Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Can UUs Believe Anything We Want?

This is the text of a sermon (and preparatory remarks) delivered at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist in Charlottesville, Virginia on Sunday, May 3rd, 2015.  If you'd like, you can listen to the podcast.

Arthur Rashap's Preparatory Thoughts

“You are out of your mind!” “You are out of your mind!” Think of the times you have said that to others – or someone has said that to you. What did they mean? What did you mean? Probably, that what was said was not rationale. It didn’t make “sense” intellectually to your mind or to the mind of the person who said that to you.

The instructions for doing proper meditation practices these days involve being ‘mindful.’ And, if truly the goal is to let go, to release the involvement with getting lost in what was, with planning for the future – to ‘be here and now’ then wouldn’t a better instruction, a better practice be to be mindless?

Our topic for exploration today is ‘faith.’ In the Worship Weaver discussions with Rev. Erik, it was pretty hard to get our minds, our thoughts, around defining what faith is. When you walk into this Church, the pamphlet rack is full of brochures relating to the faith of a variety of religions and topics. As Erik will discuss, there is a big difference between what you believe and what you end up taking on faith.

About 11 years ago, I took a year-long course to become an Empowerment Trainer, with the goal to understand how to help guide participants in identifying goals in their lives and processes to achieve such goals – basically looking at the question: “if you could have your life exactly as you want it, what would it look like?” The basic process mirrored nature’s processes in producing a flower or a vegetable – clearing the ground, preparing it, planting the appropriate seed, nurturing it as it grows, removing the weeds, reacting to all those things that come up in the growing process, etc.

Looking back at my notes and to the page that fell open, here are some of the things I wrote:

“The less you do, the more you can accomplish. You need to bring in more of the right brain acknowledging that you still need your left brain to have the information for day-to-day living. The ‘knowing’ we are talking about here is having less of ego/personalization, and allowing other elements to enter and be present. The process is called: ‘getting out of the way.’ To really be empowered or empower another, you come from an implicit faith that the person herself knows the answers – that every human being knows what they need and want.

It is not for the leader, the teacher, the facilitor, the minister to ‘fix’ them. That is the saboteur, the devil in processing. Their function is one of midwifery – to bring into being the answers, the true life that lies within. The facilitator needs to be as empty as possible, while being actively engaged. Meeting the person exactly where they are, showing up to challenge them, to fix them, doesn’t work.

So how to work on our egos? To empty ourselves? To become mindless and take the leap into faith? To begin with, have a spiritual practice, whatever that may be. For a muscle to get strong, it needs exercise and the same goes for spirituality. The goal is to arrive at detached compassion, without this, life you grab you in any way. To become empty requires a lot, to have great courage and dedication.

Rumi wrote: Live at the empty heart of paradox. I will dance cheek to cheek with you there. Reality is a constant juxtaposition. Every system is so fraught with paradox, that you can easily lose your way.

Erik will be exploring this subject in his special way in a minute. Both he and I recently found we have been reading and enjoying the words and approach of a Franciscan Monk named Richard Rohr. He sends out daily meditations that I do recommend to you.
I have edited somewhat the meditation from this past Wednesday which he adopted from two of his books: Dancing Standing Still: Healing the World from a Place of Prayer, and Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality:

"Spiritual Knowing Must Be Balanced by Not-Knowing" 
As the Christian church moved from bottom to top, protected and pampered by the Roman Empire, a number of followers of Jesus and some early monks went off to the deserts of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria to keep their freedom and to keep growing in the Spirit. They found the Church's newfound privilege--and the loss of Jesus' core values--unacceptable. 
It was in these deserts that a different mind called contemplation was first perfected and taught. They came to see that they could understand spiritual things properly through contemplation alone. The Desert Fathers and Mothers gave birth to what we call the apophatic tradition, knowing by silence, symbols, and not even needing to know with words. It amounted to a deep insight into the nature of faith that was eventually called the "cloud of unknowing" or the balancing of knowing with not needing to know. 
Deep acceptance of what has been call “ultimate mystery” is ironically the best way to keep the mind and heart spaces always open and always growing. It really does "work"! Today scientists might call it moving forward by theory and hypothesis. This enables you to be always ready for the next new discovery. 
Admittedly, we do need enough knowing to be able to hold our ground. And the offerings at this Church and in other involvements you have - do provide a container and structure in which you can safely acknowledge that you do know a bit, and in fact just enough to hold you until you are ready for a further knowing. In the meantime you happily exist in what some have called docta ignorantia or "learned ignorance." People in this state tend to be very happy and they also make a lot of other people happy. And we are all burdened by "know-it-alls."
It is amazing how religion has turned this biblical idea of faith around to mean the exact opposite: into a need and even a right to certain knowing, complete predictability, and perfect assurance about whom God likes and whom God does not like. It seems we think we can have the Infinite Mystery of God in our quite finite pocket. 
We know what God is going to say or do next, because we think our particular denomination has it all figured out. In this schema, God is no longer free but must follow our rules and our theology. If God is not infinitely free, we are in trouble, because every time God forgives or shows mercy, God is breaking God's own rules and showing shocking (but merciful) freedom and inconsistency!

