Sermons 2007-08

Honor Thy Mother

Honor Thy Mother

2-10-08

Douglas Taylor

I’ve been a little under the weather the past few weeks and I still have a bit of a frog in my throat – so this ought to work just fine:

It’s not that easy being green

Having to spend each day the color of the leaves

When I think it could be nicer being red, or yellow or gold

Or something much more colorful like that

It’s not easy being green

It seems you blend in with so many other ordinary things

And people tend to pass you over ’cause you’re

Not standing out like flashy sparkles in the water

Or stars in the sky

But green’s the color of Spring

And green can be cool and friendly-like

And green can be big like an ocean, or important

Like a mountain, or tall like a tree

When green is all there is to be

It could make you wonder why, but why wonder why

Wonder, I am green and it’ll do fine, it’s beautiful

And I think it’s what I want to be

            ARTIST: Muppets, Kermit the Frog

            TITLE: It’s Not Easy Being Green

It is a pleasure to announce that this congregation is on the road to becoming green.  The board voted to move forward with the program, creating a committee to take the congregation through the process of learning just what it means to become a Green Sanctuary, what is involved, what are the implications, and all that sort of thing.  It is exciting because concern for the environment is growing as well as recognition that we are part of Nature and therefore a part of the solution to what ails our good Earth.  It has not always been so; religion has too often had an adversarial relationship with the Earth and things natural.

The cover of my most recent copy of The Christian Century, shows a statue of Mother Mary nursing the baby Jesus with the caption, “Nursing Virgin, How a symbol got lost.”  The article talks about the slavific image of God’s love as “mother’s milk.”  The article contends that for a while in the early church and again later during the Renaissance, there was a flurry of art depicting the Virgin Mary nursing the holy infant.  The image took on “new meaning and new urgency in mid-14th century Tuscany.  In communities under siege from plague, wars and malnutrition, the Virgin’s breast was a symbol of God’s loving provision of life, the nourishment and care that sustain life, and the salvation that promises eternal life.”  Unfortunately, the image of the Virgin’s breast was overtaken by a new image of God’s Love as depicted in the redemptive suffering of Jesus’ death on the cross.  Additionally, the image waned in religious popularity due to what the article’s author, Margaret Miles, calls “the secularization of the breast.” (Christian Century, Jan 29, 2008, “God’s love, mother’s milk” p 22)

Christianity seems to have long held a grudge against women as well as Nature.  The idea of the Earth as a feminine entity, Gaia, Terra Mater, Mother Earth is much older than Christianity.  And perhaps that is partly why Christianity throughout history has had such a problem caring for and about the earth.  The idea that we live off the earth, (as an infant lives off her or his mother’s breast milk,) is wholly appropriate and true.  And yet we seem to live by a false myth that says we are separate from nature, that we are above nature, that we have conquered and domesticated the Earth.

In his book, The Creation, E. O. Wilson talks about how we live in “cocoons of urban and suburban material life” as if such a life were “sufficient for human fulfillment” when in fact it is a betrayal against Nature. (p 12)  People lament that children today have no connection to the sources of their food.  How many of our children have ever spent time with a cow, let alone milked one?  There is a distance that is widening between those us of who live as civilized citizens and the nature world that has given us birth, that continues to sustain us and nourish us – though from a distance.  Indeed, it is not easy being green.

E. O. Wilson mentions what he calls the key discovery of green history, namely; “Civilization was purchased by the betrayal of Nature.” (p 11)  To be sure, the revolutionary step taken to move from hunter-gatherer nomadic life into an agriculturally based village life was phenomenal and a blessing.  But each step like that inched us farther from our felt connection to the Earth, from our Mother’s milk.  Down the centuries we have come to believe we can sustain ourselves on the handful of flora and fauna that we have domesticated.  Wilson points out that as a species our diet has become specialized to the point that we only “eat the seed of four kinds of grass – wheat, rice, corn, and millet.”  Try cooking for someone who can’t tolerate wheat and you will understand how poor we have become as a species!  Consider the possibility that one or more of these grasses should fail due to climate change or disease, will we still have access to the thousands of wild plant species that offer alternative food sources yet which currently face extinction.  “Even the most recalcitrant people,” Wilson suggests, “must come to view conservation as simple prudence in the management of Earth’s natural economy.  Yet few have begun to think that way at all.” (p11)  Dr. King once wrote in his Letter from the Birmingham Jail that “freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”  To project that sentiment onto the environmental situation, I wonder if we are now hearing that demand from Mother Earth.

I’ve been reading dire predictions for humanity.  Some of the environmentalists sound almost like they are reading from the Book of Revelation.  “One of the most eminent scientists of our time says that global warming is irreversible – and that more than 6 billion people will perish by the end of the century.”  This attention grabbing piece is from an October edition of Rolling Stone magazine.  The eminent scientist is James Lovelock.  This is the man who “created a device that helped detect the growing hole in the ozone layer.”  He helped “jump-start the environmental movement in the 1970’s.”  Lovelock “introduced the revolutionary theory known as Gaia – the idea that our entire planet is a kind of superorganism that is, in a sense, ‘alive.’”  So, when Lovelock suggests we’re in major trouble it is worth paying attention.  He has a very good track record.

But he predicts the Sahara will be moving into Europe within a generation, London will flood, Beijing will become desert, Miami will be under the ocean, and the rise in temperature by the end of this century will call Canada, Iceland, and Scandinavia to become the new temperate zone of our globe.  Lovelock effectively doubles the likely predictions made by the latest report from the UN Intergovernmental panel on Climate Change.  According to Lovelock, changing to fluorescent light bulbs won’t help, switching to solar and wind energy won’t help, and reducing green-house emissions is too little, too late.  The outcome, 6.6 billion human population reduced to half a million by the end of the century, is inevitable.  Gaia’s subtle network of positive and negative feedbacks that keep the superorganism in balance are at or past their tipping points.  It is already too late.  And it is very hard to be green.

It is hard not to think about the Four Horsemen of the apocalypse when faced with statistics like this.  The Four Horsemen from the Book of Revelation are War, Pestilence, Famine and Death.  Other than natural disasters such as floods and earthquakes, that pretty much covers the potential disasters awaiting us if these worst case climate change predictions are true.  Whether it was the in the mind of the writer of the Book of Revelation or not, War, Pestilence, Famine and Death are four of the five basic ways that nature controls overpopulation in a community.

If a herd of antelope become too large they are in danger of starvation or famine if they over graze their habitat.  They become overly susceptible to diseases and pestilence which spread quickly when there are too many antelope living in close proximity.  Predators find it much easier to get a meal when the herd is overly large.  And Death, of course, could refer to the outcome of any of these situations, but also natural death by old age is another regular, albeit slow, means of keeping a herd within reasonable and sustainable numbers.

