Human Relations, Spiritual Growth, and Beloved Community

Unitarian Universalism is about relationships. At their core, all religions are. They tell us how to react to the universe, to the divine, and (possibly most importantly) to each other. Many outline proper relationships to animals or to plants, both how to raise them and how, when or if we should eat them. Unitarian Universalism isn’t so much different in scope, though we don’t the same level of detail about any of it that some other religions provide. We have ideals, and it is up to each person to live up to them the best they can in their own way. We focus almost exclusively on positive outcomes.

We don’t feel that almost every person is born with some sense of community. We have an inherent sense of self worth and dignity, and we are driven by a need to have that recognized by others. We feel that when we honor that worth and dignity, we give a person the freedom to be who they really are, and we encourage them through positive relationships and encouragement.We try to lead them to understanding, though no one can hand spiritual growth over to another; it must be sought and earned individually.

In much the same way, no one can tell you what your relationships ought to mean to you, or how to create or maintain them. You have to choose the people who support you. You have to build the life that makes you happy. You are responsible for your love, your fear, your anger, and your sense of responsibility. There is no better judge of who and what is important to you, and you have to form personal relationships with each person in your life, and no one else can dictate who they are with, what they are, or how they make you feel.

Your relationship with each person is different than the relationship that person has with anyone else. You parents don’t have the same relationship with you that they have with anyone else. Neither does your significant other or your boss. You are such an essential part of each of your relationships that you make them each personal for the other person, or you choose not to.

The same principle holds true for your relationship with the congregation as a whole, or the grater community. You have the right to share your time and talents in a way that is fulfilling to you. You also have the right to withhold your contributions if you don’t feel that they are appreciated or if you just would rather not do the same thing for the church that you do for a paycheck. It is up to the congregation and the community to value you. They have a responsibility to communicate their needs and to give you positive feedback and respect. You have the responsibility to stand up for yourself when they ask too much. No one else can know your limits as well as you, and you can reasonably expect to have them honored if they are clearly communicated. That give and take is what makes a good community work in the long run.

Your relationship with the divine is also personal, and no one can feel the pull on your heart and mind. You know what name feels right on your tongue and what rituals calm or excite you. We can help you explore the possibilities, but you have to know God on your own terms. Just as your relationship with each member of your family and community reflects your contribution to that relationship, the divine relationship is tailored to your gifts and your perspective. No one can tell you how to feel about the rest of creation or our mutual source.

The Unitarian Universalist congregation has pledged to encourage your spiritual growth, and to aid you in a free and responsible search for truth and meaning in your life and in the world. We want to be good for you. You deserve to have your worth and dignity acknowledged and nurtured. We are a better community when you are a healthy part of our community, and that can only happen if there is honest communication about your needs as well as what is needed of you.

There are oh, so many, who say that the 7 Principles of Unitarian Universalism are only a covenant between congregations, and need not mean anything to individuals. I strongly disagree; we need to understand that some of them are clearly promises congregations make to members, and thus that members make to each other. A congregation is, after all, only a group of people who share a covenant with one another. If we do not believe that those Principles have value in our lives, to help us create healthy and enriching relationships, then what purpose do they serve? If they are simply a promise from one non-profit corporation to other corporations, then doesn’t that reduce our churches to mere office buildings?

Unitarian Universalism is a religion, or it is nothing at all. If it is a religion, then it must advise us in our relationships. It must direct us to create relationships that improve our communities. It must inspire us to reach out to one another, in times of trouble and triumph, and support one another in our quest for truth and meaning through encouragement to spiritual growth. Our heaven is a community, here on Earth, where there is justice, equity, compassion, and peace; a beloved community that includes every person and values every living thing.

Natural Disasters and the Hand of God: Why do bad things happen Part 2

Let me get something off my chest: If you survive a tornado, hurricane, or earth quake that killed children and leveled entire neighborhoods, this is not the time to thank God. God didn’t put out a personal hand to save you, because that implies that the same hand intentionally left others to suffer. God does not direct tornadoes. God does not shake the Earth. God has bigger problems. The Universe is huge, and God doesn’t have time to direct the flapping of every butterfly to ensure that hurricanes only destroy evil people. God cannot be said to have saved you without also having to condemn the dead. That is clearly beyond our ability to understand the intentions of the divine.

