Axis Mundi: Terra Discussion

Axis mundi, the center of the world, was the topic of discussion at C3 West Michigan’s Spiritual connection this past Sunday.

Kent Dobson touched on many notions, but one to which my thoughts returned several times over the day was the sacred|particular tension. I liked that Dobson used the word ‘particular’ when talking about sacred spaces, and objects which denote an axis mundi for a space or as a marker of significance for a people

It can be easy in our day-by-day lives to simply say everyone is special, or the whole world is sacred, and to feel like we mean it. I feel like I mean it when I say it, but when I live my life, there are certainly things which are much more likely than others to get treated, or regarded, as sacred.

When a special thing happens, a marker gets set, and a space where that thing happened takes on a sacred aspect. A birth, a wedding, a fatal car crash, a dire diagnosis. My wife and I almost always point to the hotel we were married in when we drive past it with our children; this is a sacred space for us, and an axis mundi.

Because the world is not a circular two-dimensional plane, but rather multi-dimensional, and constantly unfolding experiences great, small, describable, and ineffable, there is no one, true, center. The world turns, constantly changing, growing in some directions, contracting from others, and we return–as individuals and groups–to places where the world once opened to us. We return in fact, or we return in mind, but the world turns around that event in that particular place, to that axis mundi. We each, emplaced by our stories, experiences, and groups, have many centers of the world. No one of us is only one thing, but each of us is our own particular, incarnated thing distinguishable from, but inseparable from, all the rest.

For many years I worked in local government, and there is often an effort to brand a community as unique, but I often felt that was the less helpful word. So many communities have similar features–a quaint downtown, vibrant schools, neighbors helping neighbors–that it can seem they are all the same. If every town is unique, no town is unique; if every tree is sacred, no tree is sacred.

The particularity, of a town, of a place of sacred meaning, or a human being is what marks the value. Being unique does not stand out. Being particular does, the world goes round and round around a particular place, but it does not go around that place uniquely. Learning to see what is particular is how we learn to love, and how we expand what we see as sacred.

Axis mundi is part of The C3 year-long Terra teaching focus.

Community in Community

When thinking about the previous post, I came across this post from the politywonk blog.

It’s difficult to extract a meaningful quote from the post, but here’s something at least. “But what is the value of this to the regulars? Free rangers (which is not the same as wanderers who stumble through ) know they have a vested interest in the regulars who covenant.”

I’m not certain yet what I’m getting at, or why this post was so affecting for me. I’m rusty in my habit of thinking through this stuff.

I also want to touch on the fact that our Sunday community is, conventionally speaking, not a religious community. But I’m going to refer to it as one in these posts because (1) I don’t want to use convoluted language, or try to come up with some other word, and (2) my general usage if religion is a way of organizing a community life around questions of meaning.

In looking at possible etymologies of the word, there’s Cicero’s idea of choosing to reconsider, and there’s also Campbell’s idea of binding. Reconsidering and binding together, living in community and making meaning–that’s religion. So I’m going to use the language I’m going to use when I need to express what I need to express.

How do we live like that?

I have begun this post a few times. I keep getting bogged down in throat clearing.

What I want to talk about is how my current religious community informs the way I live my life. The background here includes the UU posts from a few years ago (see the This is Worker Speaking posts in the Categories list). Especially the posts about free-range UU. Take a look.

My wife and I (and children) are not currently attending a UU congregation. Instead, we are members of a community with its own peculiar twenty-year history, moving from a member congregation of a reformed denomination to a “community from all backgrounds, spiritual and secular, who have come together to honor and explore what it means to be fully human.”

Someone from a UU congregation would probably feel pretty comfortable pretty quickly with our form and substance. I certainly did when we started attending in earnest. There are even moments when, sitting in our Sunday Gathering, my subjective experience is one of being perfectly right. This this is the place where being and becoming perfectly overlap.

But the difficult thing about where we are is similar to the difficult part of being UU. How does that actually inform how we live? We are kind, and sensitive, and try to walk lightly on the earth, we read–seek out–perspectives which are not our own, and we try to remain conscious of those experiences. We do these things independently of our membership in our religious community.

So.. why do we need the community? What makes it better to be with?

And… separately, how does with work? That’s what I’ll be working out here.

Why I am not an Atheist

(I had a poli-sci professor who once compared me to my namesake: slow and meandering. Other students in this seminar years ago wondered how I could take such an insult, but I was acing the writing-intensive course so I didn’t see it that way. This 900 word post grew out of a FB conversation I had once a few years ago brought about by a group reading of The Atheist Reader. I’ve cut some throat-clearing about how New Atheists often come off as jerks about both theistic belief and religion.)