Humans today are working very hard to feed everyone: we can do it – the problem is distribution not supply (which could also be said to be the case for our antelope herd!)  Humans have made remarkable strides in dealing with diseases and in prolonging the average lifespan, although malaria still kills an amazingly large number of people, as do other nasty diseases.  As for predators, we are at the top of our food chain so the only predator we have is ourselves which translates to ‘War.’  Ergo, the Four Horsemen of the apocalypse are synonymous with the subtle techniques Mother Nature has of dealing with overpopulation.  And we have developed civilized ways of keeping them at bay – not entirely, but to significant affect all the same.  When we tinker with the balance so drastically perhaps natural disaster, the fifth technique, is dramatically added to the mix to bring the other four back into regular play.

But all that is very gloomy and hopeless.  There isn’t much to do with predictions like Lovelock’s except to buy land near the Arctic Circle and wait for the land to thaw.  But I don’t think such a response is really any better than the response of people who claim Global Warming to be an elaborate hoax.  Denial is a waste of the precious possibility of hope as is being overwhelmed into paralysis.  We can, instead, choose to act and make changes toward improving our situation with the assumption that it will work.  We can choose hope.  It is a waste to give up and do nothing.  We need to work to reduce our carbon footprint with the goal of making a difference.

But what about Lovelock’s predictions, you might ask.  What about the Miami being underwater?  What about 6 billion dead?  What about the Four Horsemen of the apocalypse and the antelope herd?  Well, for starters, we’re not talking about facts with any of that, we talking predictions of future possibilities that may or may not come to pass.  I don’t think Lovelock is right.  The question I have for Lovelock is: have we really read the subtle signs correctly to know that we have crossed the tipping points?   Are there perhaps more subtle connections that work to maintain balance that haven’t been figured into the dire predictions?

Or consider it a version of Pasqual’s Wager: might as well work to save the world assuming it will help because if you are right then it’s wonderful and if you’re wrong and find you’ve put all this work in and things never get that bad then you eat a little crow in your very fuel-efficient, energy-saving, home.  Choose hope.  That’s where we are headed, as a people of faith.  We are moving toward becoming a Green Sanctuary.  Our different beliefs here in this sanctuary unite in our care for the creation.  As UU pagans connected with the earth itself as holy; as UU Christians who hear the positives calls to care for, to steward the earth; as theists of other stripes; as humanists who heed the learnings of science that show us a world on the edge; as people of various beliefs we unite in our care for the earth. We have decided to care; we have chosen to have hope in the face of the growing trouble because we recognize, among other things, that we are kindred with all of creation.  So stop buying bottled water, stock up on fluorescent light bulbs, look into better insulating your home, or buy a more energy efficient hot water heater.  Forget about both paper and plastic and get some reusable canvass grocery bags.  And those are just some of the ideas for you: think about the names they will call us when we start pushing for significant changes in our city, our state, and even our nation.  We can make a difference, we have to.

Starhawk writes, “We are not separate from nature but in fact are nature.”  Michael Dowd says “We grew out of the earth the way peaches grow out of a peach tree.”  Carl Sagan wrote “We are the local embodiment of a cosmos grown to self-awareness.  We have begun to contemplate our origins: star stuff pondering the stars.”  And I tell you we are kindred with all of creation.  Let us honor and give thanks to all that has given us birth and do our part to be green.

It’s not that easy being green

But green can be big like an mountain, or important

Like a river, or tall like a tree

I am green and it’ll do fine, it’s beautiful

And I think it’s what I want to be

In a world without end,

May it be so.

Bending Gender

Bending Gender
2-3-08
Rev. Douglas Taylor

I remember my psych 101 course that I took in college, the professor said a third of the students are there just to find out what’s wrong with themselves.  Obligingly, our professor occasionally offered various personality tests and such during the last ten minutes of class.  One such test that has always stood out in my memory was the Bem Sex Role Inventory which measured masculinity and femininity.  There were questions to find out if I were assertive or timid, if I liked sports or preferred taking care of others, if I were analytical or understanding.  So I filled it all out and he showed us how to score it there in our seats – one number for masculinity and a second score for femininity.  He talked about how we would probably each come up with a strong score for one characteristic and a weak score in the other, or – there was more of this happening since the sexual revolution and feminism – you could come up with a strong score in both masculine and feminine.  ‘Androgynous’ he said, making it sound like something to aspire toward, something we would all achieve in the brave new world of culture-wide psychological wholeness.

Many people stayed after class to have a word with the professor about their inventory scores.  So I hung back, waiting for a chance to ask my question.  When he finally turned his attention my way his response was, “To have a weak score in both masculinity and femininity doesn’t count as androgynous.  It probably means you’re repressing something.”

Prior to the 1970’s it was widely believed that to be psychologically healthy, a man must be masculine and a woman must be feminine.  There were only two types of normal healthy adults: men and women.  It was easy to tell them apart and what to expect from each type.  The man was the ‘father,’ the ‘breadwinner,’ the ‘protector.’  To be a woman was to be the ‘mother,’ the ‘homemaker,’ the ‘care-giver.’  A person’s gender, by which we mean their appearance, certain behaviors, and patterns of work, was predetermined by their sex, by which we mean their reproductive equipment.  Of course the feminist movement and the sexual revolution of the 60’s and 70’s blew that all out of the water and struggled to equalize the conditions.  The old argument that said: “your societal role is set by your biology,” was attacked from any angle with significant success.  Few today would argue compellingly that a man can not take care of children lovingly or that a woman is biologically incapable of running a multi-billion dollar corporation.

Certainly there are those who went too far in the argument suggesting that biology makes no difference whatsoever and that the differences between males and females are purely cultural and educational.  Such an argument taken to this extreme led to the tragic story of the infant boy who lost his penis through a surgical accident, underwent gender reassignment therapy before the age of two, and was subsequently raised as a girl.  The theory was that learning and environment would trump biology in terms of sexual differentiation.  In other words, having been physically made to look like a baby girl, the child would grow up identifying as a girl – provided the parents went along with the ruse (which they did.)  The book, As Nature Made Him, the boy who was raised as a girl, by John Colapinto¸ (2000) reveals the patient’s perspective on the events which were markedly different from the surgeon’s perspective.  The surgeon, Dr. John Money, was of the opinion that “in the formation of gender identity, pre-birth biological influences are secondary to the power of post-birth environmental factors, which override them.” (p66)  The surgeon was convinced that biology was next to meaningless.  The case of this boy who was “successfully” raised as a girl was cited copiously as the basis for arguments against the old model the Nature determined everything by declaring boldly that it was in fact Nurture that trumped all.

