give them a crystal-clear new identity with crystal-clear purpose. They preach that true faith is in jeopardy and emergency conditions prevail; they preach that what has been morally wrong to do is now perfectly right; they preach that they must do whatever it takes to create a perfect world.
This portrait I’ve just painted comes from a book entitled Terror in the Name of God, by Harvard professor Jessica Stern, and she goes on to make it clear that the terrorist’s crystal-clear new identity is all-important. Modern culture, with what she calls its “God-shaped hole,” does not feed people’s deepest hungers. But the laser-sharp thought-process and purpose of terrorism does. Just listen to part of her interview with a senior Hamas operative named Hassan. She says, “I ask whether [Hassan] feels any remorse about the lives of the young men that were lost when they carried out suicide attacks against the Israelis. [In reply, he says,] ‘The terrible things that have happened to the Palestinian people are far bigger and far stronger than feeling sorry or guilty. As a Palestinian, I feel that my people and I have been murdered in the soul by the Israel occupation. The feeling stays with me in every situation. There is a big difference between murder and killing to defend his country—attacks against Israelis … are the latter kind of killing, not murder. All religions allow people the right to kill in self-defense, or to defend their land. Land has been taken from us with violence, and we have the right to take it back. You must understand the difference between Hassan the person and Hassan the Palestinian’” (59).
The ant has become a dragon. The culture is in crisis, people are longing for a world of peace and prosperity, and so it is apocalypse now. Time to purify the world, by any means necessary.
But explanation is one thing, approval another. Which leads to the third thing going on: how the vast majority of Muslims have not kept their mouths shut about how Islam is being stolen from them. Most of the time, the media seems to be looking the other way when this happens, but it’s been happening. For example, right after 9/11, Egyptian poet and playwright Ali Salem wrote these words: “Extremism may claim God as its redeemer, but it’s really the selfish product of lunacy…. These extremists are pathologically jealous. They feel like dwarfs, which is why they search for towers to destroy.” Muslims are talking back. Dial up the Council on American-Islamic Relations website, or the American Muslim website, and you’ll see plenty of talking back and talking THROUGH to a different, better vision for the future.
Which takes us to the fourth thing going on. Islam is just not a monolithic entity. There is no one person or one viewpoint that defines correct Islam. It’s got lots of different rooms and corridors, like every other religion out there. One fascinating example of this relates to Shariah law, which defines the how of submitting to God in all realms of life, personal and interpersonal and social and economic and political (Islam rejects the distinction between the sacred and the secular, so the religion has implications for every part of life). But Shariah law requires interpretation; the gap between abstract principle and concrete circumstance must be bridged. Muslims call such interpretations fatwas; and for every particular of life, there’s a fatwa to cover it. But the key thing to know about fatwas is that they are binding only if the person receiving them recognizes the authority of the one pronouncing it. This has led to something that should not sound too strange to our ears—“fatwa shopping”—in which people fish around for religious scholars who will endorse whatever they want. Ultimately, it means that Islam is a religion with many authorities, many centers, many voices. The upside (which we know directly as Unitarian Universalists) is rich diversity and integrity of conscience. The downside (which we Unitarian Universalists also know) is superficiality, confusion, people getting lost amidst all the voices, people being led down destructive paths by demagogues who sound like they know what they’re doing, but really don’t.
What is going on is that Islam has a powerful message which, as with every religion, can get co-opted to justify destruuctive means and evil ends. Islam just happens to prevail in many regions of the world that are desperately hurting. Islam contains many sub-groups, and while some of them are extremest, most are not. Most are trying to live up to the meaning of that word “Islam” and seek peace.
That’s what’s going on. And it is a challenging time for all of us. Not just because the entire world suffers from the culture crisis and resentment that radiates out of the Middle East. But also because no religion is an island. Every religion’s fate is caught up in the fate of the others. Each one suffers from the evil things the others do; each one benefits from the good things. The interdependent web vision applies to religions as much as to anything else.
My hope today is that we Unitarian Universalists might honestly look at all the fears and stereotypes we might have. Time to see the ant for what it is, and crush it. Time to open our hearts and minds that we might know our brother and sister Muslims and befriend them. There is so much we might learn. It’s also the practical thing to do. Religious scholar Karen Armstrong says that the American Muslim community is one of the most important assets in the fight against terrorism, especially because it proves beyond a doubt to the entire world that that you can be a faithful Muslim and a faithful American at the same time. But if Americans keep on defining Islam by what extremists do, then Muslims here are going end up feeling like no matter how hard they try, it’s a losing battle. We have to be like Rabia from the story, in the way she received the robber. Yes, Islam is in a state of internal crisis. Bad things have been done in its name. But if we don’t allow it to be anything other than that, then where does that leave us? Where does that take us?
We don’t dare allow this. Too much is at stake. Let’s be inspired by Rabia’s spaciousness and peace, and Islam’s faith in the ever-present possibility of transformation. Let’s help each other in the search that makes life worth living.
A moment ago we heard what is one of the most famous stories coming from the Hindu scriptures known as the Upanishads—and that word, “Upanishad,” in the original Sanskrit, literally means “sitting near a teacher to receive instruction.”
This is exactly what we see with Svetaketu (shway-ta-kay-too), as he learns from his father. Svetaketu has just returned home, after many years at school reading the ancient Vedas and learning the prayers and rituals of the priests. College boy. But now he comes home, and his father sees that his college boy still does not know the most important thing of all. So he teaches him, says, “although your eyes do not help you see God, yet there are other ways you may use to find out whether or not God is. God, like the salt, is everywhere—here, there, and far off. As the salt is hidden in the water, so is God hidden in all the world. God is spirit, as you yourself are spirit. God is hidden in you, my son. God is you, and you are part of God” Tat tvam asi.
Now fast forward 2500 years, to the 1500s. Listen to the words of the Hindu mystic Mirabai, as she communicates her sense of God. Two short poems:
I can’t forget about love
for more than two seconds.
I get dizzy if I think about anything
but the way you pant
in my ear.
Here’s the second poem:
He left His fingerprints on a glass
the earth drinks from.
Every religion has studied it.
Churches and temples use the geometry of those lines
to establish rites and laws and prayers
and our ideas of the universe.
I guess there is just no telling how out of hand—
and wonderfully wild—
things will get
when our lips catch up to His.
In short, something has happened in the 2500 year period between the teaching of the Upanishads and Mirabai’s mystic poetry. Both affirm God, but do so in very different ways. Svetaketu in the ancient story learns about a God that seems impersonal, and he’s challenged to shift his sense of ultimate identity from surface ego to deep soul. Mirabai, on the other hand, is in love. God, for her, takes the form of Krishna, and Krishna is an intensely personal presence who pants in her ear. What she’s challenged to do is not think about anything else—never to forget about this love. Her focus—so different from the austerity that Svetaketu is taught—is to catch up to Krishna’s lips, and when this happens, watch out! Things are gonna get out of hand, things are gonna get wonderfully wild.
One path to God is cool, another is hot. And this is what I want to talk about today: an important variety of diversity within the amazing world religion of Hinduism: Philosophical Hinduism, on the one hand, and Devotional Hinduism, on the other. We’re going to take a look at the history of this and also explore how it might illuminate some aspects of our own diversity as Unitarian Universalists. That’s our goal for today.
So we begin with Philosophical Hinduism, and scholars tell us that this tradition builds on something very different: a previous layer of Vedic religion. From this layer comes Hinduism’s core scriptures, the Vedas; and here also is the source of an insight about the basic problem of life: chaos. Religion scholar Stephen Prothero describes it as follows: “Demons of chaos are always arrayed in a pitched battle with the gods, so family, community, and cosmos alike are forever collapsing into disarray. The aim is to create and sustain social and cosmic order … but this cannot be accomplished by humans alone. So the priests turn to the gods through ritual, and especially through the fire sacrifice, the central preoccupation of the Vedas.”
