Tuesday, August 23, 2016

How do you explain "Unitarian Universalist spirituality"?

The Membership Committee of the congregation I serve is wrestling with the question of how to explain Unitarian Universalist spirituality to newcomers (and old-timers).  Since I'm unable to attend their retreat this Saturday (since I'll be at our Board's retreat!), I wrote something up for them to consider.  Here's what I said:

I’d start by saying that we are not as unique as we sometimes think and say we are – progressive Christians too, for instance, encourage people to think and explore and search their own lives in coming to understand God.  We are, however, generally more expansive in our encouragement of that search.  Using a video game analogy, ours is more of an “open world” model rather than one that restrictively directs your movement.  I would also note that I do not believe that “spirituality” is about what someone passively “believes” but, instead, how a person actively engages their inner and outer world.

That said, there is a line in the hymn, “We Laugh, We Cry” (#355) which says that we believe, “even to question, truly is an answer.”   An important part of the spiritual grounding of our faith tradition, as I understand it at least, is precisely this encouragement to seek for truth and meaning.  This is not the same as saying, “UUs can believe anything we want.”  That’s way too simplistic.  It is to say, however, that our faith encourages us to challenge ourselves to look into our own lived experience (equally with the insights of religion, science, and the arts) as a source of understanding “the twin realities of being born and having to die” (as the Rev. Forrest Church put it).  This is no small thing.  Ours is, at its best, an active faith that calls on us to examine, to re-examine, and to keep on examining our understanding of the universe and our place in it.  One way to describe the spirituality of Unitarian Universalism is that it calls on us to become comfortable in the discomforting place of not-knowing.

So no, you can’t “believe anything you want.”  In the first place, “belief” is not, for UUs, the core of “spirituality.”  In the second, we are encouraged to actively engage ourselves and the world in a free search for meaning; to then engage with others in open, inquisitive dialog about what they’re discovering in their searching; and to then arrive at our own tentative beliefs.  Unitarian Universalist spirituality truly understand and engaged, ought to lead us to the place so many of our youth model for us during their Coming of Age service – “this is what I believe now, but I know my beliefs will change over time.”

One other aspect of our faith tradition’s spiritual core – it is not enough to engage in this search for truth and meaning.  We then must strive to apply our discoveries to the way we live our lives in the world.

One final, general, observation – this is not, in my experience, the way a lot of UUs understand and experience our faith.  Far too many, it seems to me, come to UUism having already decided on the “answers to life’s big questions,” and have no real interest in looking any further.  We come, many of us and maybe even the majority of us, to have our understandings affirmed rather than challenged; we want our already established biases reinforced instead of re-examined.  In this we are absolutely no different than the majority of other religious traditions we humans have ever create.

So here’re three "elevator speeches" about the spiritual core of Unitarian Universalism:

·    Unitarian Universalism challenges us to hold our beliefs lightly, always ready to let go as we discover new and deeper truths.

·    Unitarian Universalist spirituality is found in the free and ongoing search for truth and meaning, within the context of a community of open-minded seekers.

·     Unitarian Universalist spirituality is an active search for meaning in life as we experience it, which we then strive to put into practice in life as we live it.

I hope it need not be said, but this is, of course, a provisional answer ...

Pax tecum,


Tuesday, August 16, 2016

It's all connected ...

Anyone who's read these musings for any length of time knows my passion for addressing the systems of oppression that have created and which perpetuate the brutal dehumanizations of institutional, systemic racism.  This is work that I feel passionately about.

Yesterday I saw a link on a friend's Facebook page to an article by Mary Karr in The New Yorker magazine, "The Crotchgrabber: on a shockingly casual case of sexual assault."  Ms. Karr writes about an incident in which a stranger approached her on the street and grabbed her crotch.  The "casual" in her title refers to the manner in which he did this.  "[A]n approaching guy chatting equably with a tall friend dodged at me to grab my crotch ... he grabbed between my legs with a meaty claw, big as a waffle iron.  He also called me the C-word ... then he passed on into a sandwich shop with his buddy."

