A Unitarian Universalist reading of 4 Qur’an verses

At the beginning of this month, Unitarian Universalist ministers received an email from a colleague in Gainesville, FL regarding what he and other clergy in the region were going to do on September 11th and 12th in response to the threat of a congregation there burning the Qur’an.  They were requesting that passages from the Qur’an be read in our congregations as an act of solidarity with Muslims across the country. Given the other waves of violence and protests against Muslims,  I chose to do so.

I did not give much, if any, of an exegesis on the passages other than a brief introduction as to why I was going to read from the Qur’an.  Afterwards we took a moment of silence to remember, honor, pray for those families who lost loved ones on 9/11 and the losses committed since that date. My reading from the Qur’an these passages caused a bit of uncomfortableness in the congregation.

If I have any concern about the Unitarian Universalist faith in general, it is that we tend to be of the  LOGOS persuasion and not of MYTHOS in how we read and listen to scriptures of any ilk.  We do the very thing we accuse the Fundamentalists of doing and that is reading the words literally. Where Fundamentalists embrace the literal meanings of the words of scriptures, we reject them and do not go any further to a mythos reading.  By reading these sacred texts in a logos method, we fail to grasp the deeper meaning of the words and lose the richness that could deepen our spirituality.

Philip Pullman, author of the trilogy His Dark Materials, refers to Karen Armstrong’s description of mythos and logos reading in her book The Battle for God: Fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam (2001).   Pullman writes: “Mythos deals with meaning, with the timeless and constant, with the intuitive, with what can only be fully expressed in art or music or ritual. Logos, by contrast, is the rational, the scientific, the practical; that which can be taken apart and put together again; that which is susceptible to logical explanation.”

Once after reading what I thought was a very moving and touching story with profound meaning, a member of the congregation came up afterwards to tell me how the story was illogical because the such and such actions should have been taken instead to fix the problem. Fixes which would have resulted in the story itself from not occurring.  The person completely missed the point of the story because he focused on the logos of the words instead of the mythos of the words. If people state that Unitarian Universalist congregations are not spiritual enough, I bet one of the things they are referring to is our inability or lack of struggle to embrace the mythos of life.

The four verses of the Qur’an I read were the following and I offer an exegesis as to how I read these texts:

1. Love of God: “Say: O People of the Scripture! Come to a common word between us and you: that we shall worship none but God, and that we shall ascribe no partner unto Him, and that none of us shall take others for lords beside God. And if they turn away, then say: Bear witness that we are they who have surrendered (unto Him).” (Aal ‘Imran 3:64)

Another translation reads:  Say “O people of the Scriptures (Jews and Christians): Come to a word that is just between us and you, that we worship none but Allah (Alone), and that we associate no partners with Him, and that none of us shall take others as lords besides Allah. Then, if they turn away, say: “bear witness that we are Muslims.”

This verse to me is about honoring our highest ideals (God) and remaining true to them.  We have common ideals, common values. Let us find what these values are between us.   At the time of this writing, this was an appeal for inclusion and harmony between Jews, Christians, and Muslims.

But I want to also look at the phrase “surrendered unto Him.”  We all surrender to something that is greater than ourselves. And so I hear these words and I ask what have I surrendered to—willingly? Begrudgingly?  It might not be some lofty ideal but something rather basic like systemic oppression or my daily grind.  Does that surrender free me or enslave me?  The Muslims suggest that by surrendering to their highest ideal (god) they are freed.  That’s what they proclaim when stating, “Bear witness that we are they who have surrendered (unto him).” It may sound paradoxical that in surrendering ones self one is freed.  By freely surrendering themselves to their highest ideal (god) they are the ones in control rather than a begrudging surrender of defeat.

I am reminded of the scene in the movie Gandhi where the Indians are trying to shut down the salt mines.  They are lined up and walk to the gate only to be struck down, brutally wounded and dragged out of the way.  This happens again and again. These brave men fighting an injustice surrendered to their fate of being struck down.  They did so willingly because the future end result would outweigh any pain and sorrow that might happen at the hands of the British. They were in control not the British.  I ask the question again, what have we surrendered to—willingly or bitterly?