Remember from today’s story, how Svetaketu goes to college? He was probably studying these Vedic rituals—learning how to do the fire sacrifice just right, which essentially involves feeding the gods with animals, milk, grains, and other plants, so that the gods, in turn, feed the world and feed humanity by ensuring the cycle of the seasons, fertility of harvest and children, victory in war. Without this, there is chaos. Religion, in this second layer of Hinduism, was the glue that literally kept everything together.
But around 800 B.C., and for the next several hundred years, civilization in India would begin to see a dramatic shift. And not just in India—around the world. Says scholar Karen Armstrong, around the world “[s]ociety had grown much more aggressive. Iron had been discovered, and this was the beginning of the Iron Age. Better weapons had been invented, and while those weapons look puny compared to what we’re dealing with now, it was still a shock.” Karen Armstrong continues: “As a result of urbanization and a new market economy, people were no longer living on lonely hilltops but in a thriving, aggressive, commercial economy. Power was shifting from king and priest, palace and temple to the marketplace. Inequality and exploitation became more apparent as the pace of change accelerated in the cities and people began to realize that their own behavior could affect the fate of future generations.” That’s Karen Armstrong, and her last point is crucial. All these cultural changes, happening simultaneously in different parts of the world, led to a worldwide emergence of individualism. People started to become conscious of themselves, curious about who they were as individuals, curious about their nature and destiny, committed to personal and spiritual growth as a means to bringing more love and justice into the world. So, during this period in history, roughly 800-200 B.C., we witness the emergence of religious and philosophical traditions which continue to impact us today: the Philosophical tradition in Hinduism, the Therevadan tradition in Buddhism (which was the one I emphasized in my sermon last month), Socrates and Plato in philosophy, the Hebrew prophets, Confucius and Lao Tzu. The era was and is pivotal; so it is no wonder scholars call it the Axial Age. The age around which everything revolves. It changed us forever.
For young Svetaketu, in India, the change began when his father taught him something about himself that he had never heard before. He wouldn’t have, when the focus at the school he went to and trained at for many years was the fire sacrifice and it spower in creating social and cosmic order. But the times were changing. Svetaketu’s father understood that. He saw—and by this I mean the writers of the Upanishads, who essentially gave birth to Philosophical Hinduism, saw—that the problem of life wasn’t so much chaos as it was ignorance. People ignorant of who they really are. Cut through the ignorance with wisdom, though, and people transform. So the father teaches his son. God is like salt, in everything, and in people too. A person’s soul—Atman—is identical to the soul of the world—Brahman. If people can directly and experientially know this, they will bless the world. Many years later, a Hindu saint named Tukaram would put it this way, in the form of a short poem:
I could not lie anymore so I started to call my dog “God.”
First he looked confused,
then he started smiling, then he even danced.
I kept at it: now he doesn’t even bite.
I am wondering if this might work on people?
Philosophical Hinduism bets that it will.
Now earlier, I mentioned that Philosophical Hinduism is a cool path to God. Let me say a few words about this, before we turn to Devotional Hinduism, which is hot.
Originally, Philosophical Hinduism was taught by ascetics; for them, release from ignorance required a severe full-time renunciation from various aims of life: renunciation from pleasure, renunciation from wealth, renunciation from power, renunciation from family and relationships and sex and work and civic duty. So that’s what they do, and literally, marriages are legally terminated; renouncers no longer answer to their birth names; they abandon their possessions; family mourn them as if they had actually died.
Extreme! But here’s why: for the teachers of Philosophical Hinduism, ignorance wasn’t simply a matter of low IQ, of not knowing important names and dates and facts and theories. It was, rather, a state of being like kings who, having fallen victim to amnesia, wander their kingdoms in tatters not knowing who they really are. And when the Philosophical Hindu says “wandering,” he or she is thinking of samsara, which is a condition of endless birth and death and rebirth—reincarnation.
Eternal souls wandering from life to life to life … and the irony is that over the course of lifetimes, we naturally find ourselves becoming more and more dissatisfied, since we drink from pleasure fully and find that it does not last, we drink from wealth, we drink from power, we drink from doing our duty—we do all this over the course of lifetimes, and eventually we find ourselves saying, Is that all there is? Of course: because God is within us, and God is infinite being, infinite knowledge, infinite bliss; the more lifetimes we live, the more we become aware of God’s thirst for infinity in us and through us. But as this is happening, which is wonderful, there is a countermovement, which is horrible. The more lifetimes we live, the more we wander, the more entangled we become in the world that is becoming increasingly shallow and trivial to us. The cause is karma—the moral law of cause and effect.
Karma dictates that for every hurt we caused, we must compensate with a healing, which means that over time we are bound more and more tightly to the world, where we must pay every debt. This is what the original Philosophical Hindus believed. That’s why the only way out, for them, is to stop playing the game. Renunciation from acting in the world and thus creating even more karma. Renunciation for the purpose of bringing our slowly growing sense of God into full bloom, full birth, until we know it directly and absolutely: Tat tvam asi: Thou art That. What results is like that moment in The Matrix, when Neo realizes who he truly is, and the walls start to wobble, and everything slows down….
To this end—to the end of liberation—Philosophical Hindus die to their surface egos and to the world. They go homeless; they are celibate; they beg for food. They meditate in various ways so as to enter fully into the insight that Svetaketu was being taught. God, for them, is something completely beyond knowing—infinite—so they renounce specific images of God. God is also impersonal, like salt dissolved in everything, so talking about a relationship to God makes no sense, and neither does praying to God for help, or relying on God’s grace to break through ignorance. In other words, even though Philosophical Hinduism is staunchly theistic in belief, in practice it is atheistic. It’s a fundamentally self-help way. Help’s not coming from anyplace else. Got to do it yourself. DIY.
That’s what it means when I say Philosophical Hinduism is a cool path to God. Not in the sense of “c-o-o-l” (as in the way the Fonz would say it), but in the sense of introversion, of calm focus, of almost a minimalism of the spirit.
So very different from the sensibility of a Mirabia, who sings
I can’t forget about love
for more than two seconds.
I get dizzy if I think about anything
but the way you pant
in my ear.
In another poem she says,
The earth looked at Him [Krishna] and began to dance.
Mira knows why, for her soul too is in love.
If you cannot picture God
in a way that always strengthens you
you need to read more of my poems
Here, the contrast is stark. Here is heat. Here is a version of Hindu spirituality where one’s ability to cut through self-ignorance depends upon how intensely you relate to God in personal terms. And you don’t have to renounce the world to do this. You can be in the world and love God at the same time. Love cuts through the bonds of karma; love is the way to ultimate release, or moksha—love is what gets a person to that Matrix moment, when the walls wobble, and everything slows down, and you finally realize who you truly are.
This is Devotional Hinduism, and it started to emerge around the time of Jesus. First century. Scholar Stephen Prothero describes it as a popular reaction to the elitism of Philosophical Hinduism. “Historically,” he says, “most renouncers have come from the upper castes, and almost all have been men. But what about the rest of us?” What about the rest of us who don’t have the privilege or opportunity to pursue spiritual growth full-time? What about the rest of us who want to keep our families and friends and continue to enjoy the blessings of this world? What about that?
And so, with Devotional Hinduism, the quest for God-realization takes a very different turn. From minimalism of the spirit, we turn to an explosion of energy and form. Abstract philosophy gives way to dramatic stories like the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, epics that, for Hindus, are billed as The Greatest Story Ever Told. From the Mahabharata in particular we get the Bhagavad-Gita, which since the nineteenth century has functioned as something like a Hindu New Testament.
The influence on Hinduism of Devotionalism simply cannot be underestimated. Of renouncers today, there are just a few million. Of those who practice Devotionalism, we’re talking close to a billion. Both traditions have worked to produce saints and sages. Both are proven by results. But Devotionalism is the clear winner if we’re talking growth strategy. (Unitarian Universalists, if you have ears, hear this.)