Earlier in the day I'd read another piece, a post on the blog of a woman named Erin Bailey, in which she asks, "What Do We Deserve?"  She details some of the ways she has been mistreated -- dehumanized, really -- because of her gender and her appearance:  "What do I deserve?" she asks:
I deserve to be treated like a human, not just a woman, because that means something different these days. 
And us women, what do we deserve? 
We deserve not to feel silenced by your yells. 
We deserve to feel empowered for bettering ourselves. 
We deserve to feel sexy in our own skin without feeling like we're hear to bait you. 
We deserve to speak out without the threat of you lingering on our minds. 
We deserve to run outside. 
We deserve to be judged on our merits, not our outfits. 
We deserve more.  A whole lot more.
According to feminist.com, one-out-of-every-five American women has been the victims of an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime, and 44% are under age 18; 80%.  [See the rest of their statistics if you want to be deeply disturbed.]

While I was away on vacation a congregant left on my desk another article from The New Yorker -- "White Plight:  is whiteness a privilege or a plight?",  written by Huan Hsu.  Reading it I couldn't help but think of the anonymous comment that was left following my recent post, "Where is my Outrage?" expressing the view that the real evil we face as a nation is the economic (and, I would add, cultural) caste system that disadvantages, disenfranchises, and dehumanizes poor whites.  There is a truth to this view, a reality that many liberal whites would like to ignore because it makes the fighting of oppression even more difficult.  This poor white anger often expresses itself in racial categories -- racist words and actions -- yet to simply write it off as racism is to miss the point of the intersectionality of oppressions.  [In my response I noted that in Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow:  mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness, Ms. Alexander demonstrates pretty conclusively that there has been an intentional effort by the wealth, white, elite to pit poor whites and people of color against one another so that there would be little likelihood that they would recognize the common source of their oppressions and work in solidarity to overthrow the system that keeps boots on both of their necks.)

About a year ago a friend -- my first college roommate -- embraced her identity as a transgender woman.  She came out publicly on Facebook and in her daily life.  Today she posted what seemed to me essentially a "thank you" note to all of her friends who had been supportive.  In other words, she was thanking people for not rejecting her because of her gender identity.

from Mary Crawford’s Transformations: Women, Gender, and Psychology
It would be nice -- not quite the word to use, I know -- if the problem we face as a nation was racism.  Or sexism.  Or homophobia.  Transphobia.  Ablelism.  Classism.  Ageism.  Human-ism (by which I mean the elevation of humans above the rest of the natural world that has led to such degradation of our planet, not the philosophical/religious stance).  The inhuman treatment of undocumented immigrants.  I could go on.  The website Interrupting Oppression has a list of 20 different "isms," certainly is incomplete.  The Anti-Oppression Network identifies nearly 30, yet it also no doubt is not exhaustive.

It would be "nice" because it's easier to get your head around trying to tackle one of these issues, and if they're truly interconnected it becomes a knot that seems impossible to untangle.  I'll confess -- as I seem to be doing more and more lately (a sign of maturity, maybe?) -- that I don't know what to do with this.  I am seriously overwhelmed.  In just the past two days I have been confronted with seemingly different examples of "man's inhumanity to man" (sic), yet I know that they are really different manifestations of a single evil.  (And yes, I know that folks of my ilk rarely use the word "evil," but is there any other?)

This post really is a musing.  I'm not sure where to take it; I'm not even sure that I'm saying much of anything that's worth saying.  To add to the confusion, while looking up something for this post I came across the article,  #JeNeSuisPasLiberal:  entering the quagmire of online leftism, by David Auerbach.  It's a long and academic work -- and one I'm still trying to work my way through -- yet I think it's really important for those of us who see ourselves as "liberal" or "progressive" (or, at least, as people working for social change) to consider what he's saying.  One thing that my musing this morning makes very clear to me:  nothing will change if we insist on trying to simplify this incredibly complex puzzle, especially if we also insist on judging/condemning anyone who calls attention to any of the myriad of complicating factors.  Nothing.  You cannot affect change without understanding the problem.  This is particularly difficult when the world you live in is the problem.

Pax tecum,