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Archive for the ‘Religious Language’ Category

In Defense of Religon

Since coming to the Unitarian Universalist Church I have meditated often on reclaiming theological language, I have enjoyed getting to write sermons and blog posts about things like faith, hope, redemption, and salvation. These words have deep theological history and meaning but over the years have been overwhelmed by religious baggage. At the end of the day these ideas are still relevant but we have to be responsible about the way we use them. For me reclaiming a theological heritage that has been hijacked by one group is paramount in the study of theology. And though I would never take away their right to use these terms narrowly it doesn’t mean I have to give them up either.

During the late 90’s into the 2000’s the statement I’m not religious I’m spiritual became popular. The goal of this article is not an incitement of the people who make this statement but to ask the question what is religion? It is an important question because within the culture the terms religion and religious are often spat out like bad fish. So this post will ask, what is this religion we do not want to associate with? It is important to explore this because the current aversion to religion makes clear one basic truth religion is failing people. The second question we will discuss in the latter half of the article is, what is spirituality? Finally we will explore a different understanding of true religion.

I find it easier to understand the negative usage of the term through a series of basic images. The first that comes to mind is luxury. The preacher makes six figures and has even more hidden off shore. The church has an IMAX Theater and gift shop that sells little crosses that say things like Faith, Hope, and Love, with the name of the church printed on the stand. This church, feeding off of its congregants, looks beautiful, and makes us feel even better while we are inside, whether it positively effects and represents its community or not doesn’t matter, but it sure is sparkly.

The next Image is described by the word Mask. The preacher, the elders, the staff, they are not what they seem to be. They all have their own sins that stay hidden. The congregants are the same. They act one way in church and a different way at home or at work. They talk about helping the poor, but take few actions, they mention freedom but rest in control. This church is not about making the community better, but about making its members look better. In fact they all live somewhere else and drive in. They revel in the theology, “Do what I say not what I do.”

The last image I will use is described by the phrase, out of touch. This gospel was for another time. It doesn’t take into account the world in which we live. The congregants aren’t part of the neighborhood like they were when the church was founded, they rest behind gates both in their communities and the church itself keeping the neighborhood from finding its way in. The curriculum screams 1972, and the music no longer has depth. And if you don’t like it they will be happy to quote Hebrew 8 that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. Their god doesn’t like you, and chances are they don’t either, just keep walking.

I suspect there are many people who would not feel accepted in the places I just described. These places are unfeeling, disconnected, and unaccepting. They only care about their issues and they don’t want to change anything because they are afraid of change. These churches are all about what they look like, not what they do. They are luxurious, out of touch places where people where masks. And these practices have been the defining factor of religion for a few decades now. So prevalent in fact that people stopped using the word all together.

But what I find most important about these images is that they are caricatures not real. Don’t get me wrong there are some frustrating churches out there but most churches I walk into, even the out of touch ones with which we don’t agree, are full of people who struggle with life and do the best they can. The descriptions I have given, I do not believe. In fact, I would call them inappropriate and judgmental. If I were to explain them to a copy of myself seriously I would respond with the statement, “Who made you their god, and who gives you the right to judge them?” Though it is these images we use to describe religion as “everything that is wrong with faith.”

Now we have to look at the other side of the matter, spirituality. Merriam Webster defines the word spiritual simply as relating to a person’s spirit. That’s a nice definition and I like it, but will expand on it because I am a minister and that is what I do. Spirituality relates to our individuality, it is a part of who we are as a people. It is our communion with our spirit, and it relates to our core. We all have spiritual practices, many of them are personal, and they all help us understand our meaning and purpose. We do not seek to infringe on someone else’s spirituality with rules and regulations, they can be as orderly or chaotic as one like. Being spiritual is freeing, no one else can say how it should be done for you, but sometime we need others.

Spirituality is very personal, and we choose how much of our personal spirituality to share, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be spiritual together and when we are spiritual together we have to talk about guidelines and basic rules that help us treat each other with respect, which brings us to religion. Religion, when appropriate, becomes a vehicle for spirituality, it is a part of but not the whole. However, religion cannot exist without spiritual people. Religious practice then offers an opportunity to be spiritual together. When we light the chalice, sing together, share joys and concerns, and listen to a sermon, we are being spiritual and since we are doing it together we are being religious too.

Originally the two words were synonyms, but the movement to be spiritual but not religious changed that. I don’t think that was a negative change I think it better helps us understand who we are and our part in the community. It helps us bring a very personal thing into our relationships with others in a way that benefits everyone but protects who we are. Because of this multiple decade conversation I can say very clearly I am a religious person, but I could not be one if I was not first spiritual.

