Friday, November 5, 2010

Freedom and Meaning

UUsalon's November Big Question asks "What is a Unitarian Universalist?" The subtext is a verbal claim that one can't be a Unitarian Universalist unless one belongs to a UUA member congregation. Is that right?

[Humpty Dumpty said:] 'There's glory for you!'

`I don't know what you mean by "glory",' Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. `Of course you don't -- till I tell you. I meant "there's a nice knock-down argument for you!"'

`But "glory" doesn't mean "a nice knock-down argument",' Alice objected.

`When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less.'

`The question is,' said Alice, `whether you can make words mean so many different things.'

`The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, `which is to be master -- that's all.'

---- Through the Looking Glass - Lewis Carroll

Living in a country where we put the concept of "free speech" on a pedestal, and think we have quite a bit more of it than we actually have, I claim the freedom to call myself whatever I want. No one would be likely to object strongly if, for instance, I were to call myself an apophatic mystical universalist, although I expect I'd get a lot of reactions that all translated roughly as "what???"

Since I claim the right to call myself by any label I choose, the question becomes why I would want to use one label over any other. Offhand, I can think of several reasons:

  1. I might think that "apophatic mystical universalist" flows off my tongue so lusciously that I just like to hear myself say it.
  2. I might want to show the world that I know some big words to try and impress people.
  3. I might want to associate myself with other apophatic mystical universalists, because they are such wonderful people, however vanishingly small a number they may be.
  4. I might want to try to use the label as a sort of shorthand for a much longer and more complicated explanation of what I "really" am.

My guess is that most people, when using a label for themselves, are subconsciously attempting some combination of 3 and 4. People who call themselves "Catholic" or "Democrat" or "teacher" or "middle-aged" all are both describing some set of characteristics of themselves and claiming association with others using the same label.

The problem comes in when what I mean by a label doesn't match what someone else means by the same label. Take, for example, the name "Christian." My wife, a lovely lady in all particulars, feels that for one to call onesself a Christian, one must accept certain beliefs, largely those expressed within the Nicene creed, and that if you don't believe that stuff, you ought to call yourself something else, because if you don't you're just confusing people who use the "standard" definition. On the other hand, I know a number of fine people who think the Creed is nonsense, but still are perfectly happy labelling themselves as Christian, thus using the term in a completely different way. Who's right? Our culture, as noted, glorifies free speech, but it also glorifies this other little concept called "majority rule." Given relative weight of numbers, if someone hears the term "Christian" without any additional context, they're likely to visualize some set of characteristics relatively close to the mainstream view, whether or not the person who used the term intended that meaning.

Now take "Unitarian Universalist." Clearly any of us can choose to use it as a label, and can mean anything we please by doing so, but what, if anything, are we communicating? It's not clear that there even is a "mainstream" view of its meaning. The Unitarian Universalist Association certainly disavows any theologically grounded use of either unitarian or universalist, but tenaciously and legally defends its ownership of the concatanated phrase. Holders of alternate viewpoints disagree with sufficient vigor to impel them to create alternative organizations like the American Unitarian Conference or the Christian Universalist Association. If you were lucky enough to find a "person on the street" who'd even heard of the UUA, their view might well be something along the lines of "aren't they the athiests?" even though, if I recall correctly, that's not a majority viewpoint even within the UUA. Precisely because of these ambiguities, I generally don't say "I'm a UU," but instead the more tedious but more correct "I belong to a UUA congregation."

Hearking back to our original question, "who's a UU?" our civic traditions answer: anyone who calls themselves one. To the unasked (in this month, anyway) question of "what does that mean?" we can only say: ask a lot of questions and leave your assumptions at the door. If you don't agree, well, there's glory for you.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Searching for sacredness

UUSalon's October Big Question is "What is sacred to us?" The question goes on to add a modifier: "so sacred that we claim exclusive rights."

I can't at the moment check sources, but I believe it was Forrest Church who observed that (paraphrasing from memory) "we all have something sacred. It's what we fight with all our being to protect." With that definition in mind, I point to one group's definition of sacred: the Baby Turtle Brigade.

