Universalism & Beloved Community: Being Good, For Goodness’ Sake

“Good works are not the cause, but the effect of salvation.”

–Rev. Pitt Morse, Sermons in Vindication of Universalism

There is a common question asked of atheists and Universalists alike: “If you don’t fear God, why bother being a good person?” I’ve heard many answers to this, but it mostly boils down to: if you need fear to keep you from killing people, you are not really a very good person. Penn Jillette is reported to have even answered that he does commit all the murders and rapes that he wants, which is none.

Honestly, though, my answer is less boastful. I know I am loved by my Creator. I, in return, try to honor my Creator. Just as I would respect the friends my parents would bring home, or the acquaintances I am introduced to by my friends, I try to look at other people and see in them the part that God loves. I look for the humanity in every person, seeing that their life, like mine, is a struggle for acceptance, love, and a sense of worth. There are people who are broken beyond understanding, but they are few and far between. Most of the time, even the people billed in media and in history as monsters are just people who find themselves in situations that they cannot abide, doing the unthinkable out of pride, frustration, or misplaced sense of purpose and belonging. Their motives are all too recognizable, even when we can’t stand to admit it.

What they lack, that hopefully we do not, is a sense of purpose that includes all of humanity. They learned to separate people into “Us” and “Them”, with the first category being their community, as large as a nation or as small as their own self, and the latter group being seen as something other than them. The bigger there community, the better off we all are. My community is the whole world, and my “other” is only those people who exclude themselves, and even I have to believe that even they are redeemable.

My salvation in omnipotent love, able to overcome any flaw we pick up in our time on Earth, forces me, if I am honest, to see every other person as an equal. My salvation by infinite and inescapable love requires that I look for the humanity and divinity in every other person, and indeed, in every living thing. We are all part of one beloved creation, and it is our responsibility to create, within it, a beloved community where all things are valued and respected and conserved for the future.

The love that I feel surrounding me must be reflected, because I cannot contain it. I cannot accept it without also feeling a duty to share it. My salvation is the salvation of all people, and it compels me to seek out the divine spark in them. I do not do good because I want to earn the love of God, or because I fear divine wrath, but because I know I am loved and it makes me feel good. Love makes me want to love more, and to connect with people. As Rev. Morse said, salvation gives me a need to be a better person. It is a love that I know I don’t deserve, as surely as any Southern Baptist knows his inherent sin, or the cultural guilt of the Catholics or Jews. I am loved, none the less, and I want to be worthy of that love. The only way I can hope to feel worthy is to try to love like that.

Chalica Day 7: The Interdependent Web of All Existence

First, I am sorry that this is late. It is hard to write on the weekends, and I didn’t get ahead of this project like I had hoped. This was a hard one to write, because the subject is both engaging and broad, and because my weekends are full to the brim with family. If I have complained at all about the imprecise language or the lack of explicit meaning in any of the other Principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association, please know that my dislike for the wording here is greater, even as (or perhaps because) I love the Principle its self for what it means to me.

Today, we ponder our respect for the interdependent web of all existence, of which we are a part. This seems to me to be either far too simple, or worse, deliberate ambiguity. See, there is a web. A web of “existence”. We are part of that. *sigh*

This is a really important Principle, and one that stands the test of both ethics and science. The idea that humanity is a part of creation, and neither above it or below it in some grand plan of damnation or salvation, is crucial to the Unitarian Universalist message. It grounds us in the reality of both our reliance on the creatures, plants, and ecosystems of the planet, and our collective ability to alter those ecosystems, whether through intent or carelessness.

Some people view this Principle from a human-centric view, that all of humanity is one species that must find a way to live together to make the world more livable for future generations. Some people look it from an ecological view point, and will speak of human responsibility and stewardship of the greater web of life on Earth. Some will take an Earth-Centered view, where everything must be balanced and all life is deserving of respect. Each of these views is, in my opinion, lacking.

For one thing, you and I are not humans. Not entirely. There are as many cells in your body which do not carry your DNA as there are those that do. You have the host to a whole ecosystem of bacteria that are needed to regulate things in our bodies, thousands in your digestive tract alone. Many estimate that you cells make up as few as 10 percent of the cells in your body over all.

The web exists within us, and it is interdependent with us.

