Evolving Faith

I have been on study leave this month.  It has been an interesting time for me regarding my reflection on life in the South.  Since my time here my faith has shifted yet once again and I am thinking it is in reaction to the overt religiosity that is inherent in southern culture.

I say religiosity rather than Christianity because what I see practiced here in my experience is not Christianity.  At least not the Christianity that I knew as a teenager, not the Christianity that I knew as a young adult living in Charismatic Christian Community but something that has the form of Christianity but none of the heart of Christianity. And there are reasons why I left that Christianity behind that have more to do with my understanding of Christianity than it does with the form of religiosity as I have experienced it in the South.

We have ministers here in the south who when they do not get their way ask their parishioners to pray that God will strike down with lightening those who disobey or disagree with their perspectives.   Such violent rhetoric has led people to act out this rhetoric–presuming they are god’s messengers. (Rev. Fuller regarding the Tuscaloosa Arts Council’s refusal to ban a foreign film. See his retraction here.)

We have public leaders who parade their claim of Christianity because they believe that will get them elected and these same public leaders who misquote and misuse the biblical texts to support positions that are  far away from the God revealed by Jesus. (Governor Bentley regarding biblical command to obeying the law in regards to HB 56 and HB 658. See post here. )

So this is why I say religiosity rather than Christianity because there is nothing Christian in these persons expression of faith. It has all the trappings and decorum of Christianity but none of the authentic heart that Jesus displayed in his three years of ministry.  A true religious conversion eventually leads to humility of spirit towards others–think Francis of Assisi, think Thich Nhat Hahn, think Gandhi, think Mother Teresa.   Religiosity is overt here in Alabama and my reaction to it is to retreat further away from anything resembling it.

I am more of a non-theist than when I arrived here in Alabama.  I am not an atheist who does not believe in god but I am not a theist either.  My definition of god for a long time now has been:  All that is and all that is not.  But that statement has been confused for pantheism and that is not what I am referring to either. The reason why this is not a pantheistic statement is because of the negative clause, all that is not.  Pantheism only encompasses what is;  the universe and equates the universe with god.  I look beyond that definition and include not only what is, but also what is not.  I find this definition of god includes not only the natural world but also the supernatural, the paranormal, the things that people have experienced but are not so easily defined in the natural  realm.  I find the current definitions and categorizations of these experiences insufficient and most likely superstitious explanations in an attempt to place them into some neat box to tuck away somewhere. But I cannot ignore them in my definition.

I would state there is something of the divine essence in all of creation, all that is not created, and all that is to be created.  There is not a Supreme being somewhere pulling the strings.  I am not even sure there is a universal stream of consciousness.   But there does seem to be something that places order and chaos into what we call the universe.  Is it the Higgs Boson–the God particle? My position, therefore,  is not an atheist position but rather a non-theist position.

How has this shifted my faith?  I have become more interested in how humans live together in harmony than in whether or not their souls are saved. I find the responses that Rev. Fuller and Gov. Bentley made to be fascinating from an evolutionary point of reference. Our ancestors responded in similar ways to things that were perceived as threatening.  We called upon the gods to smote the threat or we sought to bring the threat under the rule of law.  In both, these reactions revolve around being an alpha, a focal point of coercive power and control.  If a supernatural or natural event happened after the command to smote another, the person commanding would be elevated in status.  They must have a special connection.  If people began to follow the rule of law, the same elevation of power and control would be given to the person or entity enforcing the law. There is in our tribal species a need to conform to the tribe.  I want to explore what it is in our evolution as a species that holds us back from achieving our goal of living in harmony.

My focus as a person of faith has increasingly been on the here and now, in understanding how we have evolutionarily evolved and how remnants of our evolutionary past affect our present desire to be more loving, more tolerant of the other, more able to cope with the transitions of life.  And I have been recognizing how humanity loves the illusion far more than the reality of something.

I am beginning to think that there is something in our genetic evolutionary development that leads us to idolatry.  Whether that idolatry is in the classic form of idol worship or a more nuanced form such as being seen today through supremacist ideologies or blind unquestioning faith in an institution be that government, church or financial corporation. If we are ever to create that Star Trek society where poverty and inequality and all the isms have been eliminated, we need to have a better understanding of our evolutionary history.  Our faith constructs also have to evolve–not necessarily in the direction mine has–but evolve just the same.

