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.

Chalica Day 6: The goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all;

The Oxford English Dictionary defines eschatology as “The department of theological science concerned with ‘the four last things: death, judgement, heaven, and hell’. If you know much at all about Unitarian Universalism, you know that we don’t have a unified view of an after-life, and certainly no concept of eternal damnation. In short, we have more of a view on Hell, being that we are against it, than we do Heaven, though the later sounds nice. I look at eschatology, then, as being more about a view of the goal of the religious philosophy. Most religions are selfish and focus on what happens to the ego after death. Our eschatology is about what we leave behind. The goal of our religious movement is one that requires continuous tending throughout the generations: We have a goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all. Simply stated, but as impossible to achieve as the tests of Hercules or the trials of the Judges of Judea.

This is, again, rooted in our only quasi-mystical belief, which many of us look at as more of a hypothesis to be tested eternally, in the inherent worth and dignity of every person. If we all have worth waiting to be fostered and manifested in the world, then there is a moral imperative to seek a peaceful world where each person is free to learn and experiment with the limits and possibilities of human potential, secure in the knowledge that they will be treated fairly and that they will understand the responsibilities they have to their communities and the world.

It is a very humanist goal, but we are operating from the truth, as we know it. Though I have my own experiences, as do others, there is no clear sign of the hand of any god in the modern world, and if any can be seen in the artifacts of human history, they are far from universally convincing. We have a world that humanity has altered when possible and adapted to when we could. Our species may have done more to alter the shape and future of the planet than anything since it coalesced from the rocky belt of our infant solar system. It is up to us to decide how to use that power, and whether we will act in a way that honors our collective humanity and our reliance on each other to advance culture and science, or if we look at the future as a competition where we cling to our limits and deny others the dignity that we would each demand for ourselves.

We rarely speak of heaven from the pulpit, and many fellowship halls hear the word spoken somewhat less than monthly. What UUs have in the place of a glorious group afterlife is The Beloved Community. It is a little different in each imagination, and ultimately that makes it better in theory than it may ever be in actuality, but it is still so far away that there is no real room, yet, to argue other the window dressings and carpets. We seek a world where, ideally, everyone has the chance to build their own vision and direct their own lives. Beloved Community includes everyone who chooses to participate, and allows room enough for those who wish a bit of isolation, too. You cannot say that you have liberty for all unless you allow your critics room to voice opposition, after all. We seek a world where all of this can happen peacefully and with respect. That is UU heaven.

Chalica Day 5: The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process

Today, we explore another make another nod to the first Principle of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Today, we honor the worth and dignity of our members and people around the world, as well as acknowledging their right to their own search for truth and meaning and our collective work towards justice, equity and compassion in all we do. Today, we celebrate the individual right of conscience and our collective embrace of (generally modified) democracy in our congregations. I do want to be fair to the intent, but I must, again, make a note about wording: The UUA, in reality, works like so many large bodies that claim democracy as their core; certain people are given the power and responsibility to look at all the details and make most of the daily or operational decisions. That is to say, almost all congregations and the UUA its self are actually run as republic, representative democracies. I just wanted to point this out, because true democracy would mean that we spent all of our time at church debating how and when to pay the bills, instead of debating human nature and the essential qualities of a being that could be properly labeled “God”.

Today, we celebrate a commitment to giving everyone a fair say. We honor the right of any group to define and govern its self. John Luther Adams told us (again, in his “Guiding Principles for a Free Faith) that Smooth Stone #2 that “…free choice is a principle with which religion, or society, or politics, cannot be liberal.” The right of conscious and the principle that no one is inherently better or more important in choosing the goals, direction, or actions of the congregation or the UUA are essential to our philosophy and, we believe, to the world at large.