The most common example of sacredness used in this way is of course from the last sentence of the Declaration of Independence, where the signers pledged their lives, fortunes and sacred honor to the principles which led to our founding. Had the results of the war been different it's quite likely that both their lives and fortunes would indeed have been forfeit, although they may well have managed to maintain their honor.

The problem with discussing the sacred is that it's uncomfortable. We all want to believe that we're contributing to something special, but for most people most of the time, the only thing we'll really fight hard for are protecting our loved ones and, probably, looking out for our lifestyle. That is why, in any faith tradition, the few who have made a deeper commitment are our role models - they embody, by their willingness to give themselves to an ideal, something which we wish we were better at doing ourselves. For instance, I find myself most impassioned when in the midst of a discussion, tending toward argument, about either the importance of individual choice as opposed to community norms, or the necessity to look at economic choices realistically and not filtered by our knowledge of "how things ought to be." But I don't do anything except discuss the problems.

Obviously, defining the sacred for each of us individually is hard enough. But this month's question asks what's sacred to UU's - if anything - and not only sacred, but so sacred that we claim it for ourselves exclusively. I'm not sure that there is anything sacred to all UU's except for the idea that what's inside our own heads is ours and that what we believe is just as precious and valueable as what anyone else believes. I do not think, unfortunately, that we are nearly so good at internalizing that what anyone else believes is as precious and valueable as what we believe.

Every UU congregation agrees that there are multiple sources of wisdom, and, implicitly, that there is always more truth out there than we yet know. We are not unique in this; many other religions agree that revelation is not sealed. However, what I think we claim uniquely, even if we are better at it in the abstract than the concrete, is this: We are the only faith group that willingly, even eagerly, searches for other wisdom and truth. Far from having a comfort with what we believe and trying to find ways to make new information fit into our existing structure, we deliberately look for ways to challenge our beliefs so that we can make them better, stronger, wiser, more congruent with truth. If we have something sacred, it is that we are the group, exclusively, that demands a search for truth, no matter where it takes us, no matter what it does to what we already believe. It is the importance of that search, and the right to the tools which allow us to do it, to which we all strive to dedicate our own lives, fortunes, and sacred honor.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Gettin' on board with salvation

UUsalon for July asks another big question: What about Salvation? What is it, who gets it, how do you get it?

Lions and tigers and bears, oh, my.

"Salvation," much like "Unitarianism," is one of those words which hardly has any meaning if it's taken out of the context of Western Christianity, since it's so inextricably bound up with a dualist worldview which includes a strong Theos. And unlike Unitarianism, there's no support group of "Salvationists" who are busily trying to craft a shiny new meaning for it. The Salvation Army, in fact, is just fine with the traditional meaning. Unfortunately for me, since I've never felt "lost" in an Amazing Grace way, I've also never had any compelling need to be "found." Perhaps I don't have a right to sing the blues.

Misused song lyrics aside, why would salvation have meaning to one who's barely flirting with the heliopause of Christian philosophy? Fortunately, salvation does have another meaning: Preservation or deliverance from destruction, difficulty, or evil. That I can get on board with, because I surely do sometimes have a heaping portion of difficulty.

Life isn't like a giant light switch where days are either "good" or "bad." Most days are kind of in between. Nevertheless, I have some fond memories of days that were particularly good, in the sense that things just seemed to "flow right." I've always thought of spiritual development as a way of getting in tune with the universe, so that I am able to act in concert with it instead of at cross purposes or against the tide. In this framework, striving for salvation is like striving for oneness with the universe, or figuring out what's right and doing it. All day, every day. The more striving, the more oneness, the more salvation. If that's what salvation is, then it looks to me like anyone can get it, because there's no being chosen in there at all. It's up to us to see just how much salvation we're willing to work for. If we work hard enough, long enough, and are maybe lucky enough, we can hope to get to the point where all of our days are the "good" kind.

