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From Chapter 17 – Celebration Days in
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver

Snow fell on our garden in December, leaving the dried corn stalks and withered tomato vines standing black on white like a pen-and-ink drawing titled Rest. I postponed looking at seed catalogs for awhile. Those of us who give body and soul to projects that never seem to end–child rearing, housecleaning, gardening–know the value of the occasional closed door. We need our moments of declared truce.

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Tonight’s class was really great–a revelation in a lot of ways. There’s so much to talk about, so this may come out a bit scattered.

I suppose I may as well start at the start and go over what we went over. We broke the ice by discussing our UU moment, and mine goes a little something like this.

I grew up Moravian, and really had a generally very good religious experience growing up. The Moravian motto is “IN ESSENTIALS, UNITY; IN NON-ESSENTIALS, LIBERTY; IN ALL THINGS, LOVE.” which is really a very UU approach to life, although I disagree with the Moravian Church about what, exactly, are essentials. During the confirmation process (I would have been about 13 or so), I had some doubts about the Apostles’ Creed. In retrospect, they seem kind of pedantic, maybe even contrarian, but they were really the start of my personal search for truth, so they are waypoints that are important to me. It was a real struggle, and I worked with my confirmation mentor, who I think was at least a little strained about how to help me through, and the end result was basically the idea that I had to have faith. At the time, I didn’t really know what faith was, but as far as I could tell, it mostly meant I should say the words, pray about it, and trust that things would come together later.

Since then, I have come to disbelieve the theology and cosmology of the Christian church (although a lot of the ethics and traditions remain dear to me) and have become what I call a devout atheist. In the earlier days of my atheism, I maintained some of the fundamental beliefs of Christianity–the dogmatism and the intolerance, for example, both of which I mean in a valueless context. Christianity is dogmatic and intolerant in ways that are, within its structure, quite morally sound, although to me they ring untrue.

When Cheryl and I first started going to the Unitarian church in Baltimore, I really struggled with it. Whenever a Christian or a Wiccan or a Buddhist would talk, and would ascribe any of their feelings to a belief in a divine power, I had to hold my tongue from shouting them down, or from trackng them down afterwards and trying to convince them that they were wrong and blind and if only they’d listen, if only they’d realize, then they’d understand that the way they were looking at things just didn’t make internal sense–it couldn’t be true–and then they’d know what was really true and they’d live freer and better and more moral lives.

Unitarians believe in a free and responsible search for truth, and I had an easy time with the responsible part (in some sense, at least), but a really hard part with the free part.

My UU “moment” came a few months back, when a ministerial candidate, speaking at our church, talked about her sense of the divine in nature, and how it sheltered her and reminded her of her connection to the world, and how that made the world make sense for her. I had become much less pugilistic and contrarian in the intervening several years, but it hadn’t really crystallized until that moment–just how far I’d come. Despite the fact that I felt no personal truth in her belief in a divine force surrounding us all, I felt nothing but joy for her and connection to her. Here was someone who had found a personal truth, a way of looking at the world that made it make sense to her–not only that, but it gave her a belief in the fundamental benevolence of the universe. She had found this faith in a way that was honest and forthright, by following her internal sense of the true and the good, and I was thrilled to hear her story of personal triumph, and her vision of a beautiful and embracing world. And despite the fact that I didn’t believe as she did, I was able to recognize someone who had found joy and hope, a fellow traveler on a similar but different search or path or journey. In that moment, I realize that I got it–I understood and embraced the free and responsible search, and saw what a world that held that tight would look like, with each person focused on being good in the ways that they knew how.

It really was a transformative moment, a long way from duking it out over the Apostles’ Creed, and I couldn’t help but feel an immense affinity for the institution that we support and that supports us on our paths.

After the ice breaker, we talked about the course about what we were going to be learning. We talked a little bit about a liberal faith tradition as distinct from conservative or radical approaches to faith. A liberal faith tradition, as I understand it, is neither one where tradition is treated as the arbiter of all truth, wherein followers are to take the tradition that is handed them and accept it whole-cloth, and where the response to skepticism is explanation followed by an exhortation, or even a command, to exhibit religious discipline by searching their soul, using prayer and meditation to find a way to make peace with a tradition they find exceptionable. Nor is it an approach where all received tradition is treated as the bondage of ill-informed and cruel-intentioned forbears, each more determined than the last to lay the yoke of religion upon the masses, to control them–or as simply bunk, to be tossed out as valueless and misguided, mere epicycles on the spiritual orbits we have come to know as “true truth”.

Instead, a liberal faith tradition is an inherently moderate and contemplative one, where the traditions of the past are received and examined in good conscience. Those ideas which makes sense to our current believers are accepted and modified as needed to remain current. Those ideas which seem reprehensible or unhelpful are considered and modified, if possible, or rejected and repudiated, where to do so strengthens our faith.

The example we discussed in class is that of the idea of “sin.” A conservative approach to sin might rely heavily on scripture, on the language of the time and on the intentions of the writers. It might also rely heavily on historical church doctrine. To the extent that the moral content of sin might appear to be modified by changes in technology or political or social institutions, a conservative approach is wary of allowing changes to be made to the idea of sin.

A radical approach is likely to reject the whole notion of “sin” as a useless social construction of a bygone era, designed to make people feel guilty for behavior that threatened the power structure that existed at the time–an idea best left utterly repudiated, now that modern man knows better.

