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

Standing on the Side of Reflection and Practice

I want to be very clear at the beginning of this article that it applies to the religious right, the religious center, and the religious left, and I’m going to focus on the religious left. This is something within human nature, not within specific religious traditions. If there is a difference in how this article applies across religious traditions, it is a difference of degree.

There is something in the human experience that calls us to desire certainty… to want to “know” something in its fullness, and to not have to continue to wrestle with doubt. Many humans seem to have an internal mechanism for certainty… and when that is shown to be impossible we often go to the other extreme… that nothing can be known at all.

Even we Unitarian Universalists are not immune to faith without doubt… it just tends to occur more on the ideological spectrum than the theological spectrum for us… though I’m going to focus this article on some of our theological “certainties”.

Many of you know that I love UU jokes. Partly this is because I think it is healthy to be able to hold a little irreverence for the things that you hold the deepest loyalty to… and also it is because that I believe a caricature of a thing is revealing about the core of that thing. I believe many UU jokes serve that role for Unitarian Universalism. Here is one of my favorites:

To have no doubts is fundamentalism.

To have some doubts is normal.

To have many doubts is a crisis of faith.

To have nothing but doubts is a conversion to Unitarian Universalism!

Now the joke is not literally true… to have nothing but doubts is not UU’ism, and it would be a hell of a way to live. I’m sure that fundamentalists have doubts about some things in their lives, whether they admit to it or not. I know that was true of the fundamentalist churches I grew up in. Humanity is never as clear cut as the distinctions above make it seem. That’s the point.

The deeper truth (lower case t) the joke points to is that we Unitarian Universalists recognize the importance of doubt, at least intellectually. I sometimes question how good we are at putting that intellectual and spiritual understanding of doubt into practice, but we are getting better… it is one of our “growing edges”. During my first few years as a Unitarian Universalist I made two profound realizations:

There are Unitarian Universalist Fundamentalists…

And I was one of them.

That realization helped me to begin to have a new, spiritual understanding of the concept of doubt. It allowed me to hold a new understanding for my Christian commitment to humility… not necessarily humility before others (something I have never done very well, though I try) but humility before ultimacy. The important lesson of doubt is not that we can know nothing, but that it is impossible to know everything. Certainty without ultimate knowledge (either knowing God perfectly or making yourself into God) is hubris.

There are many human attempts to make something that is limited represent ultimacy… so we can live in the illusion that it is possible for us to grasp all there is and remove all doubt. These attempts are not limited to any particular religious tradition. Believing a particular set of scripture to be “God’s Revealed Word” even when it is demonstrably the flawed work of human hands is one such attempt to transmute the limited into the ultimate. Believing that science and the scientific method can reveal all the “mysteries and secrets of the universe” when it is obviously limited by the senses and faculties of the human beings who practice it is another. Reducing God to idyllic forms and placing your faith for ultimacy in them, forms such as “Justice”, “Liberty”, “Truth”, “Love” or “Reason” are attempts to make the limited ultimate. I know this is the one I am most often guilty of practicing. I can always tell when I am trying to make such limited ideals ultimate, because I tend to capitalize those words.

I believe I am not alone in being drawn to this kind of certainty of ultimacy on the religious left. What I believe we need to realize is that it is our own version of believing the Bible is the “Word of God”.

I believe the corrective to each of these attempts to make the limited ultimate (be it scriptural literalism, scientific foundationalism, or idyllic formism) is to transform each of these not into a graspable substitute for totality (idolatry), but rather into a lived practice in our daily lives.

The corrective for exalting a scripture as the literal truth of God is to transform your relationship to that scripture into a dynamic dance… to give it the space not to speak as a commandment from on high, but a conversational reality whose meaning can shift as you shift, grow as you grow, and change as you change. It is to allow that scripture to work in your life in ways that transform, not command; in ways that draw-out, not condemn. It is to make a lived practice of dancing with the scripture… I will write an article specifically on this later as it is a much larger concept that I can capture in a paragraph.

The corrective for exalting Science as the literal truth of the Universe is to imbue into each act and practice of science that sense of wonder that Albert Einstein so often spoke of… to remember the metaphor of Einstein’s Library. It is to engage science not as discovery of truths… but as an ever evolving practice of wonder. For the same reason as before, I will write about this in more detail later… but you can see much of what I am speaking of in transforming science from ultimacy to practice in much of the thought of Einstein. He was the master of this particular practice.