Putting the truth of the existence of a god or gods to one side for a moment (an admittedly strange starting point for a post on atheism), religion itself isn’t really a theistic or atheistic thing. It is the case that certain religions do make truth claims about their theologies, but what religions actually are isn’t about theology. What religions are actually about is organizing human society by making social structures of the individual’s religious impulse, and giving the individual a meaningful way of hanging onto an otherwise ineffable experience. Liking or not liking the way a society is organized (say, along the principles of particular religious teachings) isn’t an argument about the theistic truth claims. In the West, we have demoted religion from the only way to legitimately organize society to being one contender in a way to organize society using a pluralised political process.

The argument that the scientific worldview has developed the most comprehensive, falsifiable method for understanding the truth value of claims–and that it doesn’t require the support of a theistic component–is a powerful one in favor of atheism. I suspect there are a lot of atheists in the world because the scientific worldview argument is so powerful, maybe even plenty of reluctant atheists.  (Parenthetically, let me observe that neither the atheists in the collection nor I are presenting anything like an original argument.)

Natural processes can account for anything you’d care to point to in the world. If humans have a religious impulse, then it got there in response to stimulus in the world. If humans attribute the religious feeling to a god or gods, then natural processes say that the propensity evolved, and evolved independently of whether or not there are gods or even just one. Did the religious impulse evolve because there is a supernatural something-or-other, or did the religious impulse evolve as a by-product of some other evolutionary advantage, or under some other pressure? I suppose someone out there can point to research on the subject, and I’d welcome the reading. Regardless of the answer, the religious impulse is there–part of the human condition.

A number of the atheists in the collection consider the religious impulse and/or the religious feeling an actual evil in the world. I wasn’t aware that evolutionary biology made value judgements about evolutionary adaptations. Perhaps the religious impulse and/or the religious feeling are side effects of evolutionary adaptations. Perhaps. An evolutionary adaptation which is harmful to the survival of the species (which, if the evil claim coming from a materialist means anything, is what it must mean) should not survive. (Maybe it arose in just the last couple of hundred of thousands of years, and will die off as a maladaption. Maybe atheists are themselves, biologically, an evolutionary adaptation.) An evolutionary adaptation (or side effect) with neutral survival implications might hang on for ever. An adaptation which improves survival will tend to solidify its position. It will improve survival if it confers some advantage over real world challenges. This isn’t a theistic truth claim, nor it is not an atheistic truth claim.

Anyway, “I don’t like religion (or god),” and, “I don’t need religion (or god),” aren’t really arguments. They’re assertions which ultimately don’t persuade me.

And that’s really why I’m not an atheist. What atheism offers isn’t enough of an explanation of my subjective experience of the world.

And, really, all I’ve got is my subjective experience of the world. I believe there is an  objective reality, that my subjective experience of it isn’t all there is to reality, that my subjective will has (at most) very little impact on the world unless I take affirmative action. I believe the scientific worldview has done a lot of good in the world. I think it’s done a lot of harm in the world, too. Germ theory has probably been an unalloyed good in the world. Nuclear science possibly has a ton more to answer for than it’s been good for even when things like radiation treatments and smoke detectors are factored in.

My subjective experience has included experience of the religious impulse and of the religious feeling. I believe those impulses and feelings are a part of me because they respond to something real in the world. I haven’t read much Dawkins, and I’m sure he’s got something to say about this experience on my part (I’m lazy, maybe someone can point me to it). If his explanation doesn’t allow my experience to inform my opinion, then that’s a pretty anti-humanist position.

Not being an atheist doesn’t make me a Catholic, nor a Sunni Muslim, nor a Hindu, nor a pagan, nor an anything. (I might be a Taoist, though… and I’ve had some experiences I’m pretty sure need more than scientific materialism to comprehend) Not wanting to be slotted into a religious social organization doesn’t mean I’m a godless heathen, nor does it mean that I cannot take comfort in certain religious developments as part of my human heritage.

As strange as this may sound to some religious believers, some theists, some atheists, some materialists and some others who are both smart and rigorous, being intellectually honest about one’s beliefs does not entail accepting the logical conclusions of them no matter what. Intellectual honesty does not demand finding what lies behind every belief. Intellectual honesty does not require that all one’s beliefs be examined and any that conflict with one or another be scrutinized for the permanent dismissal of one or another. Intellectual honesty merely requires that one be able to consider one’s beliefs, determine what they really are, and live accordingly.

I think.

Making of a Religious Naturalist: Reader Response

Here’s a weak opening. Chet Raymo gives readers a personal tour of how he came to claim the mantle of religious naturalism from his foundations as a Roman Catholic.