You can thank God for the life you have. You can thank God for seeing to it that we have a divine spark of humanity. The spirit of God is at work in the first responders and the Red Cross. God gave us the ability and the compassion to take care of each other. We are created as curious, caring, cooperative creatures (sorry for the alliteration, it came too easily to ignore). That is what we should be thankful for. You never felt thankful for your parents failure to keep you from getting ill, but for their care that helped you get well. Bad things happen because the universe is complex, and we are such a small part of it. The winds are not out to get us, nor the rains or the ground, but it is virtually impossible to build something to withstand all of them. The Earth has its own stresses, far below us, that are released as tremors. The weather is dictated by the sun, the spin of the planet, and every tiny movement of the air. It is beyond our prediction, and it is unconcerned with our desires.

God does not single us out for birth, for death, or for salvation. The tools have been put in place, and it is up to us to use those tools in the best possible way. We’ve been given the intellect to overcome the worst climates and even the vacuum of space. God has intrusted us to save ourselves. It is up to us to put our creativity and compassion to use, putting storm shelters in schools and neighborhoods and building safer homes and offices. God made sure that the universe would provide, but, from a human point of view, bad things happen because we are not the most important thing in the universe, and there are forces at work that we cannot predict or outsmart.

It isn’t fair to blame our individual suffering on God, and thus, it isn’t really necessary to credit God with having a well designed and built house, or a safe place to shelter, or for any of the other human factors that saved you, just like God doesn’t force either team to loose the Super Bowl every year, just so that the other can win.

The Almighty: Images of God

While far from unanimous, the Western world has largely settled on the idea of Monotheism, or at least that is what the majority would currently profess to, if you asked them. Most of the people on Earth, the world’s Christians, Jews, Muslims, and followers of many other religions with fewer believers, are monotheists in dogma and doctrine.

The trick to monotheism is the idea that there is one creator, who oversaw, designed, or even hand-crafted the universe according to a plan. There is much disagreement about the intent, and whether this being remains “hands on” in the operation of the universe is certainly up for debate. The essence, though, is in the creation and the idea of a design or plan for the universe. As we try to understand this force of creation, our main focus and most valuable tool is our ability to understand what was created.

Thus, there are, even within monotheistic religions, many different views of what this creator wanted for creation and why there is a creation at all, and most importantly how we are supposed to react to the creator and the rest of the creation. Each person, even in hearing the same words, even those who internalize the same stories and doctrines, must shape their perception of God around their experience with creation.

For many of us, our understanding of God is, at the most basic level, the idea that God is almighty and powerful. After all, isn’t the creation of the universe enough to indicate the absolute power over the universe? We shape our idea of God based on our idea of power. The things we see as “Powerful” and “Capable” become the things we ascribe to God.

This is why many depictions of God give the creator a masculine body, and generally one that is elderly, with white hair and a beard, but also physically fit and imposing. God, of course, would have none of these traits, inherently. If the creator of the Universe is still in existence, then our concept of age clearly does not apply, and even if, as Genesis tells us, man and woman are both created in the image of God, then God must not conform to our gender roles or sexual characteristics.

What we are left with, then, in my opinion, is an image of God that mimics our image of power. The people in power in the Middle East and in Europe were mainly older men, and that became intertwined with the idea of power and authority. Being the ultimate in both power and authority, God, in those cultures, took that form in their collective consciousness. Whether this was God’s intent, or just the only way that certain people or groups could relate to the idea of The Almighty, we may never know.

Many ancient peoples and pantheons held that the creation of the universe was the act of a primordial mother, or a primordial “couple” forming Earth and Sky. The primary Greek creation myth was one of the Feminine Primordial Gaia, who created her own mate and birthed the Titans, who gave birth to the Gods, who created the world as it was known to the Ancient Greek people, who understood on some level that the planet was much older than their civilization, and incorporated that into their mythology. Ultimately, though, the world of the Greeks was ruled by men and by Gods who took the power for themselves, making it theirs by right of strength. In a way, this mirrors the progression of theology through most of the world: masculine figures taking prominence, and eventually displacing any divine feminine figures more or less completely.

Clearly, then, our image of the divine is shaped by our perception of potency and the essence of what makes something powerful. Many people see power in strength. Many see it in some form of magic or in the promise of technology. In reflection, some deities are strong, some wise, and some clever, but the monotheistic God is usually all three. Gods are born of ideas, and powerful ideas become powerful deities. Likewise, the attributes that you ascribe to God say a lot about what you value in leadership, in relationships, and in your life.

It is important, then, to consider what you really think  about God, and not just what you have been taught, or what you say in front of others. Is your true concept of the divine as loving as you say? If so, then how is that love manifested in the world? How do you emulate it? Is your vision of God vengeful? Does that make you vengeful, too? Does that improve your relationships? Is your God forgiving? Does that help you to forgive? Has that been healthy for you?