2. Love of Neighbor: “It is not righteousness that ye turn your faces to the East and the West; but righteous is he who believeth in God and the Last Day and the angels and the Scripture and the prophets; and giveth wealth, for love of Him, to kinsfolk and to orphans and the needy and the wayfarer, and to those who ask, and who set slaves free.” (Al-Baqarah 2:177)

Another translation reads:  It is not Al-Birr (piety, righteousness, and every act of obedience to Allah) that you turn your faces towards the east and west (in prayers); but AL Birr is (the quality of) the one who believes in Allah, the Last Day, the Angels, the Book , the Prophets and gives his wealth, in spite of love for it, to the kinsfolk, to the orphans, and to the poor, and to the wayfarer, and to those who ask, and to set slaves free.

It is not our rituals that make us righteous or people with piety but rather what is in our hearts and the actions that issue from our hearts.  This is about creating justice, equity, and compassion (our second principle) in all human relations. This is about those highest ideals that we want to remain true to and the people who inspire us to emulate them in living in our day to day lives the charge to practice hospitality and generosity to others.

3. A Common Word: “Say: We believe in God that which is revealed unto us and that which was revealed unto Abraham, and Ishmael, and Isaac, and Jacob, and the  tribes and that which Moses and Jesus received, and that which the prophets  received from their Lord. We make no distinction from any of them, and unto Him  we have surrendered.” (Al-Baqarah, 2:136-137)

Another translation reads:  Say (O Muslims), “We believe in Allah and that which has been sent down to us and that which has been ssent down to Ibrahim (Abraham), Ismail (Ishmael) Ishaq (Isaac), Ya’qub (Jacob) and to Al-Asbut (the offspring of the twelve sons of Ya’qub), and that which has been given to Musa (Moses) and Isa (Jesus), and that which has been given to the Prophets from their Lord. We make no distinction between any of them, and to Him we have submitted (in Islam).”

I read this as sharing a common history by revering the same teachers.  We have as one of our sources the “Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves.”  This verse states that Muslims also share this as one of their sources for their faith.  Even though our faiths are very different, theirs is a creedal faith and ours a covenantal faith, we have this source in common.

4. “O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a
female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other (not that you may despise each other). (Al-Hujurat 49:13)

Another translation reads: O mankind! We have created you from a male and a female; and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know one another.

This refers to the creation story but it is slightly different than the Genesis story.  The creation story in Islam states that the universe was created from a single entity which God split apart to create the heavens, moon and sun, and earth.  It fits the big bang theory.  While the story as in the Genesis story states the world was made in six days, the term used for days in this story appears elsewhere in the Qur’an with different meanings in terms of length. So six days in the Qur’an is best understood as six different periods of possible varying length.  The importance of this verse also being read by other faith traditions on September 11 is not the creation aspect but rather the intention that humanity was made to know one another points towards peaceful co-existence.  And since evolution teaches us that we evolved somewhere in the bowels of Africa, we are of one common ancestry.

May we learn to read with both logos and mythos skills and thereby able to see beyond the surface where our differences lie and embrace our mutual humanity.  Blessings,

The Exodus Generation – Jason Lydon’s Ordination Charge

[ Rev. Ian White Maher, minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Queens delivered a ministerial charge at Jason Lydon’s ordination ceremony on September 19th, 2010.  He has given me permission to re-post these words here to enable a larger audience to receive them.  ]


I hope I don’t offend you by saying, we are cut from the same bolt of cloth. We are both dedicated to the Unitarian Universalist movement, we are both passionate about social justice work, we have both taken non-traditional, somewhat irregular paths to our ordinations. It is an honor to share this ceremony with you and to call you a colleague.

Jason, you are now part of the institution, as horrific as that might sound. You have worked hard to earn this mantle. It is time for you to assume all of the responsibilities that go along with it. We welcome you. Indeed, you are needed.

We are the inheritors of an anti-institutionalist strain of Unitarian Universalism which traces our rebellion back to Emerson’s Divinity School Address, perhaps even earlier, which says the church isn’t necessary. All you really need is to appreciate the snowstorm that is rages outside the window, he says. But this is not true. The church is necessary. Institutions provide opportunity as much as they negate opportunity. For you and I, and for many of the people who have gathered here to celebrate with you, the question we wrestle with is, who will control the institution?