When God is Gone, Everything is Holy, the Making of a Religious Naturalist is part memoir, part history of science, part history of near-science. I won’t get too much into religious naturalism as such. (Start here or here.) Briefly, it’s a … well… wikipedia has a pretty good summary, “an approach to spirituality that is devoid of supernaturalism.” That’s a pretty good way to go with it, at least as far as it goes.

It’s a well-written book, and I came to it through a sermon by Donald Miller at First Parish in Concord. Perhaps I’ll have more to say after reading the other book mentioned in the sermon, Reason and Reverence: Religious Humanism for the 21st Century, by William R. Murry.

For now, I can say it resonated. It’s very personal to Raymo, so there’s not really a lot to say. If you like that sort of thing, you’ll probably like this iteration of it.

(Note on old UU posts.)

In the Mall of Religion, with a Wrench, Wearing a Christian Mask

Bait and switch is a form of fraud. In a common form, a store advertises a great sale on something it doesn’t carry, then, when a prospective buyer comes in, convinces her to buy something similar but significantly more expensive.

Jclifford over at irregular times (note: the irregular times site appears defunct-SM, Jan. 10, 2019) thinks UU is perpetrating a bait and switch because it doesn’t really uphold its Principles, particularly in the way Christianity is presented relative to the other Sources and noting, in reply to a comment I left:

When Unitarian Universalists adopt the approach that Christianity has a privileged place within their congregations, it’s a contradiction of the promise of a welcoming attitude. It’s a contradiction of the promise of no creed. It’s a contradiction of support for the free and responsible search for truth and meaning. I call that bait and switch.

There’s a lot to disagree with in jclifford’s blogging on this matter. For instance, I don’t agree that the word-count approach to analyzing UU web sites is an accurate way of assessing the UU commitment to the free and responsible search for truth and meaning or the way it uses its Sources. I can’t assess the characterization of the sermons read for the analysis, but can only reiterate from my comment that I don’t feel a pro-Christian bias in the sermons I’ve heard.

In the comments, jclifford also makes a number of suggestions for UU on the matter of addressing Christian privilege. They’re worth looking at, but I don’t want to engage them here. What I really want to get at is the underlying problem which I see jclifford articulating.

That’s this: UU looks, to at least some people on the outside, like it is institutionally incapable of delivering on its promises of creedlessness in religion and openness to non-Christian religious traditions (either through incompetence or the malice of either active deception or accretion of neglect).

It is not difficult to find anecdotes of such failings around the internet. Atheists, those experiencing non- (or post-) Christian theophanies, even (perhaps unexpectedly) classical Unitarians and Universalists who have gripes about UU, their local congregations, and the UUA. I’m not going to say “well, if UU is being attacked from all sides, then it must be doing something right.” That’s a ridiculous sort of thing to say generally, and in the case of this sort of “bait & switch” accusation indicates that there’s a deep and abiding problem.

But I don’t think it’s actually a problem of bait and switch. UU isn’t selling or actively promoting Christianity to people who come in looking for something else. Not really. I think it’s a public face problem with at least two facets. The first is that’s it’s difficult to articulate that UU is about action and process. The second is that UU does, in fact, still present an essentially Christian religious persona.

On the first point. Since UU does not have a creed (in a technical sense), we like to say (accurately) that it’s a creedless religion, and–further–that we’re open to people of any (or no!) beliefs or faith. We’re rightly called out on this (particularly the latter characterization) since the Principles take on a de facto role as a creed. What UU is (in part) is a religion where people gather to do faith–what I see as faith that the world can be a better place than it is, and that we, right now, have a duty to enact and enable that.

Sometimes this means coming to terms with the existential world (finding truth and meaning), sometimes it means refusing to come to terms with the humanized world (expanding justice, peace, and respect for the interdependent web). Sometimes it means listening to someone decompress over a cup of coffee. Sometimes it means decompressing. What it typically doesn’t mean is worshiping, supplicating, redeeming in the eyes of godhead (though sometimes it does, and–depending on definitions–maybe it should more often…).

On the second point, I used persona deliberately. Our Sources include a lot of recognized loci of authority, and the UUA does not number the six categories of Sources, and the one about Judaism and Christianity is the 4th bullet point and all. But still. We use a lot of Christian words and symbology. We’re the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations. A lot of our congregations meet in buildings which look like churches. Most of our congregations meet on Sunday mornings for services which are constructed along an identifiably Christian format with singing, reading, calling-and-responsing, a sermon, and a coffee hour after. The ones with loot often have staff called Rev. Our mask is Christian.