However, the book, As Nature Made Him, shows that the case was not a success.  Indeed the boy raised as a girl rebelled against the label and the constraints placed on ‘her’ regularly.  While there were certainly photos of this child in dresses and accounts of ‘her’ working in the kitchen with her mother, there are also many more accounts of this child being a rowdy, assertive kid who would rather play in the dirt than sit and read a book.  This was a child who tried to organize the other girls into a game of Cowboys and Indians, who beat up the boy across the street, who regularly peed standing up!  I hardly think that qualifies as a successful gender-switch.  Clearly the raw data had been manipulated to reach the conclusion that this child was the epitome of femininity.

By the time the time the child turned 14 in 1979, ‘he’ has reverted to his biological gender; at least that is how it is worded in the book. This did not stop Dr. John Money from continuing to promote his theory which sat, in a small but critical way, at the base of the feminist movement.  Biological plumbing was not a reason to subjugate a person.  Womanhood was not a genetically inferior condition; rather it was a social construct that could be challenged. The case of the boy raised as a girl served its small part in the revolution; and when the specifics of the case turned out to not support the conclusions of the case then a new round of researchers and theorists set about establishing new conclusions.

Today’s psychology book begins a discussion about Gender Roles by admitting that “all cultures establish expectations about the general patterns of work, appearance, and behavior associated with being a man or a woman.” (Essentials of Psychology, 4th ed. Bernstein, D & Nash, P.; 2008. p369)  But it quickly moves on to say that such Gender Roles “are deeply rooted in both nature and nurture.” (Ibid)  Evolutionary psychology tells us about how “males’ greater ability to visualize the rotation of objects in space and females’ greater ability to read facial expressions… are deeply rooted reflections of gender-related hunting versus child-rearing duties that were adaptive eons ago for survival of both sexes. (Buss, 2004)” (Ibid, p371).  There are real cultural influences that shape a person’s sense of gender identity, no one refutes this today.  Also there are real biological, chemical, hormonal, and neurological differences between males and females, no one refutes this today.

This brings us back to my college Psychology class test and the new online version I took this weekend.  “Your Gender Identity” Are You More Masculine or Feminine?”  I don’t recommend free online personality quizzes for anything except entertainment.  So I haven’t taken my scores to heart.  But I was surprised to see at the end of the nearly 50 questions quiz, references to the Bem Sex Role Inventory I had taken in college.

One question, for example, is: You and a couple of friends get lost on a hike. What do you do?  a) Become upset and frustrated b) Stay calm and stay put. Someone will find us c) Discuss our options and work out a plan together d) Take charge and use the map to get us back

Another question is: After a big holiday meal with friends and family, would you rather: a) Take a nap b) Hang out c) Go for a walk or d) Play basketball or touch football?

From questions like these, the test compiles a profile of you based on 12 traits, half of which are considered masculine and half of which are considered feminine.  The outcome is not limited to only two choices.  The analyses states that “it is not uncommon” for a person to come out as a very masculine man, or a very feminine female.  In some cases a person will come out as a very feminine man or a very masculine female.  Regularly people will come out as androgynous, being strongly masculine and feminine as either males or females.  (That is six options so far.)  And finally a person could come out as “sex-role transcendent” which means they are weak on both masculine and feminine qualities.  The report casts this final option as a positive one saying these are people for whom their sense of self is not tied to gender traits.

If you remember at the beginning, for my college test I came out in this last category and my professor stated it meant I was repressing something rather than my sense of self not being tied to gender traits.  I have to say I think my professor was on to something because when I took the test this weekend, I scored rather differently.  I came out as highly feminine.  Like, very highly feminine!  So when I took the test again, the second score was a little more reasonable feminine, only 60%.  I looked over the 12 gender traits they used to create the profile and saw that indeed I score very low on “Sports Fan” and “Aggression.”  It turns out I am moderate or both “Leadership” and “Decisive,” but score quite will for “Analytical” and “Principled Individualist.”  Two masculine traits fairly low, two moderate, and two nice and high.  That seems well-rounded enough for me.  When you look at the feminine traits thought, it turns out I am very “Cheerful”, very “Compassionate”, very “Gentle”, very “Understanding”, moderately “Trusting”, and scored quite low on “Timid”.  So, four outstanding, one moderate and one low score for femininity.  I can live with that.

Clergy have often been considered feminine.  Jesus is usually portrayed as very womanly, much to the consternation of the Religious Right.  Gentle, understanding, compassionate: Jesus is not a sports fan, or analytical or aggressive.  We can give him ‘principled individualist’ and ‘leadership’, and we certainly wouldn’t call him timid.  But over all I think I scored way less feminine that Jesus would!  Seriously though, ministers and priests have, for hundreds of years, been allowed to be in both the men’s sphere and women’s sphere.  They have been allowed to talk about love and relationships and still have leadership.

In several Native American tribe rituals there is a role for a person that is now being called a two-spirit.  There used to be other words for this, but were too often corrupted European words that meant derogatory things rather than honorable things so a new term was agreed on recently.  A two-spirit person would be like the androgynous label from the gender inventories.  But it is more than that, it also carries some of the connotation that goes with clergy, but not all two-spirit people are holy people.  So it is a little confusing still.

But then, any of this can get really confusing if you stop looking at inventories and theories and quizzes and start looking at real people and real lives and real salutations.  I imagine most people don’t separate their biological sex from their gender.  I don’t.  Even though the online quiz says I’m more feminine than masculine I have no desire to declare my gender to be anything other than “male.”  Most people don’t spend much time thinking about it, which is understandable: why spend time thinking about something that just is.  Water is wet, leaves look green, 1 + 1 = 2, as a man I feel ‘male.’  There really isn’t a whole lot more to say about it.  Except when you are talking to someone, or when you are someone for whom it that is not just the way it is.

In the book I read from for this morning’s reading, She’s Not There, a life in two genders, by Jenny Finney Boylan, she cites a statistic at one point: “Professor Lynn Conway at University of Michigan estimates there are forty thousand transgendered male-to-females in this country, and that only counts the ones who have already had the surgery.” (p249)  That’s forty thousand people who have undergone surgery to change their gender from male to female.  In the book, Boylan did this because it became increasingly unbearable to identify as a female inwardly and as a male outwardly.  There can be other reasons, I suppose; medical reasons I imagine.  But I suspect the majority of people who undergo a sex change operation do so to align their body with their felt gender.  I can only imagine the pain a person would feel – No I don’t think I can in fairness say that I can imagine the pain a person would feel to have your outer body not match your inner gender.

This is where it gets really complicated and confusing: separating the idea of sex from gender, the inner from the outer as it has been described.  Which one is more real, the inner or the outer?  To the rest of the world it is the out!  Right?  No one looks at Dolly Parton or Janet Reno (as Boylan mentioned in the reading) and concludes they are not really women.  Yet some one like Jenny Boylan gets reaction from time to time: “but you are not really a woman, though.”

