Monday, August 24, 2015

Across the Great Divie (part four)

I will admit that in the little over 4,500 words of the previous three posts I have not really offered an answer to this seemingly perennial theist – atheist debate.  It has been danced with, and wrestled with, and stewed over again, and again, and again, for at least the last half century.  Greater minds and hearts than mine have tried to address this perennial problem.  Some have suggested that the way to bring an end to the debate is to acknowledge that this theist - atheist tension is not a "problem" but simply a "cost of doing business" in a diverse, liberal, non-creedal religious community.  In other words, it's only a problem because it's framed as a problem. Change the frame and the problem disappears.

This is no doubt an extremely wise solution, yet frame-changing is not easy work.  That’s especially true when there are strong emotions tied up in the framing.  Making this yet more difficult still are the numerous ways the experiences, hopes, and dreams of the two "sides" -- perhaps more accurately the two ends of the spectrum -- are alike.  Each is looking for a religious home in which their questions, probing, and perspectives are welcomed and embraced.  Each is seeking an alternative to religion-as-it-is-most-commonly-expressed in our culture.  With each group seeking something so essentially similar, yet doing so in such seemingly different ways, projection is nearly unavoidable.  It is so very hard to grant to someone else who seems to be our opposite the things we find beautiful and powerful in ourselves, just as it is hard to accept for ourselves those things we see in them that we find distasteful and disturbing.  This makes the other group into The Other, and it makes frame-changing even more difficult than normal.  It makes coming together extremely unlikely.

On May 23rd, 1960, the Reverend Donald Harrington – then the ordained Minister serving the Community Church of New York – preached a sermon “on the occasion of the celebration of the consolidation of the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America.”  His sermon was titled, “Unitarian Universalism – yesterday, today, and tomorrow.”  Even then this theist – atheist debate was well known, although then it most often took the form of the question “Are we, or are we not, a Christian tradition?”  Then, as now, there were those who quite vehemently said, “yes,” and those who equally unequivocally said, “no.”

In speaking to this seeming divide, Rev. Harrington said this:
This is the story, in brief, of how historic Unitarianism and Universalism, fired and reformed by Emerson’s vision of universal religion and Ballou’s spirit of universal goodwill, have come to the place where they have finally joined forces in a kind of organizational consummation and new spiritual commencement.  In so doing, I believe they have resolved at least one of the conflicts which have been troubling us, the question of whether we are Christian.  History’s answer is clear.  We are the children of the Judeo-Christian heritage.  We affirm with gratitude and joy the universal truths taught by Jesus and embraced by Christianity.  We affirm equally the universal truths taught by the great Jewish prophets and embraced by Judaism, plus the universal truths taught by all of the other faiths and philosophies, Oriental, African, or Occidental, and by modern science as well.  We do not reject Christian truth!  We gladly embrace it!  We bow to none in our reverence and respect for Jesus’ life and thought!  We are not less than Christian, but more!
What we have seen emerging in Unitarian Universalism in this 20th century is nothing less than a new synthesis, the coalescence of a new consensus, a new world faith, formulated by and fitted for this great, new world-age that is coming to birth in our time.

In reading Rev. Harrington's assessment it seems to me that the answer to the question of whether we are a theistic (perhaps specifically Christian) or a humanistic (perhaps specifically atheist) religion is that we are neither.  Or, to put it another way, we are both.  

I think Rev. Harrington was correct – ours is a religion which is deeply rooted in the Judeo-Christian traditions, yet without rejecting any of their gifts and strengths we have evolved into something else. And it is true to say that we are also deeply rooted in the humanist movements which have fed us deeply since at least the 1930s.  Yet it is equally correct to say that, without rejecting any of the gifts and strengths of those movements, we have here also evolved into something else.  We are, I’d contend, no longer either of these religious and philosophic traditions.  We are something else, even as a child is in many ways an extension of, yet utterly distinct from, their parents.  (Please don't think that I'm advocating a supersessionist view, that we are a more evolved, more enlightened tradition than those others.  I am not.  I'm not using the term "evolution" to suggest superiority but, instead, simply differentiation.)