The Culture is the Crucible

Connie Goodbread, Acting District Executive for the Mid-South District of the Unitarian Universalism Association of Congregations (UUA) when speaking about faith development will often say:  “Faith Development is all we do; Unitarian Universalism is all we teach;  and the Congregation is the Curriculum.”   Recently at a Regional staff meeting we were discussing the vision of Unitarian Universalism for the Southern Region and I mentioned that when we live our faith out in the community the Culture is the Crucible.

We only truly embody our faith and values when we live those values in the culture.  It is in the culture that our faith is put to the test to strengthen our mettle.  Currently our culture is resisting attempts to be compassionate towards others.  There are loud voices that claim  the individual is above all others; disregarding the worth and dignity of others.   Moves in our government to reduce taxes on the über wealthy and corporations  to the detriment of life giving services to the poorest in our country is received with high praise by politicians and citizens alike.  The recent GOP debate had an audience member shout ‘let him die’  to the hypothetical question  of a young man who chose not to get insurance and then had an accident which left him in a coma, should he be treated?  A bad decision on the young man’s part and lack of compassion by the Ayn Rand neophytes who place individual rights and a disdain for minor impositions above collective societal rights.   It is in this world where we either live up to what we claim to profess on Sunday morning or we fail to meet the challenge.

This is the test of our values as Unitarian Universalists. How well do we represent these values in the day to day? Do we speak up when we see someone being abused for being gay or discriminated against for being an immigrant? Do we talk with our friends about the deep matters in life or do we hide away to keep the peace when a disparaging word is said about another group ?

If being Unitarian Universalist is only good one day a week then our faith is weak and ineffective.  We should not continually wonder why our congregations are not growing and or why claims of irrelevance surface. If we are not seeking to live the principles that we covenant to uphold then our voice will continue to grow weak against the din and noise of the popular cultural shift towards Ayn Rand’s extreme individualism.

As a faith, as congregations, as individuals we need to examine how we embody the values our faith teaches out in the world where we breathe, and eat, and have our being.  This is not an easy challenge. It is hard work  this path we have chosen. Dag Hammarskjold wrote these words “This is your path, And it is now, Now, that you must not fail.”

I repeat Connie Goodbread’s words with mine added at the end:

Faith development is all we do;
Unitarian Universalism is all we teach;
the congregation is the curriculum;
and the culture is the crucible.

This is our task and our path. We must not fail.

A Unitarian Universalist Theology

One of the questions that ministers get asked is to discuss their personal theology.  Unitarian Universalists do not have a prescribed creed that we must believe in in order to be a Unitarian Universalist.  We are encouraged to ask ourselves those hard questions  and  develop a personal theology of what we believe and how this informs our daily lives.

My personal theology continues to evolve.  Today, I am much less concerned with doctrines that people hold and more concerned with the relationships that evolve around them. Therefore my theology has become more focused on the relational. What is our relationship to the holy?  What is our relationship to our past?  What is our relationship with our present?  How do the answers to these questions influence or dictate our future relational  experiences?

A person wounded by a spiritual violent religious experience who has not found some way to resolve that woundedness is going to relate to others in a much different manner than someone who has resolved that woundedness.  If they can begin to see the connection of their relationship to their past and in particular this past event to how they respond now, then perhaps they can begin to make conscious choices to act differently now.

I am less concerned with whether a person has a doctrine that states god is a father in heaven and more concerned with how this doctrine influences their relationships with each other here.  Does it enable them to be more just in their actions with others? Does it make them judgmental?  Likewise, I am less concerned with a person’s claim there is no god and more concerned with how this doctrine influences their relationships with others. Does not having a belief in god shift their relationship with one another? If so, in what direction does it shift—towards more compassion –towards more cynicism?  These questions do not have static answers.

Theology is only helpful and practical if it enables a person or a group of people to live their lives in a manner that is uplifting of universal values.   Our Unitarian Universalist faith is not concerned with whether you are a Buddhist or a Christian, a Pagan or a Muslim, an atheist or a theist. Our  faith is more concerned with how those beliefs help build sustaining relationships with each other.  If the beliefs we hold aid us in living an ever increasing compassionate and justice filled life, then those beliefs are transformative.  If these beliefs or doctrines hinder that ability, then we as individuals need to let them go. If we choose not to let them go, then the result is a breakage in the relationships.