Speaking to you as a colleague, what I would hope most for you, perhaps selfishly, what I need most from you, is a willingness to move the culture of Unitarian Universalism from the inside.

There is a whole new generation of young ministers. I’m not exactly sure why this generation of young ministers has stuck with the movement, but I do feel a groundswell. And now is the time to position yourself for an appropriate assumption of that power. Now is the time to cultivate the spiritual tools so that you can speak clearly and respectfully and honestly to those who are less radical than we are, both politically and spiritually.

The church has to change. We are insular and often irrelevant. Many members in our older generations are plagued with resentments of how they were raised and the younger generations, well, they leave largely because these resentments have impoverished our spiritual life. I am tired of the young generation leaving the movement, because we are not fed here. A colleague calls us the exodus generation wandering without a home. So many of us who came to see you ordained here today grew up with people, friends of ours, who are no longer churched because there is no place for them. There is no place for spiritual adventurism. I don’t think the older generations are trying to trick us into believing that the seven principles are actually theology with this Build Your Own Theology crap. I just think they don’t know any better. The seven principles are not theology. They are a substitute for theology. They are for people who want talk about theology rather than live it. It is not necessarily their fault, but we must get inside so we can change that.

I have never seen so many people travel so far for an ordination. We came because you have a bright future. You are dedicated and passionate, willing to sacrifice. But the question is, are you willing to sacrifice that part of your ego that stands you in opposition to the institution, so that you might find a way to change it from the inside?

My ego wants me to be a great prophet. My ego loves seeing pictures of me getting arrested posted on Facebook. My ego loves battling ministers on the interwebs as they tell me I didn’t show Sheriff Joe enough love or that my actions violated the concept of love. And I cherish the opportunity to chant down these ministers who I see in the tradition of the gradualists and anti-abolitionists. But that is just my ego. My ministry is to create the spaces so the prophets can come. I’m not the prophet. My ego would wish that I were, but I’m not. And that is okay.

I believe that Unitarian Universalism is a saving faith. That it has the power to create authentic and life-changing experiences and rituals for atonement, redemption and celebration of this very miracle that we experience called life. But we need to create a larger circle so that others may be able to step in. In many ways our work is not glamorous work. Fighting from the outside is sexier, but it will not change the culture nor stop the hemorrhaging of the exodus generation.

There is a Baptist church near my house that offers weekend classes for children. Their sign says, we have Bible lessons, music, art, games, lunch and fun. And there is a young boy with a pair of dark sunglasses and his arms cross his chest showing off a big James Bond style watch with a caption that reads: Agents in Action: challenging kids to live courageously as God’s special agents. Now, the last thing I’m interested in is some undercover Christian working for God.

And yet I look at this sign and I say, Why don’t we have that? Not that I want to win people over through subterfuge. The truth is more often than not all you need. As Stephen Colbert has said, reality has a well-known liberal bias. But why don’t we have a sign inviting young people to follow a prophetic faith which cares for this planet and its people and animals? Where are our classes to train our agents for God?

We don’t have these classes because we don’t have the people to teach them. And we don’t have the people to teach because we haven’t done the work to make those teachers. Sometimes is takes years, sometimes decades, sometimes generations for the great prophets to come. The great prophets will come if we create the space.

There is a ministry to your church. This is primary and most important. It is the source of your authority. A minister with no church has very little authority. You must always tend this community. Love them sincerely and with all your heart and they will support you through thick and thin.

And there is a ministry to our larger community particularly those in the exodus generation who need young ministers to demand the older generations deal with their damaged religious pasts so we can have a vibrant and accepting church.

All of our actions are done for the next generation and the generation after that. Do we change some of our language so that we are not discounted? So that we are heard? Is that selling out? Is that being strategic? Only your still small voice can tell you if it is authentic. Do not listen to the ego. We do what we do to put a stop to the hemorrhaging of the exodus generation. We do what we do to create legions of young Unitarian Universalist who live in the world as agents for God.

Your ministry is bright, brother. It is a blessing to know you.

[Rev. Christana Willie McKnight is the colleague who shared the term exodus generation with me]

Published in: on September 28, 2010 at 11:01 am  Comments Off on The Exodus Generation – Jason Lydon’s Ordination Charge  
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