Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Sometimes we do not hear the call

Sometimes we do not hear the call,
the still small voice that speaks to us
in the watches of the night.
Sometimes we do not recognise the messenger,
nor hear the message,
though reality patiently sends it over and over,
showing the way, opening the door.
O source of all wisdom,
help us to discern the subtle whispers
among the tumult of conflicting messages.
Help us to find the harmonious way
among the many branching possibilities.
Help us to recognise the messengers from the Divine
in their many forms.
Help us to hear the voice of love
calling us to community, to justice and to peace.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Asparagus and religious liberty

What is the connection between asparagus and religious liberty? The fact that for 200 years, the Midland Unitarian Association has held an asparagus lunch, initially as a cover for the meeting of Unitarian ministers when Unitarianism was still illegal, and subsequently to continue the tradition, and it must have helped that asparagus is really tasty. Ant Howe explains:
The tradition goes back at least 200 years - and you might wonder why on earth a group of Unitarian ministers would do such a thing! After all, whilst asparagus is lovely to eat, why would we go to such trouble to eat it?
Well, our group of Ministers in the Midlands have been meeting each month since 1782. Back then, Unitarianism was still illegal. If you professed Unitarian beliefs, you could not only face prosecution, but also persecution in your community. In fact, our churches which date back to that time had to be very careful as there was a very real risk. Unitarianism didn't finally become legal until 1813.
So, if you are a group of Ministers in the Midlands who belong to an illegal organisation, you'd have to be careful about where you meet. In fact, a disguise might be necessary. And so the idea came up of going to Evesham and meeting there when the Asparagus crop was harvested. There would've been lots of strangers in Evesham at that time: farmers selling their asparagus crop and many people there to buy. A group of Ministers could easily meet and pretend they were there to buy asparagus .... and so the Asparagus Lunch was born!
You might think that all this sounds rather a great deal of effort just to hold a meeting, but we have to remember what a risk it was to be a Unitarian minister in those days. Right up until 1813, if you were caught proclaiming Unitarian beliefs, you could be heavily fined, and if you did it a second time, you could go to prison for up to three years and lose all your civil rights permanently. Unitarians couldn't go to university or hold civil office, and many of our earliest churches and chapels were built to look like barns or houses, so that they didn't attract too much attention. 
I discovered this because I was searching for the Unitarian toast, which I have heard mentioned by people from the Midlands, but which doesn't seem to be much used further south. The toast is to "Civil and Religious Liberty the World Over" - I'll certainly drink to that.

Embracing the shadow

The human capacity for compassion and wisdom is in stark contrast to our capacity for cruelty and destruction. It is difficult to maintain an optimistic view of human nature in the face of the Holocaust, Cambodia, Rwanda, Abu Ghreib, torture, murder and rape. The only explanation that I find helpful for the human capacity for evil is the Jungian idea that we project our shadow selves onto others, and seek to destroy the shadow side by destroying the other. If we accepted our shadow side and sought to integrate it into consciousness, we would not persecute others, regard them as less human, and seek to destroy them.

But where did the shadow come from? Initially it may have emerged as a defence mechanism, or a by-product of the emergence of consciousness. This is suggested by the myth of the Garden of Eden, when the serpent reveals the distinction between good and evil to Adam and Eve, and then Yahweh says that the woman shall crush the serpent beneath her heel. If the knowledge of good and evil is equated with consciousness, and what is allowed into the light of consciousness is regarded as good, then the serpent (which represents the shadow and the unconscious) must be crushed in order to retain a sense of the self as good.

We can break out of this vicious circle by embracing the shadow, and taming the beast rather than seeking to destroy it.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

unity and diversity

One of the many things I value about being Unitarian is the freedom to think about religion, and explore many different spiritual traditions: Unitarianism, Universalism, humanism, Buddhism, atheism, liberal Christianity, pantheism, Paganism, Judaism, Hinduism, and so on.

Occasionally someone says, but how can you be a Unitarian and an atheist (or one of the other traditions listed above? It's simple - you love and cherish your own tradition, but you respect and value the insights of others as a corrective to any blind-spots in your own tradition. When writing sermons / addresses, my approach is to use the insights of different religious traditions to illuminate my theme; so for instance if my address was about compassion, I would draw mainly on Buddhism, Judaism and Christianity; if it was about hospitality, I would draw mainly on Heathenry and Religio Romana; if it was about the concept of a Messiah, I would draw mainly on Judaism, Christianity and Gnosticism. If my address was about religion and science, I would draw on atheist spirituality, among other things.

I count myself as a non-theist, in that I do not think the Divine is an entity with a personality; rather it is an experience or an all-pervading quality, and we can experience it through many images and archetypes. But I wholeheartedly embrace the Unitarian ethos and tradition, and many other Unitarians before me have held this view; so I do not think it makes me any less of a Unitarian.