Besides affirming that people don’t have to be full-time renouncers of the world in order to connect with God, Devotionalism also affirms that it’s a good thing to picture God in many different ways. For Philosophical Hinduism, God is beyond all human knowing; every image and symbol falls short, so why go there? But Devotionalism understands that you can’t fall in love with something remote and abstract. Images and symbols may be imperfect, yes, but they still disclose something important about God, so let’s use that. Choose an image of God that inspires love in you; and it’s OK if another person’s image is different. Rama, Krishna, Ganesha–that’s fine. What matters is that love is inspired. What matters is never forgetting about one’s love for God—and God’s love for us—even for two seconds. Not even that.
One more thing we need to know about Devotionalism is this: that it affirms the reality of grace. Huston Smith says rightly that one of the questions which has always divided people is whether the universe is friendly or not friendly—indifferent, or maybe even hostile. Whereas Philosophical Hinduism says that it is indifferent, and one must work out one’s release from ignorance by oneself, Devotional Hinduism disagrees, and says that God is a personal God who grants us help and strength as we ask it for it. Chanting the Lord’s name, or pilgrimages to sacred sites, or observing sacred festivals (like Diwali, going on right now), or food offerings to your chosen deity, are all examples of ways of inviting grace into one’s life. People are just not alone in the universe, and the path to awakening is just not a grim grit-your-teeth and do it yourself endeavor. Help is abundantly ours for the asking, from spiritual beings wiser than ourselves. The way is love.
And that’s a little bit on Hinduism—two traditions of this great world religion, about which we could go on for years. But for us, now, I want you to see some of the themes that have been building over the past several minutes:
First: where people go to connect with the sacred: either withdrawal from the world, of going into the world even more deeply than before.
Second: the source of ultimate hope: either oneself alone, and the Spark of the Divine within; or oneself in the context of a network of relationships spanning outwards—nature, family, friends, society, spiritual beings.
Third: the source of ultimate wisdom: either the abstract reaches of philosophy, theology, and theorietical science; or stories, poems, songs, popular culture, a picture of Jesus or Buddha or Krishna on your home altar.
Fourth: the value of images of sacred reality: either rejecting them as fatally misleading and taking a strictly agnostic approach, or taking them seriously without taking them literally, understanding that their truth is partial, yes, but still a part of truth, still a bridge into the Mystery.
Fifth and finally: styles of religious practice: either calm and stately and meditative so as to enter into transformative clarity; or revival, laughter and tears, energy so as to enter into a transformative heart space of love.
All of these themes and different ways of answering them are alive for us today as Unitarian Universalists, too, because, like our Hindu cousins, we share fully in the human condition.
So here is my question for you this morning: how do YOU answer these themes? Where do you go to connect with the sacred? What is the source of ultimate hope for you? Or the source of ultimate wisdom? How do you value images of sacred reality? What’s your style of religious practice? Are your answers cool or hot; hot or cool? More like Svetaketu’s or Mirabai’s More Philosophical or Devotional?
Whichever emphasis is yours, there’s a place for you here, and in this we follow Hinduism’s inspiring capacity to affirm diversity. Sometimes it’s not easy. Sometimes it’s really hard. Take something as small as clapping in services, for example: the cool style doesn’t like it because it takes away from the calm and focus that feels like genuine spirituality to them; whereas the hot style likes it because adds to the energy and joy that feels like genuine spirituality to them. How do we solve this disagreement, and honor both sides?
Perhaps the place to begin is in affirming what the great Sri Ramakrishna once said:
As one can ascend to the top of a house
By means of a ladder or a bamboo
Or a staircase or a rope,
So diverse are the ways and means to approach God,
And every religion in the world shows one of these ways.
Bow down and worship where others kneel….
It does not mean we will always agree, but let there always be reverence and respect and willingness to compromise, as we journey together. Bow down and worship where others kneel.
The story of Svetaketu (from the Chandogya Upanishad) can be found here: http://www.vedanta-atlanta.org/stories/Sveta-ketu.html
A couple of days ago, I had the genuine pleasure of meeting the Rev. C. T. Vivian, a key leader in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, a colleague and close friend to Martin Luther King Jr. I shared with him a little of this congregation’s role in that movement, how initially it had been unable to step up to the challenge of racial integration and had folded in the 1940s—but then, in the early 1950s, it rose again like the Phoenix, as an intentionally integrationist congregation, the first one in Atlanta. I told him this, and he smiled a sweet smile. Said it gave him hope. And then he shared a story with me, back from his high school days in Illinois, when he was on the debate team, the only African American. The team was off to a competition, checking into their hotel room. All the other boys were admitted, but not him. No room for him, said the manager. But when the rest of the debate team heard this, every white boy said that if C. T. wasn’t welcome, well, neither were they. It was acts like this, he told me, that gave him courage to keep on.
A quote from writer D. H. Lawrence comes to mind: “Whatever the queer little word ‘god’ means, it means something we can none of us quite get away from, or at; something connected with our deepest explosions.” That’s what I want to talk about today. Our deepest explosions, that send us into the world to do acts of justice and mercy. Rock and roll explosions, that drive us skyward into becoming our truest, highest selves. Connection with “god,” whatever that queer little word means.
Our path into this is both general and specific. General, in that it is organized after the work of Laurent A. Parks Daloz and colleagues, in his book Common Fire: Leading Lives of Commitment in a Complex World. There, he talks about the several different kinds of deepest explosions that can motivate people to devote themselves to the common good, and these include: messages and models from family, the impact of one’s historical era, and personal experiences of suffering and marginalization. Different kinds of deepest explosions, which rocket a person out of obliviousness—get us out of our silos and give us a high-level vision where we finally see that in life there is interdependence, and I can’t fully be who I am until you can be fully who you are.
We’re going to look at this, but in the specific context of one of our greatest Unitarian Universalist ancestors: the Rev. Theodore Parker. These different deepest explosions, as he lived them throughout his fairly short but very busy fifty years of living, from his birth in 1810, to his death in 1860. We go to our ancestor today, but only so that his story might illuminate our own and help us to become more aware of our own deepest explosions—our own god moments—and how we today can carry forward the perennial vision of Justice and Love.
So we begin with messages and models from family. Let me ask you this: is there a parent or grandparent or other mentor figure you can point to, who exemplified empathy and generosity and self-sacrifice for the larger good? Theodore Parker could point to his grandfather, Captain John Parker, who had fought in the Revolutionary War. Says Henry Steele Commager, in his biography of Theodore Parker, “The musket that John Parker had used, together with another that he had captured at Bunker Hill, hung always in his grandson’s study; and the bold words which family tradition credited to the Captain came to have for Theodore special meaning: ‘If they mean to have a war, let it begin here.’” Now just let that settle for a moment. It is no wonder that Theodore Parker would courageously proclaim the truth as he saw it, and act on it, consequences be damned. On his roll-top desk, where he wrote all his famous sermons, for which he got the title “The Reverend Thunder and Lightning Parker,” sat two sculptures. To his left, a bust of Jesus. To his right, a bust of the Roman rebel slave Spartacus.
