A Spiritual Walk Together

This site presents spiritual ideas and theological concepts and ruminations as derived from experiences within religious communities formed by covenants and shaped by the Western tradition of liberal religion in general and Unitarian Universalism in particular.

Location: Grand Rapids, Michigan, United States

Visiting Professor of Liberal Studies at Grand Valley State University, Michigan

Thursday, November 10, 2011

"Evil Prevails When Good Men do Nothing" at the Intersection of Faith and Culture

A man hears a sound, investigates, flees, calls his father for counsel, receives the advice and does as he is told. A man is told, tells his boss, his higher-up, and continues with his work. If they are normal human beings, one will be haunted by what he saw and the other by what he was told, and hauntings are often caught and held in the unconscious. But, again if they are normal, what is also caught is an irritation concerning what they did not do. One did not intervene when he saw what he saw, and the other did no more than tell the person he was supposed to tell.

And we are left to ask, “What is the nature of an individual’s moral lapse, the moment when what needs to be done, is not done?” Before asking how human institutions are designed to be complicit in lapses that circumscribe moral failures, a question worth pursuing; and another, how individuals in those institutions take steps to protect institutions over people, we are compelled to walk on the shifting ground of complicity borne of moral inaction.

The man who saw and fled and followed advice from his father is, of course, the graduate assistant coach who walked into the
Penn State football locker room, heard a slapping noise, walked into the shower to find a grown man he knew sexually attacking a young boy whom, presumably, he did not know. Had he walked into a situation where a lone individual was in peril because of a building malfunction, like a wall crumbling down, would he have rushed in to save the life? Had he walked into a situation where a lone individual was in the process of bleeding out from a self-inflicted wound, would he have rushed in to save that life? I think, maybe yes, even if he did not recognize them. I like to think that generally, we rescue from calamity or despairing demise. But when a defenseless child is being attacked by an acquaintance and former coach who is known, why didn’t he rush in at that very moment to protect the defenseless whom he did not know? Was the scene so horrific, and his loyalties and personal allegiances so shattered, that he couldn’t do what was morally required? And the counsel from his father? Why didn’t it include any concern for the defenseless stranger?

And the man who was told, held up over decades for his moral uprightness in following the rules, coaching young men, and shaping their character, why did he only follow the rules of the chain of command? Why didn’t he seek some kind of protection for the defenseless, whom he did not know, and remedy for future defenseless strangers? Why didn’t he, over a whole decade of moments where other action could be taken, choose not to act? Did the prospect of what he was told so threaten his loyalties to an institution he loved, and his allegiances to another he had known so long, that he couldn’t do what was morally required? Isn’t character building directed related to our obligations to those whom we do not know, especially the defenseless stranger?

Both had time to reflect on what they did and did not do; almost a whole decade in fact. They had time to mull over how they could have behaved differently, and even seek to change the future, for what they hadn’t done in the past. But, they didn’t. It was for others to tell the truth and force a confrontation with doing what is moral and right for the least amongst us, the defenseless, and the stranger, the ones we do not know. Why the moral lapse, and the continuation over time? Why is there such a distance between what we see and hear and lift up as right and good, and the will to take action?

Beware, those who claim some higher authority, even God, will save us from action we do not take when it is time to take it. Heed this story. We are responsible for what we do and leave undone, not some higher authority who will rescue us if we just report what we see or are told. Beware, those who claim there is no higher authority than the individual self. Heed this story. We go to great lengths to camouflage our moral obligations from actions that will both rescue and halt horror.

By our actions we become co-creators of redemption or conspirators with collapse and ruin.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

What If It Doesn’t Matter So Much? Part Two

What if it doesn’t matter as much what our individual moral makeup is, or the ethical acts we engage in, in terms of our spiritual identity? Many religionists in the West today, especially within liberal religion in general, and Unitarian Universalism in particular, assume that it does, especially if someone proposes, as we did in a previous post, that “beliefs” no longer can be considered primarily, or exclusively, as the source of religious identity. Without beliefs as that “definer,” the fallback position is usually morals and ethics. My beliefs may change, or I may not be able to communicate them meaningfully, but I am searching for “the good” or to be a “good” person, and/or I want to be right and not wrong on key issues of our times. Faith traditions may not be able to say with certainty what it is they believe in common, or have adherents who can faithfully toe the line consistently in terms of beliefs, but still pursue with cause and determination a conception of what is good and/or what is right. The characteristic of our time relative to religion, morals, and ethics, is that all three seem to have collapsed into political positions and policies such that the political is what religions, and individuals, are really wrestling with in terms of a search for the good and the true.