I speak from experience in this breakage.  The Christian community I lived in during my youth could not let go of their doctrine that homosexuality was against god’s will for humanity. And therefore it resulted in a breakage in the relationship. As painful as this break was, it needed to be made in order for me to continue to grow in relationship with who I fully am, and in relationship with who I want to be—a more compassionate and justice centered person.

We live in relationship to one another and it is only in the relationships we have with one another that new desire, new opportunities, new avenues are found and developed. We heal others through our relationships with them. We do not know which experience in our life will lead to a transformation of a fuller expression of who we are at the core our being.

As I have already implied, there are theologies that would speak dogmatically another perspective than mine; however, their theology is valid based on the accumulation of their life experiences and how they have chosen to perceive those experiences. This is because I see expression of faith as an evolution and not a static entity. Where each person is in their theology is within the process of how they have made sense of their experiences to date. New experiences attract new thoughts which alter perspectives and ultimately how we perceive and relate to the world we live in. A theology that is relational reflects our Unitarian Universalist principle that each person is responsible for their own search for truth and meaning.

As a Unitarian Universalist,  it is not just other theologies that Unitarian Universalist hold but all other theologies that one must relate with in this pluralistic society. I believe the theology that I am embracing allows me to be in relationship with others who may have different theologies than mine. If we are going to strive to create a better world, then we need to find ways of being with the other that enhances the quality of our lives in community.

How Do You Eat Your Grits?

I have just completed my final Sunday service at Our Home Universalist Unitarian Church in Ellisville, MS.  I was the consulting minister there for four years.  In reflecting back on my service there, I have learned a wonderful lesson about what it means to be a minister and what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist.

Four years ago, Eunice Benton, District Executive (now retired) of the Mid-South District of the Unitarian Universalist Association asked me to consider coming to Mississippi to serve two congregations at half-time each.  She asked if I had ever lived in the deep south before and the answer was no.  Eunice wisely asked me to come down and visit before making any decision.  I met with the two congregations. The first congregation asked me the typical minister search questions; what was my theology, what are my views of religious education, etc.

The interview at Our Home held over dinner was one question and one question only.  “How do you eat your grits?”  I was a bit startled by the unorthodox question but I answered, “with butter, salt and pepper.”   I was then welcomed to come to Mississippi and be their minister. The rest of the dinner conversation was filled with logistics of transition and good humored conversation.  If I had answered with sugar or maple syrup or heaven forbid, “what are grits?” I dare say I would not be here to tell the tale.

How we create and sustain loving relationships with one another is the essence of our covenantal faith. Cultural competency is one important aspect of our faith that enables us to be in relationship.  The grits question certainly addresses this point.

Theology, creeds, or doctrines we might hold, while important to have them defined for ourselves,  take a much smaller role in living the Unitarian Universalist faith.  The real question, the vital question is how do we translate our theologies, creeds, doctrines into our day to day relationships with one another.  In short, how do you eat your grits?  Are you going to be able to relate to people who come from a very different background, a different culture, a different theological perspective on what is true and still find common ground?

This is where our work is.  This is what defines our faith as different from other faiths.  16th century Unitarian minister Francis David is quoted as saying, “We do not have to think alike to love alike.”   It does, however, help if our thinking, our theologies, our doctrines, and our personally held creeds aid us in loving alike.  If they do not help us in loving our neighbor as ourselves or to do onto others as we would want others to  do onto us,  then it may be time to reconsider our theologies, our doctrines, or our personally held creeds.

Our Unitarian Universalist faith is not concerned with whether you are a Christian or a Humanist, a Buddhist or a Muslim, a Pagan or a Jew.  Our faith is more concerned with how the doctrines of those beliefs help you build sustaining loving relationships with others.

If your beliefs empower you to be more loving, more generous, more able to fulfill your highest potential, more able to be just in your relationships, then that is what is vital to this life.  If they hinder you from being inclusive of the other, cause you to shun and fear others who are different, solicit an attitude of me and mine first, then those beliefs are not serving you well. It might be best to either let them go or re-examine them to find how they can aid you in living a more generous of spirit and heart life.

Unitarian Universalists recognize that what enables one person to become more loving and more generous may not enable another to do so.  And so for one person Christianity may be the path that empowers this love, for another it may be Buddhism, and for yet another it may be one of the Earth centered faiths. This is reflected in our fourth principle: A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.