Quite frankly, there are times when I think about transsexuality and I just have to shrug.  I’m sorry I can’t make it make for sense to you, I told [my friend.]  But it is what it is.  Whether I “really” am a woman, or whether I “had a choice” or not, or whether anything, no longer matters.  Having an opinion about transsexuality is about as useful as having an opinion on blindness.  You can think whatever you like about it, but in the end, your friend is still blind and surely deserves to see.  Whether one thinks transsexuals are heroes or lunatics will not help to bring these people solace.  All we can do in the face of this enormous, infinite anguish is to have compassion. (She’s Not There, Boylan, Jennifer; p248)

Are there more than two genders?  Well, remembering that there is a difference between biological sex and gender identity, putting those together brings out lots of possibilities: are masculine men and feminine men the same gender or are feminine women and feminine men the same gender?  The textbooks say gender is both biological and societal, not simply a subjective internal thing like your choice of favorite color.  If I were to take a more comprehensive and reliable gender test, and my gender score again came up as feminine, would my gender be “F” rather than “M” or some other letter?  I don’t know how to talk in words beyond “him” and “her”.  New pronouns have been invented, but their application is still unclear.  Or is it subjective?  Where does the line get drawn and who gets to draw it?  I imagine there are a number of you here this morning who could take this conversation much further, but we’ve reached the limit of what I can offer.  When we step away from inventories and theories that neatly wrap it all up, the real people and real situations can be so confusing and complex.  I recommend compassion.

In a world without end,

May it be so.

Wizards, Dust, and Faith

Wizards, Dust, and Faith
1-27-08
Rev. Douglas Taylor

Back in the fall of ’02, Rev. Douglas Taylor made the news when he publicly shredded a copy of “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.”  He wanted to burn the book, but sadly the city would not issue him a permit.   So, with scissors in hand, surrounded by faithful members of his church, Rev Douglas Taylor told the newspapers, “I feel like I’m in a cutting mood tonight.”  I hope it is no surprise to you that I am speaking about another Rev. Douglas Taylor, one from a conservative Christian church that condemned the Harry Potter books for their glorification of “witchcraft and pagan religion.”  “If you get involved in this,” our other Rev. Douglas Taylor told the people, gesturing to toward the Harry Potter book, “It’s gonna make you dirty.”

Me, I’m not interested in cutting up or burning books.  I don’t doubt that I could be involved with a blatant publicity stunt.  While I would hope to be involved with more tasteful displays, I can’t make any promises.  But you could tell I was referring to a different Rev. Douglas Taylor, right?  I only wish the people who sent me hate letters by e-mail could tell the difference.  It was somewhat heartening to have the people chastising me for cutting up Potter outweighed my supporters 2 to 1, even if I wasn’t the one involved.

There is a long and proud history among conservative and evangelical Christians of railing against culture and ‘un-Christian’ influences surrounding their children.  Of course liberal and mainline people of faith do it too. We tend to complain about different influences, but we all complain about the negative influence of culture.  I remember, for example, a TV show from the late 80’s and early 90’s called Murphy Brown.  One season, the main character decides to have a baby but not to get married or have a man involved directly in the project.  During the 1992 presidential campaign, then Vice President Dan Quayle criticized the Murphy Brown character for ignoring the importance of fathers and bearing a child alone.  One response was, “Oh, come on Dan; it’s just a TV show.”  But that is not a fair response.  Whether we agree or disagree with Dan Quayle’s target, his concern about the power and influence of Television was fair.

And while conservative Christians get worked up about everything from Barney and Tinkie Winkie to Murphy Brown and Dan Brown’s De Vinci Code, they hold a special place for fantasy books and movies especially when they portray magic.  Of late there are several movies that fit this category: fantasy films that feature witchcraft and magic; the Harry Potter series, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Chronicles of Narnia, and most recently, The Golden Compass.  I have found these films to be entertaining and each in their own ways to offer a positive message to encourage people in their faith.

All of these films began as successful books.  While all four movies have come out recently, two of them are from an earlier generation and seem to have worked under a different set of rules if you will in terms of their acceptability among Christians.  One theory I bumped into on the internet (and sadly could not find again to give proper credit) suggested that there were rules for how magic could be portrayed that Narnia and Lord of the Rings followed, but the other two have not, which is why you hear a lot of fuss about Harry Potter and The Golden Compass.  Or, another way to put it, Christians came to terms with the ways magic was used in the previous generation’s great fantasy series but those terms were not met in the new batch of make-believe.  The main problem for the Christians seems to be around magic use.

The first rule seems to be something like: the magic needs to take place in an obviously non-real world.  When the children go through the wardrobe and past the lamppost, they have left the real world behind and entered a completely new place.  It is so different that time does not even pass in the real world while hours and days and even years go by in Narnia.  C. S. Lewis’ world of Narnia could in no way be mistaken for earth.  Tolkien’s Middle-Earth is also not earth.  So full with its own history and culture it could not possibly be mistaken for our earth with our history and culture.  Again and again, critics say that one of the hallmarks of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings books is that the author created a whole and internally-consistent world.  That is the old-school.  Harry Potter takes place in the midst of our real world.  The young people can attend a school for Witchcraft and Wizardry that is undetectable by the regular people (which they call muggles.)  The author, J. K. Rowling, intends for you to feel like this is all happening in our world, not in some make believe place.  The Harry Potter series crossed the line that Narnia and Lord of the Rings abided by, and this is a key reason why people hated Harry Potter so much.  It suggested that magic was a part of our real world!  It went so far in its fantasy structure to suggest that lucky people could go to school and learn to use magic.

The Golden Compass is a variation on the theme.  The world of young Lyra is built on the post-modern thought-experiment that if I flip a coin it will come down either heads or tails.  While the coin is in the air the result could be either.  In a way, both futures wait to unfold.  As the coin lands and we find it to be, for example, ‘heads’- what would it be like if there were a parallel universe where the coin landed as ‘tails’ and life goes on from there?  The world Philip Pullman creates in The Golden Compass is very similar to the one we live in except there are rebel witches, talking polar bears, magic compasses, and every person’s soul is externalized as a creature.  I would be willing to argue that the parallel universe concept is almost an out for Pullman in terms of that first rule: the magic has to occur in a completely different world.  It’s a different world, but I suppose not completely different enough – and then only in the first book.  And, as a meaningless critique I will add that Philip does not have cool first initials like J. K. and C. S. and J. R. R. which is really too bad.

The second rule that the earlier generation of books centered on who gets to use the magic in the other world.  When religious people saw that humans didn’t use the magic, that the main characters did not use the magic, then it became easier for them to come to a truce with those books.  In the Narnia tales, the humans are set apart from the mythical and magic using inhabitants of the land in part because they don’t use magic; (unless we start talking about the “deep magic” and the “deeper magic” which is allegorical ways of talking about the power of Christian love.)  The most obvious person to use magic in the movie is the witch, who is evil.