Perhaps Brother Rohr is suggesting that when it comes to faith, being ‘out of our mind’ is not such a bad thing.

RevWik's Reflections:
I’m sure that some of what Arthur just said would be very difficult for the average – or, at least, the stereotypical – Unitarian Universalist.  And I’m not talking about the explicit “God talk.”  “Cloud of Unknowing?”  “Balancing knowing with not needing to know?”  “Learned ignorance?”  Oh, we Unitarian Universalists – again, at least the stereotype of us Unitarian Universalist – really don’t do all that well with not knowing, not understanding, not at least trying to know and understand.  The search for truth and meaning and all that.

We are – historically, generally speaking – rationalists.  Many of us, if not most of us, believe most firmly, most strongly, in what we can see, hear, taste, and touch.  We like facts.  Hard facts.  [Like this pulpit here – solid.  Real.]  In this year’s Wednesday Wonderings group we’ve been reading our way through a book written in the late 1940s by the Universalist preacher Clinton Lee Scott, which he adapted from radio addresses he’d given.  The book’s title is Religion Can Make Sense – and his fundamental stance is that Universalism is a religion that “makes sense,” that is attuned to the world as it is, and by this he means the world as it is revealed to us by science and not as described in myth.

Yet today, because of science, we know that the “hard fact” of this real and solid pulpit is, in fact, not so hard at all.  What we perceive – see, hear, touch – to be solid is actually a swirling mass of energy with far more empty space in it than matter.  And the same is true of us.  We, too, are a concentration of energy, given solid form by perception, nothing more.  Science tells us that we live in a universe in which particles pop into and out of existence on a quantum foam, and where Schrödinger’s cat can be both alive and dead simultaneously.  What we perceive as empty space all around us is filled with molecules of nitrogen, oxygen, argon, and carbon dioxide.  And there are light waves, infrared waves, radio waves, and as Richard Feynman said, all of these are really real.

So what do you believe – that this pulpit is solid and that this hand is solid and that each is distinct from the other, or that when I put this constellation of energy (my hand) on this swirling pool of energy (the pulpit) the distinctions between the two blur?  Do you believe that you are distinct, individuated, independent, or that you and I and all that is are dynamically and fundamentally interdependent, made of the very same stuff?

A Buddhist teacher once told me that the waves of the ocean each think themselves separate and unique, yet the ocean knows that there is nothing but ocean. What do you believe?

And I ask that both as something for you to ponder, and as a rhetorical device to lead us into the question I want us to explore this morning:  “Can a Unitarian Universalist believe anything she or he wants to?”  This is something that’s often said of us, you know.  “Unitarian Universalists … well … they can believe anything they want.”  We even say it of ourselves sometimes.  “One of the great things about being a UU is that you can believe anything you want!”  And it’s true to the extent that there is no Higher Authority dictating what we must believe in order to be a UU.  There is no creed or dogma to which we must assent to belong.

This, then, hardly seems like a topic worthy of our examination.  The answer is obvious!  Of course!  Of course a UU is free to believe whatever she or he wants to believe!

And yet …

And yet someone will usually come up with the retort, “But what about a member of the modern Nazi party, or a member of the Klu Klux Klan, or the Westboro Baptist Church?  Could they believe what they believe and still be welcome here?” 

Now that is precisely the kind of conundrum that, as the Oracle said to Neo, will really “bake your noodle.”  On the one hand, people in our faith tradition are freed from the necessity of believing any particular thing, yet it does seem as though we’re not open to just any thing a person might believe.  Where do we draw that line?  How do we draw that line?

How about someone who believes in shamanic journeying?  Of life after death?  Or multiple lives?  Or channeled teaching?  Would people with these beliefs be welcomed here?

How about that Jesus is not just a great guy who had some good ideas but was, in fact, a manifestation of God and that he not just was but still is?  Or that God is real?  Or that there is no such thing as that to which the word “God” is meant to point?