Captain John Parker made up part of his DNA. But so did tender moments with his mother. The story was, when he was four, little Theodore found himself at a neighborhood pond, and there, within reach, was a little tortoise, sunning himself. “ I lifted the stick I had in my hand,” says Parker, “to strike the harmless reptile; for, though I had never killed any creature, yet I had seen other boys out of sport destroy birds, squirrels, and the like, and I felt a disposition to follow their wicked example. But all at once something checked my little arm, and a voice within me said, clear and loud, ‘It is wrong!’ I held my uplifted stick in wonder at the new emotion—the consciousness of an involuntary but inward check upon my actions, till the tortoise … vanished from my sight. I hastened home and told the tale to my mother, and asked what was it that told me it was wrong? She wiped a tear from her eye with her apron, and taking me in her arms, said, ‘Some men call it conscience, but I prefer to call it the voice of God in the soul of man. If you listen and obey it, then it will speak clearer and clearer, and always guide you right; but if you turn a deaf ear or disobey, then it will fade out little by little, and leave you all in the dark and without a guide. Your life depends on heeding this little voice.’” Parker concludes, “I am sure no other event in my life has made so deep and lasting an impression on me.” You can trace the impression, in fact, all through his mature theology of Transcendentalism. That’s how far the influence of this experience goes. Theodore Parker believed in something he called “Absolute Religion,” but all it means is that the core of religion is “Love and Justice.” Love to God, love to humankind. Religious traditions come and go, worldwide, with all their saints and prophets, all their scriptures and rituals, all the traditions and institutions; and ideally, all try to articulate this Love and Justice in such a way that it speaks to people in their historical context and time. But whereas the temporary in religion can pass away, the permanent never can. Love and Justice God has put in our hearts—it’s the Voice that young Theodore heard, and which his mother validated, told him that his life depended on heeding it. This is what’s in the back of Parker’s mind when he says theologically that divine inspiration is nothing more than to obey the call of Love and Justice in our hearts—that divine inspiration is not the special possession of any one Bible but is natural and universal and ongoing—that many people in modern times can be more divinely inspired than many of the Biblical writers—that there were ways in which Jesus himself failed to preach and exemplify Absolute Religion and made mistakes. Theodore Parker said this more than 150 years ago. If he was alive today and heard people justifying the bullying of gays and lesbians because of certain Bible passages, he’d say throw out those unjust, unloving passages. God’s law is Love and Justice, and we can know God directly, in our hearts.
Deepest explosions: messages and models from family. Also this: the times in which we live. I mentioned this in connection with Thoreau last year, and it’s appropriate now: how the world the Transcendentalists lived in echoes our own, so exactly as almost to be eerie. In the 1830s and 1840s you had the invention of such things as the telegraph and the railroad; in our times, it’s the invention of international air travel, satellite technology, the internet, the cellphone. Technological changes, leading to the breakdown of old traditions in every sphere of life, together with new opportunities, though hardly yet grasped.
Then there’s the reality of economic meltdown. America in 1837 became a nation of bankrupts and discovered its painful vulnerability to the booms and busts of capitalism. The rich got richer, the poor got poorer. It’s our story, today, as we still creep in the shadow of the Great Recession. You know, it’s been said that Unitarian Universalists shrink back from social justice work because “by and large we benefit from the status quo.” The assumption here is that “status quo” means “middle class,” and maybe there was a time when this was so. But no longer. You just have to read Barbara Ehrenreich’s book entitled Bait and Switch to know that the middle class is getting squeezed out, under attack as never before. Actually, you don’t have to read any books to know that. Just look at your bills, look at your debt, feel the fear that your parents’ standard of living is impossible for you. The status quo has never been safe for the poor, and now it’s not safe for the middle class either.
Theodore Parker lived in a time that echoes our own with almost eerie precision. A world in transformation, economic meltdown, and also this: legalized hypocrisy. Laws of the land that were far from expressing the Higher Law of Love and Justice. For Parker, it was the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, which essentially established a federal bureaucracy to catch slaves who had escaped to the free states. Parker would not take this sitting down. From the pulpit, he flamed this as against all that is good. In the streets, he led a Boston organization which provided fugitives with material aid, legal assistance, and help in eluding capture.
At one point, he hid a fugitive slave in his own home until arrangements could be made to send her to Canada, and during this time, he’d be writing his sermons at his desk, with Jesus to the left of him and Spartacus to the right, and beside him, a loaded gun, to defend the house in case of emergency.
This is the United States of America. Says our Declaration of Independence, for whom Captain John Parker sacrificed, and so many died: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal: that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Yet what was the America of Theodore Parker’s time doing? The legislators and judges and authorities? Passing the Fugitive Slave Law.
As for our own time—Exhibit A is unjust laws surrounding sexual orientation. Gay marriage still illegal in too many states; beloved members of our very own congregation having to go elsewhere to be married. It’s also Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. Reminds me of a picture making its way around the Internet: a room full of coffins, covered with American flags, and this caption: “Can you spot the gay soldier in this picture?”
The Law of the Land can be very different from Higher Law, the Law of Love and Justice, which Theodore Parker said was eternal, and absolute, and a Voice speaking to us, which is our duty to obey, and the only practical meaning that a phrase like “divine inspiration” can have.
Yesterday’s slavery—today’s violation of the civil rights of gays and lesbians, as well as of people of color. Arizona passing Senate Bill 1070, which tries to address the issue of immigration, but makes a terrible mess of it, makes an already difficult situation worse. Deepens fear and division over issues of race. Makes Latinos fearful to report crimes in their neighborhood to local police. Latinos who are legal residents, fearful of facing harassment or suspicion simply because of the color of their skin. Children, afraid to come home from school only to find a mother or father gone, because they have been detained or deported.
Listen to what the President of the Unitarian Universalist Association says about it—the Rev. Peter Morales. He describes the immigration issue as a problem of “push and pull.” He says, “First, the push. We have to understand that the US has helped to set in motion the forces that drive people to risk their lives to come to America. In the case of Guatemala, our CIA overturned a democratically elected government in the 1950′s. The massacres of the 1980′s were carried out by a military government we supported, by US-trained officers and by military units using American weapons. More recently, our economic policies have helped contribute to massive unemployment and dislocation in Mexico and Central America. The vast majority of immigrants from the south are not criminals, they are economic and political refugees. And then there is the pull. American employers have been more than happy to hire Mexicans and Central Americans to pick crops, cook in restaurants, clean offices, do landscaping and provide cheap child care. Now in Arizona we have the kind of thinly veiled racism and fear, stoked by demagogues, that can lead to violence.” That’s what our UUA President has to say.
The times in which we live, for Theodore Parker and for ourselves, are definitely a source of our deepest explosions. And Parker would absolutely agree with something the German theologian Karl Barth once said, which was this: that true Christians should carry a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. In other words, religious vision becomes hypocrisy unless it changes the specifics in our world, which newspapers report; but our change efforts will lack resilience and focus unless there is higher vision, which we can discover in sacred scriptures like the Bible. There is a reason why, on some Sundays, you hear me praying words straight out of The New York Times. Spirituality and social justice go hand in hand. Two sides of the same coin.
The story of our congregation is inextricably tied to Civil Rights. C. T. Vivian heard only a tiny part. But what will our contribution to the Civil Rights of today and tomorrow be? This is a call to action. Let’s hear the call when as a congregation we go into our long range planning process, in the new year. Some UUCA groups are already hearing it. Interweave. Racial and Ethnic Concerns. Cultural Mosaic. Others. Rev. Keller and I are organizing an Immigration Summit in November to begin gathering our stories and our energies around immigration reform. Be on the look out for more information. I want you there.
A moment ago I quoted our denominational president, the Rev. Peter Morales, and his description of the immigration issue as a problem of push and pull. In particular, the “pull” part, which says, essentially, that undocumented immigrants are here because American employers pay them to be here. If no one was paying them, they wouldn’t be here. All this reminds me of a very pointed observation by Theodore Parker, where he says, “It was when you began to trace the infection to its source that you got into trouble. When you described the drunkard’s fate your parishioners applauded you, but when you told of the distillers who made the rum and the merchants who sold it, they called you a fanatic and turned you out.” That’s right. Speak truth to power, and there are consequences.