In Lord of the Ring again it is the evil characters that use magic, but there are also good characters that use a good version of magic as well.  The elves have certain abilities, particularly the royalty.  And of course the wizards use magic.  But it is noted that the wizards are not ‘men.’ They are immortals like the elves.  I would also add that while the movie showed a good deal of waving magic staffs around and talking to wild animals, Gandalf’s primary magic was found in knowledge and a certain power with light.  Yet he was neither a main character nor a human character.  This kept him safely within the bounds that Christianity had come to accept from its fantasy stories.

The other two movies clearly break this little rule.  All of the significant characters use magic in Harry Potter, and the main character stands out for being particularly adept with certain kinds of magic such as flying on a broomstick.  In The Golden Compass, Lyra uses a device, the alethiometer or ‘golden compass’ to tell the truth.  Alethi is Greek for ‘truth’.  The device works for normal people but only with years of study and a stack of reference books, reminiscent of the resource books needed to read a sextant at sea.  The main character, however, does not need the years of training or the pile of books to read the device, she just understands it somehow.

So, Narnia and Lord of the Rings are OK, Harry Potter and The Colden Compass are bad because the former show magic occurring in wholly unique worlds that don’t connect to our worlds and the human characters and main characters don’t use magic, while the later do – on both counts.  This seems to me to be a flawed set of criteria to judge the fitness of a film for our children’s consumption.

Another criterion might be: do these books turned movies have Christian themes, or at least positive themes that are broadly religious if not specifically Christian.  Certainly Narnia would come out well with this way of judging them.  Narnia is an allegory of the Christian message: Aslan the great lion is Christ who sacrificed himself for another’s transgressions – yet rose up from death, breaking the table and so freeing anyone from future punishment for misdeeds.  When that level of the story is pointed out most people find it to be quite obvious.  Yet over and over children are delighted and entertained by the story without clueing in to the deeper theology that isn’t exactly hidden all that deep.  I think that is a mark of a fine story.  By this way of judging, Harry Potter carries many of the same symbolic meanings, especially in the last book.  I won’t spoil it in case you haven’t read it yet.  However, the Christians who rail against the Potter books will often cite not only the awful witchcraft problem but also the way Harry and his friends don’t follow the rules and ignore authority figures right and left.  I would cautiously point out that Jesus did that too.  Self-sacrifice and the ultimate power of love are regular themes in the Harry Potter books.  Again, this is a great story and it is not necessary to even notice all the Christian imagery to enjoy the books and be moved by them.  Although, one wonders at the way Rowling draws herself closer to hardcore Christians by using bible quotes on tombstones as major plot clues in her last book, and then she distances herself from then by announcing that the Professor Dumbledore, much-beloved Headmaster of the wizard school, is gay.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy is full of Christ-like figures: Frodo, The innocent who willingly takes up the burden of the Ring, carrying it through pain and suffering to save the world.  Gandalf also fits the bill for many things, but especially for dying and being reborn in a garment of white.  And we could also look to Aragorn who is the King, (as all kings in such stories seem to be Christ-like figures) but he is the King with healing in his hands.  We could also look to the over all message of the struggle between good and evil – that is a common theme in this sort of fantasy story.  Indeed all four of these movies I’m considering here have this over-arching theme of good triumphing over evil.  Yet with Lord of the Rings is worth noting that victory is won not through magic or military might or dramatic heroism.  It is won by two small hobbits, two insignificant beings, the meek of the earth.

Earlier I stated that each of these movies, in their own ways, offers a positive message to encourage people in their faith.  This idea that some of the basic messages of the Christian story are at the underneath many themes in the three movies so far makes my point.  The last movie is a little harder.  The Golden Compass also carries the broad them of good struggling to win over evil.  In this case, however, the church is the bad guy under the title of the Magisterium and the Authority.  The main character is regularly lying.  The movie pulled back from some of the overt material in the book, but the really complaint-worthy material all comes in the third book anyway.  The much hyped moments are in the death scene of God, the Authority, and in the scene where Lyra and Will (a boy introduced in the second book) reenact the Garden of Eden Scene with the opposite effect: instead of causing Original Sin, they rediscover their Original Blessing.  At least that is what Pullman is aiming for.  And if that is not enough to make the Evangelical and Conservative Christians jumpy, Pullman has said in interviews, “My books are about killing God.” He is also on record for saying “I am trying to undermine the basis of Christian belief.”

If you only watched the movie and not read the books, you would probably wonder what the fuss was all about.  In the movie the evil Magisterium has a ‘church-y’ name and is seen trying to take control of everything.  A few characters make reference to Original Sin that is somehow connected to Dust.  Other than that, there isn’t much in the movie itself for Christians to get upset about.  I think, however, the Christians are right to protest.  Pullman seems to have started with a premise that he will write a children’s story that will attack Christianity – or at least certain aspects, certain theologies of Christian faith.

Characters in Pullman’s book each had a creature that moves with them that is an outward manifestation of their soul. It might be a bird or a big cat, a monkey or an armadillo.  These are called Daemons, (spelled D A E M O N – which is an old variation on ‘Demon’.)  Children’s daemons can change form as they wish.  When they reach puberty the daemon settles into one shape which it keeps for life.  Dust, which is the central concept of the quest: discover where Dust is coming from, the main character (and the reader) is always trying to sort out just what Dust is.  The Magisterium, the evil institution who wants to control everything, claims that Dust is the physical evidence for Original Sin.  In the same way the soul is externally visible, Original Sin is also somehow visible.  Dust doesn’t really stick to children so long as their daemons have not settled – which happens at puberty.  And puberty is the onset of sexuality.  In the later books this becomes the central theological issue.

The good guys, and for that matter – the author, suggest that Dust is not what the Magisterium claim.  Instead they say Dust is the elemental force of consciousness.  Thinking back to the passage I read for the reading, Pullman uses the Garden of Eden myth as a backdrop for his argument.  He would be claiming that what the church calls “the fall” was really a step toward consciousness and full personhood.  Taking the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil was not disobedience, (the classic understanding of original sin.)  Instead it was liberation into self-control, into being able to know and choose for yourself what is ultimately good and evil.  I think Pullman’s story is a fine example of what we Unitarians and Universalists did over a hundred years ago.  An example of what Liberal Christians and Liberation Christians have been doing for generations.  If Pullman’s goal was to undermine Christian beliefs I think we must admit he fails – but if it is to boldly critique certain literalist beliefs and authority-based traditions, then perhaps we can say this author has done quite well.