It is impossible to be good or right, bad or wrong, alone. It requires a relatedness to entities larger than self, and thus one is ushered immediately into the political. You can individually hold beliefs about God and act on those beliefs without others present or in mind. Lord, help thou my unbelief, is an example. But morals and ethics are different. They involve politics, and how relationships between people and matters amongst groups are to be governed and adjudicated. So, while morals and ethics cannot be reduced to politics, they involve the political to some degree because all are social. It’s just that at our time in history, politics dominates our collective point of view regarding these things. Today, we collapse them all into the political.

But, suppose we tried to extricate religion and the religious. So, how could we conceive of “the religious” or “being religious” or “expressing my religion” or “the spiritual identity of an ‘us’” that does not involve the moral or the ethical primarily or exclusively, any more than it would put forward “beliefs” in that same way? Hopefully, this question stretches the mind to see religion, the “religious,” and “spiritual behaviors” and "spiritual encounters and experiences" as something more than beliefs, morals, and ethics; and, in fact, as something from which are derived beliefs, morals, and ethics, as secondary yields. They are important. But, they are derivative.

What could that something more be? Let’s let that question “percolate” a while, and be something that is mulled over and turned over, again and again; in part because it requires us first of all, to engage something in addition to that part of our brain that urges we categorize in ways that are currently set, though maybe no longer as useful because they are recognized in their narrowness. We are seeking some kind of unified view, and thus will categorize at some time in order to understand, but not yet. Right now, suffice it to say, that the old ways of seeing just aren’t adequate, as they had been more. We are more and differently religious than what beliefs, or the moral thing to do, the right action, lead us to see. We don’t need more vision, but a larger and wider view.

What kinds of things does homo religiosus engage in, do, contemplate, is surrounded by, seek, yearn for, and is a participant in? How does homo religious behave when being “religious” or “spiritual”? What activities does homo religious engage in and is a part of? What forms mark homo religiosus as being religious as opposed to when not?

And then, what are the ways homo religiosus is “distinctive” such that we categorize as one kind and not another, and give it a name, like Christianity, and further categorize with Protestant, Liberal, and then, Unitarian Universalist (my particular interest)?

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Forgetting and Letting Go in the Age of Facebook

Upon hearing of the death of computer/internet pioneer Steven Jobs, my second thought after marveling at his genius and impact, was to wonder if anyone would take his personal Facebook page down. I wonder because, according to my wife, friend and deceased ministerial colleague Suzanne Meyer’s still hasn’t been. Suzanne pops up from time to time on my wife’s page, with the standard Facebook invitation to my wife to suggest a friend to her. Though our grief has continued for a year and half, and her absence remains, there is something disturbing in this. We will never forget her but her presence is gone from us.

It is a kind of “reverse oubliette.” Years ago we took a church children’s choir to England for a tour that included a visit to Warwick Castle where there is a famous oubliette. An oubliette is a tiny, secret underground dungeon-for-one accessed by a trapdoor in the castle floor, the cell’s ceiling. It was named this, from the Latin meaning “to forget,” because a prisoner was thrown in there, never to be heard from again. Oblivion. The torture must have been excruciating. Keep the prisoner well-fed and forgotten. He knew it was as if he didn’t exist though he still did.

It is as if she never died, but she has. She doesn't know it but we do. Fortunately she is no longer in the pain that her cancer brought on. But, the electronic age won’t let her be. It hounds her to seek friendships with the living from the grave, which become teasers to us: What is she up to? Is her news good? Where are the pictures from the land she’s gone to?

It is macabre. And it hurts each time her picture appears in the rotation of Facebook friends. She is now a part of the “memory” that is God, and her peaceful return unto His bosom was welcomed by her cancer ridden body and her beautiful spirit. We will not forget her as long as we live, but why can’t the electronic age let go, whose memory is long, though the meaning it once carried forgotten?

Friday, September 30, 2011

What If It Doesn’t Matter So Much? Part 1

What if it doesn’t matter so much what we believe? We Unitarian Universalists assume that it does. It is often the first thing we want to know about a new friend-in-the-faith, asking what “ist” they are, humanist, atheist, theist, etc. Individual belief means so much that ministers preach on how you don’t have to believe certain tenets to be a member of a Unitarian Universalist Church! "We will not be restrained in our beliefs." Admittedly, it is how we delineate the faith perspectives of others whom we meet. We even have a reading that survived two hymnal commissions, “It Matters What We Believe,” by Sophia Lyons Fahs.

Yet, what if it doesn’t, or, at least, doesn’t matter in the same measure we give credence to it? What if belief isn’t solely or even primarily what identifies someone from a religious standpoint? What if our basic assumption is taken to be that, an assumption, and that other assumptions might be even better taken as foundational to faith identity?