There isn’t much more to say about the why of this Principle, in my opinion. Let me talk, briefly then, about ways in which Unitarian Universalists live this. We gladly participate in political debate and in public education on issues. Many of our congregations regularly host their communities in town hall, Question and Answer, or panel discussions as well as hosting screenings of documentaries. We assist in voter registration drives, knowing that the more people who are being heard, the better the outcome has traditionally been fr the United States as a whole. We should be involved in public discourse and in educating the community. We should foster discussion and even debate on important topics. We should help cut down on the bickering and the name calling and lead people back to the issues.

Democracy, even in representative form, is hard. Participation ought to include research on issues and getting to know your neighbors and their concerns. It is certainly easier to do within our congregations than in the world as a whole, but we have to work to model what we hope to manifest. We need to work on making our congregations more diverse and more representative of the community outside our movement. We need to find ways to welcome and include people of all cultures, races, economic situations, and ages. Our cultural unity sometimes makes consensus too easy, and makes it harder for us to adapt to the needs of our own minority groups. Democracy is hard, and it requires outreach and the active inclusion of those who feel dejected or disenfranchised.

Again, our Principles are not dictates. We have outlined ideals that we will try to live up to as congregations. It is important to remember that this Principle makes it clear, though, that We, the members, are our congregations and that as such, we are the the members, and the democratic body, of the UUA. We shape our collective destiny. We choose the board, and we choose the delegates, and we choose the direction of our movement. I have seen too many Unitarian Universalists talk about “The Board”, be it local or national, as a separate body and often the opposition. It pains me in much the same way I hate to see Americans divorce themselves from the actions of congress. We need to take ownership of the UUA and its governance. We need to own its choices and its actions. If we find that we are not proud of what it does, we need to speak up, to be sure, but we also need to work with the system, where possible, to make changes.

We celebrate the democratic process when we exercise our own conscience and take ownership of those things we can shape. We celebrate our right to conscience when we speak up and get involved. We celebrate our own worth when we refuse to let people speak for us in things that we oppose, and yet we must celebrate the dignity of others by giving them a voice and by respecting those who have taken on responsibility on our behalf. In short, we must be involved in the process of governing our nation, our local communities, as well as our Association and our own congregations. We have to admit our ownership of the decisions made, and work for change when our values are not being represented. All the while, we must remember that ours are not the only voices, and that we cannot hope to change the minds of those we disagree with if we do not seek to understand their needs and views.

Democracy is hard, but as has been said, it is less terrible than just about any other form of governance humanity has ever tried.

Chalica Day 4: A Free and Responsible Search

I find myself restraining myself again today in an attempt to focus on the positive side of the 7 Principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Many consider this to be our most essential Principle, and it is definitely the one that dominates the public perception of our movement. I think I can safely say that it is my least favorite. It uses words that cannot be defined in the context in which they are used, and it leads to the false belief that anything goes in the UU movement. Anyone who has been reading my blog knows that this is the Principle I have addressed directly the most frequently, and so I will try to leave criticisms out of this post from here on. Wish me luck.

The idea behind this Principle, and in fact most of the Principles of the UUA,  comes from James Luther Adams’ “5 Smooth Stones of Liberal Religion“, distilled from his “Guiding Principles for a Free Faith“. The “Stones” are ideas that can be used to argue in defense of, and thus to help define, liberal religion in a broad way. The ideas are presented in sections, and section number one begins:

“Religious liberalism depends on the principle that ‘revelation’ is continuous. Meaning has not been finally captured. Nothing is complete, and thus nothing is exempt from criticism.”

From this we get the basic idea that humanity, in our constant exploration of creation, is never done learning and assimilating new ideas and facts into the collective pool of human understanding. No single person can ever understand all of creation, and so no one can say that they hold absolute truth. Everyone has the right and the responsibility to find their own place in creation and to live out the truths that are revealed to them throughout their lives.