Will any of this deeper level of theology with its message against religious authorities and in favor of free will reach the young reader or movie goer?  Will the positive messages from any of these movies reach the audience?  Perhaps.  Most people will go to the movies to be entertained.  Occasionally a character or a scene will stick in your memory as a fine example of faithful living.  That critical piece is in self-reflection.  I encourage you to be aware of the influences that are offered to you through your entertainment!  Perhaps with critical self-reflection these fantasy films can enhance your faith.  And perhaps the literalists and Magisterium-like structures of religion in our world today will one day be broken of their destructive habits, thus freeing them to honor and serve life rather than yesterday’s set of rules.

In a world without end

May it be so

Sing a New Song

Sing a New Song
1-20-08
Rev. Douglas Taylor

While I’ve always enjoyed the TV shows and made a point to never miss an episode, I don’t think it would be fair to claim I was a Trekkie.  I don’t own a Star Trek library, I’ve never been to a Star Trek Convention, I don’t speak Klingon or own a Star Fleet Uniform costume, although I know people who do.  But I have always enjoyed the show, especially the second series that came out in the early 90’s.  Science fiction has always appealed to me when the writers present ethical questions through their work.  They present an opportunity to ask, “What if …?” I have played with the idea of using Star Trek episodes for an Adult Religious education ethics discussion – indeed, it has been done before.

For example, there is one episode that has always been considered on of the best there the crew meet a race of people that communicate only through metaphor and image.  The “Universal Translator” that allows the crew to speak with any sentient species they come across fails them because what comes out is phrases in English referring to the local stories of this races; and as the crew discovers, without knowing the stories, the language is unintelligible.  The episode is called “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra,” and that is one of the phrases this race said when they were talking with the Star Trek crew.  But “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra” was meaningless to them.  The names refer to people and places that the crew had never heard of.  It would be like someone saying “Romeo and Juliet at the balcony.”  If you know the Shakespeare play, you understand the romance and tragedy evoked by that phrase.  But without the context, the phrase is meaningless.

What would it be like to meet a race of people who spoke in a metaphorical language?  What would it be like to be such a race?  What stories would we use?  If I said, ‘Murray stuck on the sandbar’ or ‘Thoreau on Walden,’ or ‘Servetus at the stake,’ would you have a sense of the metaphor or image I was trying to evoke?    If I called on images beyond our Unitarian Universalist story and said, ‘Patriots at the Boston Tea Party,’ or ‘Battle of Wounded Knee,’ or ‘King at Lincoln Memorial’ would you understand?

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King spoke with rich imagery and power.  I won’t go so far as to say he spoke in an entirely metaphorical language, that would be not be possible for anyone to do so in our culture.  But this idea of using phrases that evoke deep stories and images as a sort of shorthand – this is what Dr. King did a lot.  Many people reflect on how Dr. King’s message was not only in the information and content of what he offered, it was also in the way he said it.  The way he spoke was as important to the message as what he said.  And so he and the people of his communities were like the race of people who spoke in deep metaphor.

Now, as a quick tangent I want to notice that when we say “a race of people” in connection to Martin Luther King it is generally understood that we are referring to African Americans (or Negroes as was the nomenclature of that decade.)  When we say “a race of people” in connection with science fiction and Star Trek it is generally understood that we are referring to a people who are not Earthlings.  Humans are the only race on Earth.  Science fiction is closer to the reality on this point than contemporary language that speaks of racism and race-relations.  Genetically speaking, we are more alike than we are different, we are one race and skin pigmentation makes no difference.  Now, culture makes a difference; geography and nationality seem to make a big difference.  But genetically we are all one race.  But, the word ‘race’ is not going to go away from our vocabulary because until we actually meet another human-like race from some other planet we will continue to use the word to separate ‘us’ from ‘them.’ That is what words like ‘race’ are for.

Returning to my point about the language of metaphor, Dr. King was an eloquent speaker who drew on phrases and images from the Bible, American history, hymns and poetry.  His work was so suffused with such phrases that he has been accused of being unoriginal.  A fringe of angry people have suggested King stole all his words from other people, that there was nothing all that special about King because he was just saying other people’s words.  People who level this critique against King not only laughably overstate their case; they also fail to see that he was evoking other people’s words on purpose.  So he didn’t footnote his speeches, he didn’t make little ‘air quotes’ whenever he was uttering another poet’s words.  King was a preacher!  Saying other people’s words is what we do.  To preach is to lift up powerful words in juxtaposition to life as we are experiencing it.  That’s what we do – and we do it with all the wisdom of the ages.

There is a story of a student who complains to the master composer saying, “The lesser musicians are stealing your work and calling it their own.  Everyone is copying you.  Should you not reveal them for the frauds they are?”  The master drew himself up proudly and said, “Any fool can steal from another person, the true genius steals from everyone.”  King quoted from the Bible, American history, hymns and poetry.  If we do not recognize the image being evoked, if we miss the context of the phrase then we fail to grasp the full implications of the metaphor.

In the monumental speech, “I Have a Dream,” King evoked the concept of the American dream, lined out the American hymn “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” and recited from the declaration of Independence (“We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal.”)  He also brought out phrases from the biblical prophets such as Amos 5:24 “Let Justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream,” and Isaiah 40: 4-5 “Every valley shall be exalted and every hill and mountain shall be made low; the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight.”  And King also gave a nod to Shakespeare when he said this was the “sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent.”  The play Richard III has the line “Now is the winter of our discontent.”

This was common in his rhetorical style.  He spoke this way each time he stepped up before the public.  There is another speech that captures this point remarkably.  King spoke at the conclusion of the march from Selma to Montgomery Alabama in 1965.  600 people had tried to march earlier and had been beaten with bullwhips and nightsticks by the Alabama State Troopers.  That first attempt to march came to be known as “Bloody Sunday.”  The next day King issued a nationwide call for clergy from the north to come march with them.  Two weeks later, ten thousand marched.  At the conclusion King spoke and during the speech quoted James Weldon Johnson’s hymn which we sang this morning:

         We have come over a way

         That with tears hath been watered.

         We have come treading our paths

         Through the blood of the slaughtered.

         Out of the gloomy past

         Till now we stand at last

         Where the white gleam

         Of our bright star is cast.

Johnson wrote those lyrics in celebration of Lincoln’s birthday 65 years earlier.  It had been dubbed the Negro National Anthem by the NAACP more than a generation before King and other civil Rights leaders called the hymn into deeper service.  Can you not the power of these words?

Later, working toward the climax of that speech, King builds the question, “How long will it take?”

Somebody’s asking, “How long will prejudice blind the visions of men, darken their understanding, and drive bright-eyed wisdom from her sacred throne?”  Somebody’s asking, “When will wounded injustice, lying prostrate on the streets of Selma and Birmingham and communities all over the South, be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men?”

I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, because truth crushed to the earth will rise again.

How long? Not long, because no lie can live forever.

How long? Not long, because you shall reap what you sow.

How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

How long? Not long, because: Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord

And he goes on to recite two full stanzas of the Battle Hymn of the Republic ending with, “Glory, Hallelujah!  His truth is marching on.”  Powerful way to end a march: our feet are tired from this march, but His truth is marching on.

