Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

The Theological Context of My Ministry

One part of preparing to see the Ministerial Fellowship Committee of the UUA is to write a paper detailing the Theological Context of my Ministry (in 2 pages… you try it sometime!).  Not only have I shared this paper privately with some mentors and colleagues, but I also shared it with the interfaith group of colleagues and supervisors in my current CPE Residency…

And, I decided to share it here at Celestial Lands.  Now, I am not putting it forward as something I expect anyone else to believe.  My life experience and engagement with tradition, reason, and scripture have brought me to this theological place (currently).  Simply put, while I welcome productive engagement on it, this is my theology… go get your own. 

The theological foundation of my ministry as a Unitarian Universalist begins with instances in my life when I have felt the presence of God. That theology finds resonance both with Peter Mayer’s formulation of God as “Everything is Holy Now” and with Reinhold Niebuhr’s understanding of God as a totality that includes all of time and history and cannot find its end (either termination or purpose) within either. I part with Niebuhr in accepting that such a God does not act directly upon history, and believe rather that humans can act within history inspired by their understanding of and connection with God.

It is in that connection with God that my theology and call find their source. For me, God is all and is in all, from the smallest atom to the largest galaxy. Humanity is a part of God that is capable of looking upon the rest of totality in awe and wonder. I understand God not as a being but as an ever present reality, often felt more than seen or understood. God is the word I give to my belief that the totality of the universe is far greater than the sum of its parts.

I believe that humanity has the capability of connecting deeply with this totality, and through that connection can be deeply inspired to live our lives for the benefit of the whole rather than a part, or the self. For some, that connection may be primarily intellectual or rational, but I found that connection first through deeply personal experiences and emotions. I build and strengthen that sense of connection through intentional spiritual practices, such as writing, Centering Prayer, and Zazen.

The earliest connection I remember feeling to the totality that I call God was a day when I, as a young boy, knocked over an anthill with a stick. I sat down on a rock to watch the ants. As I watched I felt as if I became an ant. I felt myself helping to move the sand, to rebuild the mound. I realized that the ants were as much a part of life as I was, and that our difference was of scale and experience, not of quality. I realized that I shared totality with them… and that I enjoyed being an ant for that short while.

For a brief instant, my barrier of self had fallen away, and I had touched a connection much larger and more profound than I had previously encountered. I do not remember ever intentionally knocking over an anthill again. That moment of connection to the larger whole happened unexpectedly at other times, such as watching a storm at sea or listening to a survivor of Hurricane Katrina. It was not until I experienced the same connection intentionally through practicing Zazen meditation and processing that experience with a Zen Roshi that I realized this was my communion with and experience of God.

Through the writings of Father Thomas Keating on Centering Prayer I have become personally comfortable framing this experience as communion with “The Holy Spirit”. The attachment of this term allowed me to reclaim some of my childhood religious experience in the Baptist and and Pentecostal traditions, and move those experiences into a theology that is classically Unitarian in its understanding of the unity of God and Universalist in its understanding of universal salvation and a human-centered model of atonement. This journey has allowed me to engage others in finding value in their own religious pasts.

I believe that this connection with God, be it understood as the “awakening” of my connection to Buddhism or the “Holy Spirit” of my Christian upbringing and identity, has been experienced to greater or lesser degree by many throughout human life and history, and that each human being interprets that connection with God based upon his or her own life, culture, and history. Some individuals have felt this communion with totality in such deep and profound ways that that they and those around them became confused as to whether they had become God. The two of these great teachers I have encountered most deeply have been Jesus of Nazareth and Gautama Siddhartha. Jesus manifested this connection to God so profoundly that it seemed “the heavens opened and the Spirit descended upon him like a dove” (Mark 1:9). In recognition of this deep connection with God, he was thought to be the foretold messiah, and called “Christ,” or the anointed one, though he was still profoundly human.

Gautama Siddhartha was stopped by a man, right after his deep realization of his connection with totality, and was asked by the man if he was a God. Siddhartha said he was not a God, or an angel, or a devil… he was awake. He had awoken to the connection that he was a part of and connected to all things, and from the realization of his being the awakened one, he became “Buddha” while remaining profoundly human.

To one extent or another, many of the people that I have found inspirational to my life have recognized and lived such a connection with totality. I believe most of humanity’s expressions of compassion, of love, of justice, of peace, and of creativity connect directly to this experience of God as totality and the inspiration derived from it. In my own life, it has been the continuing deepening of this connection that has inspired the passion of my call and my healing from bearing witness in a disconnected world.

