Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Walking Together

In case anyone is wondering ... yep, those are my kiddos!
In the Book of Amos (chapter 3 verse 3) the Prophet asks, "Can two walk together, except they are agreed?"  This is a line which has had a tremdendous importance in liberal religions, perhaps most especially in Unitarian Universalism.  The late scholar Conrad Wright made the point that the answer to this question is ultimately what separated early Unitarians from their Congregational neighbors.

Traditional religion answers this question with a fairly firm, "no."  Traditional religions cohere around shared beliefs, creeds, and dogmas.  If you don't accept and affirm the teachings on virgin birth, for example, you can't be a member of our tradition; if your understanding of resurrection is out of accord with ours, then we are out of accord with one another.  Can two walk together, except the be agreed?  No.

This attitude is perhaps nowhere more typified than in that well known joke about two people who meet on a bridge:
I was walking across a bridge one day, and I saw a man standing on the edge, about to jump off. So I ran over and said, "Stop! Don't do it!" "Why shouldn't I?" he said. I said, "Well, there's so much to live for!" He said, "Like what?" I said, "Well, are you religious or atheist?" He said, "Religious." I said, "Me too! Are your Christian or Buddhist?" He said, "Christian." I said, "Me too! Are you Catholic or Protestant?" He said, "Protestant." I said, Me too! Are your Episcopalian or Baptist? He said, "Baptist!" I said, "Wow! Me too! Are your Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Lord? He said, Baptist Church of God!" I said, "Me too! Are your Original Baptist Church of God or are you Reformed Baptist Church of God?" He said, "Reformed Baptist Church of God!" I said, "Me too! Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1879, or Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915?" He said, "Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915!" I said, "Die, heretic scum!" and pushed him off.
Can two walk together, except they be agreed?  No.

Liberal religion -- or, at least, Unitarianism -- answers the question differently.  Absolutely, we say.  Of course two can walk together even if they do not agree!  Long (and apparently erroneously) attributed to Ferenc Dávid (aka, Francis David) is the sentiment, "We need not think alike to love alike."  Each and every Sunday Unitarian Universalist congregations prove this to be true -- Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Atheists, Hindus, Sikhs, birth-right Unitarian Universalists, Neo-Pagans, and so many others gather together as one religious community, and this is not only in spite of these differences but in a very real way because of them.  We recognize that this diversity strengthens us, stretches us, enriches our gatherings.

At my ordination twenty years ago, I was honored to have the Rev. Jane Rzepka preach one of her wonderful sermons, in this case, using this idea of "walking together" as the basis of what holds us together as a religious moment.  She was not the first to make this connection, of course, nor has she been the last, but my, O, my could that woman preach!

It is our agreement to walk together -- our covenant one with another -- that holds us together.  Creeds we can talk about and can lovingly and respectfully disagree about -- that's not what binds us.  Our promise to continue to recognize each other as kin even without either of us having converted the other, or been ourselves converted to the other's point of view.  We promise to walk together; to sing together; to laugh together; to struggle for justice together; to comfort one another together; to love ourselves, each other, and the world ... together.  And although it can certainly be a challenge, nor do we always succeed, it is the assertion of liberal religion that this is what Beloved Community looks like.

I was recently talking with someone who is not a UU about all of this and he asked me some very probing questions that got me thinking.  What, exactly, does it mean to "walk together"?  Does it mean a group of people simply milling about in one another's vicinity?  That wouldn't really be walking, would it?  So how about a group of people marching with purpose behind a leader?  Well, that's not exactly walking together is it?  That'd really be one person walking and a whole other people following behind.

There certainly can be a feeling of camaraderie, of solidarity, in such marching.  Think of a massive protest march in which hundreds, maybe thousands of people come together and march together in common purpose.  Look to your right, look to your left, look before or behind you and you see people with whom you feel connected no matter how many differences might otherwise divide you.  And there certainly can be a sense of empowerment, a "we are in this together ... this is our march" kind of thing.  But not always.  Often there's more of a "we're here together ... and I hope I can eventually find the people I came here with."  Very often there's the recognition that no matter how much we might all be "in this together," we are there at someone else's behest. 

So, again, what does it mean to "walk together?"  To really and truly walk together?

First I decided to see if this question -- "Can two walk together without being agreed?" -- has been translated in any other way(s).  What I found really surprised me.  "Blew my mind" might be a little more accurate.  Here are three other translations of the original Hebrew:

According to the New International Version, the translation should be, "Do two walk together unless they have agreed to do so?" 
The New Living Translation has it, "Can two people walk together without agreeing on the direction?" 
And, finally, the International Standard Version translates this verse as, "Will a couple walk in unity without having met?

Pretty different, no?  Each one of these points toward a very different understanding of Amos' question, yet each seems to support and reinforce the liberal religious understanding.  Can two walk together with having agreed to do so?  Well, that seems to point to the idea of covenant, as does the image of "agreeing on the direction."  (I often say to people that in Unitarian Universalism our first question isn't "what do you believe?" but, rather, "toward what do your beliefs point you?")  That last --- will a couple walk in unity without having met -- reminds me of a bumper sticker I've seen:  the most radical thing we can do is introduce people to one another.

As we look around us at the world we have created it seems clearer than ever that we need to find ways to walk together.  People are dying because of our inability to do just that.  I do not, by any means, imagine that Unitarian Universalism offers the answer to all our world's ills.  Even if we attained and maintained our ideals all the time -- which, of course, we do not -- we would not be the answer.  There is no one answer; life is to complex and varied for their to be any one way.  Yet our approach to building community is, I believe, an answer.  It is one way ... and I wish we did a better job of sharing our good news.

Pax tecum


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