But this piece of the speech is so full of imagery leading up to that powerful conclusion.  The rhythm of the question and answer, “How long, not long” is a poetic technique King known as Anaphora in which you repeat the beginning phrase over and over.  How long?  Not long.  And, that exact question is in the Bible no less than fifty times mostly on the lips of the psalmists and the prophets.

         How long wilt thou forget me, O LORD? for ever? (Psalm 13:1)
How long shall mine enemy be exalted over me? (Psalm 13:2)

         How long will ye judge unjustly, & accept the persons of the wicked?                                     (Psalm 82:2)

         How long, LORD? Wilt thou hide thyself for ever? (Psalm 89:46)

         LORD, how long shall the wicked triumph? (Psalm 94:3)
How long shall the land mourn, and the herbs of every field wither,

                  for the wickedness of them that dwell therein? (Jeremiah 12:4)

         How long wilt thou not have mercy (Zechariah 1:12)

         O LORD, how long shall I cry, and thou wilt not hear! (Habakkuk 1:2)

How long?  Not long, because the truth crushed to the earth will rise again.  That line is from poet William Cullen Bryant who is more famous for his poem “Thanatopis.”  Bryant, I might add, became a Unitarian in later life, writing many Unitarian hymns.

How long?  Not long, because no lie can live forever.  That is from Thomas Carlyle, English poet and atheist.

How long?  Not long, because you shall reap what you sow.  St. Paul in his letter to the Galatians which is an echo of similar sentiment found in the Psalms.

How long?  Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.  Unitarian minister Theodore Parker wrote that in response to the issue of slavery and the hope of abolition.

How long? Not long, because Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.  Julia Ward Howe wrote the Battle Hymn of the Republic in response to the Civil War.  And yes, Julia Ward Howe also was a Unitarian.  But you see the point is not that King spoke lines that were written by atheists, or Unitarians, or even God herself!  The point is what King did with the lines, bringing them together and presenting them as he did at that moment in the lives of the people.  In so doing he sang a new song, a song of justice and peace for the whole nation to hear because the words were our words as Americans, as people of faith, as people of every color.

We Unitarian Universalists have had our part to play by both sending forth individuals in the service of bringing about the beloved community and as a movement sending forth our voice and our empowering theology of the human capacity for good.  There is yet more work to be done.  Never let us dwell only in the realm of words and ideas, but let us also not belittle the power available to us with the careful use of language and images.

King made powerful use of language and images to convey a message of justice and a call to conscience.  He used the language of image and metaphor to evoke a connection with people that could bridge the gap between our ideals and our practice, between our statements of who we say we are and what we say we stand for as a people and the reality of our practice and what we allow to be done in the our name.  King communicated through common phrases and images, transforming them into deep metaphors that tell us who we are.  In this way he sang a new song using our words – the words of democracy and freedom, truth and dignity.  He sang a new song with old words leading us toward a more just community.  We are the ones to take up that song now, if for no other reason than our recognition that the work is there to be done.  We are the ones to take up the song, because we are a people with resources and passion and the ability to effect positive change.  We are the ones to take up the song, because our theology and our fellowship are rooted in human dignity and justice.  We are the ones who have ears to hear; we and so many others with us see the need to call our nation to live out its promise of freedom, equality and justice.  With care and compassion we shall sing our world toward wholeness.

In a world without end

May it be so.

January’s Intolerance

January’s Intolerance
1-6-08
Rev. Douglas Taylor

When I was young I remember learning the etymology of the days of the week and the months of the year.  Days of the week are mostly named after Norse Gods while the Months follow the Roman Gods.  January is named for Janus, the roman God of gates and doors, and of beginnings and endings.  The Latin word for an arched passageway is ‘janus.’  The Romans did not have January as their first month; they held March, named for Mars, the Roman God of war, to be the New Year.  January, however, with the symbolism of the God Janus, makes a perfect month for ringing out the old and ringing in the new.  The God of doors and gates stands sentinel and is depicted with two heads, one facing back and the other forward.  This is not, however, where we derive the term “two-faced,” which means, “To be hypocritical, to say one thing and do another.”  There is no story of Janus’ two faces contradicting each other, no story of this God standing in a doorway, for example, telling everyone inside the house one thing and everyone outside the house something else.  Which is really too bad!  Finding such a story was the basis for my title, January’s Intolerance.

James Wiggins, author of In Praise of Religious Diversity, claims that virtually every armed conflict occurring on the planet today is explicitly driven by religious motives or by the memory of a preexisting religious conflict.  That is a very strong claim.  Bill Moyers mentions this in the article I used for our reading this morning and goes on to list many examples such as suicide bombers, ethnic cleansing, attempts to build theocracies, the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Muslims and Jews fighting in one land, Catholics and Protestants attacking each other in another, Hindus and Muslims slaughtering each other over in another land, and the list goes on.

It is as if there is an intolerant two-faced God standing in the door way of “true” religion chanting to those inside, “How lovely and righteous are we the chosen ones.”  And at the same time the other face is looking outward shouting “death to the infidels, down with the unbeliever.”  This caricature is sadly fitting to far too many faiths in the world – not just the ones the media keeps reminding us about!  Is the doorway to your religion built on intolerance?  Is the gate of your faith guarded by narrow-mindedness?  Or is your entrance expansive?

Unitarian Universalism is a religion that features tolerance in the way we come together.  We strive to honor and accept the difference of each individual, drawing on the beauty of our differences to enhance our understanding of life, God, meaning, and truth.  Tolerance of other people’s beliefs is a central aspect of our faith.

We are not alone in having an emphasis on tolerance of other people’s beliefs; most liberal religious traditions hold this emphasis.  I remember attending an Ash Wednesday service in a Lutheran church and was surprised to hear the pastor use a contemporary Taoist author during the homily to expand on the themes of Lent and Ash Wednesday.  We are not alone in recognizing the wisdom in other people’s scriptures.

But we do stand out.  In our UUA statement of Principles and Purposes when we claim that the Living Tradition we share draws from many sources.  We’ve codified it in our central statement of identity.  That part is unusual.  I have often stood up here with a message that tolerance is not at our center; that tolerance is a valuable tool to help us reach our core identity, but should never be construed to be the center of our faith.  We are not a tradition based around the idea that everyone’s beliefs are A-OK and we can believe anything we want.  Tolerance has limits: this I have said and said again.  Now, I begin to worry that I’ve been knocking tolerance too much.  Several times I have told you tolerance is not enough.  I have repeatedly warned against the danger in leaving everything up to tolerance.  Yet for all I fuss at tolerance, it surely beats being intolerant!

I am proud to see our recognition of the importance of being open to new religious ideas and expressions, of having fresh understanding and perspectives.  Tolerance keeps us from stagnation.  Tolerance is what keeps us open to see new light.  Tolerance holds our door open.

