Religious Community in a Culture of "Me First!"
Rev. Grace H. Simons
Rev. Joe Cherry
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A liberal religious voice in the Central Valley since 1953.
(All from Unitarian, Universalist or Unitarian Universalist ministers)
From the Rev Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay, Self Reliance
Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist. I hope in these days we have heard the last of conformity and consistency . The magnetism which all original action exerts is explained when we inquire ... of self-trust.
From the Rev Olympia Brown:
Stand by this faith. Work for it and sacrifice for it. There is nothing in all the world so important as to be loyal to this faith which has placed before us the loftiest ideals.
From the Rev John Beurhens and the Rev. Rebecca Parker:
Western society has succumbed to an individualistic set of responses to the gift of life, easily forgetting the questions of the common good. Religious community acts to bind us in covenant to one another and to purposes greater than ourselves - not merely as an agreement among mortals but as a shared human response to a sense of grace, interdependency, and responsibility.
We've all heard it. "I'm spiritual but not religious." "I'm not interested in organized religion." As a UU minister, these are not my favorite phrases. Yet they are so common that they've become predictable - even trite. Sometimes I respond, "If you aren't interested in organized religion, you'll probably love us." When I'm feeling less flip, I might say, "Tell me about your spirituality. How is it different from being religious?" Often the core of the answer is about their "problem" with church and a desire to be free of the constraint - or restraint - that a church might require.
This is not news to Unitarian Universalists. It does seem to be news to the more traditional churches and synagogues. A Pew study made headlines several months ago when it showed that a lot of Americans "church-shop" and that denominational identification isn't very important to many of us. It also reported an increase in the number who aren't connected to any religious organization. And surely our culture encourages us to keep our options open and make the most of our opportunities. Americans have emphasized freedom and independence for most of our history, though we've defined it in different ways at different times.
Martin Buber tells a parable that's repeated by John Buerhens in A House for Hope. He says that around the time of the American and French Revolutions, the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity went together. (Buehrens notes that we might replace "fraternity" with "kinship" today.) At any rate, somewhere in the tumult of the times, the three were separated. Liberty went West, making a home in America. But without the influence of its companions, it began to change and eventually became freedom without responsibility. Freedom to look out for number 1. Freedom to exploit the land and other people. Freedom from commitment to a common good.
Equality, on the other hand, traveled East. It, too, changed with the loss of contact with the other ideals. Equality became enforced uniformity, with restricted information and domination by select ruling groups. It is seen in the gulag and the multitudes waving The Little Red Book.
Kinship, left alone and derided by many, went into hiding. It lived in the religious lives of the oppressed and came out when they made efforts to gain rights and recognition. Kinship was apparent in the Civil Rights Movement, in Poland's Solidarity, perhaps around here among those working to defeat Prop 8. When it appears, kinship tries to draw its companions together once again. For the time they are together they correct and balance one another. Yet it seems they always wander off on separate paths again.
So here we are in America, land of wide open spaces, of rugged individualism, of "Don't tread on me!" At the same time, we have the highest rate of church membership of all the Western democracies. It's an interesting combination; one that's hard to explain. The contrasting readings from Ralph Waldo Emerson and Olympia Brown illustrate these poles from our own tradition - on one hand, individual independence and on the other, reliance on community. We live between the two extremes, trying to find an appropriate combination: one that fits us. This is the concern addressed by ecclesiology - the branch of theology that's our focus this morning.
But let me pause for a reminder that this is the third in my "House for Hope" series. The series is based on the book, A House for Hope, by John Buerhens and Rebecca Parker. Both are prominent UU ministers. Buerhens is a past President of the UUA and Parker is President of Starr King School for the Ministry. Their book reviews progressive theology with the intent of building familiarity with liberal options to fundamentalist religious teachings and world view. They remind us that these ideas have strengthened many of our most inspiring leaders and powered most of our reform movements, from abolition through women's suffrage; humane treatment of the mentally ill through work for the civil rights of minorities which continues to this day. My intention for the series is to help us build toolkits of ideas and possibilities, stories and bits of inspiration that can deeply root our understanding and commitment to Unitarian Universalism, give us wings to explore our world and what it means to be human, and equip us to work for a better tomorrow. At this time, I expect the series will have seven parts and stretch through the spring. It won't be enough to do justice to the topics. And now back to theology!