Religion doesn’t have to be close minded, hateful, and set in the old ways. Religion should be as vibrant as the people who practice it, and we as UUs are a very vibrant people, with many different traditions. But when religion becomes a negative force I question then whether it is truly religion anymore. The book of James describes true and faultless religion to be one that looks after orphans and widows. We expand this as UU’s but keep the core of the verse, religion should be about the things we do to make the world better not about making us look better. Once it stops being that it stops being true.

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The Forgotten Virtue

There are a number of standard answers from all the variety of traditions within Unitarian Universalistism in regard to the number of individuals it takes to change a light bulb.

One tradition says that we should accept the light bulb as it is, another that we think the light bulb if it desires to change should change itself. One tradition calls for a quorum, which is 5 or 6 – wait, how many are in a quorum, and did we call Paul who is in charge of buildings and grounds . . . oh God, wait, no, hold on . . . never mind – what was I talking about?

Oh yes, as to light bulbs, my favorite response is:

We choose not to make a statement either in favor of or against the need for a light bulb. However, if, in your own journey, you have found that light bulbs work for you that is wonderful. You are invited to write a poem or compose a modern dance about your personal relationship with your light bulb. Present it next month at our annual Light Bulb Sunday Service, in which we will explore a number of light bulb traditions, including incandescent, fluorescent, 3-way, long-life, and tinted, all of which are equally valid paths to luminescence.

I remember when I first came to the UUCJ one member offered a new UU joke every week. This never offended me, it actually kept me coming back. In fact, the light bulb joke helped me decide I wanted to be a Unitarian Universalist. Being able to laugh at myself has always been important, I do many silly things, and though sometimes I am being serious when they happen, learning to laugh at them helps me realize not to take myself so seriously. I find I often take myself way too seriously, and most the arguments I get into are when I am doing that very thing.

Ken McLeod, Buddhist teacher, makes the point that we should be okay with laughing at ourselves while discussing beginning meditation. He states that one of the first things we learn is that our minds are never quiet, and we must learn to laugh at our Monkey Mind, always jumping from topic to topic, and never being still. He doesn’t call upon us to lament our inability to be light-hearted about it.

In the Hebrew Bible we read about the story of Isaac. Angels came to visit his parents before he was born. They said to Abraham, who was 100 years old, that his 90 year old wife, Sarah, would have a child in the next year. Sarah, over hearing this laughed, but the angles never condemned her lack of faith. Maybe they understood the silly notion of a 90 year old woman giving birth, and they probably also understood that her first 90 childless years had been very hard on her. The angels said, because she had laughed, she would now have to name him Isaac, to which the root word in Hebrew means laughter. Nine months later she never complained about naming her child Laughter, because now her laughing was not in derision but in joy.

The seven heavenly virtues go like this:

  • Chastity
  • Temperance
  • Charity
  • Diligence
  • Forgiveness
  • Kindness
  • Humility

Granted, we have not had the opportunity to discuss these in forum or during a board meeting because we don’t consider these words dogma, but they come from one of our sources. Of course, if we were to take these into conference, I would make a point on one very important forgotten virtue–humor. If humor was added, I would be alright with the Heavenly Virtues. It is important to have a good sense of humor, especially when we work so hard to do important things. As UU’s we are often working toward very lofty and difficult goals and we face a lot of discouragement. Sometimes we just need to have a good laugh.

Many times Jon Stewart has been accused of being too light-hearted about serious subjects–making jokes about important issues. To this, Jon Stewart generally reminds dissenters that he hosts a comedy show on a comedy network. He does take very important issues and relate them to us in a way in which we can laugh, but he has found this amazing middle ground where we can laugh, while at the same time look upon these topics seriously. That is the gift of comedy, the gift of humor.

Why don’t we take some time and give that gift to each other this week, either in the comments here or on the facebook page? Just remember to keep it positive and PG-13–after all, we are Unitarian Universalist–what would people think?

Spiritual Themes in Earth Day

A few years ago I watched a youtube video especially dedicated to Earth Day. The man in the video started a gas blower and set it down, then he started a gas weed eater and set it down, then he started a push mower (remember all these things are still running) then a ride-on mower, then his car, and his truck. At the bottom of the screen flashed the words “Happy Earth Day.” The creator of the video was making an obvious statement. He did not support the ideals of Earth Day, and obviously didn’t accept the concept of climate change. This offended my sensibilities. I remember driving an old car with no air conditioner on I-240 in Memphis, Tennessee, reading signs that said, “Smog Warning: Leave Your Windows Up.”

As Unitarian Universalists, we articulate very clearly our ideals through our principles, specifically the 7th principle:

Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

This principle reminds us that that we are part of this world and this world is a part of us. We should, therefore, care for the world so it can care for us. However, even before coming to the Unitarian Universalist Church, taking care of the planet was a spiritual issue for me. Every year around Earth Day when I had the chance to preach a sermon I showed pictures of the great Pacific garbage patch, smog warnings, and oil-covered ducks. Of course, I didn’t start there–I started with the Hebrew Bible.