We are indeed a diverse, liberal, non-creedal religious community.  Unlike nearly every other religion that we humans have ever developed, we do not ask one another about our beliefs as a litmus test for our belonging.  This is something that to many seems impossible at least, and truly inconceivable at most.  I have written at length that I think it’s fair to say that at this point we are still figuring out how to live into this reality.  Unitarian Universalism, in this sense, is an experiment in religious community.

I believe we are an experiment in another way as well – we are a religious tradition that is neither theist nor atheist.  Or, as I said earlier, we are one that is both.  This may well be an extension, or a specific example, of our eschewing of creeds as determinative.  Just as we have, may I say, transcended the divisive distinctions religious dogma invariable creates, so too we have moved beyond the theist – atheist debate.  Unitarian Universalism is not an extension of Christianity, nor is it an extension of the American Humanist Association.  We are something different; we are our own thing.  Here too, though, we are still figuring out how to live into own unique identity.

We have finally reached the "so what?" of all of this.  Why does it even matter?  As we look around at the religious landscape around us we see both the rise of a kind of religion that seems dangerous to our species and our planet, and a decline in people identifying with any of humanity's religious alternatives.  Much is being made of the recent Pew Research study that reported, in part, 
“Religious “nones” – a shorthand we use to refer to people who self-identify as atheists or agnostics, as well as those who say their religion is “nothing in particular” – now make up roughly 23% of the U.S. adult population. This is a stark increase from 2007, the last time a similar Pew Research study was conducted, when 16% of Americans were “nones.” (During this same time period, Christians have fallen from 78% to 71%.)
Many Unitarian Universalists see in these results a potential for our movement’s future.  When these “nones” describe what it is that has led them to identify with no particular religious tradition they often describe a longing for precisely what our tradition strives to be.  These, then, might well be potential Unitarian Universalists or, as a long-ago ad campaign put it, “Unitarian Universalists without knowing it.”  Hopefully it need not be said that any interest we have for numerical growth and an increase of involvement isn’t about “growth for growth’s sake.”  Rather, it comes from an assertion that we have something the world desperately needs at this moment in time.  Re-read the so-called Seven Principles of our faith and, then, ask yourself if the world wouldn’t be better off if there were more religious communities built around these principles, and more such-principled people working to make the world a better place.  Unitarian Universalism offers an alternative to the other religions of our day, and one for which it certainly seems there is a growing hunger.

And yet … And yet we spend so much of our energy on these internal squabbles that it is hard to look beyond ourselves.  We fight over what kind of language we can use, what kind of rituals are appropriate in our communities (if any are), what sorts of symbols (visual or otherwise) we should lift up.  We are, in far too many of our congregations, far too sensitive to possible offense.  Many of us enter our sanctuaries and our small groups, and engage any other activity of our communities, “pre-offended.”  (Isn't that a wonderfully descriptive phrase?)  Too many of us are constantly vigilant for things said and done that we deem problematic, rather than seeking to discover how many of these same things are for others in our community deeply powerful.

Rest assured – these internal quarrels do not go unnoticed by others.  Although our rhetoric lifts up the values of openness and welcome, our “family squabbles” belie those claims.  These disagreements which we may think are only among ourselves are, in fact, quite public.  Can anything be truly private today in the age of blogs, and tweets, and FaceBook face-offs?  Others looking in at us see that we espouse one way of being in the world yet often treat one another in an entirely different way.  “Hypocrisy,” is what that’s called, and hypocrisies of one kind or another experienced in other religious traditions is frequently what brought people to look at our faith tradition in the first place.