Historically, in the Christian tradition out of which we come, belief was the question mark of orthodoxy, and common belief the declaration of a creed. So, why would we adopt this assumption as so central to our faith, while at the same time taking great pains to differentiate from those “others”?

Any observer of religion in the early 21st century sees how competing beliefs fare in the family of humanity. In religion, beliefs translate into truths. Truths are claims to how reality really is and how it operates. When we give supremacy, ultimate or proximate favor to the idea that religion is primarily or exclusively a matter of belief, aren’t we adding fuel to an already raging fire, even though we can claim in the same breadth, that we value all accelerants?

And how has seeing religion through the eyes of belief helped us gain a sense that when we are together, something is shared, like identity?

Maybe it is time to do away with the assumption itself or, if not outright discarding it (which I would not recommend), at least demote it from CEO of our identity, and send it back to middle management.

So, what could be an alternative? Well, the academic discipline of Religious Studies offers some. But, to see why this field has left “belief” at the altar, some history of the long courtship is in order.

And that history begins with the breakup. Postmodernism gave the study of religion two gifts, one which was accepted and the other which was outright rejected. First, the rejection: Postmodernism’s insight – that everyone looks upon phenomena with different eyes yielding a different picture – doesn’t necessarily mean that nothing of substance can be said or studied about anything, like religion. Because everyone has an opinion does not mean that everyone has developed a point of view; or, that all points of view are equal in depth. Postmodernism rightly pointed out that every point of view has its limitations and boundaries, is born of a subjectivity. But, that does not mean all subjectivities have an equal claim to validity or relevance.

We who study religion think there really is a discernible and distinct object of study to look at and understand. That is our assumption. And, whether we can say anything “normative” about religion - which, it is true, we cannot say about religious belief! - there still is this behavior. People keep going around being religious! They have experiences they claim are religious. The sacred keeps in-breaking into people’s lived experience. They display behaviors, conduct activities, and create communal forms that have something to do with what they cannot see, but appear to hold in reverence. And that, in and of itself, is interesting and worthy of notice and study.

The one gift postmodernism gave Religious Studies that it readily receives is that each person has a perspective, boundaries to what they see and know, a point of view which is rooted in assumptions which arise from a context. Thus, it is imperative to know both assumptions and context, because they most intimately shape point of view. And the context for the concept of “religion” as it has been largely understood and used the past century and a half in the West, is intimate with the concept of “belief,” and in some instances seen as synonymous with it. This “concept of religion” has its contextual origin in Western Christianity, with lesser links to Judaism and Islam. In other words, to insist on the use of beliefs to define one’s or another’s religion, is to use an old concept rooted in the context of Christianity, with assumptions derived from that context. It is an ill-fitted lens to see and understand Buddhism, Hinduism, the world’s other major faiths and minor expressions of the link between the sacred and the profane.

If we no longer assumed belief to be a useful description, what would better serve to give an identity to this “religious way of human being and existing”? Hmmmm...

Monday, June 06, 2011

The Challenges of a 21st Century Faith Identity, Part 1

The chief intellectual challenge facing Unitarian Universalists at the mark of the 50th anniversary of the merger of two separate, but deeply related American faith traditions, is that we do not know who we are. We do not know who we are as Unitarians, Universalists, or Unitarian Universalists, and this admission is not a deep insight nor is it original with this author. Everyone knows this, and has for some time now. It is not because merger eliminated the distinctions and, thereby, begged the question of the identity of the "new thing" Unitarian Universalism, though it might have once. Our lack of understanding of who we are (others on the religious and cultural landscape may actually know our identity better than we do, a subject for another post) has roots in who we are, and “how” we have changed over time. I say "how" we have changed over time because there is a definite trend today towards responding with, "everything changes," as if this observation is an interpretation and a helpful one at that. But, offered as an interpretation it reveals frustration and despair, and is not a way to meet the challenge itself. In not seeking to understand “how” we have changed with the times, and how our changes over time have influenced who we are and where we are now, we give in to that frustration and despair.

Historical analysis is part of understanding identity. It is not a denial that time changes all things. It is seeking to understand how that change has changed us, whoever the “us” is! But, historical analysis needs some kind of template to understand the stages of identity emergence and change. To understand time in terms of stages is to take an historical view of things.