I can tell you from my direct experience that there are UUs, there are members of TJMC, who hold each one of these beliefs.  And I know of folks who think them extremely odd for doing so.  Can you believe anything you want to here?

Let’s step back for a moment and try to clear something up.  A lot of people conflate the ideas of belief, on the one hand, and faith, on the other.  A lot of people use the words interchangeably, as if they were synonyms.  “What is your faith?”  “I believe in God.”  “How strong is your faith?”  “I believe, I believe, I believe …”

The trouble is … they’re not the same thing.  Look at it this way: belief is an intellectual proposition, it’s something that you think; faith, on the other hand, is something that you do.  Faith is living in the world as if you believed what you say you believe.  Let me say that again:  faith is living in the world as if you believed what you say you believe.

There are people who say that they believe in God and that God will never give you more than you can handle, yet when things get rough they act as though there’s no way they could ever possibly handle all that’s come their way.  There are people who say that they believe people are fundamentally good, yet who feel more than a little anxious and, so, cross the street when the see a stranger coming toward them.  Belief is easy.  Faith is hard.

And it’s hard, at least in part, because our minds are smart enough to know that accidents can happen.  We know that we could be wrong about that thing we believe, whatever it is.  I had a philosophy professor who said that a philosopher can only say that she knows something when she is absolutely certain.  How often does that happen?  I mean not a doubt in the world, absolutely no possibility that you’re wrong, 100% solid? How often does that happen?    As a friend of mine used to say a lot, “you could always get hit by a bus on the way home.”

And so our protective little egos – which think that it’s their job to protect us from, I don’t know, death or, maybe even worse, looking foolish – our protective little egos throw up a dust storm of doubt just as we’re about to take that leap of faith.  And so we come to a screeching halt and find ourselves poised precariously at the peak of a precipice, and our sneaky little ego says, “I told you so.”  “You may not have faith,” it says to us a little later, “but at least you can content yourself with all the good things you believe.”

Putting your beliefs into practice.  Trusting your beliefs.  Living in the world as if you believed what you say you believe.  That, my friends, is faith.  And we’ve been told time and time again that faith can move mountains.

So how do we bypass our all-too rational egos so that we might take that leap?  Richard Rohr, in that passage Arthur read earlier, spoke of a kind of knowing that makes use of “silence, symbols, and not even needing to know with words.”  That’s a start.  Going even further, Arthur himself talked about how our being “out of our mind” might not be such a bad thing.  When I was writing my first book – Teacher, Guide, Companion – Mary Benard, the incredible editor I was blessed to have been working with, had a whole lot of suggestions for me of things I really ought to change.  She was usually right.  But I held my ground on one sentence, because I thought that poetry should trump grammar:

“… you must be willing to loose your mind [she’d wanted me to change that to “lose”], to loosen the vice grip of the sensible and rational in order to allow the imaginative and intuitive ways of knowing to come to bear.”

That “vice grip of the sensible and the rational” is what gets in the way for so many of us when we try to live into our faith.  Yet that’s exactly what we need to do.  Because faith trumps belief every time – it’s not our beliefs that matter, it’s the way we live our lives; it’s not what we think that counts most, it’s what we do.

During our newcomer orientations I often say that one of the things that makes Unitarian Universalism unique is that our first question isn’t, “what do you believe?”  Instead, we ask “what kind of world do you want to live in?”  We ask, “how do you – or how do you want to – live your life?”  In other words, we ask about your faith.

And it is our faith that brings us together – our faith that this is a beautiful world, and that all things that live on or in it are deserving of respect; our faith that love is strong and that we should reach out to others, ever widening the circle of inclusion; our faith in hope, that no matter how much to the contrary things might seem, there is always a way.

Can a UU believe anything she wants?  Of course, because to us the question of belief is merely interesting – a chance to get to know one another better and, perhaps, see the world through a different lens.  The real question, what matters to us most, the “so what” of all this is the vision of the world all these differing beliefs point us toward, and the ways we put our oh so lovely beliefs into action. 

None of us will do this perfectly.  I know I sure can’t.  Yet if none of us can then we each don’t have to worry so much whenever we, ourselves, get stuck on the edge, unable to leap.  And that’s why places like TJMC exist – so that we can help each other; and remind each other; and reach out to one another; and support, and celebrate, and encourage one another.  Be there for one another.

So please, own and honor your beliefs – whatever they are and however … odd … they might seem to me or to anyone else.  And then, with me, with us, try to put them into practice.  The world doesn’t need more believers but, rather, more people of faith.  May we, at least some of the time, be those people.

Pax tecum,


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1 comment:

Dave D said...

Thanks for a great sermon on Wednesday morning.