Rev. Doak Mansfield, former minister at Our Home Universalist,  once stated that Unitarian Universalism in the deep south is about grace and relationships.  We best express our faith in how we relate to one another.  It is our personal relationships that are our best calling card for our faith.   It is also in how we develop our public witness for justice.  The desire to create partnerships with those who are oppressed and to follow their lead towards freedom.  Grace and relationships.

Wherever two or more are gathered, it is in the relational aspect of the gathering that the spirit of love is either present or absent.  Unitarian Universalists strive to allow the spirit of love to be present.  That is the essence of our faith the rest, to paraphrase Hillel, is commentary.


What are the fruits of our beliefs?

appletree” ‘A man bears beliefs, ‘ said Emerson, ‘as a tree bears apples.’ He bears beliefs about himself, about his fellows, about his work and his play, about his past, about his future, about human destiny. What he loves, what he serves, what he sacrifices for, what he tolerates, what he fights against–these signify his faith. They show what he places his confidence in.” James Luther Adams  wrote these words in 1946 in his essay A Faith for the Free. 

I found these words to resonate a chord with in me as I read and watch the news about events in our country.  I only have questions at this point.  And there are many.  What is our faith if we deny health care to 47 million uninsured americans and millions more with pre-existing conditions?  What is our faith if we feel justified in yelling, “You Lie!” to the President of the United States?   What is our faith if we continue to support business practices that are clearly not in our best self-interest?   What is our faith if we feel comfortable in fighting against others receiving something (government sponsored– taxpayer paid  health care)  that we ourselves benefit from (Our elected officials in Congress) ?  What is our faith if we insist that schools only teach concepts we are in agreement (creationism, euro-centric american history) ?  What is our faith if we teach that some humans (sexual minorities) are abominations?  What is our faith if we insist on citizens being able to own weapons of automated destruction?   What do these things tell us about us as a people? 

If we were to honestly attempt to answer these questions, I think we would find that we are not the religious people who we claim to be.  Our faith seems to be made up of beliefs that are not found in any religious heritage.   We have missed the mark and need to repent of our short comings. 

Perhaps the day will come where we can measure up to the ideals stated by Vice President Hubert Humphrey:  “It was once said that the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”    We seem to be having trouble with how that government even treats those in the fullness of life.  We can be better.   Blessings,

Mature Spirituality

There are several people that come to mind when I think of people I would classify as spiritual people.    Perhaps these are obvious or not so obvious choices but I would place the following into this category:   The Dalai LamaThich Nhat Hanh, Thomas Merton, Maya Angelou, Mother Teresa, Bishop Desmond Tutu, and Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati (nee Joyce Green).

There are reasons for each of these people to be in my list of spiritual people.   The first and foremost reason is that I do not get a sense of judgment from these people when I hear them speak, or read their words, or observe their actions  in relation to other people’s sense of spirituality.  This is not to say that these individuals have not made judgments about what is true spirituality versus  a veneer of spirituality.  But I do not get a sense that these individuals have shown arrogance towards another’s spiritual path, in short placing their spiritual path above the rest as the true path. 

That for me is the defining marker for a mature spirituality.  To be so comfortable in our own spiritual (perhaps could be also be called faith) development that we are not threatened by another’s journey. It is perhaps the rare individual that starts their spiritual journey with such an awareness of equity between each other’s spirituality. 

So where does a person start in beginning a spirituality?  One begins with one self.   I remember being aware of being loved for who I was.  I was taught as a child that God loved each of us, totally, wholely for the wonderous unique creation we were.    But not everyone even begins there.  Someone else might become aware of being part of something greater than themselves… maybe as the True Blood character Amy states, being aware of being one with Gaia, being one organism with the earth.  This beginning awareness is also a bit self-centered, as it is an awareness that I am one with  Gaia, the universe, all that is. 

Sometimes when we first accept a new idea or new insight into our developing spirituality, we become a bit fanatic about our find.   We want to share it with everyone.  And we are a bit surprised when not everyone shares our enthusiasm for our discovery.  This can have a variety of responses.  We can re-examine our new insight and see if it indeed holds the truth we thought it did.  We can reject our new insight as a passing thought of fancy.  Or we can latch onto it with an arrogance of I know better than thou. 

If we move towards the arrogance side of things then there remains this tinge of doubt that perhaps we are not right that we fight against.  Our spirituality isn’t yet a  grounded spirituality.  Arrogance, I believe,  is an expression of being  threatened by another’s spirituality that is not understood.  If we are grounded in our spirituality then another’s path is not a threat to what we believe to be true. 

