Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Across the Great Divide (part two)

In the last post I suggested that the long-standing debate within Unitarian Universalism between theists and atheists doesn't serve anyone.  The word religion comes from the Latin relegare, which means, "to bind together."  Our particular religious tradition can largely be summed up in the affirmation, "we are one human family, on one fragile planet, in one miraculous universe, bound by love."  Why then do we seem so determined to push one another apart?

The divide between the theist and the atheist need not be an uncrossable chasm.  In 1966 the Catholic (and, so, very theistic) monk Thomas Merton met and spent some time with the Buddhist (and atheist) monk Thich Nhat Hanh.  The tradition of the former asserts that God is the source of all things, to which all things return.  God is the very "ground of our being;" the ultimate reality.  Nhat Hanh, naturally, sees the world quite differently, as his tradition teaches that there is no solid ground upon which and in which all of existence rests.  The fundamental nature of reality is emptiness.  While Merton suggests that if you look closely enough at any thing in this world you will ultimately see God, Nhat Hanh affirms that a close enough look at anything will reveal nothing (no-thing) there.  It would be hard to imagine to more diametrically opposed world views coming into contact.

When Merton left the encounter, however, he said that he'd found he had more in common with the Buddhist monk than he did with most Catholics he knew.  How could this be possible?  Wouldn't they have had to compromise their own firmly held convictions in order to find some common ground?  Or else, wouldn't they have had to have reached an impasse at some point and simply agreed to disagree?  Yet neither of these things happened.  In fact, it was probably only because each held firmly to their deep convictions that they were able to meet and, more, to see in one another a kinship that surpassed the one they felt with the majority of people within their own traditions.

That may seem counter-intuitive, yet it is truly the only thing that really works.  Look at it this way: because each knew the ways their own lives were deeply grounded in their own religious understandings they had no need to defend their position.  They met as equals, as well -- both profoundly practiced their faiths -- and, so, whatever else might separate them they had that in common.  Each knew that there was nothing they could say to shake or convert the other, so neither felt compelled to try nor to put up defenses against it.  If only more interfaith encounters proceeded so respectfully and from such places of security!

One of the things the two discovered was that they were both led by their faith traditions to the realization that we are all connected -- one to another and each to all.  Merton might say that it's because we're all children of God, while Nhat Hanh might say that because no-thing exists independently of everything else, we "inter-are."  What mattered most to these two spiritual giants is that they discovered a common experience of interconnectedness with all of creation and the call to love and justice they'd each found flowed naturally from that experience.  With such fundamental and essential similarities, what did their differences matter?

It's important, perhaps, to underscore that this was not an exercise in "translation."  I doubt very much that either gave up his own language, his own traditions and teachings, his own referent point.  Instead, they truly listened to one another and, more, listened through one another to the truth within and beyond their words.  Together they were able to create that field Rumi spoke of, the one "out beyond thoughts of 'right' and 'wrong.'"  And in that field the only thing truly visible, the only thing that really mattered, was their kinship ... just as the deepest understandings of each of their different traditions promised.

That last assertion may need some defense or, at least, further explanation.  For the Buddhist there doesn't seem as though there'd be any real difficulty in meeting the Christian on equal ground, but doesn't Christianity teach that Jesus alone is the way?  That, of course, is open to interpretation.  Even within the Christian tradition(s), the meaning of that teaching is open to interpretation.  When Merton had his profound revelation on that street corner in Louisville in which he saw everyone and everything shining with light and intimately connected, he didn't distinguish between Christians and non-Christians.  He didn't see some people as shining brightly while others were clearly waiting to have their lights turned up once they'd joined themselves to the "one true church."  There is no indication that when Paul wrote to the Galatians, "There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" he meant that they were only one after giving up their previous individuality. It's more likely that he meant that in this new "way" such distinctions no longer needed to divide.  Support for this interpretation might be found in Jesus himself being remembered as praising the faith of a Syrophoenician woman and a Roman Centurion as above that of any Jew. He didn't require their conversion to earn his respect. 

Coming back to Nhat Han and Merton, these two seemed to have been able to set aside the creeds and dogmas of their own traditions in order to look for a deeper, experienced reality. Isn't that what we Unitarian Universalists claim that we do?  Why, then, do so comparatively few of us succeed in doing it? 