Another common and important factor in monotheism is that God is “good” and that the intent of creation was to give rise to life, and ultimately to intelligence, and that intelligent life was meant to have a relationship with God. We are meant to be “good”, helping to bring about what God wants in the Universe. Being like God is being good.

By really examining your view of God, and thus your perception of what makes one “good”, you can shape your whole being. If you know that God is vengeful, and live in fear, then you are likely to resent those who see God as loving, and live at peace with their place in the world. If you know God in absolute terms, then you will be distrustful of science, revelation, and even your own senses. If you know there to be no God at all, then it is possible to fall into arrogance and conceit, looking only at the world around you for your sense of purpose and power. Your image of God both often both dictates and mirrors your best and worst traits.

Robert Ingersoll once said that “There can be but little liberty on earth while men worship a tyrant in heaven.” This is the essence of what I am trying to say: As long as we value anger, discrimination, and vengeance as divine traits, it will be impossible to remove them as cultural institutions. We must examine our concept of God, and decide, objectively, if it matches our understanding of what is good in the world. If you wouldn’t respect your God as a neighbor, then you have to understand that your image is too small and too personal. We need a universal God, who is good without resorting to divine dispensation. We need a God willing to give us our curiosity and senses in order to use them, rather than one seen to tempt us with knowledge we are forbidden to seek. We need a God who loves all humanity, rather than picking and choosing based on situation of birth. We need to see God for what God must be, rather than for what our tribal ancestors had hoped was a champion for their way of life.’

It is said that most people have some instinct for good, and that this “conscience” is an echo of the voice of God in our lives. Whatever the origin, we know what good is. Our understanding of the Universe, both of what is true and of what feels right, must be applied to our understanding of the creator. What is wrong to do to one another in any other cause is also wrong to do in the name of God, or the name of God isn’t worthy of our worship and reverence.

 

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.

Metablog: Blogging for the Future of Unitarian Universalism.

I once had an idea of becoming a social media guy. Becoming an expert in an emerging field seemed like a good idea, and this was a field that I had both interest and relevant experience in. That was a short lived goal, as I saw that the only way to reach it was just to jump in with both feet. I quickly understood that you couldn’t become a social media guy; you had to just do it and prove yourself.

I’ve got a decent number of followers on Twitter, where I post a lot of links and quotes. My Tumblr is getting a fair number of likes with similar content, plus some observations that I intend to be thought provoking. I have 2 Facebook pages with several hundred fans each. What I am really invested in, though, has become content creation. I have started trying to create sharable images, with some success, that spread UU (small p) principles and ideas, helping others share those mutual concepts of faith. Most of my efforts, though, have been going into writing.

The fact is that this is what I am doing, right now. I don’t have a regular job. I take care of my mother and the kids and I write and “curate” links and, more and more often, create some visual piece that I feel should be shared. I’ve taken time off for other obligations, but I feel like I owe it to myself to come back to this and prove that my blog is a serious effort.

One thing I have learned about myself in this effort: I enjoy seeing other people respond to the things that I publish. I love seeing people share my thoughts and images on Facebook with their friends, knowing that I have given them a way to talk about their faith when they might not have done so otherwise. I love putting ideas in terms that people can understand, even when they disagree, because starting a conversation where there was none fosters deeper contemplation, which is the only way to build real understanding. I have seen how people respond when they find something that helps them say what has been in their hearts, and it is amazing.

In the information age, anyone can sermonize. There are millions of people now able to rant, rave, and ramble about any number of topics, and there are plenty of people blogging about religion. Most of them are just screaming into the aether. While I am not awash in comments, though, I clearly do have people sharing links to my blog and talking about the ideas that I present.

That interaction is what I work for. I’d love to find a way to monetize it at some point, but I am more gratified to know that people are thinking thoughts and pondering ideas in new ways because of what I have crafted. I am a blogger, and you, dear reader, make that a worthwhile endeavor.

The state of technology is that everyone can be a preacher. Everyone can be a journalist. Everyone can be an advertising agency. The only thing that differentiates the random weirdo from someone with real reach is the ability to incite conversation. That is also the state of religion and of politics. Being able to shape the conversation by creating the talking points and giving people the confidence to express themselves. It is only by recognizing those who have the ability to shape and stimulate conversation that we can ensure that people hear our message of salvation. We don’t need to sell it, but we need to make it accessible and we need to get people talking and asking questions.