Which leads us to the last deepest explosion we’ll look at today: experiences of suffering and marginalization. It’s not exaggeration to say that Parker was one of the most hated people in Boston in his day. A Unitarian most hated by other Unitarians. Of course he contributed to it. Emerson once saw him preach, and he came away with this observation, which he wrote in his journal: “T. P. has beautiful fangs, and the whole amphitheater delights to see him worry and tear his victim.” So he tore away at the spiritual deadness and social irresponsibility of the Unitarianism of his day, and soon he began to be aware of the hard looks and painful slights of his fellow colleagues. The norm back then was to exchange pulpits with fellow preachers, but none would exchange with him. In 1843, a gathering of leading Unitarian ministers invited him to “tea”—but really it was a “come to Jesus” meeting, where they pressured him to resign his membership in their ministerial association, but Parker refused. At his installation in his new church in Boston, in 1846, no one would preach his installation sermon, which is unheard of. He had to preach it himself. And then, after this, around the time when he was not only nationally famous but world famous, and his congregation was the largest in the land—I’m talking 3000 people on a Sunday—letters would come in like this one: “Sir, I take the liberty to state to you that your clerical robes are too transparent to conceal the viperous serpents that nestle in your bosom and twine around your heart.” Then there were preachers, praying things like this from their pulpits, “Oh Lord, send confusion and distraction into his study this afternoon, and prevent his finishing his preparation for his labors to-morrow….”
You can’t experience stuff like this, and hear stuff like this, and not feel hurt. I don’t care if you are the grandson of a Revolutionary War hero, and you have Jesus to your left and Spartacus to your right. You feel it keenly. Have you ever felt this? Punished, because you heard and obeyed what you sincerely took to be the Voice of Love and Justice?
Yet the deepest explosion here, in the midst of all this adversity, is when we realize we are not alone. It’s C. T. Vivian when his white friends rallied around him. “If he’s not welcome, neither are we.” It’s us together, at our best—when we’re singing our songs and learning new things and risking new things and supporting and challenging and encouraging each other, all within our congregational covenant. Theodore Parker once lamented, “I am the most unfortunate of all men, abandoned by all mankind,” but that was not true. His churches stood by him loyally, through thick and thin; loving friends like George Ripley and Elizabeth Peabody rallied around him; still other letters from around the world poured in, telling him how much his witness meant. And then there was his Grandfather, Captain John Parker. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s beautiful vision. Jesus to his left, Spartacus to his right. His mother. The Voice of conscience he heard for the first time when he was four years old. He was never alone.
And neither are we. Adversity comes, when you take a stand. But then come our deepest explosions of life, moments of god connection, moments when we experience directly the truth of who we are. The Rev. Theodore Parker, one of our greatest Unitarian Universalist ancestors, is calling each of us today to our greatness, whatever that might look like, large or small. Take up the legacy.
How many people here this morning are familiar with a contemporary style of music known as “country rap”? I’m talking hip-hop-style rapping blended with honky tonk guitar, fiddle, and vocal harmonies. Artists like Boondox, Bubba Sparxxx, Cowboy Troy.
Know what I’m talking about? What’s especially fascinating for me is how this symbolizes larger social trends. Fusions of styles and cultures, leading to unexpected and unpredictable new forms, in all sorts of areas of life. Music, dance, film, literature, architecture…. Near where I live, there’s a Taco Bell that’s also a KFC, which is still strange for me. For years they’d always been separate establishments. Taco Bell over there, KFC over here. But now they’re together, following the pluralist, eclectic pattern of our world today.
And the same thing goes with religious identity. A recent poll showed that 82% of Americans affirmed the idea that there’s no such thing as one and only one right spiritual way, and in such a cultural context, fusions of religious traditions flourish. Experiments abound. People who are Christian-Buddhist. People who are Hindu-Jew (and here a book title springs to mind: The Jew in the Lotus). Fusions abound. Unitarian Universalists and others, who are happily responsive to the varied riches of the world’s great religious traditions and draw from them as they are led by reason and conscience as well as by background, personality type, stage of faith, and other similar factors.
Back in 1878, the Unitarian Lydia Marie Child once imagined “an eclectic church of the future which shall gather forms of holy aspirations from all ages and nations.” All these years later, here we are, and it just so happens that we are in step with larger cultural forces. Pluralism is in our DNA. But how did we get this way? How is it that, as a spiritual community we are about to enter into a year-long exploration of world religious traditions like Buddhism and Hinduism and Taoism and Islam and Judaism and Christianity and aboriginal, native spiritualities, and we don’t bat an eye? Today, this is what we’re looking at: our history as a religious people, together with its legacy to us in the present moment—gifts, but also blind spots, growing edges, challenges we must face if we are to remain a living, vital tradition.
One place to begin is at the beginning. From our earliest origins in the Christian tradition—heretics who argued for the classic Unitarian doctrine of God’s oneness as well as for the classic Universalist doctrine of God’s unwillingness to allow any person to be damned for all eternity—from these earliest origins, what we have is ultimately an affirmation that there are far more effective ways of knowing the truth than unquestionably accepting establishment dogma. Just because some church authority says it doesn’t automatically mean it’s true. Just because something may be unheard of in acceptable society—strange to what’s taken as normal—does not mean it’s wrong. Conscience and reason and intuition are better guides to the truth than authority or “what feels normal.” All through the many forms of our existence as a spiritual tradition, from the heresies of 1700 years ago to now, this affirmation, like a golden thread, has run.
I start here, because it’s critical you see this as we turn to the specific history of religious eclecticism in America. It’s the underlying logic. Scholars tell us that the very first serious inquiry into non-Christian religions published in America was by Joseph Priestley, whom you may recognize as the famous discoverer of oxygen.
He was also no less than the founder of organized Unitarianism in England, who emigrated to America in part because his religious and political views got him into big trouble, got his house burned down by the mob. He came to America to start anew, and one of his gifts was a book published in 1799, entitled A Comparison of the Institutions of Moses with those of the Hindoos and other Ancient Nations. As it turns out, he comes off as a narrow-minded bigot, basically saying, “Look at all this weird stuff in other religions—Christianity is the one true faith.” But still, remember his context. Religious authority and social convention told him and told everyone in his day, Don’t even look at the other world religions. Nothing there to see. But, being the Unitarian he was, he said, Nuh uh, no way, I’m gonna look for myself. And he did. And in so doing, he started something amazing on American soil. One of his readers was yet another Unitarian, a guy named John Adams, second president of the United States. Says Carl T. Jackson, author of The Oriental Religions and American Thought, “He [John Adams] fumed at Priestley’s unevenness and catalogued numerous instances of omission, unfairness, and distortion; nevertheless, he learned a great deal.”
Two things I’m hoping you’re seeing so far are, first, a core aspect of Unitarian Universalism, which is to check things out for yourself, prove the truth of ideas on the basis of reason and conscience and intuition, not taking the word of authority or the status quo as gospel. Second is this: the remarkable historical insight that developments in Unitarian Universalist history had great impact on American culture as a whole. How our ancestors responded to non-Christian traditions led the way. When Henry David Thoreau, almost 170 years ago, saw ice cut from his beloved Walden Pond in the form of blocks, then packed in felt and sawdust and sent over to India, he intuited the ultimate religious consequences of this economic act, saying, “The pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges.”
But what he did next not only distinguished him from Joseph Priestley (whose interest in non-Christian traditions was all head), but he also set a revolutionary example that millions of Americans follow today, whether they know it or not. He took what the sacred stories and rituals and symbols of many lands had to say personally. It became his regular spiritual practice to read the Christian scriptures alongside the Bhagavad-Gita, the Analects of Confucius, the sutras of Buddhism. Practically everyone else in his day went one way, but he happily went another, followed a different drummer. He mingled the sacred waters of many lands in his own soul. His spirituality was eclectic to the core. As we study the world’s religions together this year, remember, it’s the answer to this question: “What would Thoreau do.” WWTD.
Actually, to be fair, it’s what our Transcendentalist ancestors would do. It’s Henry David Thoreau together with Ralph Waldo Emerson, together with Margaret Fuller, together with Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, Convers Francis, Amos Bronson Alcott, Theodore Parker, and others. This remarkable circle of souls, who were the first movers in a series of generations of spiritual seekers, also including Reform Jews, Progressive Quakers, Spiritualists, New Thought optimists, Vedantists, and Theosophists. A whole host of people and groups, spreading the original Transcendentalist vision of many ways to God, until, today, we find it embedded in our DNA. The air we breathe. Country rap of the spirit.