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”-Genesis 1:28

Coming near the end of the creation narrative, this statement defines the roll of man in the new creation. Upon a simple read, it doesn’t say much, the only thing that really ever stuck out to me is the word “subdue.” The word in Hebrew is generally used during war–in referencing the control of something hostile. In this case, there is nothing hostile working against Adam and Eve. They are working in congruence. Quite simply put, “you are in charge.” The next word that sticks out is “rule” (or to have dominion over). This is not being used in a violent context. In essence, humanity is set up as steward of creation. There is nothing violent here. Humanity is never asked to fight against creation but to care for it. In fact, it is one of the oldest commands in the Hebrew Bible. In this context, the world will be shaped by humans and it will reflect their own nature. Later, as we move through Genesis into Noah’s narrative, we find that reflection to be found wanting.

Some Unitarian Universalists, however, don’t really give much precedence to a biblical or Christian argument. We have been presented with scientific studies that inform our cultural milieu in regard to environmentally sound solutions and that is fine. However, I still think it is important to know. I think it is important because as we study the political landscape we often find that those who oppose earth friendly solutions are often aligned with the political/religious right, and in that context, it often means Christians. If we look upon the recent history of our planet, we clearly see that human beings, since their rise to power, have shaped this earth.

Even more importantly it creates a spiritual alignment that connects most religious belief systems; that is, we are connected (or maybe interconnected) spiritually to the world around us and all things dwelling above and below it. Spiritually, we are part of the whole, we are interdependent, which means we are individual and corporate at the same time. In fact, whether one believes they are created in God’s image or not, the responsibility to our home is the same. If in fact one believes this world was created “good,” wouldn’t that mean we should try to keep it that way? Sometimes I struggle working with people with that worldview as they ignored smog and pollution. They ignored species after species becoming extinct and the destruction of the forests necessary to provide us oxygen. I always struggled to understand how any person, religious or not, could look upon the earth we created and call it good.

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Fear of God

When I was new to Unitarian Universalism I learned a new “Fear of God,” not the fear to believe, or the fear of God’s glory, but the fear to mention his name, the fear to appear too theistic to those who are not. I was shocked then when I read “Our Chosen Faith,” the book given me during the celebration of my membership, that God was all throughout the book.

After doing research into the matter I found that Unitarian Universalism was working toward reclaiming religious language including God. So I sat down today in my office to write a few words about this reclamation. I started with a simple Google search, and was taken down a rabbit hole of history that I found very educational.

In 2003 Rev William G Sinkford, self-proclaimed atheist and President of the UUA, made the national news as he declared that Unitarian Universalism would begin reclaiming religious language. He said in 2003 that it would be his goal to reclaim the “language of reverence, in the association,” citing his issue with the lack of spiritual language anywhere in our principles or traditions.

In a sermon in January of 2003 preached to First Jefferson Unitarian Universalist Church he said, “I believe that Unitarian Universalism is growing up. Growing out of a cranky and contentious adolescence into a more confident maturity. A maturity in which we can not only claim our Good News, the value we have found in this free faith, but also begin to offer that Good News to the world outside these beautiful sanctuary walls.” Later in that sermon he points to one of the problems he sees with our refusal to claim religious language “Our resistance to religious language gets reflected, I think, in the struggle that so many us have in trying to find ways to say who we are, to define Unitarian Universalism.”

But he was very clear that Unitarian Universalism was not going to adopt the picture of God in the Christian Sense. In his 2009 book, The Cathedral of the World, Forest Church defines God this way “’God’ is our name for that which is greater than all and yet present in each.” These two men are very clear to define God differently than modern Christianity.

Living in the American South this idea takes on a completely different flavor. In Jackson, Mississippi, public atheists still work against prejudice. Mississippi is not in a world clearly enveloped in humanism or atheism. Many schools still begin their days with Christian prayer and becoming politically active is difficult if not backed by Judeo-Christian identification.

And for this reason I think it is important to reclaim religious language as a whole, but respectful to all parties willing to join the meeting: to understand conversation of faith, belief, and salvation–not in the popular sense but an even more traditional sense. It is important to talk about sin, but sin as the negative action against each other not divine judgment against the self in regard to things we cannot control. It is important to talk about salvation from the prison we build around ourselves that doesn’t involve changing the core of who we are. Most of all it is important to talk about God–whether we mean the deity that teaches us to become better or the Spirit of Life that drives us, let us talk of God, without fear but with love. As we reclaim the language of our UU forbearers we may find that we really aren’t that polarized after all–even in Mississippi.