I am proud that I am part of this movement, and that it still has life in it, despite many declarations from inside as well as out. We are still in a position to be part of the new awakening that America is headed for. If we choose to be faithful and bold, then we can ensure that love, acceptance, and respect win this time around. The world wants reason along side fulfillment. They want something that reflects how small the world has gotten and how connected the human race is becoming. We reflect that, already.

So I thank all of my readers and fellow bloggers. I thank those who are trying to create a missional form of Unitarian Universalism. I thank those who are participating in the discussion, and leading our congregations forward. I have often said that we have something great to offer. Now I am saying that we have a great opportunity before us as well. We have to use it by talking to people and making our message personal. Saving the world will come from the ground up, once we focus our religion on saving people from the culture that we hope to change. Culture is made of people, and saving the people will change the change the world.

Universal Salvation and Love

I have written a great deal about my faith in the love of the Creator, and my certainty that all things will be brought back to the Creator before the end of time. This, for me, is a doctrine of Universal Salvation; a personal dogma that God did not create anything that cannot be redeemed. There is, ultimately, nothing to be “saved” from except ourselves, and love will eventually do that for each and every one of us.

Many will ask of me, and have done so already, “If no one goes to hell, then why bother being a good person?” First, let me say that I never said that no one goes to hell. I am certain that there is some amount of spiritual catharsis and cleansing that a soul must go through, to acknowledge the points at which we closed ourselves off from love, and in which we failed to be loving. I am certain that I will have to face those demons before I am ready to be loved, as it is in all relationships here on Earth. I simply refuse to believe that this is so much punishment from God as it is the consequence of reconciling our past with the revelations of perfect love. Second, let me say that I don’t feel inclined to do bad things, and that is who I am without the threat of eternal damnation. The fact is that I feel like it is my duty to be a good person, because I know that there is love. I know that there is suffering in the world because people don’t feel loved or valued, and that I can be a part of changing that. I don’t need to be threatened into being a good person, because I believe in a perfect love that I am meant to emulate. I don’t think that a vengeful and sadistic deity would inspire that same kind of universal love, and I can see why such belief would need threats to keep people from emulating the wrath and pettiness that so many seem to ascribe to their creator.

I feel like I am part of all creation. I am not just a man, striving for my own soul in a battle against damnation. I am one with all creation, trying to understand the universe we’ve been given and how to live as a healthy part of it. That, to me, is reason enough to be good. It is a reason to be good to people I don’t know personally, and it is a reason to be good to the other plants and animals that share the Earth, having been brought about as part of a single creation and all of them being loved by the same Creator that I am. The belief in Universal Salvation leads me to want universal love and acceptance here and now, just as people who believe in a hateful and vengeful God seem to want to create hate and anger here on Earth. I think that my faith in love is a more powerful force for good than any distant and, frankly, inconceivable punishment could be. I mean, who really has a concept of what “eternity” is, anyway?

I don’t need to be threatened. I don’t need to be afraid of doing bad things. I don’t want to do bad things, because I believe in goodness and love. I try to be a good person, because I believe that is what I was born to. It isn’t hard, and I am far from perfect, but no amount of fear could inspire me in the same way that love has.

Can God Make a Soul So Evil That Even God Cannot Love It?

I know that I am not alone in thinking that particularism is flawed. Eschatological Particularism, the idea that God can not or will not “save” every one and every thing, relies on a belief in a God who is either not omnipotent or is not benevolent. One of these must be lacking, or else God would spend all of eternity trying to reach every last soul, even if we accept that every person must submit to playing by some arbitrary rules set that God has imposed on itself to make creation into a game.

The only argument I have ever heard against Universalism, given the assumption of a loving creator, is that we have “freewill” to choose to be saved or not. That’s fine, as far as it goes, but it negates the idea of freewill in that we had to be created first. If Damnation is the default, and we have to choose not to be damned, then the act of Creation is the act of damning, and thus there is no inherent choice in whether or not to play the game, only whether or not to submit to the rules imposed. That,  I have to point out, is not freewill.

So, I ask you, if there is a creator who can do all things, but chooses not to love us all, then how is that being worthy of reverence? How loving or powerful is a God who spends eternity fuming that we did something bad, especially if we believe that simply thinking something is a sin, and condemns souls forever? Not just to boredom or even discomfort, but to misery! That is not a God I can love. No temporal sin warrants eternal punishment.

That is why I reject the ideas of eternal damnation and original sin. My vision of God is a being of love, encouraging us to do better and treat each other with kindness; in short, to love each other as God loves us. Any less is a being unworthy of my worship or devotion.