Let’s take a brief look at some of the more outstanding moments of spiritual eclecticism across the years, before we turn to the issue of this legacy’s gifts and challenges to us, and the way forward.
The first comes from a letter, written in 1839 by first generation Transcendentalist Convers Francis to Theodore Parker. “We might have (might we not?) what I should call a World Bible, which if we had now our choice to make would be better than the Jewish and Christian Bible—I mean a combination of the essentially true and wise, which lies scattered among the sages of all times and nations…. Wouldn’t it be a noble, truly God-sent Bible?” I am personally not aware of an earlier mention of such an idea.
A World Bible. The Transcendentalists came up with this! And, as a thought, what do you imagine would happen if we bought 10,000 world bibles and went into Atlanta neighborhoods, knocked on doors, gave them away free like the Gideons. What’s the message that people would get about who we are? And, what if we used a World Bible regularly in worship? I mean, had them right there in the pews, beside the hymnal? What then? Food for thought. It would be right in line with our history.
But now, a second moment to touch on. We jump thirty-one years to 1870, when the leading second generation Transcendentalist, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, delivered a signal speech entitled, “The Sympathy of Religions.”
“Our true religious life,” he says, “begins when we discover that there is an Inner Light, not infallible but invaluable, which ‘lighteth every man that cometh into the world.’ Then we have something to steer by; and it is chiefly this, and not an anchor, that we need. The human soul, like any other noble vessel, was not built to be anchored, but to sail. An anchorage may, indeed, be at times a temporary need, in order to make some special repairs, or to take fresh cargo in; yet the natural destiny of both ship and soul is not the harbor, but the ocean.” That’s Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Our souls were meant to sail the ocean, not to be anchored at port. So we sail the ocean, steering by our Inner Light, and we go to China, we go to India, we go to Iraq, we go to the Middle East, we go to Greece, we go to Australia, and we encounter evidence everywhere of humanity’s encounter with the sacred—as expressed in story and scripture and symbol and ritual. And what we find, says Thomas Wentworth Higginson, is an “astonishing equivalence of insight among sacred books, a shared profundity and ethical awareness across religions.” “There is a sympathy in religions,” he says. “[E]very step in knowledge brings out the sympathy between them. They all show the same aim, the same symbols, the same forms, the same weaknesses, the same aspirations.” And then he declares, “I do not wish to belong to a religion only, but to the religion; it must not include less than the piety of the world.” “The one unpardonable sin is exclusiveness.” “Are we as large as our theory?” he challenges his hearers. “Are we ready to tolerate … the Evangelical man as the Mohommedan?” Remember, he’s writing in 1870, so his language will sound strange. But when was the last time you heard that soul-searching question in this place: “Are we as large as our theory?” Are we as inclusive as we say we are? Folks, everything has a history, and here’s the history of that challenging question.
Let’s jump to a third and final moment, 50 years later: the 1920s. Martin Kellogg Schermerhorn and his quest for “universal worship.” I had never heard of this guy before, until I encountered his untold story in a book by Leigh Eric Schmidt entitled Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality. Apparently Martin Kellogg Schermerhorn was a Unitarian minister from Poughkeepsie, and he was promoting various collections of hymns, scriptures, and prayers for “universal worship” services. He believed that peace would happen only when ethnic, racial, and religious tribalism were undone. He dared to imagine worship that invoked temple, shrine, and mosque as much as church—worship in which the prayer would bring people (as Islamic saint Rabia of Basra put it) “to an altar where no walls or names existed.” So he was busy working out the details. Busy figuring out liturgy. Envisioning new churches which would host universal worship–which he called “Cosmopolitan.”
These are all remarkable moments—and there are so many others. Moment upon moment upon moment, all building up a legacy that has impacted America tremendously, as well as our own spiritual tradition. And now, here we are, gifted by it, but also troubled too. Challenged. Let’s turn to this side of things now.
With regard to gifts: two come immediately to mind. One is that we are positioned to be in tune with our postmodern times.
The ocean that Thomas Wentworth Higginson used as a poetic metaphor back in the 1870s has, by virtue of technology, become our constant reality. The swiftness of international flight, the instantaneity of communications across the world through the internet and through satellite—we sail the sea whether we want to or not. 9/11-style terrorism is how some groups want to stop it, how they want to anchor themselves and others in safe harbors, but modernization cannot be stopped. We live in a vast sea of multiple systems of symbol and belief, and we need a religion that acknowledges this fact and says to us, Yes, this is real. Don’t freak out. Don’t go back to the old mindset that says, There’s only one way, and my people have it. The wide blue boat ocean is before you, so sail it. Be creative. Be brave.
That’s the first gift: simply to acknowledge the ocean. The second gift is how our habit of eclecticism has put us on a distinctly prophetic path. “The person who knows only one religion knows none,” said the great scholar of religions Max Muller; this means that as we draw from various world religions, our sense of perspective grows. We’re better able to stand back from the place and time we find ourselves in, and see both limitations and opportunities more clearly. We also discover the main themes and imperatives of religion, as we see them repeated over and over again in different traditions, as we hear their echoes across the ages. It’s Martin Luther King, Jr., discovering the power of peace through the works of a Hindu saint, Gandhi; it’s Gandhi, discovering the power of peace, when he read the works of a Unitarian Universalist saint, Henry David Thoreau. All these instances of cross-pollination, and there’s nothing self-indulgent and escapist here. A spiritual way which draws wisely from multiple religious traditions can change lives and change the world because it takes you into the heart of things. Compassion. Peace, Love. Humility. Forgiveness. A sense of humor. A sense of awe. Beauty. Bigness. The vision that God is too big to be contained by any single tradition, and that this is good.
This is the gift of our spiritual heritage, from Priestley, The Transcendentalists, and beyond.
But now, some thoughts regarding challenges. As with the gifts, there are far too many to discuss in the time allowed. But here is a big one to consider.
It comes up in connection with Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s conviction that all religions are ultimately the same. “There is a sympathy in religions,” we heard him say a moment ago. “[E]very step in knowledge brings out the sympathy between them. They all show the same aim, the same symbols, the same forms, the same weaknesses, the same aspirations.” To this, scholar Stephen Prothero, in his hot-off-the-presses book entitled God is Not One, says, absolutely not. “This is a lovely sentiment,” he says, “but it is dangerous, disrespectful, and untrue. For more than a generation,” he complains, although from what I have said today you know that it’s for far more than a single generation, “we have followed scholars and sages down the rabbit hole into fantasy world in which all gods are one.” “Pretending that the world’s religions are the same,” he continues, “ does not make our world safe. Like all forms of ignorance, it makes our world more dangerous. What we need on this furiously religious planet is a realistic view of where religious rivals clash and where they can cooperate.” And there’s the critique, from Stephen Prothero. Now, I don’t think that the “all religions are basically the same” idea is necessarily Unitarian Universalist dogma. In fact, it’s just as misleading as when people say, “Hey, I’m a Unitarian Universalist, and I can believe whatever I want.” Nonsense. However, this doesn’t stop individual Unitarian Universalists from saying it. Thomas Wentworth Higginson—a key historical figure for us—said it. And we need to be more careful than that. Across the different religions, there are indeed similarities and echoes and repeating themes, and this is important. But the differences matter too, the details matter too, and we need to know about them as well.
An analogy to music might be helpful here. The sound of a piece of music—and the effect it makes—is integrally tied to the musical instrument that creates it, and how it is played. A piccolo creates a sound very different from a violin, or from a banjo, or from our the amazing voices of our Phoenix Choir. Similarly, the specific and unique experience that is Buddhist enlightenment relies on Buddhist practices which are different from Christian practices or Taoist practices. The details matter. The forms, the symbols, the scriptures, the rituals, matter. They are the vehicles that help to create life-changing, empowering experiences unique to given traditions. So you can’t say that all religions are the same. That’s like saying all music is basically the same. No way. Different religions rely on different instruments to create different effects in our lives—and this is true even if (as I believe) the most exalted forms of the world’s religions lead to mountain-top experiences of “all is one,” of “God’s oneness,” of the “altar where no walls or names exist.” I want to go there. I want to experience this. But there are no short-cuts to the mountain-top. We have to start at the bottom.