It is easy to see where the “free” part of the fourth Principle comes from, but that last phrase in the quoted section gives us a hint at what might be meant by the word “responsible” in the fourth Principle: nothing we believe can be free from examination and scrutiny, and that part of our commitment to encourage “one another to spiritual growth” might include having our beliefs questioned by our ministers, both professional and lay, in an effort to make us aware of inconsistencies and possibly-harmful assumptions. We ought to look out for each other by looking at the theologies and even the scientific understanding of our fellow UUs, and helping them explore their own truth more completely, while adding their perspective to our own.

In this way, the fourth Principle is almost a restatement of the third, but it makes it clear that we not only accept who you are when you arrive, but we continue to accept you as you grow in your own life, even as we work with you on your spiritual growth. As long as you participate in a healthy way, you will not be forgotten or chastised, but you will be engaged to the limits of what you allow, and you will be enticed to examine your world view, and occasionally even prodded to refine or widen it.

In short, we in the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations will not tell you what to believe, but we will not simply allow you to believe anything. We owe it to one another to ensure that we share the whole of revelation with one another. Science should not be ignored in favor of either traditions or fads. The wisdom of the new millennium will not be ignored for the wisdom of ancients, or vise versa. We will not ignore your personal revelation, but neither will we ignore our own. We are not all doctors, ministers, or farmers; nor are we all destined to be Christians, Buddhists, or Earth-centered pagans. The whole of human experience is too wide for any of us to understand, much less to live out, and there is room for us to each exemplify our own revelation while respecting the right and the need for others to have their own.

Chalica Day 3: Acceptance and Encouragement

Welcome to Chalica 2012, day 3. Today, I have to finally say that I really dislike the way the Principles are written. I will make a note to go into it further next week, because I am doing my best, this week, to celebrate the ideals they represent. Still I have to say that the language used by the Unitarian Universalist Association in laying out the Principles is, in places, pretentious, regulatory, (they are part of our by-laws), and overtly intellectual, as well as poorly organized as ideas or ideals. I do recognize the irony of this point being made in this blog, but I believe that we need a message that is accessible, and while the 7 Principles are the only unified mission we can present (which, I am aware, is still too much for some), I think it needs to be a message that is easy to digest.

In this case, they attempt to capture a would-be covenant within our congregations without dictating it, and it stretches to encompass two concepts that don’t fit neatly together given the wording used. The idea is that our Congregations are accepting of who you are, but that we hope attendees and members are transformed, positively, by participation. The way it is said is clumsy,  in my opinion:

“Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations”

What I take from this is “Come as you are, but don’t expect to leave the same person”. We take the inherent worth of the person as a given, and so we don’t condemn them for the choices they’ve made or the life they’ve lived, but we hope that being a part of our community influences them to be better in some way, or at least to let us amplify the good they have already created. We will all have set backs, but it is part of being a community and a religious movement to encourage people, and especially members, to be better people.

This is what turns us from a philosophy of humanism, as outlined in the first and second Principles, and into an honest religious movement. It is what engages us in the internal community and creates a covenant that we can expect to be held in with both rights and responsibilities. This is the first of the Principles to speak to how we do religion, as opposed to just testing the hypothesis that people aren’t born broken or evil. This is where the UUA says that Unitarian Universalist congregations will be welcoming and loving, but that we can set boundaries and expectations and we will push our members to embrace our Principles and make a difference in the world. Again, I know that this dictate upsets people, and that so many will claim that the 7 Principles were not meant to be expectations for individuals, but congregations are simply groups of people until they accept a covenant and take responsibility for one another. This is where we find the bedrock for each congregation to build its mission.

I cannot celebrate the true meaning of this Principle as it applies to your life or congregation; I cannot comment on the value of your covenant except to judge how I feel it embodies the Principles of the UUA, and whether or not it is one I could commit to. But I must speak, again, on the importance of it. It is what makes a Unitarian Universalist congregation a church, rather than just a social justice fraternity. We must accept people, as they are, in recognition of their inherent dignity, but we must also encourage them to be their best in order to honor their inherent worth.