As a movement we are neither Christian nor Humanist.  We are Unitarian Universalist.  Individuals within our communities may, in fact, identify themselves with one of these or a myriad of other religious, spiritual, or philosophical traditions.  That’s part of our gift and our uniqueness – we not only don’t require you to check your brain nor your heart at the door, we also don’t demand that you leave your identity behind.  The only way that we, as a movement, are able to create the space for people to do that is for our movement to stop identifying as anything other than the unique creature Unitarian Universalism is in and of itself.  We need to stop getting our identity through either embracing or rejecting the identity of other religious traditions.  We need to develop, deeply live into, and then live out of, our own.

This will not be easy.  What we are trying to do --- what we are in the process of doing – is creating a new paradigm for religion.  As with any paradigm shift, one of the most challenging hurdles to overcome is the pull of the old paradigms.  We are, as I’ve said, still in the experimental stage.  If we’re honest we should probably acknowledge that we don’t even really know if what we’re trying to do can be done.  Yet many of us have seen a vision of what is possible.  We’ve seen a vision and we’ve heard the cries of hunger for what that vision offers.  To borrow from Rev. Harrington’s sermon title, let’s free ourselves from who we were yesterday so that today might be a base camp for our journey into the future.

Pax tecum,


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Nik Skaggs said...

I have learned from you not to be a "not". (I am not a Christian. I am not a theist. I am not an atheist.) Now I know I'm an "am". I am a Unitarian-Universalist. I like that. I like to be able to look at the sky and feel "Thank you, God." I like to look at my dark skin neighbor and feel "We are Human together." I like feeling that my dead daughter's spirit still is near. And I like not knowing if my end is the end of any consciousness on my part or maybe not. We are all in this together. I do my best to live by our Principles. And be true to my own identity. Thanks, Wik.

Nik Skaggs said...

I have learned from you not to be a "not". (I am not a Christian. I am not a theist. I am not an atheist.) Now I know I'm an "am". I am a Unitarian-Universalist. I like that. I like to be able to look at the sky and feel "Thank you, God." I like to look at my dark skin neighbor and feel "We are Human together." I like feeling that my dead daughter's spirit still is near. And I like not knowing if my end is the end of any consciousness on my part or maybe not. We are all in this together. I do my best to live by our Principles. And be true to my own identity. Thanks, Wik.

arthurrashap said...

How important is it to set the words and concepts you have been outlining, culminating in this last essay and going to "So what" Rev. Wik!
There is an underpining in what is going on at TJMCUU that sniffs at what you are discussing.
And this remains below the surface of what is going on above the water level of day to day, Sunday to Sunday operations.
Given all the other demands a lead minister with the portfolio that has been given to you and the feedback from a goodly number of congregants, how to raise this up to a subject that is explored and can become a part of each of our lives and a part of what we share with the world?
A subject for putting on the agenda for one of the windows on your and the Church's calendar?

Arthur Rashap

RevWik said...

I love this Nik: "I have learned ... not to be a 'not.' ... Now I know I'm an 'am.'" Within Unitarian Universalism for sure, yet in so many other places as well, a whole lot of our energy goes into attempts to defend the "not-ness" of ourselves. I act tough so that people will know that I am *not* weak. I have an air of skepticism so that people will know I am *not* naive. I keep saying that I'm "alright" so that people will know I am *not* vulnerable.

How rare, and how refreshing, to declare honestly yet humbly, "I *am*." It's more than coincidence, I think, that in the Biblical story of Moses meeting God in the burning bush when Moses asks God's name God answers, "I am."

RevWik said...

Great question, Arthur -- how to bring this from mere intellectual discourse into lived engagement. Of course, some things take time. Some things can't be settled in one conversation, one sermon, on blog post. When it comes to finding, to use Nik's phrase, Unitarian Universalism's "I AM," we're probably in this for the long haul. Not that it's not important to find and create ways to have the conversations in real time, but keep in mind that it took that early band of Yeshua followers roughly 300 years to come up with anything like a clear "I am," and a couple of thousand years later people are still arguing with one another over it. So, like the builders of a medieval Cathedral, we can only do what we can with the parts we're working on. It's our great-great-great grandchildren's children who will see the project completed.