I believe that much of war, of injustice, of inequality, of the destruction of the environment finds its root in a human understanding of self that does not realize this connection to totality in depth or at all. It is the human ability to close oneself off from feeling such connections that give rise to emotions such as hate, fear, jealousy and rage. When such emotions are not tempered by a connection to the interdependence and interconnection of all, they can lead to brutality, genocide, oppression, and war. The goal of inspiring the connection with the totality is a prophetic imperative in my call to ministry. The purpose of this imperative of interdependence and connection is my theology of Social Justice; the salvation of this world, in this time, for us all.

I do not accept that there is any inherent division in God, including the traditional division between good and evil. Good and evil are human valuations, not metaphysical realities. Just as what we humans value as good and evil both rest in the totality that is God, so too do both rest within what it means to be human. At the center of each human being rests a paradox in that we carry within us the ability to create and the ability to destroy, both operative together. This concept is a part of my approach to pastoral care.

As others have understood the experience of this connection to the totality through their personal experiences and culture, I am deeply aware that I do the same. This realization has two profound effects upon my engagement with the continuing development of my theology and my engagement with the theological foundations of others. First, the language that I use to connect with my theology is symbolic in nature rather than literal. Those symbols necessarily represent my theology imperfectly. This realization calls me to continually re-focus upon the experience of totality and not upon the symbols I use to describe it, and to look for the profound expressions of faith of others rather than focus only upon the symbols they use to express it. Both the expressions of faith of others and their culturally and experientially inspired symbols can teach me about my own experience of God. My faith, profound as it is for me, is but “a finger pointing at the moon; and those whose gaze is fixed upon the pointer will never see beyond,” as the Buddha taught one student while teaching in the Jeta Grove.

Second, this realization of my own culturally inspired understanding of an experience that defies perfect description calls me to continually engage that theology, inspired not only by the connection with totality (be it on the meditation cushion or off), but also through the experiences of and with others. Each person, each animal, each plant, each rock that I encounter is a part of totality, and therefore a part of God. Through reflection and openness, life becomes an encounter with the divine. My theology calls me to beware the warning that Mark Twain gives in “What is Man?”, that I never allow my beliefs to become a shack that I defend, but rather make it a tent that moves and grows with me. In this way, the center of my faith rests in a theology that “bloweth where it listeth”. As such, I find my call to the ministry profoundly inspired by James Luther Adams, William Ellery Channing, and Theodore Parker, in their calls that liberal faith be free to move as it is called by conscience, principles, and experience, as well as the promise that the liberal church be called to speak the truth of humanity’s communion with totality as some of the Hebrew prophets spoke the truths God had written upon their hearts. Within these inspirations I find the center of what calls me to the pulpit and to the ministry of social justice.

My theology calls me to engage in a ministry in which I am learner as much as teacher; a “minister with” more than a “minister to”; and a prophet as much as a pastor. My theology calls me to engage in bringing my own lived theology forever closer to my professed theology, and to inspire that same journey in parishioners, in those I serve in Chaplaincy, in churches, and in our liberal faith movement. From the beginning of my connection with totality as God arises an authentic and deep relationship with those whom I serve. This is my theological context of ministry.

Yours in Faith,

 David

8 Thoughts on “The Theological Context of My Ministry

  1. Well said David.

    I wish you well in your ministry.

  2. I think this was written beautifully and much of yours is mine. I wonder if I would be able to state it so beautifully? Thank you for sharing this.

  3. Ian W. Riddell on Friday November 13, 2009 at 22:15 +0000 said:

    Thanks for sharing this, David.

  4. Thank you. Now I know why so much of what I read here has resonated so well with me.

  5. David, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this, as I am working on the same project for my ordination committee. I think what I appreciate most is the way you have re-appropriated and re-interpreted some of the symbolic language of mainline Protestant tradition, freeing it from its literal usage so that it can breath. I’m thinking of Holy Spirit as an example. Also, when you talked of those humans who have lived in full awareness of the interconnectedness of totality (e.g. Jesus and Siddhartha) I was reminded of at least one Sufi master, al Hallaj, who was martyred for this same self-awareness. The rest of us are not always kind to the enlightened ones. Thank you so much for sharing this.

  6. Very well done. Good luck with your process! I’ll be in San Fran for my interview next week!

  7. You Pandeist you! 😉

  8. Aaron…

    yep… and I’m more than that. My issue with the “Deist” or “Pandeist” label was never that it was not a part of my theology… but that it was perceived as limiting my theology.

    It is good to see you around again!

    Yours in Faith,

    David

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