Chalica Day 2: Justice, Equity, and Compassion

Today, we look at the balancing act that the second Unitarian Universalist Principle can be. Today, we ponder ways to promote “Justice, equity and compassion in human relations“, and 2 out of three are pretty easy in most situations. It isn’t hard to look at a situation and come up with something that seems just and equitable, or equitable and compassionate. It can, at times, be a real trick to be both Just and Compassionate. It is crucial to our mission to try, though.

This Principle, to me, is a corollary to the first (which I believe to be true of 2 others as well). If we posit or presume that all people have inherent worth and dignity, then we must, as a matter of conscience, strive to treat them fairly and compassionately. We have to respect that each person is, (again, at least inherently) as valuable and capable of good as any other, and while we must react to their individual choices and actions in a manner that reflects the impact those choices have on the rest of humanity (Justice), we must also react in a way that acknowledges their capacity to correct their mistakes and encourages them to make positive contributions (Compassion). All the while, we have to try to do both in a way that encourages everyone else to live up to their potential and allows them to find their own way in the world, with opportunity for education and a reasonable quality of life while they find their path (Equity).

This is such an easy Principle to play up in the Unitarian Universalist version of prayer, communion, and reconciliation: social justice work. Still,  it can be a very tricky one to truly live out and nurture in our hearts. Just as most of us will doubt many times, in life and often in a single day, the inherent worth and dignity in people we interact with or read about in the news, it can be hard to feel both compassion and justice when we read about victims and perpetrators of crimes and atrocities around town and around the world. Sometimes, we find it easy to sympathize with the needs or the motivations of a particular criminal, or we find them pathetic or enduring, and we don’t want to see them left to the mercy of our criminal justice system and our prisons. In other cases, we find it easy to seek vengeance for wrong doing, and we believe that a person deserves the worst that our system can give them. I argue that in both cases, the person deserves the best our system can give them, and that the proper course is to reform the system to make sure that it recognizes the potential for both types of criminal to make better choices if they are offered better options. We have to balance both impulses to reach an equitable outcome that leaves the whole of humanity better off.

This Principle, to me, is a statement of how we put the the first Principle into practice in the wide world, and what mindset we use to remind ourselves that we must be both optimistic when we encounter people making bad choices, but realistic about the changes we seek in the world. This Principle is the foundation for much of what Unitarian Universalism truly is in the world today, from the Standing on the Side of Love campaign(s) to our local work with food banks and groups like Hearts and Hammers or Habitat for Humanity. We tend to be really good at manifesting the Principle in the world, but let’s make a point today about trying to do so thoughtfully and in a way that cements this ideal in our minds and hearts. Remember, as you serve your community, that this is an effort to not just relieve suffering, but to help someone find their dignity and to affirm their worth to the world.

This isn’t a stand alone idea, that we ought to be just, equitable, and compassionate because it is good for us to look the part of a good person. We must act this out, mindful that what we are doing is living out our belief in the Principle of Worth and Dignity. We are not being good to others out of guilt or obligation, or even because it is what we would want done for us. We do it so that the people we help can share their gifts and experiences with the world and bring us closer to a complete understanding of creation. We do it to empower them and the whole of the next generation to live lives of worth an dignity. We do it out of love for humanity, even when it can be hard to love the human we are facing.

Chalica, day 1: Worth and Dignity

I took a month off from blogging here in the deep end, though I was posting a few things, now and then, to Tumblr (there are links –>). I’ve decided that, coming off of a month away, I will be blogging for this whole week. Incidentally, this is the week of the relatively new and almost unheard of celebration of Chalica! Now, I know that most of the people who ever bother to look at my Unitarian Universlaist themed posts already know, and have their own opinions about Chalica. Personally, I like the idea, though I don’t see it ever becoming the UU Kwanza or Hanukkah, much less Christmas. It is a nice way to take time to remember how we can apply the 7 Principles meaningfully and purposefully in our own lives, for those of us who care to. Still, I think it moves us towards the establishment of unique traditions and a true identity separate from, but inclusive of, our sources.

