Tuesday, April 24, 2007

A truly pompous pondering that I'm wholly unqualified for, but who cares

Recently I've had a couple of conversations about religion with people whom I know very well, which have me thinking. I feel a need to compose my thoughts, so painfully and imperfectly articulated, into some kind of order. Before I launch into that bit, I should probably spend a moment on Unitarian Universalism, since I've found most people know little about it. This will seem like an essay but bear with me. It is in no way intended as evangelism for Unitarian Universalism - this essay will show that evangelism is contrary to the very nature of the beast - but it provides some legitimate context for the later bits.

Unitarianism and Universalism, which merged in the 1960s, started in the Protestant reformation. Unitarianism's particular heresy was anti-Trinitarian, that is, they rejected the Christian concept of Trinity as something that doesn't appear in scripture and was made up by men. This may not sound like a big-whoop now, but back then it got Unitarianism's founding theologian burned at the stake by a very cranky John Calvin. Universalists, somewhat like Quakers, believed in the universality of divine spirit - the divine in all of us - and universal salvation - no such thing as hell.

Both faiths moved away from Christianity in the 1800s, the Unitarians more so after the influence of the Transcendalists - the Alcotts, Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne - which emphasized divine revelation from the natural world (think of Thoreau), the relentless exploration of individual conscience (Emerson), and the mandate of reformist action in the world (Alcott).

What eventually emerged from all the evolutions and merging is a faith that has core principles*, but intentionally demands no creed. It draws on the Judeo-Christian traditions that gave it birth, but others as well. You can believe in god, broadly defined, but you don't have to. About 20% of UUs think of themselves as Christian, and 80% believe in God in some form. About 20% think of themselves as humanists, seeking revelation of truth primarily through the human intellect. What really ties everybody together is a passionate commitment to the individual pursuit of spiritual truth, and the call to put justice and compassion into practice in daily life. That, and the love of a good book - supposedly we buy more books per capita than any other religious group.

Ok, that was long, but here's the point. I keep having conversations with non-religious people who are stuck on the idea that religion requires God. They can't be religious because they don't believe in God. I think lots of monotheists have discarded the anthropomorphic, bearded, male deity, but God still seems pretty critical to the whole endeavor. Yet as the preceding essay indicates, I hang with a crowd who don't think that's true. But lest you dismiss us as marginal, bear in mind that Buddhism has no god concept - rather a universal divine force not unlike that of modern Universalists or even liberal Quakers.

So this got me thinking - what is religion? How is it different from faith, or the ubiquitously generic "spirituality?" Here's what I think.

It's a natural human urge to ask questions of meaning and purpose, and to explore the sense of awe that life sometimes brings. Every now and then we hear or read or experience something that makes us go, "Yes! That's what I feel!" It's not perfect, but it seems to approximate some bigger truth that we're grasping at, aiming for. Sometimes the moments of clarity seem to come more readily when we talk with other people who are thinking about the same kinds of questions.

When we achieve those rare moments of clarity, we want to capture them. It's hard work, thinking about The Meaning of Life or Why Bad Things Happen to Good People. It's elusive, that sense of wonder we feel when gazing at a beautiful mountain view, or grasping the tiny fingers of a baby. So when we get something that works for us, we write it down, or set it to music, or develop a ritual that seems to reliably recreate our satisfying sense of awe or peace or clarity. We get with our like-minded friends and we agree, yes, this is what we think. This is what works for us.

But then, because the words and the rituals are imperfect, and because we are constantly evolving as thinking, experiential beings - the written words and the rituals don't stay just right forever. Some of the people are more concerned about maintaining the purity of the words and the rituals, and seem less interested in the underlying truth, and that bothers us. Maybe our group of friends is able to keep evolving, but maybe they don't evolve well enough for us. Maybe we leave the group and start over someplace else.

The striving towards truth and meaning and awe - I think that is spirituality. I think nearly every human being has that, whether they think about it that way or not.

The urge to articulate it, and put it into durable form - that is faith. Not faith as in "have faith in God" but as in the concept of a faith tradition. A set of beliefs - however loose or specific - and ways to act on that belief. Not everybody feels the need for a faith.

The group of people who agree to get together and work those beliefs and actions together, that is religion. Religion is the institution or community of people that is created around beliefs, ideally to nourish its members' spirituality, to elicit each person's best self in community with others. Religion is tricky, because it suffers from the same foibles and inconstancies as any other human endeavor. It is often co-opted for societal purposes that have nothing to do with either spirituality or faith.

I further believe that as humans, we've gotten these concepts all confused. Many people are - understandably - repulsed by many things that have been done by religions, and can't see that sometimes those religions nonetheless have very lovely faiths underneath them. People see that most religions have a god concept, and think that spirituality requires God. There are too many people who think their particular faith and religion has the only right answer, which drives other people to run screaming from the whole concept. Religion is at its best when it understands these distinctions, and looks for the common themes of faith - the golden rule, peace, justice, human dignity, the interconnectedness of all life on earth - rather than the differences between religions.

That's what I think. At least as of today. Because I believe in a free and responsible search for truth and meaning, I reserve the right to think something different tomorrow - and because I believe in the right of conscience, I'm happy for anyone to argue something different.

The seven principles affirmed by Unitarian Universalists:

  • The inherent worth and dignity of every person
  • Justice, equity and compassion in human relations
  • Acceptance of one another and encouragement of spiritual growth in our congregations
  • A free and responsible search for truth and meaning
  • The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large
  • The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all
  • Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part

No comments: