Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Carl McColman's Quote for the Day:
It is common for those who argue for and against the existence of God to assume that the word God is used by believers to refer to something that we can point toward, distance ourselves from, and dispassionately reflect upon. However, one can reject this idea of God as nothing but a form of idolatry . . . This approach questions any expression that would reduce God to the realm of objects. Here no theistic rendering of God is allowed to lay claim to God, for God dwells above and beyond all names. God is rather approached as the ineffable source that is received but never conceived. God is thus not approached as an object, but rather encountered as an absolute subject who transforms our relationship with all objects. Just as the light in the room cannot be seen but rather allows us to see, so God is not directly experienced but rather is the name we give to a whole new way of experiencing . . . Hence, religious experience is not really experience as such but the opening into a different way of experiencing.
— Peter Rollins, The Orthodox Heretic and Other Impossible Tales

Excellent. The Tao that can be named is not the true Tao.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Beloved Community

An address given at Frenchay Chapel on 7th March.

What exactly is a spiritual community? People have defined it differently in different circumstances and in different religious traditions. To me the word community suggests communing and commonality: sharing at a deep level and having or holding something in common.

The word congregation means a flock, implying that the members are sheep and the vicar, representing Christ, is the shepherd. I don’t think Unitarians make very good sheep, and rightly so. We are proud to be individuals. But we do have something in common: our values of freedom, reason and tolerance – or perhaps to couch these in slightly more modern parlance: individuality, thinking and inclusivity. We also have a shared passion for social justice (one of the many reasons that I was attracted to Unitarianism) and openness to new ideas. Many Unitarians are worried by the diversity among Unitarians, and wonder how the denomination can possibly hold together; but I see (from the perspective of a newish Unitarian) remarkable similarity in the views of most Unitarians. Because we value reasonable religion but do not shun mystery; because we enjoy listening to the ideas and stories of others and don’t feel threatened by them – the most Pagan Unitarian and the most Christian Unitarian still have a lot in common, even though the mythology that inspires them is different.

So we are not a congregation; what about a network? Well, networks tend to be small clusters of like-minded people of similar age, social class, and level of education; they form and dissolve; and they do not tend to gather in larger groups on a regular basis.

For me, the most appropriate word for what we are is a community. We share our spiritual journeys; we gather in the chapel and for social events, and gradually get to know each other; and everyone offers their unique gifts to the community in a spirit of loving service. Sometimes we don’t get to know each other, and that’s OK too; we are still aware of the other person, and would be there for them if they needed us. Sometimes we annoy each other, and this is the real test of the sense of community. I’ll never forget the first time I saw two Unitarians having an argument. I was so impressed at the way they didn’t shout at each other, or even raise their voices. They just both stated clearly what was getting on their nerves, and left it at that. And when I have rubbed people up the wrong way, which has happened occasionally, I appreciated the calmness and humour with which they let me know about it, and even if I disagreed with them, I hope I responded in kind. And it is the process of rubbing up against each other, like pebbles on the sea-shore, that rounds us and shapes us as human beings.

Traditionally, Protestant Christianity has promoted the idea of the ministry of all believers (which is also a key concept in Eastern Orthodoxy). The Quakers call it giving ministry when anyone gets up to speak in a meeting. But ministry can be something really simple like smiling at someone, or hugging them, or listening to their problem, or making them a cup of tea: all things that let the other person know that they are cared for and held in beloved community. Each of us is unique and special and has their own gifts and talents to bring to the table. You never know when something you say or do will change someone’s life for the better.

In Buddhism, the community is called the sangha, which means ‘refuge’. When a Buddhist takes their vows, it is known as ‘taking refuge in the Buddha’. This does not necessarily mean that they become disengaged from the world, because they still practice mindfulness and compassion; but they have a safe place to stand from which to practice these virtues.

I certainly do experience Unitarian life as a safe space: a place where, for the most part, you can say what you really think; where all of life is celebrated; and where there are people who hunger and thirst after righteousness – real righteousness, not the po-faced sex-starved nonsense that passes for it in mainstream Christianity. No, the righteousness that Unitarians hunger and thirst after is a world where everyone has enough to eat and the Earth is not ravaged by industrial pollution, and where the body is celebrated instead of being denied.

So we are a people with a shared vision, shared values, and a shared history, and for the most part, agreement that we should treat mythology as a life-giving metaphor, even if some of us prefer different mythologies. It is our shared values that unite us, as many Unitarian authors agree. But is this enough to create community, or do we need to work at it?

What is it that makes a beloved community? Surely it is learning more about each other, sharing our life stories and our insights, caring about each other. If the same bunch of people stands at the front each week, we are not doing that. Of course some people find it uncomfortable speaking in public, but that is why having a circular space can sometimes makes it easier – there isn’t the fear of standing up at the front to speak. As you will doubtless be aware, I am not backward in coming forward. I used to be a teacher, and I have been leading covens and spirituality groups for about a decade – but I still felt nervous doing services to start with – partly because there was such a high standard to live up to, and partly because it involved standing at the front facing everyone.

The small engagement groups that we have on weekday evenings are an excellent way of getting to know people and discussing some of the issues that arise from the spiritual journey, and certainly contribute to the sense of community. Safe space is created in them by starting off by agreeing a set of ground-rules, formulated by the group.

The pub group has been good for giving an opportunity to chat for a longer period of time. Of course we must also be careful not to create cliques of those who take part in activities like this and those who don’t. That’s why Bright Lights is such a great idea, because it’s inter-generational, and has included people who wouldn’t normally “do church”.

The thing that creates community is doing things together. One of the quickest ways of getting to know people at Pagan camps is to take part in digging the fire-pit: there’s something about shared physical work that really creates community. And of course doing ritual together creates community too. When I say ritual I mean any intentional gathering in a sacred place – when Unitarians say ritual they tend to mean doing something other than the hymn sandwich format – but the usual church service is a ritual too, just one of a different kind. Going to the pub together, washing the dishes together, being on committees, doing the garden, fixing the chapel door, the Women’s League, Bright Lights, chatting over coffee after the service – all of this creates community. There’s always more that we can do, but we’re doing pretty well – let’s not forget that.

One of the most moving expressions of Unitarian community is the flower communion, first devised by Norbert Capek in 1920s Czechoslovakia. At this point in time it was dangerous and radical to be a Unitarian, and by actually saying that you were one, you risked persecution. So taking part in the flower communion at that time meant that you were willing to risk persecution for the sake of the beloved community. (I would like to thank Andrew Brown for this insight, as I got the story of the origins of the flower communion from his blog.) The other significant and moving thing about the flower communion is that each person brings a different flower, and someone else takes that flower home with them. This symbolises celebrating diversity and learning to live with other people who are different from us – in other words, true community.

Monday, 22 March 2010

Spring Equinox

(An address given at Notte Street Unitarian Church, Plymouth, 21 March 2010)

Many cultures celebrate the Spring Equinox.  In the Jewish tradition, it is the moment when the presence of God, the Shekhinah, entered into creation.  The Shekhinah is traditionally represented as feminine. According to the feminist Rabbi, Jill Hammer:
In the Jewish calendar, the first of the month of Nisan is the beginning to spring, and falls close to the spring equinox. It comes halfway between the playful holiday of Purim and the festival of Passover, when birds are beginning to sing and warmth and growth are beginning to take hold. The first of Nisan is one of the four new years of the Jewish calendar, marking the “first of the months” (rosh chadashim), or the beginning of time itself. Nisan is also the date when the Shekhinah first appeared within the mishkan (Divine dwelling-place. It is the moment of the descent of the Divine into the world—the budding of divinity within creation. If Tu B’Shevat represents the Divine sap flowing within the world, the 1st of Nisan is the moment when that sap bursts forth in new buds. The new revelation of the Divine is paired with the new life and beauty that appears in the spring. Within two weeks, the full moon festival of freedom, Passover, will arrive.
An important aspect of Shekhinah theology is the idea that the Shekhinah is separated from the Godhead, and it is human effort that will bring about their reunion. The human effort to reunite them involves all Jewish couples making love on the Sabbath eve, and the practice of Tikkun Olam, or repairing the world, and other mitzvot (commandments).  The idea behind Tikkun Olam is that the world is damaged and must be repaired, and it is the exercise of human love (in all its forms) that will bring about this restoration, and the reunion of the immanent and transcendent aspects of the Divine.  It is also about the restoration of harmony and balance.

Both Taoism and Paganism emphasise the dynamic balance in Nature between growth and decay, darkness and light, yin and yang, male and female, expansion and contraction.  Balance is not just a steady-state, but a dynamic equilibrium. New birth is balanced by death; growth is balanced by decay, light and activity is balanced by darkness and rest. If everything grew and expanded all the time, there would eventually be no space in the world for new growth - the old growth would block out the light.  So death and decay and darkness are not evil, but necessary components of the natural processes of life and change. The darkness is necessary for rest, growth, and regeneration. Death is not evil, but a necessary adjunct to life. If there was no death and dissolution, there could be no change or growth. The cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth is part of the dance. Suffering is also part of the process of growth; just as a tree is shaped by the wind, we are shaped by our experiences. It is only by experiencing suffering that we acquire sufficient depth to know the fullness of joy. It is then that the full light of consciousness dawns in us, and we achieve mystical communion with the divine.  But we cannot connect with the divine by stressing about it, but rather by relaxing and finding the inner stillness and space that is already there. All we have to do is to remember who we really are; to reconnect with the ebb and flow of the cycles of life.  Everything is cyclical – the seasons, the tides, the orbits of the planets – why not human life?  But it is not just a ceaseless round of the same old things, repeated ad nauseam.  Everything changes; everything is always becoming something else; nothing is ever lost.

With all this talk of balance being a natural thing, it might be easy to conclude that we can just go with the flow and all will be well. But what if the flow is out of balance?  Then we might have to go against the flow.  Andrew Pakula recently wrote:
There is also a big problem with going with the flow. The flow is all too often in the wrong direction. The flow may be away from our vision of how the world could and should be and against what is best for each of us. The flow is leading us toward selfishness. The flow is leading us toward a lonely detached kind of fierce individualism. The flow is leading us toward environmental catastrophe. The flow is leading us toward an increasing separation between the rich and the poor.

Martin Luther King, Jr. said "...there are some things within our social order to which I am proud to be maladjusted." He was reminding us that we can get accustomed to injustice and inequality. We can contribute to the negative things in our world just by 'going with the flow'. 
Because human society is somewhat divorced from nature, we cannot assume that it functions in the same way as nature. Human society is constantly being tinkered with by people who do not necessarily have the best interests of people or the ecosystem at heart; they may be motivated by corporate greed, a desire for self-aggrandisement, or other murky motives.  So the flow that is created by actions motivated by greed does not seem likely to create a just and humane society, or a society where everyone's rights are respected and diversity is celebrated.

Another aspect of balance is being able to see others' points of view.  This is the Unitarian practice of tolerance: to try to enter into others' perspectives on life, even when we disagree with them. As Cliff Reed writes:
The values underpinning the Unitarian movement have to do with mutual caring and mutual respect. They involve a readiness to extend to each other a positive, involved and constructive tolerance. They are the values of a liberal religious community that honours individuality without idolising it; of a community that finds spiritual stimulation in the unique contribution of each person while feeling itself united by a bond too deep for words.
So here we have a balance between community and individuality; a way of understanding ourselves as part of a community without sacrificing our individuality. But what does tolerance mean?  Does it mean putting up with other people's views, without challenging those we disagree with? Or does it mean entering into dialogue with them, and trying to understand where they are coming from? Real tolerance cannot mean just putting up with or ignoring someone else's views. It means, among other things, not removing the speck from someone else's eye while ignoring the plank in your own eye. If someone in the community holds views that I consider immoral (such as homophobia), I have a responsibility to engage them in dialogue, because if I remain silent, I am complicit in their prejudice; but my challenge to their views should be delivered in a compassionate way that takes into account their reasons for holding such a view; and I should also be prepared to be challenged by others on views that I hold.

