Monday, June 09, 2014

The More Things Change

In the congregation I serve -- the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist in Charlottesville, VA -- I hold a drop-in discussion group we call "Wednesday Wonderings."  It started with us using materials developed by Richard Foster to introduce people to the writings and thinking of a variety of Christian mystics.  Each session included an introduction to the person and then a series of bite-sized nuggets from their writing.  Most often it came from a single source, yet usually it was edited to a more reasonable size.  (Each session fit on four pages.)  We would go around the room, each person reading a section and then, although Foster included questions, we would ask each other what had stood out for us -- surprising, confusing, confirming, challenging.

The next year I took it upon myself to create similar materials by mystics of other traditions, and then this year I created three programs, each four weeks long:  one looked at the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism, one looked at four key teachings of Christianity, and one looked at four texts from the Unitarian Universalist (tradition.)  The last session of this most recent program was a bit of a teaser for next year's course, in which we'll spend the year with Clinton Lee Scott's book, Religion Can Make Sense.

Scott was the Superintendent of the Massachusetts Universalist Convention.  During his career he gave a series of radio addresses, and these have been collected into this volume.  Next year we'll work our way through the entire book -- 37 chapters -- taking a chapter a week.  This past Wednesday we looked at the first chapter, "What does it mean to be religious?"

In this chapter Scott challenges the definition of religion that was prevalent in his day -- the book was published in '49 -- and which is still the majority's understanding:  that religion has to do with holding certain beliefs and engaging in certain practices.  Rather, he says,
"Religion is not the invention of priestcraft, neither is it given into the custody of any church.  Religion is inherent in our nature and has been the companion of our human kind since the beginning.  ... To be religious is to know that your highest experience is a religious experience.  To be religious is to act your best in the presence of the highest you know. ... To be religious is to take the high road when the low road beckons.  To be religious is to seek by every means of inquiry and of investigation for the truths that come not by magic or miracle, but by the only means for their reception -- the open, the eager, and the humble mind."
Earlier, in a passage that appealed to most of us, he write:
"As a matter of fact, no preacher, priest, bishop, or other professionally religious person has any inside information.  Truth is discovered by the ministers of religion.  It is also discovered by scientists, poets, prophets, garage mechanics, and housewives."
Sounds kind of like the stance of Unitarian Universalism 65 years later, no?  As he French say (and yes, I had to look this up):  plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.  (The more it changes, the more it's the same thing.)

Another passage that stood out to us because of its apt description not just of his day but of ours:\
"[O]n any week except Christmas and Easter, if we were to count all the people who attend churches -- men, women, youth, and children -- the total would be less than the number of persons -- men, women, youth, and children -- who attend no religious services."
We may see the large number of "nones" as a relatively new phenomenon, yet it's clear that we're not the first to experience it.  And as for the "spiritual but not religious" dichotomy?  I think that the way Scott understands religion could serve as a bridge.

Pax tecum,


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1 comment:

Kimberley Debus said...

I had a conversation with a friend recently where we decided that humans are misnamed - we shouldn't be called homo sapiens (wise) but rather homo religious.