Ecclesiology asks questions about religious communities. Here we must grapple with the tensions inherent in our sense of ourselves as individuals with agency - the ability to make choices about the ways we will live - and the fact that none of us humans can survive without being part of a community. Starting with the undeniable helplessness that characterizes human babies, we need one another. As fundamentally social beings, we need each other both to survive and to thrive. Back in the early days of Christianity, Cyprian of Carthage declared, "There is no salvation outside the church." Many still agree with him today. A prominent Buddhist affirmation includes the words, "I take refuge in the sangha." Olympia Brown declared, "Stand by this faith.There is nothing in all the world so important."
But ... but, here we are, each in our own skins, feeling rather separate, even unique. We each have our personal combination of talents, abilities, limitations and temperaments. And we know that communities and their institutions can be oppressive and abusive. History is full of cases in which institutions, including religious institutions, have suppressed knowledge, stifled creativity and punished innovation and dissent. They have betrayed the ideals they profess in order to promote and sustain their own power. And we are still social beings, and have gathered in religious communities since time beyond reckoning.
Ecclesiology asks, "What is the nature and purpose of a religious community? What brings it together? How does the community understand the roles and relationships of its members?" For progressive people, Rebecca Parker points out, two additional questions are crucial. Is it really preferable (or even possible) to be religious alone? Or, is there an importance to religious community life that needs to be claimed anew, while protecting against the liabilities and dangers that community life can pose? It's no surprise that she argues for the importance of religious community. In another passage, she asks, "... how can we approach religious community in ways that promote not competitive parochialism but authentic interfaith engagement and cooperation?"
Parker lifts up two claims for progressive congregational life, which offer reasons religious communities are important. "First," she writes, " congregations can be "communities of resistance" - countercultural habitations in which people learn ways to survive and thrive that can resist and sometimes even transform an unjust dominant culture." "Can be," not "will be." Becoming resistant to the norms of our culture is difficult, even when we have articulated the ideas we support and the changes we want to see. Cultural pressures are pervasive, especially now, with our myriad ways of spreading information and staying connected. Our portable electronics can mean unceasing messages, some of them quite unwelcome. The rash of teen and young adult suicides after cyber-bullying which filled the news in recent weeks provides poignant examples. The "It Gets Better" video clips, including one from the UUA and another from President Obama, attempt an antidote - and, hopefully, provide a lifeline for some. So many messages bombard us day in and day out: Don't be a loser! What a bleeding heart! Look out for number 1! If you want to be cool, buy this item! They go on and on. I dare say that none of us are immune.
Our congregations can help us sort out the various voices and decide which are aligned with our ideals. Together we are more able to act on those ideals. As individuals, even when we are convinced of the principles involved, we may be intimidated by a climate of community opposition, afraid of censure, worried about our families. Religious communities can strengthen us, and remind us of the high ideals we want to embody. Moreover, they empower us to do more than we could manage alone. As Mark Morrison-Reed has it in our earlier reading, "Together, our vision widens and our strength is renewed."
And there is influence in numbers. One call to an official is easily dismissed. Fifty, a hundred? Not so much. One person asking for a change, perhaps for fairness or transparency may be seen as a nuisance. With a group, we're more likely to be heard. And religious groups seem to have a bit more influence - for good or ill. Let's make sure that liberal communities of faith speak out, so that we become part of the public conversation. We can influence our culture and our community, if our voices are clear and our efforts are sustained.
"Second," Parker continues, "congregations can provide an embodied experience of covenant and commitment among people; they can foster freely chosen and life-sustaining interdependence." That is quite a claim! Let's be honest: an embodied experience of community can be a lot more of a challenge than Rebecca's words suggest.
Parker Palmer, a Quaker writer and teacher, says, "Community is that place where the person you least want to live with always lives. And when that person moves away, someone else arises to take his or her place!" Just make a couple of substitutions: "Your congregation is the place where the person you least want to be with always goes to church." and you see the problem with congregational life. No matter how much you agree with the ideals, you still have to deal with the very human folks who are the other members. They won't always think the way you do, their habits will sometimes irritate the life out of you and there will be at least one who seems to oppose everything you promote. On the other hand, there's nothing like the support of others during hard times, nothing quite as empowering as people who believe in you, nothing like combined perspectives and experience. And remember that those folks have to put up with you, too!
