Monday, April 2, 2012

Where is the mystical element? - If we do not have love, we have nothing.

James Griffith notes in his book, Religion That Heals, Religion That Harms, “When religious life ceases to function as a medium for individual expression, risks enter for potential harm to persons.”p.33

Griffith states further in a later chapter, “… beliefs matter nor for their truth but for their consequences”. P.66 These consequences imply power relationships between people and one’s belief and faith in a transcendent entity or process that provides meaning for one’s experience in life. Myths, stories, rituals, ceremonies, art, music, and behavior not only have an element of entertainment but also instruction usually in the moral realm. Religious ceremonies which have lost their artistic power to entertain and instruct are empty operations which lose their audience because they are devoid of any meaning for the audience/participants they were enacted for. St. Paul puts this very well in his first letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 13, verses 1-13:
1 If I speak in the tongues[a] of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast,[b] but do not have love, I gain nothing. 4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. 8 Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. 11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. 12 For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. 13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

The sociobiological systems of religion often do not operate in loving ways. They operate to protect the organization often in self serving ways at the expense of the individual. The examples are numerous from the institutional protection of pedophile priests to the financial exploitation of the poor in fundamentalist churches who pressure members to tithe with the promise of being rewarded in what has been called the “gospel of prosperity.” When the religious institutions and its ministerial class exploit individuals for sex, money, and political power, religious organizations can do great harm to individuals and society. The individual is then left to pursue one’s spiritual journey on one’s own.

The personal spiritual journey consists of making meaning out of the major existential questions: why was I born; what is the purpose of my life; what happens to me when I die; what is the purpose of pain and suffering; what moral principles should I follow if I am to live a good life? When tragedy and suffering impact a person how does that person draw strength to get through it in a constructive way? How does one interact with those closest to him/her, and what does this tragedy and suffering say about one's identity and social status? These are profound questions with huge significance and Unitarian Universalism has little to offer, itself, other than referrals to its six sources. Unitarian Universalism could have more relevance in our postmodern society if it were to articulate a crystallization of the universal experience of how to manage suffering in an optimal way. Unitarian Universalism encourages the free and responsible search for truth and meaning by the individual but offers little substantive ideas of its own other than to refer the seeker elsewhere.

If the 160,000 Unitarian Universalists in the United States all have their own theologies the only thing that binds them together is the agreement to covenant to affirm and promote the seven principles, but these are process goals which say nothing about the mystical, transcendent reality that most human beings intuitively experience especially in times of duress and distress. This makes Unitarian Universalism a very anemic religion that differs little from an ideology and which is described even by its highest leaders as a movement rather than a religion. How is an individual to nurture one’s interior spiritual life by being the member of a “movement”. Social movements come and social movements go, and what is spiritually facilitating about being a participant in a movement is what I want to know.

People have stated who have fallen away from the Unitarian Universalist church that there are many social movement organizations they participate in and join. They aren’t looking for a church to provide that for them. There are other social movement organizations which do a much better job in their area of focus. If Unitarian Universalism aspires to be a religious institution which facilitates the spiritual life of its members it must deepen and expand the mystical element of its faith. Otherwise, it will drop by the wayside being irrelevant to the spiritual lives of seekers who thought they saw something in UU but then realized that it was nothing but a mirage.


  1. I think this post confuses two separate issues.

    1. Does UUism need to state a clear positive message about how to live? Yes, and I think it is implicit, in committee-speak language, in the 7 principles. You describe these as "process goals", which you seem to regard as a negative, but isn't that what we need: a process by which we can figure out how to live? What is the Golden Rule other than a "process goal" -- it doesn't tell you exactly WHAT to do, but it gives you a process by which that might be determined. In my view, the parts of the 7 principles dealing with respecting the inherent dignity of each and every human being, striving for justice in human relations, respecting the interdependent web, and belief in the democratic process, together all imply the Golden Rule and much more. Could this be stated more clearly and in less cold language? Yes, it can be, and I hope it frequently is within our congregations. I know I have heard much more clear statements from UU pulpits.

    2. A very different point is whether agreement on how best to live in THIS world requires agreement on some metaphysical principles about transcendent realities. No, I don't think it does. And a good thing too, because in general there is no way to verify and compare what people experience of such realities. Therefore, basing religion on a specific description of such realities is highly problematic. Why does how we live in THIS world have to be based on what SOME people sometimes claim they experience about some transcendent reality? Why can't it be based on what we all experience in this world we share?

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Dear Tim:

    Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I agree with what you write especially this

    "Could this be stated more clearly and in less cold language? Yes, it can be, and I hope it frequently is within our congregations. I know I have heard much more clear statements from UU pulpits."

    I often listen to podcasts of UU sermons especially Marlin Lavenhar, Michael Schuler, Galen Guengerich, Kaaren Anderson, Scott Taylor read their sermons. I wish that the ideas they express from their pulpits could be collected and systematized in a more accessible way. It would go a long way in promoting our faith.

    As far as your second point, I am more interested in the explication and articulation of universal human experiences rather than beliefs. I agree with you that it is not necessary to agree on "metaphysical principles" or "transcendent realities" but there are human experiences which transcend culture, race, sexual orientation, etc. such as birth, death, suffering, joy etc. These experiences get explained with different vocabularies, dynamics, practices and power relations which are different methods of handling the same human experience. Without institutional support, a person is left to one's own spirituality to negotiate these events and transitions in the predictable human life cycle. How does our Unitarian Universalist faith help the individual manage these stressful events? They are referred to other sources rather than introduced to a crystallized interpretation of how these things can be thought about and managed. It reminds me a bit of the Tower of Bable where the people all speak different languages and at a more basic level there are common experiences which bind us all together.

    Thanks again for your comment. I appreciate your thoughtfulness.

    All the best,

    David Markham