It might seem that I've pretty well thrown my lot in with the "works" people instead of the "faith" people when it comes to figuring out how to get that sweet salvation stuff, but I really don't think so. I don't think the question is "what is the right way to achieve salvation." I think the question is "what works for me?" For some people, scriptural belief is the polar star. For others, it's service. Still others find their comfort and direction in liturgy or mysticism or critical theological thought or working with energy flows. Salvation doesn't depend on what works for anyone else, only what works for each of us. We have faith in our practices because they work for us, but we have to practice (work at) them!

People get ready, there's a train a comin'
You don't need no baggage, you just get on board
All you need is faith to hear the diesels hummin'
Don't need no ticket, you just thank the lord.

Just do it.

Monday, June 7, 2010

What's universal about Universalism?

UUSalon's June Big Question is about one of those pesky words.

Universalism, the "other U." What does it mean to you? Do you resonate with Universalism, or not? What about the Universalist perspective challenges or comforts you?

It looks like it was so much simpler back in the old days. We took for granted that there was a - The - God, and that Jesus was the pathway. That didn't leave anything to argue over but details. So you were a Unitarian (and heretic) if you didn't believe in the Trinity, and you were a Universalist (maybe heretic, maybe not, it depended on who you asked) if you didn't believe in the Doctrine of the Elect.

What do the words mean when the very assumptions that underlie being able to ask the questions no longer work for so many of us? The questions that we grapple with now are more basic. Is there a god of any sort at all? Is there, in fact, anything at all beyond what we are aware of within this physical reality? Does the concept of transcendence have any meaning? Currently, the old questions look like pretty small potatoes.

I've been a Universalist in spirit, if not in name, ever since I realized that there were a whole lot of people on earth that weren't Christian, and it occurred to me to ask "do they go to heaven too?" The stock answer has always been that they had their own heaven, but that wasn't really very satisfying for someone being raised in an environment that led me to internalize that "separate but equal" really meant "not equal at all."

Ultimately, Universalism, if it is to have any meaning at all, must mean that whatever "is" applies to everybody. Even further, if we really believe in the interdependent web of all reality, it applies to everyTHING. Living and non-living, secular and sacred, local and remote, empirical and transcendent, Unitarians, Universalists and members of the UUA, all are subject to the same ultimate truth, whatever that may be. More, we are also equally able to partake of the blessings of being in congruence with that ultimate truth, to the extent each of us is open to understanding it. The forces which act on us and in us are universal. So are the gifts we receive. We cannot escape it, but we also know that we have tools and ability to embrace it.

Universalism is not, ultimately, a statement about truth. Instead, it's an assertion that we all, whether we realize it or not, whether we admit it or not, are on a collective journey toward understanding truth/mystery/spirit/God. Likewise knowing that our understanding will necessarily be incomplete and frequently wrong, nevertheless we strive ceasely to understand how that truth -The truth - can "set us free."

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Soulful Strut

UU Salon asks:

What is a soul? Does it exist before we are born? Does it disappear when we die?

The question unfairly presupposes the answer to another question: Is there a such a thing as a soul? That question I can answer, for me at least: No. Nevertheless, we all have one.

Soul talk, as is so much else in western society, is the product of a platonic worldview in which there are things, so we suppose that the soul, if there is one, must also have the characteristics of a thing. For years my view mirrored others expressed about this question, but I have since moved to a view that disputes the existence of the soul as something.

Instead, I believe that "soul" is a metaphor for that sense of the infinite reality which exists, in however attenuated a fashion, in all of us. Soul is the channel we use to experience, communicate with and attempt to understand "that which is out there." As such, it is not a thing, not some as yet unlocated nexus of cells in the brain or ganglial cluster associated with a chakra. Rather, "using soul" is a skill, much like "playing tennis" or "writing a blog." We attempt to use our soul more if we hope to increase our skill at perceiving the unseen, scruting the inscrutable or effing the ineffable. If we use it less, our skill wanes.

For the vast majority of us, this channel to the infinite is at best a tiny, tenuous thread which on rare but blessed occasions graces us with a sense of rightness. Those we think of as holy or wise or spiritual seem to have managed to increase the bandwidth of their channel so that their experience of the infinite is much greater, potentially so much greater that in the end the channel opens to encompass both all of the infinite and all of us, so that the two are one.

May each day end up with us being more soulful than we started.