Further, our framing is often Christian. Sometimes the sermons I hear are explicitly Christian, but very rarely, and even then not orthodox, or Orthodox, or Roman Catholic, or mainline Protestant, or … but why go on? Usually the sermons I hear frame themselves around expanding Christian sources and language and ideas from the Christian tradition out beyond all Christian bounds. Or, just slightly less often, they use Christian language to give people a doorway to enter and a way to encounter non-Christian religious ways of being.

Actually, though, most of the sermons I hear are about what it means to be UU rather than something else.

I think jclifford misidentifies this framing as Christian privilege, with the negative associations ‘privilege’ has come in recent decades to connote. And, though I think it is in fact a misidentification, that’s actually not jclifford’s fault or problem to point it out. It’s a UU problem.

It’s our problem. It’s our fault if people think UU is the Mall of Religion, with outlet stores for every faith. It’s our fault people who go to a congregation expecting something different from a Christian service get a Christian-like service and are confused by why that is. It is, in brief, a branding problem. We on the inside know what we’ve got, and we like it otherwise we wouldn’t stay. And we have to stay true to ourselves both as individuals and as congregations. But we have to be clearer about expectations–both what expectations we promote to visitors, and what we might expect from them.

And the biggest lesson from jclifford is that web pages are where people get those expectations reinforced, we we need to make those tools as clear as possible.

(Note on old UU posts.)

In the Library, with a Lead Pipe

Here’s the scenario… I’m sitting in my local UU congregation, and we have a guest, a Sikh guru, who gives our sermon that week on the history and basic teachings of Sikhism. After the guru has gone home I find I can’t get the ideas out of my head… they’re really speaking to me, and seem to really align with my understanding of Unitarian Universalism. I want to explore this more, so I…

What, exactly?

Over at Irregular Times jclifford made a couple of posts about … failings in Unitarian Universalism’s official channels. (Note: jclifford’s site appears to be defunct as of Jan. 10, 2019. -SM)

The first post notes that there is a definite paucity of books in a particular UU congregation’s library of titles having to do with anything other than Christianity. Indeed, of the 87 titles he noted, only Jewish Days and Holidays,  “12 books on NeoPaganism” and a general dictionary and the phone book offer anything explicitly non-Christian.

On receiving some criticism from post commenters for picking on a single congregation, jclifford expanded the search to the UUA bookstore, and then–I think most usefully–to the UUA website in the next post.

In short, the UUs come up short. Precious little intellectual space is given over to Sources other than those explicitly coming from a Christian background. At least in that one congregation, in the UUA bookstore, and on the UUA’s web site.

In the actual UU services I’ve attended, however (and in the sermons I’ve heard thanks to podcasts), there hasn’t been a lack of exposure to humanism, wisdom expressed in popular song, religious naturalism, Goddess worship, Biblical God talk as non-personalistic, and shamanism–for instance and off the top of my head.

So I think focusing on the books on offer at a given congregation, or the items for sale through the UUA bookstore sort of misses the point of the UU religious experience. I’m also unsure that a strict word-count-based review of the UUA’s web site is a terribly useful a way of critiquing Unitarian Universalism’s level of support for individual Unitarian Universalists’s exploration and spiritual growth of the wisdom from the world’s religions.

Unitarian Universalism is not, after all, the Mall of Religion. Or, slightly more scholarly-ly, it would probably be a mistake for the UUA book store or even the UUA web site to attempt to speak with much authority on religious traditions from around the world–illegitimate appropriation, intellectual imperialism, just plain gettin it wrong, and all like that.

Which puts us in a bind. We say we welcome all religious seekers, and in my experience we do. But we don’t have anywhere near the level of institutional support for non-Christian traditions as we plainly have for our Christian institutional heritage. This makes some sense; we’re only 50 years old, and the AUA and the UCA came together in part because each was pretty much the only Christian organization willing to recognize that the other one was, in fact, Christian.

There are special interest UU groups, such as: CUUPS, HUUmanists, Unitarian Universalist Buddhist Fellowship, Unitarian Universalists for Jewish Awareness. Hardly a wide spectrum, but wider than implied by a simple word-count.

The implicit critique of the two posts it a good one, though. What does it actually mean, in the real world of our congregations and our religion, when we “affirm and promote… acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth… [in a] free and responsible search for truth and meaning” and to “draw from many sources” in that search?

What is our responsibility to provide direct access to those sources, and to provide actual (physical and/or digital) space to explore traditions within our congregations and the association for our individuals?

Just as importantly, what is our ability to do so?

I dunno. What have other congregations done when faced with someone whose search lead them in directions the congregation isn’t able to provide for? I mean someone who’s UU, planning to stay UU, but really wants to expand their understanding of the UU religion by digging into and exploring another tradition.

(Note on old UU posts.)