The corrective for exalting idyllic forms is to make each of these a daily practice in our lives. Rather than seeking some metaphysical Justice, in what ways do you/can you create justice every day? Rather than pining after some metaphysical Love, what ways can do you/can you create love around you as you live? There are two parts to this process. The first is similar to “Precept Study” in Zen Buddhism. First we must look at our lives through each of these “Idyllic Forms”. To make Love no longer some substitute for ultimacy, we must very intentionally look at our lives through the lens of love: Where are we feeling loved? Where are we not? Where are we giving love? Where are we not? What kinds of love do we feel and give? What kinds of love do we reject? What kinds of love do we yearn for and do not have? What kinds of love have hurt us, or hurt those around us? What kinds of love have caused us to feel shame? What kinds of love have lifted our souls? Etc, etc.

Through this reflection, we not only make love real for us, we learn how we are practicing it already. Where we are responsible in our loving, and where we might not be. How our love affects us and affects others. Where our love may be harming others, or harming ourselves. We cease to think of Love as an unattainable metaphysical ideal and make it a real and living part of our daily lives.

We must do this kind of reflection for each of the different “Idyllic Forms” we find in our lives. Reason, Justice, Mercy, Faith, Liberty, Freedom, Equality… all of these and more would be used as lenses to gain a deeper understanding of ourselves, of our lives, and of how we live with and affect those around us.

From that understanding we would then be called into living our lives with intention around those idyllic forms… because they would no longer by idyllic, they would be real and vibrant parts of our lives. If we have intentionally gained understanding of how we love and relate to others, we would likely then be called to intentionally practice that love in different ways. If we intentionally gain an understanding of were we experience inequality with others (where we are the oppressed and where we are the oppressor) we then would be called to intentionally practice how we relate to the world and to others in it in different ways. The same would be true for any of the idyllic forms we cease to make idyllic through intentional spiritual reflection.

This could become an intentional Liberal Faith (see the capital letters?) spiritual practice, and the intent of the article was to lay some of the foundation for this as a possibility. I could even envision a monastic order that found their “rule” in something similar to this… the continual self-reflection that then motivates a practice of living in the world “deliberately”… to borrow from Thoreau. And yet, recent movements in Liberal Faith as a whole, and UU’ism in particular, have sought to move right to the “living in the world” without the individual and communal critical reflection on what the “idyllic form” might really mean for us.

This is my core critique of the “Standing on the Side of Love” campaign. I perceive it as an attempt to make a practice of something we have yet to make personally spiritual… and as such it becomes another glorification of an “Idyllic Form” that we do not really understand, have less agreement on than we think, and do not understand how it relates to our lived lives. Before we can “Stand on the Side of Love”, I believe we need to deliberately understand love in our lives and in our spirits. That means finding ways to inspire individual reflective practice on love within our lives first, and from that move into the communal reflection, and then the forms of practice that the campaign is currently attempting. Otherwise, we run the danger of treating love as just another idol… another graspable substitute for certainty and ultimacy.

Yours in faith,

One Thought on “Standing on the Side of Reflection and Practice

  1. Wonderful article!

    I was part of a UU community many moons ago and remember feeling somewhat uncomfortable with what seemed to me to be UU fundamentalism – mainly from those who had left fundamentalist Christian churches and were extremely angry with Christianity in general. They were certain they now had the right belief system.

    I remember Philocrites writing many years ago that UU was in its adolescence and was undergoing growing pains. I think that is true of the community we attended. When we go back to visit, periodically, we are always amazed at how much the community has grown, dare I say it, soufully? (That was a highly contentious term there for a while.) I think the constant struggle the various groups within that particular UU community had with one another necessarily gave way to doubt, which created space for growth that perhaps communities with more similar beliefs do not have.

    The community maintained a solitary service on Sundays, despite the splitting up of various groups on other days that forced those who had the courage to remain in the church (there was a huge split that occurred) to become mirrors for one another, which likewise opened them up to the community beyond their church. The church took a hit, but it is growing again and is as diverse as ever, but maybe just a tad more centered (without exactly having a central point).

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