We must take our environment, the whole of the biosphere, seriously. We cannot predict all of the impact of the changes we make to the course of a river or the leveling of a hill, much less from the intentional splicing of genes. It isn’t wrong to use technology and to shape our world, but we have to be ever aware that these changes can have long reaching consequences. Technology must be used with care and deliberation.

We are, ultimately, not above or below the realm of nature, but a part of it, though one that has become partially aware of the ebb and flow and is figuring out how to change it. Beavers create dams that reshape rivers and valleys and even the lowly ant builds mounds and tunnels to house the hive, inadvertently aerating the soil and improving the dispersal of water. Our capacity to shape our environment is unique primarily in scope. When we alter the landscape, we reshape the very forces of wind, rain, and sunlight on the environment. Truly, when I think of the web of all existence, I know that it encompasses the whole of creation. That doesn’t make it unnatural to be a human. We simply have to be conscious and conscientious in the use of our technology and how it effects the other animals and plants with which we share the planet, our mutual home. In fact, so many of those advances have come from, or at least been inspired by, our fellow earthlings that we would not be the creatures we are today without agriculture, animal husbandry, and the medicines and engineering advances that we’ve gleaned from our studies of the rest of creation.

It is important to keep all of this in mind, because every species that passes away leaves us with fewer clues to the great mystery. Every bug exterminated destroys a link in a chain that we may not be able to predict. Again, this is not to say that we don’t sometimes have need to rid our homes or businesses of pests, but it should always been done with thought and, hopefully, a bit of remorse.

We live in a complex system that has grown ever more reliant on our exploration, our technology, our refuse, and most importantly now, on our discretion. Our willingness to shape the world for our own needs has been short-sighted in the past, and some of the choices we’ve made have been irreversibly detrimental. There are plants with medicinal value that will never bloom again. We allowed that of our fellow humans. We owe it to the future generations of every species to avoid that whenever possible.

There is a web, and through it we are connected, and interconnected, with all life on this planet. We have to respect that for our own good, as humanity is far from self-sustaining. We need the plants and animals, we need the rivers and the lakes. We need this rock full of biochemical reactions. Humanity evolved as part of this world, and we are a long way from leaving it behind. We have to make peace with our place in it, and we have to accept that we need it as intact as we can keep it in order to secure our own future.

I am a Unitarian and a Universalist. I am both, because I cannot separate them.

I am a Universalist. I am also a Unitarian. I cannot be one and not the other, because I believe that there is one God, and that there is one Creation, and that I am not so special that God would separate me from Creation when the experiment is over, and it is time to clean up the mess that the Universe has/will become.

You see, I believe there is One being. For all intents and purposes related to human existence, there is one Universe, and that Universe is greater than the sum of its observable parts. This Universe is Creation, but also creator. Science tells us that we are made of the stuff of stars, and that the universe is growing more complex as the eons pass. Stars fuse small atoms into larger ones, creating more complex elements. This is the progress of the universe, and one day it will play out, and everything will collapse back in to a singularity. Then, just maybe, it will all happen again.

That is God, experimenting with being. That is God, creating the universe a molecule at a time to see how it plays out. Quantum Physics tells us that the “Big Bang” didn’t require supernatural intervention to happen, sure, but it also says that nothing can happen without an “observer”; some other thing or entity for it to happen in comparison to. Thus, the Big Bang could not have created the Universe without something being there in the void that the Universe was created in. So goes my pseudo-scientific rational for believing in God.

In the beginning, there was God. And for some unknown reason, the stuff of the Universe was created. Maybe it was an accident; maybe it is a purposeful experiment; maybe some combination of both. But in that moment, the seeds of everything that ever would be were present. All the matter/energy (for we now know them to be interchangeable in much the same way that Ice and Steam are both Water) that exists in the Universe now and forever existed then. And so, the consciousness, and curiosity, and the creativity that would come to reside in Mankind also existed in that moment. That is the spark of God that was spread through the Universe, which most religions see as Omnipresence. God is in everything, because the creation of everything required God’s observation. God echos through every corner of Creation, attention being everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Just as you are not aware, consciously, of what your liver is doing right now, even though there are so many biological systems keeping track of its functioning, so is God both aware of and oblivious to the happenings of the Universe on the scale that a single human can perceive it.