For those who find their way here without having heard of Chalica (because we all have to hear it for the first time somewhere), it is a celebration held during the first full week of December, starting on the first Monday. Each day, we take some time to reflect and possibly to make a proclamation or resolution about how each of the 7 Principles fits into our lives and our choices. There are currently 7 Principles, and 7 days of the week, so this makes for a nice fit, don’t you think?

Today, I examine the First Principle (again). It is, in my opinion, as close as we get to mysticism in the Principles. It requires a little bit of faith and a lot of hope and optimism. It claims that each and every human being is a being of inherent worth and dignity. I do have thoughts about the importance of the word “inherent” in this, but I will let the cynicism go for today. I will, instead, focus on the idea that everyone does have that spark, and how we can acknowledge it, and hopefully in doing so we can nurture it as well.

We are all born with the capacity for good, and with the possible exception of a few very damaged individuals, we all have the ability to sympathize with others and try to understand their needs and goals. This is the root of worth: not what you can achieve in the world, but how you can make the world a better place. To often we see things as competitions, and there is a healthy side to trying to be your best, but society has only ever progressed when people shared ideas and allowed others to benefit from and even improve on our discoveries and inventions. The true worth of a life is how it touches other lives and leaves them better for the contact.

Dignity, then, is the flip side of that, in a way. Each of us is a person who is not, by right of birth, better or worse than any other. We can be fairly judged by a combination of our deeds and our stated intentions, but each of those categories is subject to change with little warning. We are all capable of giving back to the world and the community of humanity on some level, and we should be encouraging each other to do so. Acknowledging the dignity in others is a show of humility and gratitude, recognizing that your intellect is something of a universal fluke, and that even the hard work you do with your own body, whatever its capabilities, is a blessing not shared by many because of a  misfortune of birth, an accident in their life, or through violence. Trying to see others, whether they share your capabilities or not, as equals who are each doing their best, and encouraging them to be kind, generous, and thankful for their place among us is recognizing their inherent dignity and promoting their sense of worth.

It is important for us to cultivate this belief and the faith in humanity that comes with it. This may just be the only thing about our “religion” that is truly spiritual and requiring of faith. It is a belief that will be tested, almost daily for some. It is one that we will all doubt, failing to see the worth in others and even in our selves at times and choosing to belittle others for various reasons. This first Principle on a list that might not have been ordered intentionally may not even be the most important in shaping the promise of our religious movement, but it is the one that grounds us in our humanity and tells us that we are not truly special or set apart except by our choices and our attitudes. Anyone can choose to be kind, no matter what reputation they carry. Anyone can fail, and yet that failure does not have to define them.

This is the basis of Humanism, as I understand it. As such it is far from a uniquely Unitarian Universalist concept. It stands independent of any belief in God, and stands in opposition to the idea of “original sin” or the limits of human compassion and empowerment. There are Christian, Muslim, and Jewish humanists, as well as the much discussed and often derided Secular Humanists, and Humanism is, arguably, the root of Buddhist thought. It is a Principle that can unite a multitude of personal theologies, even if it is not a universal belief.

On this first day of Chalica, I say to each and every one of you, and to every person on the Earth or in orbit around it, that I love you as my brothers and sisters. You have within you the spark of divinity and life that lives in me, and that energy cries out from each of us to try and connect to one another. For some it is a desire to experience as much of this grand creation as we can, and for others it is an attempt to bring order or security to our communities or our own lives. These are impulses we all have to balance, and we are all doing our best to shape the world into a place we feel comfortable and alive. Let’s talk with one another, and try to understand each other. Human history is a long, wide, and complicated net that none of us can fully understand. Let us each remember that we are, largely, the product of our personal history and that all but the most broken of humans is as little as a tragedy or victory separate from our own lives. They deserve our love, our empathy, and a sense of worth and dignity.