I remember coming home from an interfaith retreat for people who cared for people with HIV/AIDS and telling the religious leader of my christian charismatic community about the wisdom I heard from a Lakota Native American.  I was told right off the bat it was satanic.  The conversation was over before it even begun.   He was not open to even hear what I had learned that made so much sense to me. It was the beginning of my pulling away from this christian group.  I no longer understood why I should be afraid of  listening to another’s spiritual  journey.

Unitarian Universalists are just as prone to this fear of others as anyone else.  I hear congregants turn in disgust to another person’s interest in the supernatural, or new thought, or pagan, or orthodox christian views.  I hear my colleagues criticize derisively spiritualities that are heart based and not intellectually grounded.  I hear all sorts of joking about other’s spiritual experiences as if they alone had the true knowledge, the true insight into all Truth.   We have, I believe, placed our sometimes flawed reasoning abilities above all other tools for discerning.  Sometimes we need to listen with the heart and not the critical mind.  

One of our principles is the following:  A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.  It is listed right after this principle, Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations. 

Now I understand that a free and responsible search is a scary proposition.  It essentially means that I am responsible for my spirituality, my faith development.  It means that I am not being told what to believe or not believe by some outside authority; be it minister, sacred text, guru,  pope or god(s).    I take this principle seriously.  When I converse with people on what they believe,  it is with an open ear and open heart.  Perhaps there is something in their experiences that will inform me in my journey. 

The “Acceptance of one another…” is another biggy for me. It means to me that I cannot judge your experiences as false.  I cannot joke about people reading  “Conversations with God” or “The Secret” or “The Tibetan Book of the Dead”  or “The Course in Miracles” or even “The King James Bible red letter edition”.  These books may do nothing for me.  But if I am being true to this principle then I accept each person’s  free and responsible search.  I listen deeply to your understanding of these books and how they inform your path.   We may dialog together about how these ideas inform your life as a spiritual being.  But I do not have the right to dismiss as nonsense what you found for your path . 

I believe it is these principles that attract so many people to Unitarian Universalism.  I also believe it is these same principles that are not being modeled in our congregations that turn these people away, sadly from our doors. 

We need to develop our spiritualities.  I think the people I mentioned above are role models of mature spirituality.  You may disagree with their teachings.  You may have heard of disputes involving these people.  They are human after all and suffer the same frailities as we all do.   But as spiritual teachers I believe they have a slice of the ultimate truth and they try to live that slice as best as they can. 

We need to strive to live our slice as best we can with reverence, with forebearance, with humility, with compassion, and with love for where we are in our journeys. These are the some of the markers of a mature spirituality.  Blessings,

Published in: on June 12, 2009 at 1:32 pm  Comments Off on Mature Spirituality  
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Open Source Faith

Rev. Christine Robinson of the First Unitarian Church of Albuquerque, NM states that Unitarian Universalism is an open source faith.   A term used in internet circles.  She also talks about their Branch Ministry where they are using the Internet, DVDs to provide resources for folk in the rural areas of New Mexico where there are no Unitarian Universalist congregations.  This is an exciting experiment that is being developed there with great promise for other parts of the country, like Mississippi. 

The UUA’s Mid-south District is adapting her congregation’s idea to provide resources to the congregations of Mississippi.  I will be moving to Tuscaloosa, AL to serve that congregation on a part time basis and will continue to serve Our Home Universalist Church in Ellisville, MS on a once a month basis.  In addition with the generous cooperation of the Tuscaloosa congregation, I will be developing a series of DVDs of sermons and adult education programs that will be subscribed to by Unitarian Universalist congregations in Mississippi, as of this writing four of the six congregations are participating.  These DVDs can be used to supplement their worship services with a sermon or for their adult education programs.   I will also over the course of the year visit these congregations and provide a to be determined workshop, consultation, etc on a Saturday and then worship on Sunday.  It is the intention of the Mid-south District and my intention, that this resource will aid in the furthering of Unitarian Universalism in Mississippi by offering professional ministry to congregations that perhaps are not able to have a called professional ministry.  Who knows, perhaps these DVD sermons will also be posted on You Tube or on this blog for others to witness.  

This is an exciting time and a wonderful opportunity for the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa to extend their ministry in an innovative manner to support the ministries of the Unitarian Universalist congregations in Mississippi.  Blessings,