Trying to achieve balance is also a fruitful way of resolving moral dilemmas.  In his excellent book Godless Morality, Richard Holloway points out that moral dilemmas are not usually about a conflict between good and evil, but between two conflicting goods.  The dilemma presented by the issue of abortion is a conflict between the need to prevent harm to the mother (who may have been raped, or whose quality of life could be significantly decreased by having a child) and the potential for the foetus to have a life. These two goods need to be weighed carefully to discover which takes priority at any given stage of the pregnancy.

Similarly, the rights of the individual are in balance with his or her responsibilities.  The idea of inalienable human rights is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted on 10 December, 1948 by the General Assembly of the United Nations. These rights include freedom of religion (a right dear to Unitarians, who only won it in 1813 in Britain); freedom of speech; freedom of association, and so on. But as citizens, we also have responsibilities: to vote, to resist tyranny, to live sustainably, and so on.

So we do need to be active in maintaining the balance, not merely passive. We need to engage in Tikkun Olam, the restoration of balance and the practice of social justice, which is an integral part of many religious traditions, and a perennial concern of Unitarians. It is a way of restoring balance – caring for the poor and the oppressed, protecting the environment, standing up for human rights, and promoting freedom, peace and justice.  Indeed, we cannot really claim to be mystical or spiritual unless we put compassion into practice by helping others.  The two aspects of religion go hand-in-hand: without a sense of connection to others, there is no basis for compassion, and without the expression of compassion in the form of caring, the mystical experience can be barren and unproductive.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Embracing darkness

There's only one thing that annoys me about Unitarian and Unitarian Universalist theology. In fact, it really really bugs me. It is the use of light as a symbol for good, and darkness as a symbol for evil. Clearly Unitarians and UUs have inherited this from the Christian tradition, and failed to examine what's wrong with it.

In my hymn Freedom, Love, Reason, I wrote:
When reason sings in harmony
With intuition's tune
And light the darkness shall embrace
In deep soul alchemy
Then shall the Earth with freedom ring
The third line means, "when light shall embrace the darkness" but I had to invert it to fit the metre. It certainly does not mean that light will light the darkness.  It means that the conscious mind will embrace and accept the Shadow, bringing unconscious and repressed aspects of the self to the surface and working with them.  We descend into the darkness to find the lost treasure – creativity, and memory, and dreams.

In an address about Samhain and All Hallows, I wrote:
Pagans do not see darkness and death as evil, but as part of the cycle of life, death, and rebirth. If there was no death, there would be no growth, no change, and no birth. If there was no darkness, the seeds could not gestate in the warm darkness of the earth; if there was no night, there would be no sleep, and no stars and moonlight. If there was no winter cold, there would be none of the beauty of autumn, the seeds would not germinate, and germs would not be killed by the frost. Darkness is the Yin spoken of by the Taoists – one half of the divine dance of the cosmos.
In another address on Darkness and Epiphany, I wrote:
Fear of the dark is civilisation's fear of the forest and the wilderness. The denigration of the dark is one of the foundation stones of Western civilisation and even the Enlightenment – so it is difficult to unravel it, to find out where it came from.

It is the connection of darkness with the feminine, nature, and wilderness that gives us the key to explain why it is so denigrated for most of Christian history. In patriarchal culture, the assertive female is regarded as dark, dangerous and malevolent, and characterised as a witch.

When we say that darkness is evil, we create a split in ourselves, for we consist of both light and dark aspects. Carl Gustav Jung (the psychoanalyst) said that the psyche consists of Anima, Animus, and Shadow – the Shadow being the unconscious aspect, the parts of ourselves that we fear and repress. We need to bring these into the light in order to transform them into healthy aspects of ourselves – not slaying the monsters, but harnessing their power to work for good.

When we say that darkness is evil, we project that idea onto others – the terrorist, the witch, the deviant, the stranger. Racism and sexism and homophobia have their roots in this fear of the other, the fear of our own unconscious impulses that we project onto others.
There are many positive things about darkness, and they are celebrated in many different spiritual traditions. Darkness is the time when contemplation and meditation are most effective; it is a time of intuition, inspiration and communing with the inner reality. The darkness of God is a metaphor frequently used by mystics to describe the unknowable and ineffable aspects of the Divine. So please, stop denigrating darkness!