First, I think that few of us are really all that firm in our understanding of our own faith. Remember that Merton said he didn't feel this same kinship with most Catholics? It is far more than merely possible to belong to a religious community yet not know at a deep, heart level where and on what we stand. In fact, it's incredibly common.  You can find such people in every tradition. 

And You could no doubt find in every Unitarian Universalist congregation many people like the woman who said to me, "When I first became a UU twenty years ago I was so grateful that no one was going to tell me what to believe. But it's twenty years later now, and I still have no idea what I really believe because the responsibility of 'building my own theology' was put on me without anyone giving me any tools with which to do it."

Yet below the level of the words we use, behind the things we deny and dismiss, beyond even our beliefs about what we believe, what matters most is our lived experience of what's really real. It is what ultimately grounds women and men like Merton and Nhat Hanh, yet so few of us trust it. Without this foundational "knowing," however, it is so very hard to feel secure in one's faith and so very easy to feel the need to defend it.

This is certainly true in any religious tradition, yet it seems all the more prevalent, perhaps, in the Unitarian Universalist tradition.  While the percentage ranges from by some accounts 60% to a high of 90% there is no question that a great many UUs have found their way to this religion from somewhere else.  And many of those who did so left their former tradition because of an argument -- an argument over something we were being asked to believe, or a practice that at best made no sense to us and at worst we saw as harmful to ourselves or others.  Many of us had felt, or been told, that our own sense of what is real was unwelcome and, so, we either did a lot of debating or we learned to keep our thoughts to ourselves.  In a sense, then, such people came into Unitarian Universalism already somewhat on the defensive.  With so many people feeling the need to defend, and so many different things being defended, it is not surprising that the kind of trust Merton and Nhat Hanh brought to their encounter is so rare.

Let's expand on this a bit.  Historically, Unitarian Universalists have been among the most educated of religious groups.  We have had the highest percentage of PhDs per capita of any other denomination.  There has also been a critique long leveled at, first, Unitarians and, now, Unitarian Universlists -- UUs tend to spend an inordinate amount of time in our heads.  This is a generalization, of course, but one not entirely without some grounding in reality.  It should not be altogether surprising, given this background, that Unitarian Universalists can be more likely to argue over a point than to let it go for some promised "larger truth."  It's been said that the natural position of a Unitarian Universalist should be agnosticism -- except that that would require us to admit that we might be wrong about what we believe.  When asked, "is it better to be happy or to be right," some would have to think about it a bit and others would no doubt value being "right."

There's another thing to consider here as well.  For at least a generation or more Unitarian Universalism presented itself as the "un-religion."  At least, we weren't like the religion you've been hurt by, or have for any of a number of reasons rejected.  Many of those who gratefully joined our ranks in response to this invitation may well have thought that they were entering a community of "like-minded people."  This is, in fact, one of the most common answers given when someone is asked what they value so much about Unitarian Universalism -- that here you can find a group of like-minded people.  Especially for those who had previously felt themselves to be a beleaguered minority this would have been tremendously exciting.

Imagine, then, the consternation felt on discovering that here -- even here -- there were people using the same old language, referring to the same old books, and even looking askance when you said aloud the things you'd thought it was finally safe to say.  Add to this that the history of the American Humanist movement is deeply rooted in the Unitarianism of the late 20’s and 30s – about half of the signers of the original HumanistManifesto had been Unitarian clergy.  For a while it had seemed that Unitarian Universalism provided just the kind of soil atheistic humanism needed to flourish.

[Before continuing, an aside.  There are many kinds of humanism, just as there are many kinds of Buddhism or Christianity.  To paint all humanists with the same brush is actually one of the problems faced in our efforts on moving forward the interfaith dialog between UU theists and atheists.  (Should that be "intrafaith dialog"?)  I was being intentional, then, in modifying humanism with the adjective "atheistic" in the last sentence of the previous paragraph.  I am specifically referring to the sense of possibility many atheistic humanists felt when encountering Unitarianism and, then, Unitarian Universalism.]

It should not be at all surprising, then, that these sometimes long-time, sometimes quite new, members would feel themselves being pushed aside by the movement's apparent shift to emphasizing "the language of reverence" (which is often understood and experienced as a return to "God talk") and an embrace of "spirituality" (whatever that even means).  Why, though, should UU theists feel at all threatened when, it seems, their perspective is in the ascendency?

Until next time ...

Pax tecum,


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