Well, I’ll just say, it is a New Year and Happiness is ours to find in it… and I do hope you find yours! (I’ll help if I can).
So let’s start the year with some religious thought in the vein of “what is this that we do” as liberal religionists.
I recently read an article that posited putting walls around the definition and sources of the word “Philosophy” defeats its usefulness. Definitions that hold philosophy to be strictly historic/academic versions like Stoicism, Euro-centric, or Greek, etc., without a dialogue between the many public versions humans create (Malcolm X, African Ubuntu, Wendell Berry, etc.), makes the practice of philosophy limited and incapable of being useful for ultimate human good. For example, if the philosophy of life found within Rumi’s poetry is rejected by academic “philosophy” because it is foreign and (shock!) poetry, then it is not a wholly useful definition, but an orthodoxy – an approved form that rejects all others.
I’d replace the word “philosophy” with “religion” in the same argument. When a religious body claims ultimate truth by placing walls around it, then its capability of holding humanity in all its complexity, in all of its needs, is lost. This can be demonstrated by every “ultimate truth” Christian sect formed to replace the former “truth” sect that didn’t get it just right, so people go and form a “better” sect. The walls put up invite the need for continual “reformation.” This happens in other religious groups as well, even in Unitarian Universalism. For example, some UUs would reject some of our stated Sources of religious thought/truth as being irrational, even though the source has a historically long and successful meaning in human development, therefore has a rational reason for existing (and being reformed as well). Something in every source we name has social evolutionary meaning, so maybe the best thing to do is to learn from the thought so it is not lost, or help in the dialogue that makes it and us up to date with our personal and cultural needs.
Want to have a robust and capable Religion or Philosophy? (Aside: I use these words interchangeably sometimes, defining them as instructives on “How We Live,” because both terms contain the effort to explain or define how we live our lives: some of the “how we live” coming from the instruction of a religion/philosophy, some coming from parental culture, some from education, some from experience, and some from many other sources, etc.) So, back to the question, how to have a robust Religion/Philosophy? Using the definition argument above, to have a robust religion/philosophy is to open it up to broad study of human thought and culture for the possibility of reformation. Open the definition so as to invite new revelations, and celebrate the many small truths humanity has discovered for living a peaceful, capable, interconnected, and full human life. Learn ways to live and be whole with instruction from wise individuals and a diversity of human experience. Glean wisdom from many cultures and societies, and from study and connection to our natural world, its plants and animals and how they live. When we become entrenched in labels and ideologies as our focus, from liberal to conservative, we’re probably as stuck as someone we are tut-tutting about.
In Unitarian Universalism we tend to hang onto our Principles as our communal “golden rule” ideals that make us UU. We are fortunate that they are malleable, so as to not become “creedal,” but in the end, they are not enough to make us UU, or keep us from orthodoxy. This takes more, takes a place of tension that we learn in. I believe it is dialogue within our stated Sources that we UUs can be “saved” from orthodoxy, the very piece of our covenant that we tend to ignore. The UU Sources hold our richest mine of human endeavor for peace and justice, religious/philosophical instruction as well as freedom from definitions that wall us off from the rest of humanity. I also believe they are, like the Principles, not complete.
Our Sources range from recognizing that humanity has a spiritual side with a common sense of awe and wonder about the mystery of who and where we are in the cosmos, to recognizing various religious and rational stances in understanding life, to holding sacred our relationship with the universe, the earth, and the circle of life that we are interconnected within. I believe we can read into our Sources much of what I speak of above; permission to an open search of human, natural, and cosmic sources of wisdom and knowledge so we do not become entrenched in our walls of orthodoxy. But this is where I think we UUs are like many other religion/philosophers, we tend to be comfortable in our place of belief, our personal line of Source that we hold onto tightly. I can understand this, as a life story takes work, a consistent narrative to hold us together, and keeping an open edge to our Source(s) takes energy that our society does not afford us easily. It’s a wonder Unitarian Universalism exists (and that has brought on another thought about classism for another essay), but it thankfully does, so you and I, and hopefully many others, figure out that its Open Source way of religion is truly a salvation for humankind.
Our recent foray into #MeToo, and the underlying power structures of our society built on sexual violence, is an example of being able to step away from the orthodox narrative and recognize the reality we live within. UUs are free to formulate ways to change us and society for the better in ways other religions and philosophies are not. We listened to feminist philosophers beginning in the 60s, building on our Suffrage legacy out of the 1800’s, to grow and change. To be a bit self congratulatory, UU recognized the sexual power imbalance decades ago, and began reformations that are recognized today as cutting edge. We have more than 50% female identified clergy in our denomination, with a substantial percentage of LGBTQ clergy and leadership as well. We began advanced assessment and training for seminarians about appropriate sexual boundaries before it became a crisis with the Roman Catholic Church revelations. And we have (with UCC) Our Whole Lives sexuality and relationship programming along with advanced programs for multicultural training. All coming from listening to Sources outside the mainstream.
But I still see congregants divided by their Sources, and we need to work on this. As a longtime Humanist myself, I was pleasantly surprised by the scientists (evolutionary biologist Ursula Goodenough for one) who, in the last decade, joined with Humanist and Theist theologians to bring several sources together into Religious Naturalism (RN). Religious Naturalism is an old idea having a resurgence with the need for religion and science to find relevancy for generations who live in both worlds. RN is still finding its way, but the dialogue it brings between science, rationalism, earth spirituality, and an evolving theism is fascinating and full of boundary crossing potential. RN is the result of rejecting orthodoxy for synthesis, and has the potential to bring humanity closer together. I see a lot of growth that RN needs to do, but its potential is vast. (RN website)
So… here is our personal project as a Unitarian Universalists (Invitation to others too!): to review our Sources of being, and ask which you resonate with, then ask for our community UUFF, to help in exploring the sources in greater depth! I would love to have this conversation, this dialogue! It is how we’ll be even more free in our religious life. I would even like help developing a new Source… one that celebrates the individual in community, each one of us in our diverse glory, and what we bring to the dialogue that is life.
So goes my beginning of the year essay… let’s see where it leads.