As Unitarian Universalists, it means that the way forward for the heritage of religious eclecticism we’ve been given, is to develop forms and vehicles that symbolize and celebrate and empower and extend this. World Bibles in our pews and World Bibles in the streets.
Or how about this. People come into our congregation, and we say to them, Here is the wide ocean: Start sailing! And they say, But I don’t know where to begin. There’s a thousand possibilities, but which one’s right for me? Then there are people who’ve been here awhile, and perhaps they feel stuck. They say, Where do I go now? So, what if we did this. What if we set up a spiritual coaching system for every member within these walls, available to them if wanted.
You meet with a coach and go through an assessment process: get a clearer sense of your spiritual autobiography, where you are, and what are some next steps that are sure to address the needs of one’s whole person: Mind, Spirit, Heart, and Body. Then, periodically, you check in with your coach. He or she asks you, How’s it going? What’s working? What’s not? At some point, you train to become a spiritual coach yourself, and the overall result is a system that is ever expanding and growing, one which takes very seriously the difficulties as well as the opportunities of spiritual eclecticism. A system which is a vehicle to spiritual growth that is distinctively Unitarian Universalist. The instrument that helps us play beautiful music that is Unitarian Universalist. Country rap of the spirit. What if?
If our future is to remain vital, we need to know our past. We need to keep on asking What if? And then we need to take the leap. Be bold.
Video presented before the sermon, from a TV show called “The Goode Family”:
“You might be an overloaded liberal if … you hide the snack you brought to the playground for your five-year-old—even though it’s healthful and nonsugary—because, oh my God, you forgot you were supposed to boycott that food company.
“You might be an overloaded liberal if … you drive five miles out of your way and pay 30 percent more to buy a screwdriver at the little independent hardware store, just to avoid shopping at Wal-Mart.
“You might be an overloaded liberal if … you try to calculate your carbon emissions in driving that extra five miles, versus the carbon footprint you would cause by turning on your computer to order the same screwdriver online.
“You might be an overloaded liberal if … you stand in line for ten minutes debating whether to buy imported organic blueberries or local nonorganic.
“You might be an overloaded liberal if … you agonize over donating your old cell phone to someone in China, who will still get years of use out of it, because you worry it will end up in a garbage heap where kids will tear out its toxic parts for sale, breathing in poisonous fumes.”
“You might be an overloaded liberal:” sounds a little like Jeff Foxworthy material, but it comes from author Fran Hawthorne instead, in her excellent book, The Overloaded Liberal: Shopping, Investing, Parenting, and Other Daily Dilemmas in an Age of Political Activism. Fran Hawthorne is shining a spotlight on something that some or perhaps many of us here today have experienced personally: the challenges in breaking out of mindless consumerism—the complexities inherent in spending our dollars consciously in ways that serve sustainable living values. It’s an essential kind of labor, challenging though it may be; and we take a closer look at it today, on Labor Day Sunday.
Call it “lifestyle activism.” Almost two-thirds of America’s economic activity comes from consumer spending—what you and I do with our dollars in the marketplace. $8 trillion dollars annually. The sum total of countless little everyday choices, but the more they are in line with our values, the louder our values will speak, and politicians and business leaders will stand up and take notice. Government and business will do better in honoring the Sustainability “Big Four”: nature, social justice, personal wellbeing, the economy. If they forget one of these Big Four, we respond in such a way as to remind them that all four are required. Forget one, and you’re not building to last—you’re building on sand.
It’s lifestyle activism, and, as Fran Hawthorne points out, it’s been building over the last 60 years. “In the 1950s and 1960s,” she writes, “the bus boycotts and lunch-counter sit-ins of the civil rights movement proved that consumer power could be leveraged to tear down unfair laws. As the 1960s segued into the Me Generation of the 1970s and the 1980s, activism took a turn towards materialism, but it employed the same principle of consumer empowerment. Affinity cards and frequent flyer clubs taught shoppers to turn even the most mundane purchases into a twofer, first to buy the item at hand, then to rack up points toward another goal. Consumer power,” Fran Hawthorne continues, “exploded with the Internet a decade later. Information about corporate behavior, product ingredients, product availability, scientific warnings, investment returns, and international conflicts now was widely available, shared across the globe within seconds, making mass actions easier to organize.” Momentum has been building over 60 years, and today, perhaps the most visible success is that of environmentalism. The power of “green” in the marketplace is our power. Grassroots power. Lifestyle activism.
But the very mention of environmentalism takes us right back to the issue liberal overload. Complexity. Difficulty. Sometimes even agony.
For example, consider this story that Carroll Muffett tells. Carroll Muffett is deputy director of campaigns for the environmental group Greenpeace. He’s probably as green as you can get. The story is this: “One day, he and his family wanted to eat dinner with the family of his daughter’s best friend, whose father works for a labor union. ‘It was nearly impossible for us to have dinner together, outside of spaghetti or rice and beans,’ he says. ‘As an environmentalist, I can’t eat most kinds of fish, or beef, unless it’s local. They couldn’t eat grapes because of labor issues, or even some mushrooms. I’m pretty aware,’ he concludes, ‘but those are things I had no idea about.”
Ever been to a dinner party like this? The story puts its finger on a couple of the complications inherent in lifestyle activism, one of which is how labor issues are too frequently not on the liberal radar. Says Fran Hawthorne, “Among the issues we liberals juggle—the ingredients in the things we buy, the energy that was used to produce them, the companies that make them, the stores from which we buy them, the means by which we travel to those stores, the companies we invest in, the impact on the planet, the impact on animals, the impact on our bodies—we almost never think about the workers who manufacture, grow, fix, ship, and sell the stuff in our lives.” Is Fran Hawthorne right? Are we forgetting about Joe Hill? Is this what many liberals like you and I do? Two words: Whole Foods. For too many people, the fact that it is viciously anti-union is less irritating than the fact that it is so expensive. What’s up with that? Wal-Mart is right now setting up incredibly ambitious green goals, making this a selling point with the public, including no doubt the liberal public—even as it continues to be faced with major lawsuits alleging sex discrimination, together with illegally denying workers their mandatory breaks and forcing them to work without pay. Somehow, going green is seen as a more decisive selling point than going pro-labor. What’s up with that?
Perhaps the answer is that it appears impossible at times to juggle pro-environment and pro-labor values simultaneously. Far easier to juggle bowling balls and chainsaw. A clear example: “If you want to preserve natural resources and limit the use of fossil fuels, you should buy as few brand-new items as possible. The environmental mantra tells us to reduce, renew, recycle. However, workers (both in the United States and overseas) will lose their jobs if no one purchases their output. What’s more important, saving resources or saving jobs?”
Green jobs are one way of cutting through the Gordian knot, for sure—but that’s an economy of the future, a separate question of what we do now for the economy of the present, real jobs now. Sustainable living is about affirming the Big Four all together—yet the more you get into it, the more you see that the Big Four aren’t necessarily one big happy family, and you have to make choices. You build to last as best as you can, and there’s always gonna be some sand at the foundation.
Besides contradictions, the dinner party story also highlights problems around information: either not enough, or way too much, or general confusion. It’s going to a restaurant but the menu says nothing about which foods are local, or organic, or what farming methods were used. Unless, of course, you go to places like Farm Burger in Decatur (I mention this to get on my wife’s good side: she’s addicted to the place). Eating at most restaurants poses exactly this kind of problem. Not enough information to make a values-based decision.