A liberal approach is more likely to try to make use of sin, if possible, as a way to bridge understanding–certainly the problems we face today can be informed by the wisdom of the past, and so perhaps sin is best thought of as an addiction–as self-destructive behavior that is at the crux of an internal conflict of intention within each person. While we may or may not believe in the concept of separateness from God, each of us might make use of the idea of sin to understand the world better.

The way I think of sin is informed by the use of the Greek word hamartia to denote sin in the New Testament. Hamartia derives its meaning from the idea of “falling short of the mark” and consequently has been used, by analogy, to mean separateness from God.

I view it as falling short of the mark in the sense that the mark might be thought of as the Path or the Tao–which, for the sake of explanation I can characterize this way: The Path consists of the future series of actions taken by an individual if that individual were purely good and omniscient. For Christians, this is essentially “What Would Jesus Do?” For Taoists, it is following the Tao.

I don’t really believe that the idea of “purely good” has any sensical meaning–a point upon which I’ll elaborate at a further date–but for now just run with it. Because human beings are not omniscient, we all inevitably fall short of the mark. This is, in my view, the source of the idea that human beings are essentially flawed, and the belief that “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” In the Christian ethic as I have received it, this has generally come to mean that all people are inherently depraved in some way, and need to reconnect with God in order to be saved from their fallen state.

My liberal interpretation of sin–which seems to me to be a very useful concept indeed–is that we have a moral imperative to set unattainable goals for ourselves–our reach should exceed our grasp–and in so doing, we will inevitably fail to achieve our goals.

When I say this, I mean that we should use our internal conscience to envision worlds we prefer to the current one, worlds we conceive as being more perfect and more moral and more just than the one we live in, and we should strive to make this world more like the ones we envision.

By failing to reach that goal, we learn humility. By striving and succeeded in small measures, we earn pride. This process of pride at our successes and humility at our shortcomings builds character, hones our moral sense and provides us with a sense of empathy–for our fellow human beings who all must necessarily fail–and moral righteousness in our desire for a world of increasing justice and kindness.

It helps us to become less judgmental to see the world this way–we know that everyone must ultimately fail to be their best self in a real and personal way, and are more forgiving for having experienced it. There is an essential separation between making judgments about the acceptability and social permissibility of certain people’s behavior–and the consequent decision about freedom and imprisonment–and judgments about the value and worth of those human beings in a moral sense. By striving and failing we can learn to accept the necessary justice required for maintaining and protecting the rights and freedoms granted by our society while honoring the inherent worth and dignity of every person in a truly and radically compassionate way.

It also helps us to be less judgmental of ourselves. While we learn humility from striving and failing, falling short of the mark, in this sense, is simply a foregone conclusion. It is no reason to feel shame, nor is it an indication of our inherent depravity–all of us are moving steadily toward the target, as best we can. Our inner compasses are sound, but the nature of existence is that each of us is limited by our mortality, and as we are neither omnipotent nor omniscient, we can take pride in our successes without needing to feel shame about our failures. This belief in the concept of sin without requiring the concept of shame makes sin something that we can understand in a more coherent and human fashion.

That’s an example of my application of a liberal approach to faith. There’s lots more where it came from, as I hope to explore further, later on.

We talked about the things we UUs believe in, and the difference between framework beliefs and what I’ll call focus beliefs.

All UUs share framework beliefs, such as the belief in a free and responsible search for meaning or the belief in the inherent worth and dignity of every person.

We don’t all share focus beliefs, such as the belief in the divinity of Jesus, or the belief in the reincarnation of souls–or even the existence of souls. It’s because of this distinction between framework and focus that I can be an atheist and a Unitarian Universalist.

We explored our beliefs further by looking at a column published several weeks ago in the AJC, written by Lorraine Murray. In it, she rejected the idea of a multi-denominational church that allowed members to “pick and choose” what they believed it, claiming that it led to a “wishy-washy” religion, which she called the “Church of Anything Goes.”

Rev. David wrote a letter to the editor in response, which was subsequently published, and he invited us all to read the article and try to articulate a defense of Unitarian Universalism in response. My response, to put it briefly (as it’s late and I should be asleep), is that my faith and the faith of the Unitarian Universalists I know is the least wishy-washy of anyone i have ever met–and certainly Anything Does Not Go. Unlike more conservative faith traditions, each member of a Unitarian Universalist congregation holds only hard-won beliefs, each of them open to question. There are no easy ways out, no “pray about it and it will come to you.” If you’re uncertain about life after death but fear mortality, there’s no one telling you, “Don’t worry, it says so in the Bible, so it must be true.” To claim that one can simply choose to believe–even against the voice of conscience–and then all will be cured seems to me an ultimately untenable approach to religion. Instead, Unitarians believe that each of us has to findĀ  our own truth, and so we are each congregants and theologians both, striving to make sense of the world we live in. It is through the incredible strength of the thick and tightly braided rope of the world’s stock of wisdom and faith traditions that we are able to pull through to a fuller, more serene and substantial faith on the other side. By the same token, you won’t find many UUs who say “yeah, I kind of believe this, but not really, but I just try not to think about it too much.” That was not my experience as a Christian. Each of us is a seeker, with a moral responsibility to search and to support the search of others. To be part of a faith community that acknowledges and embraces the price and promise of that committed search is to be fully spiritually engaged.

I’m looking forward to next week’s class.