We speak of UU congregations as covenanted communities. That means we have hopes in common and we make promises to each other. John Beurhens talks about these promises, saying that they are different from contractual agreements. Covenantal promises, he says, are spiritual in nature. You've often heard me say that we covenant to walk our religious journeys together. That means we will companion each other, offering our trust, even while we know that each of us humans is imperfect and limited and that we will sometimes fail to live up to our promises. We agree to forgive and to find ways to stay in relationship. I've heard it said that you aren't a real UU until you've been really angry or disgusted with your church - and stayed anyway. It's the only way to stay connected to those values, to continue to have influence on the community and the only way to remain open to learning from the insights and experiences of others - even the ones who drive us nuts.
Despite the difficulties of living in real communities, the ones we quirky humans form, our congregations offer the possibility of "life-sustaining interdependence." While we are individuals, we are neither isolated nor completely autonomous. Our religious communities broaden our vision, remind us of both our aspirations and our limitations, and strengthen us for the challenges of our days and our work. When we reject one of these communities because it has the frailties of the human, we make the perfect an enemy of the good.
All human institutions and creations are imperfect. But I remind you that the story in Genesis tells us that God looked at the world on the last day of creation and pronounced it good. Not perfect: good. We can do likewise. Certainly we need to be critical - and self-critical as well. None of us has all the answers or complete wisdom. No organization can be perfect. We must strive to hold on to the valuable, even while we try to be rid of accompanying problems or errors. We must remember that our own view is not the whole of reality. Buehrens cites a Hindu proverb in this regard: "Do not cut down and destroy the Wisdom Tree."
Unitarian Universalists have dealt with all this by establishing self-governing, independent congregations and using the democratic process. We covenant about the ways we will treat each other and live together on this planet, not around a set of stated beliefs. Even with these safeguards, our suspicions of authority and our prickliness around preserving individual options often means that we keep our congregations and other institutions small and relatively weak. We tend to underfund them. Yet we complain that we aren't as influential as we'd like. I think UUs have often over-emphasized individual options and under-rated the benefits of community. We have let our distaste for the abuses of other churches and other times make us overly suspicious of our own. If we want to influence our communities, if we want to enjoy that life-sustaining interdependence that Rebecca Parker claims - well, we'll have to make deeper commitments to our congregation.
You know, we use the word "church" in different ways. It's a place, as in "I'm going to the church." It's a building or a group of buildings, as in "See you in church!" It's a larger institution - like the UUA or the Methodists. But even more, it's a group of people covenanted to walk together as we explore the questions of human living. "Gathered here in one strong body," we sing some Sunday mornings. In ways similar to the ways our cells come together to make something larger, we bring ourselves - our hopes and ideals, our energies and questions to form the community that is the church. It includes our different viewpoints and perspectives, our foibles and our failings right along with everything else. There's a lot to say about the theology of church - of religious communities - and we have only begun.
But let's entertain the ideas of Thich Nhat Hanh, when he says,
... a community that shows abundance of life, that is an example of the wholeness of life, would be an eloquent sign.Rebecca Parker quotes him near the end of her chapter on ecclesiology, and finishes with these words:
... churches, synagogues, sanghas, and mosques make a home for hope. Their sheltering walls offer us a way of living that finds joy and meaning in each other, in simpler ways of being, in slowing down, and in giving time to the things that matter most. They enable us to create a good life together - a community of resistance, a covenant of joyful interdependence - that will support us ... as we embrace the calling to live peacefully and sustainably on this earth.
May their words inform our thoughts and our attitudes as we build, enjoy and appreciate our own religious community.
December 5, 2010
This is the third in the "House for Hope" series.
The series, latest first:
Copyright by Rev. Grace Simons. If you enjoyed it or would like to use part of it, please contact our web wizard,
Rev. Grace Simons left us a
collection of her sermons
when she retired in October, 2011.
We have a brief biography
of Rev. Grace, and the last edition of
a column she wrote for our newsletter.
2172 Kiernan Avenue
Modesto, California See a map
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PO Box 1000
Salida, CA 95368
We are a liberal church and the only UU congregation in Stanislaus county. We serve Ceres, Denair, Escalon, Hickman, Hughson, Keyes, Manteca, Modesto, Oakdale, Patterson, Ripon, Riverbank, Salida, Turlock and Waterford. We welcome Agnostics, Atheists, Buddhists, Christians, Deists, Free-thinkers, Humanists, Jews, Pagans, Theists, Wiccans, and those who seek their own spiritual path. We welcome people without regard to race, physical ability, ethnicity or sexual orientation.