One template for understanding our intellectual history – a key to identity - can be found in Martin Riesebrodt's new book, The Promise of Salvation. In this 2009 book Riesebrodt identified the chaos postmodernism brought into the discipline of Religious Studies, and offered a path out of that confusion and its radical subjectivism. Postmodernism left many mute when it came to understanding "religion" in a way that the universal practice of it could be studied and understood. It caused an “identity crisis” in Religious Studies, as it has in other disciplines, until talking about talking – linguistics – came to be seen as the only real academic discipline, the “Queen of the Sciences,” one might say, a title once held by theology! Because Riesebrodt is up to the challenge of creating something post-postmodern (Tackling the interpretive challenge of what is “post” something that is “post”) he might also be an ally in attacking the chief challenge facing Unitarian Universalists in the 21st century by giving us a way to understand who we are, and how we have come to where we are. He might help us in seeing our identity “post losing it"!

Riesebrodt offered three intellectual discourses that have formed the study of religion in the West since the Enlightenment. The first is the child of the Enlightenment, which also gave the world liberal religion in general, and eventually Unitarianism and Universalism as they have come to be known as historic faith traditions.

The Enlightenment introduced the use of Reason in a particular way, distinct from how it had been used in previous epochs. It became the means to understand “Religion” as a concept. In the area of Religious Studies, Marx, Freud, and Durkheim are examples of this. We are the quintessential historical faith tradition-progeny of this. Enlightenment Reason had two branches. In one, Reason was seen as heralding the eventual disappearance of religion. Gradually wed to modern science, Reason would evolve to replace the “species” of religion as the chief means to interpret human meaning and destiny. The other branch of Enlightenment Reason yielded traditions of discourse like the Unitarianism of Channing, with his paradigmatic declaration of Reason’s use with Scripture; and the Universalism of Ballou in uncovering the pathology of vicarious atonement in its underlying depiction of the nature of God. In our case the discourse of Reason was fashioned into the institutions and structures of the church. This discourse of Reason yielded the 20th century’s Humanism of John Dietrich and Ken Patton, though with a significant twist. Held within our ranks were both branches of Enlightenment Reason, which gave us our 20th century central discourse: The intellectual tradition of the Theist/Humanist (read, Atheist) debate. Goodness, it’s even evident in the contest between our red and blue hymnals! Our version of the Reason discourse continued to push this philosophical question to the forefront of our religious identity with a vigor that defined us: Is there a God?

But, how modern science came to be understood amongst us changed the nature of the debate as it evolved in the latter parts of the 20th century, until it became more and more theism vs atheism and, finally, a kind of eclectic-spiritualism vs materialism. You can still see the vestiges of this discourse today, though after postmodernism, and another cultural trend, it now debilitates us in terms of our identity, where once it invigorated us. But, we are getting a bit ahead of ourselves!

The second tradition of discourse concerning “Religion” as a concept for study is the Romantic tradition. In Religious Studies, Riesebrodt sites the evidences of this tradition as well, in the form of Frazer and Eliade to name two. In our own context this began to distinguish itself separate from the discourse of Reason, through Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Transcendental Idealists. Initially, though, this Romanticism was an “in house” conversation amongst us, which spilled over into the culture to become the American Renaissance. In the early to mid part of the 20th century it was evident in figures like Jenkin Lloyd Jones and Frank Lloyd Wright, who straddled the line between our faith tradition and the Romanticism of the culture. It remained largely the domain of the culture’s literary canon, and as a means for us to engage with culture, until the second half of the 20th century when, under the social pressure of the 1960's, it emerged again into our now formed Unitarian Universalism in two guises; first, a religious environmentalism, which yielded the “web of existence” metaphor and all that has gone with that; and second, a suspicion of institutions, always a part of Emersonianism; and with the first being the institutions and history of the church itself. Since the 1960’s, this Romantic discourse has been exacerbated by the "come-outers," who brought their institutional suspicions, manifest explicitly in their leaving their previous traditions, into the center of the Unitarian Universalist church itself. We cared about the environment and the fate of the Earth, but knew the church itself, especially our own church, contained structures that oppressed more than liberated, and allegiance to the church could blind one to that. We looked outside the sanctuary and neglected its inside for the oppression it held there. It was a return to the “Protestantism” of old in the sense of protesting the structures of the church; but, with a modern ecological concern made sacred.

But these two intellectual conversations - Reason and Romanticism, head and heart in other words - shaped Unitarianism, Universalism, and Unitarian Universalism from its beginnings. Both are discourses; that is, both are ways of conversing about matters that shape us. Both are ways to understand who we are. Both are facets of the same “personality” that form us as one.

Yet, Riesebrodt identifies the third discourse which we will take up in the next post. Given the cultural context within which this third discourse arose, it has changed us from considering the question of identity as a matter of historical understanding, into a conviction that we do not and cannot know who we are because everything changes.