For several years my church was in a bar. This means something other than you think it does. I’ll gladly give a quarter to the first person who thinks it means what I’m talking about. But before I talk about that, I’m going to talk about why I’m thinking about it these days.
I think the religious impulse is a human characteristic. Like any human characteristic, it’s more prominent in some people, and less so in others, with a range from really incredibly dominant to pretty much negligible. Still, the urge to religion is in there as a natural human trait.
It seems to me that the religious impulse is answered in a lot of different ways–some of them in the traditional Western way of joining a church, professing, doing works, and on and on. Some of them in other traditional religious practices from Europe, to Asia, to … well, everywhere there are people and things called religions. There are other ways the religious impulse is met, too.
You think you know where I’m going with that bar comment, don’t you? Let me give you a clue. It wasn’t a traditional bar–you know, like a night club, or a corner tavern. If you’re thinking Cheers, you’re off the mark.
I think the religious impulse is a name for a particular facet of the human urge to find meaning in life. I think that facet is the urge to find meaning together in groups. We gather together around something larger than ourselves, something possibly abstract, something no one of us can contain. As Unitarian Universalists, of course, the thing we gather in is the congregation (even a congregation of one), and find the larger thing together. We hold one another in a kind of orbit around the thing, and around one another. If the group’s commitments could be charted, it might look like a cobweb, or like there’s no larger thing at all. Yet Unitarian Universalists keep coming together, so there must be something.
Other things can meet the religious impulse. Patriotism might be the thing, expressed in membership in the American Legion, maybe. Or sport, expressed in commitment to the local softball league, or life-long fandom to the Seattle Seahawks. The impulse is met when the meaning is found.
There’s been another clue already. If you’re playing for the quarter, I want to say you loose a nickel each time I put out a clue. I want to say that, but I’m not going to. If you guess before the Big Reveal, I’ll send you a quarter.
OK. Here’s the Big Reveal. For me–for years–the religious impulse was met in an Irish ceili dance group that met in a social hall, a private club/bar, locally known as the Polish Armory, in some way affiliated with its local Catholic parish (of which I was not a member). Every Thursday (more or less) the group would show up, put some money in a box for the hall, the band would start up, and as a group we’d decide on some dances we’d do for an hour or so.
We’d hold hands. We had to, or what we were there to do could not happen. We’d hold hands to move in time, to find our balance, to link together, and we would let go when we had to, and together we’d make the dance. The thing is the dance, and though the dance is Out There when we weren’t dancing, it only became real when we were.
There were rules, I mean aside from the steps of any given dance. The weekly meetings were called “Irish Dance and Social Comedy Hour.” And there were rules. These were the rules:
- Have fun.
- Be where you have to be when you have to be there (how you get there isn’t all that important)
- If you forget rule #2, then go back to rule #1
There was a bar at the front of the hall. There was another one in the ball room where we’d dance, and there was a third one upstairs where we would dance sometimes. There was only ever a bartender in the first one, and, actually, we didn’t have much direct contact with the bar anyway.
But it wasn’t just the dance. The religious impulse isn’t just the gathering around the larger thing, and the meaning we find in answer to the impulse is not just the notional reason for the group. There was the rest of it, the groupiness of the group, the non-dance socializing after the Social Comedy Hour, the birthdays, the losses, the growth, the holidays, the community outreach when we’d share the dancing at festivals or in schools. We gathered around the larger thing, the dance, and we stayed together because we were there for each other. My wife and I moved away for job and family reasons, but the group is still there, still dancing, still meeting the need of the religious impulse for the members, and still meeting the other needs for the members and in the larger community.
I’ve been thinking about the religious impulse, and the things communities gather around since the day I was at the Creation Museum. Which I’ll get back to here in another post pretty soon.