One UU colleague wrote a statement of our core beliefs several years back that includes the following stanza:

            We believe in the freedom of religious expression.

            We believe in the toleration of religious ideas.

            We believe in the authority of reason and conscience.

            We believe in the never ending search for truth.

This was not meant as a creed or as dogma, simply as a statement describing some of the ideas that hold us together.  We are open, tolerant, highly individualistic, and still trying to figure it all out.  These are some of the key features that identify us as Unitarian Universalists.

In contrast, most religions are manifestly intolerant.  They unabashedly declare themselves to be so. It is not a criticism; it is a statement of fact based on their own scripture and practice: A fact which these faithful and observant people would not refute.  Indeed many religions would say they are very tolerant toward other people and all, but not at all tolerant of other people’s religious beliefs.  One colleague draws the comparison quite closely.  He writes:

            “Why sold they believe in the freedom of religious expression,

                        when the answers are already provided?

            Why should they believe in the toleration of religious ideas,

                        when the faith has been clearly stated?

            Why should they believe in the authority of reason and conscience,

                        when the institution is all powerful?

            Why should they believe in the never ending search for truth,

                        when it is obviously established forever?

It is naïve for anyone to expect otherwise!  The stance of orthodox religions is perfectly understandable.  They have closed the doors of toleration because they possess the Holy Grail.  Others are wrong or ignorant.  It is a valid and logical position if you accept their basic premise.” (Rev. John Papandrew)

It is all wrapped up in group dynamics; we need our groups.  We define ourselves by whether we are in or out of the group.  From earliest times, religion has served the function of binding people together in groups, giving people a common bond of care and concern.  The legendary sociologist, Emile Durkheim, wrote that religion’s original purpose was to “strengthen the bonds attaching the individual to the society of which he [or she] is a member.”  We need our groups.   Any group, any group, for it even be a group must establish a base of trust, the quickest and most powerful way to establish that trust is to gather the group around a shared identity.  When you can define what it means to be a part of the group you are establishing a definition of the individuals in the group.  For example, if we say we are God’s chosen people, and I am a part of the group, then I can define myself – I’m one of God’s chosen people.  And I get to define myself this way because of the group I am in.

Now, it will often happen that the definition of who is in the group will include something about how you are better than those who are not in your group – otherwise, why bother being in that group?  It is almost a required level of exclusivist thought for the group to hold together.  We even have a touch of this.  I think at times we’ve shied away from it and tried to be a group that refuted this edge of exclusivity. “We’re no better than any other group.  All religions are the same,” we would say.  And then we would wonder why so few of our youth stay with the faith.

We need a certain amount of exclusive thought in the mix if we’re going to survive as a group.  Why bother being a part of our group unless our group is better in some important way?  We get around this by saying this is the best group for me.  I don’t know if this is the best group for you, I hope it is and from what I may know about you I can suggest you look into it.  But only you can know whether or not Unitarian Universalism is the best religious group for you.  You see, we never claim to be the best group.  We only claim to be the best group for some.

We say that every person experiences and interacts with that which is holy, with the sacred, with God, in the way that fits for that person.  Each person is different, like a fingerprint.  What fits you will not fit me.  That is how we are designed and we honor that and find it so easy to tolerate others when we are not threatened by the differences!  This allows us to have that slight exclusive factor at our entrance without it dishonoring the reality of what is inside.  We strive to have the two-faced God in our doorway offering the same message to those on the outside that is offered to those of us on inside.

There is a Taoist meditation book with a story about using donkey’s to reach high places in the world.  Donkeys, so sure footed and sturdy, are excellent beasts for carrying you up the mountain.  When we reach the top, everyone stands in the same place, sees the same view, and the donkeys are not used anymore.  The meditation is called “Dismount your Donkey at the Summit.”  Of course it is a metaphor.  The donkey’s are the various religions and doctrines and beliefs we embrace as we journey up the mountain.  “What does it matter,” the meditation asks, “which donkey we embrace as long as it leads us to the summit?  Your donkey might be the Zen donkey, mine the Tao donkey.  There are Christian, Islamic, Jewish, and even Agnostic donkeys.”  I love that, the meditation singles out agnostic donkeys.  It goes on to say, “All lead to the same place. Why poke fun at others over the name of their donkey?  Aren’t you riding one yourself?”  (From Tao- daily Meditations by Deng Ming-Dao)  And then the point of the meditation is that once you reach the top, you no longer need your donkey, we will one day come to a place where we no longer need names to describe what we experience.  “All religions have different names for the ways of getting to the holy summit.”  Yet we must get off our donkeys when we finally get there.

And there are many religious groups that work hard to combat the intolerant and exclusive element of group dynamics.  I’ll same again; we are not alone in recognizing the value of the soft sell!  Take a peak back at the antiphonal reading on the back of the order of service.  Many religions have scriptures that rail against negative and dehumanizing perceptions of people who are different or people who are not members of the group.  They say, in essence: they are not us, but they are like us.

Tolerance allows us to remain open to new light.  Tolerance allows us to hear another person’s perspective without being threatened by it.  When we don’t claim to have the absolute truth we can hear another person’s deep conviction without it needing to be an either/or struggle to be right. Tolerance allows conversation.  In the article I used for the reading this morning, Bill Moyers ends up with this same line of thought.  Listening and being in conversation with others is powerful action that can change people.  Moyers says, “Talking with people who agree with you is like jogging in a cul-de-sac.”

Moyers talks in that article about the PBS series they did on Genesis.  It was a simple format, get a bunch of different people in the circle of conversation and record it.  The topic was dangerous my many standards.

“For the series we sought out people from varied backgrounds, faiths, professional fields, ages and genders.  We wanted to see if they could be candid about their different beliefs without politicizing religion or polarizing the community.  We hoped to show that you can disagree passionately about things that matter without surrendering your own principled beliefs or without going for your neighbor’s throat; that Americans can engage with others in serious conversations about the most deeply felt subjects – our religious beliefs, the nature of faith, our relationship with each other – and truly challenge each other, teach each other, and learn from each other.  It worked; all over the country people organized into groups so they could watch the programs together and then talk about them afterward.”

How many of you remember that Genesis series with Bill Moyers?  That kind of tolerance and subsequent conversation is what we strive to have here on a regular basis.  It is begins when you let go of being the sole proprietor of Truth and take a step toward really listening to another person.  It involves the kind interaction of ideas and basic beliefs that may change you – probably not to change your beliefs but to deepen them, broaden them, keep them more firmly rooted in the reality of life as we live it.  Unitarian Universalism is an open and accepting faith, recognizing the power available to us when we set Tolerance as the guard of our gate and invite each other on a shared journey of discovery.

In a world without end

May it be so.