Then there’s the opposite problem. I mean, it’s Carroll Muffett, deputy director of campaigns for the environmental group Greenpeace, saying, “I’m pretty aware, but those are things I had no idea about.” Too many balls to juggle, even for the experts. 100 Everyday Ways You Can Contribute to a Healthier Planet. 250 Tips for an Eco Lifestyle. 1001 Ways to Save the Earth. “Wait a second,” says Fran Hawthorne. “Am I supposed to do ONE HUNDRED or TWO HUNDRED AND FIFTY or ONE THOUSAND AND ONE things just for the environment? And that’s not counting all the other causes I care about.” Can you relate? Don’t you just sometimes want to scream?
It’s overload. It’s Jessica Phillips at Trader Joe’s, staring at egg cartons. Jessica says, “One carton said organic free-range. One said organic cage-free. Some just said cage free with DHA. I asked the store’s customer service manager about the labels, but he could explain only some of them.” She ended up choosing the free-range. “I’m a vegetarian,” she says, “and it seemed to me that free-range meant a better treatment of animals.” But, a few days later, checking her refrigerator, Jessica realized that she had previously bought yet another carton of eggs, this one labeled cage-free and free-roaming. “There is only so much time you can spend on this,” she groaned.
There’s other dimensions to the overload we could go into here as well. A big one is cost. Is sustainable living only possible for people with money to afford it? And then there’s in-group dynamics. The smugness liberals can feel for living a purer lifestyle, looking down at those who shop at Wal-Mart for the (apparently) cheap prices, or because it’s an all-in-one store and they are simply too busy and too tired to go from one small independent retailer to another small independent retailer to another and yet another to get all they need. Looking down at these people, who are also us. They are us. Wal-Mart shoppers in our midst! Just like our video for today. You didn’t bring your re-usable shopping bags? Suddenly, you can feel all the upright liberal eyes upon you, judging you. “Paper or plastic?” The only way out, the only way to save face, is to turn the tables right around, on them. Shame them. It’s a vicious circle.
It can get ugly. Overload. But now, let’s apply what the Tao Te Ching calls “subtle perception.” If you want to get rid of something,” this classic of Taoism says, “you must first allow it to flourish.” Let the overload flourish—even if it happens just by reading Fran Hawthorne’s book yourself, and hearing all the stories she has to share—and this can put us on the path towards a place of greater clarity and empowerment. The only way out is through.
Of the many practical pieces of advice that Fran Hawthorne shares, here are a few to consider.
One is to prioritize. Find a focus area that resonates with you. No one can juggle every ball that’s out there. But that’s doesn’t mean it’s OK to let all the balls drop. What’s your ball? For some, animal rights will be the core issue. For others, labor. Fran Hawthorne herself sees the environment as her number #1, and she explains why in her no-holds-barred, no-nonsense way: “[T]he earth and the human race will survive even if millions of people and animals lead miserable lives. It’s not so clear, however, whether the earth (and we humans) could survive the combined onslaught of climate change, deforestation, water and air pollution, soil depletion, rising ocean levels, melting polar ice caps, and mass species extinction. Before we can worry about the treatment of sweatshop workers, the pain of battery chickens, the pesticides in our children’s bodies, or the rights of women under shari’ah rule, let’s make sure those workers, chickens, children, and women have a planet to live on.” Blunt words from Fran Hawthorne, but definite food for thought. One thing she does add is the insight that environmentalism is a multifaceted cause, so very often you can find a way in that touches on several of the sustainability Big Four simultaneously—as in the case of green job creation, or incorporating meaningful outdoor experiences in the education of young children, which has been shown to lead to environmental concern and action as they grow up.
Another practical bit of advice relates to that classic dilemma: local vs. organic. What to do? Local is good because, in buying it, you reduce carbon emissions; less fossil fuel is used to transport it. You are also supporting small farmers and merchants. As for organic—that’s good too, since “organic” means no chemical pesticides and fertilizers are involved, thus maintaining the soil and preventing the further breeding of “superbugs.” But what happens when local and organic don’t coincide? Local is non-organic, and organic is from thousands of miles away?
To cut through the dilemma, keep in mind the insight that sometimes importing food from far away actually uses less over-all energy than buying local. I know it sounds counter-intuitive. However, it’s been shown that food transportation is responsible for only 11 percent of the total energy involved. 89 percent is related to non-transportation factors, like cooking and preparation, or processing. Or what’s involved in just growing the food: fertilizer, electric power for irrigation, heat and light for hothouses, and refrigeration. Fact is, a country three thousand miles away might—because its climate is more suitable, for example—might use far less energy in growing and producing a food than a local producer, and this, remember, relates to 89 percent of the energy we’re worried about. Local is not necessarily equivalent to a smaller carbon footprint.
Another way out of the dilemma is to consider that the majority of the small, local farmers at Farmer’s markets are organic or almost organic, even if the official USDA certification is lacking. They rotate their crops; they use pests as natural pesticides; they use compost instead of chemical fertilizer. Where it really counts, they are organic. However, they don’t go for official USDA certification because it’s extremely expensive and time consuming. A hurdle that they just don’t care to leap.
Local or organic? For Fran Hawthorne, if she has to choose, she goes for local everytime. It’s fresh, and it tastes better.
Lots of practical advice in her book: check it out. A great place to go if you’ve been engaged in lifestyle activism and it’s been wearing you down. A great place to go as well if you want to get started and learn about some pitfalls to avoid. Her last words: “All I can do is to try, and to care.”
Did I tell you, by the way, how I ended up buying this book? It was at General Assembly this past June. General Assembly is the annual business meeting of our Unitarian Universalist Association: thousands of religious liberals together, all so very busy, leading or attending programs on practically every congregational-related issue imaginable, including justice issues. I wandered around, caught up in the swirl of all the busyness, sensitive to all the things I do not know, shamed by all the things I am not doing. In the midst of all this, I found myself reflecting on our religious liberal roots.
Some of you may know that the two source traditions of our present faith were in important respects quite different. The Unitarian side—particularly in the 19th century—used to have this slogan: “Salvation by character.” Salvation was something you earned by good works, including going to all the right schools, reading all the right books, making all the right friends, shopping at all the right places. Develop good character, said the Unitarians, and this is what will save you. If you don’t you will be condemned. Sounds elitist, doesn’t it? And it was. It was religion for the middle and upper classes of Boston.
On the other hand, you had the blue-collar, Wal-Mart-going Universalists. Not from Boston, but from the sticks. And their view was far more radical, far more egalitarian, given immortal expression by one of its finest thinkers, Hosea Ballou, who, in response to hearing about the Unitarian slogan “salvation by character,” wrote an article entitled “salvation irrespective of character.”
Salvation was not something anyone could earn by works; salvation was a gift of a gracious God, a gracious universe in which every person has inherent worth and dignity no matter where they do their shopping. You do your best in life not because you’re trying to escape hell and trying to earn your right to deserve love (either here or in the hereafter) but because your actions, however frail and flawed, make life on earth better for all. All we can do is to try, and to care.
This is what I found myself reflecting on, as I was caught up in the swirl of activity at General Assembly, caught up in the swirl of my own sense of limitation and shame. Both of our ancestors account for why we religious liberals risk becoming overloaded, in service to our values. But, for me, only one gives the best answer. I think the real reason I bought Fran Hawthorne’s book—the deep reason that I am only now uncovering—is that, beyond all the practical pointers I was interested in learning, I was feeling so caught up in a Unitarian works mentality that I needed someone to help me remember that I am loved no matter how much or how little I do, that my ultimate self-worth and the worth of another is not about class. It’s not about organic vs. local. It’s not about any of that stuff. It’s about who you are, or, rather, whose you are: a child of the gracious universe, a child of God. “Let tomorrow come tomorrow,” says poet Wendell Berry. “Not by your will is the house carried through the night. The love and the work of friends and lovers belong to the task, and are its health. Rest and rejoicing belong to the task, and are its grace.”