Yet, we are special, in that we have inherited a greater portion of God’s creativity and curiosity than any other creature we’ve encountered. Our capacity, though, is unique only in scope. We are not alone in using tools or exploring and adapting our environment. That spark may well be universal, and we just can’t measure it on a small enough scale to see.

But, the current theories point to the idea that this may not last forever. The universe will be come more complex, but at the cost of energy. It may stop expanding, gravity will collapse Creation on its self, and return to pristine singularity in time. There is likely no escape from this, as it will encompass all matter, and all energy. No one will be cast out; all will be with God.

One simplification of Buddhist thought is that the whole of creation is just a fragmented God trying to experience Creation for Itself. We are bits that can do the exploring, among the bits that are there to be explored. The goal, though, is to understand that it is a game, and that we cannot win until we stop playing and realize our nature as a fragment of God. There have been many figures throughout history who may have understood this, and tried to move us towards that kind of relationship with the divine; a quiet, personal relationship. The various men who have been recognized as Buddha, and much of the recorded teaching of Jesus of Nazareth,(if that is indeed the origin of the Rabi) seem to indicate that they were “with God but not God” and that we could be, too. The thing is, they told us how to get there on our own, while implying that, eventually, we’d figure it out anyway.

My Credo:

Two weeks ago, I went to church and listened to the high school freshmen undergo out version of Confirmation. Being UUs, we don’t actually ask them to Con-firm anything, only to Affirm the Seven Principles. What we ask, instead, is that they write a credo for us.

Credo is Latin for “I Believe”, and it is, predictably, a statement of belief. We are a religion without creed, and so we ask our young men and women to write their own statement, however broad or specific, and tell us who they are as we prepare them for full membership, which is only three years away at this point. We give them a Sunday to put things together on their terms, and each of them presents their credo to the congregation.

This is a great right of passage, and as a fairly new member to the UUA, I thought I would put myself through it, as well. I have this blog for just that kind of thing, and so I present to my readers a (fairly) brief statement of belief:

I am Thomas Earthman, and this is my Credo:

I believe there is a beginning to the Universe which is beyond the physical and even beyond energy, though I don’t think it is impossible for science to, someday, find ways to study it. I expect that any study will be as confusing and hap-hazard as our discoveries in quantum physics, as I think that is as close as we’ve gotten so far to realizing that the Universe isn’t what we’ve always thought it is.

I believe that I am part of an unimaginable Whole that is all the matter, energy and spirit of the universe. I am a cell, in a tissue of an organ that is Earth that is part of a system that circles our Sun. So are you, and while we are distinct, we are not truly separate. We are part of something much bigger; this is my concept of God.

I believe in a “spirit” essence that runs though all things, like H2O in our bodies acts as a medium for all the cells, enzymes and hormones. This spirit is in everything, though some things concentrate it more. It is beyond energy as we know it, and though I don’t think of it this way, it seems to conform to the descriptions of The Force from the 1977 movie Star Wars, pre-Midi-chlorian inclusion.

I believe in the ultimate consciousness of God, though I cannot hope to understand how well that consciousness understands me as an individual, as I am fairly aware of my arm, even though I don’t think about it consciously unless I am learning a new skill; I am not, however, well acquainted with my spleen or liver, even though they are more vital to my biological life than is my arm and I have only the concept of my individual cells and don’t know any of them personally. I do know that when they need iron, I may crave steak or spinach or, though the reason escapes me, want to chew ice. They can communicate their needs, and I will still want to fulfill them, even without understanding why. Thus, I also believe in prayer.

As for direct intervention in the Universe, though, I think of us as a body. Nature does not make enhancements to a working body. There are no “miracles” that save deer from wolves or mountains from the erosion of rains. I don’t think God tampers with the day-to-day operation any more than I need to constantly direct my breathing or the filtering work done by my kidneys. There are rules in place that dictate 90%+ of the actions in the universe. Gravity, magnetism, inertia and other such forces insure that there is little need for supervision, as some laws cannot be broken, only bent.

I believe in the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. I believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every plant and animal in that web. I believe that we are all searching for our path, as we are not all called to do the exact same job anymore than a stomach can be a lung, a skin cell can be a neuron or a ribosome a vacuole. Even where we are part of the whole, and similar in so many ways, we are distinct parts that should be respected for our contributions.