The Multicultural Imperative of our Faith
Rev. Douglas Taylor
Do you ever wonder what this congregation will be like in forty or fifty years? We live in such a rapidly changing society; I can well imagine it will be noticeably different. Certainly in relation to the question of race and ethnic diversity it is perhaps a simple matter of following the increase demographics of such diversity to extrapolate that all open communities that don’t actively fight against diversity will grow more racially diverse as the population in general does so. King’s dream of blacks and whites living, working and worshiping along side each other may sneak into reality over the next few generation barring, as I say, efforts to actively discourage it.
If accomplishing King’s dream were simply a matter of demographics, we could just wait for it. But of course that is not the full dream and racism in America is a trickier problem than just a matter of numbers and population densities. King’s dream was one of equality, respect, and fairness. His was a vision included the dismantling the conditions that perpetuate injustices and inequalities under whatever guise.
King didn’t spend a lot of time critiquing religion, though he did do it. One of my favorite quotes from him on the topic was when he said religion should serve not as the thermometer of society but as the thermostat. King saw religion to hold the potential to lead change in our society, not just to fallow it, waiting for it to filter in through the stained glass windows over time. Religious communities should be in the position of choosing who they shall be and who society should become as well. The church should be in control when it comes to setting values.
I remember reading a passage from a book by evangelical mega-church pastor Rick Warren. It was his book Purpose Driven Church in which he said a church needs to have a target culture, a target audience. He compared it to a radio station. If a radio station wanted to develop a followership, it needed to develop a consistent play list. If a person tuned into the station and heard a country song and the person liked country music, they were likely to stay with the station to hear more country music. But if the next song was pop, and after that it was rap, followed by a classical song, then a Brazilian folk dance, and then something hip hop … the station would not be able to maintain a followership. People would not stay with the station.
But as I read this passage from Rick Warren’s book I thought about the NPR stations I liked and how they did that sort of thing. Certainly not to the extreme of shifting genre that quickly, but they did have a jazz hour and then a bluegrass hour and then a talk radio program followed by news and then world music. And to Warren’s point, we do that as a church. We do offer a variety of genre if you will from Sunday to Sunday. As church member Ron Clupper likes to say to new people, “It’s not like this every Sunday.”
It has been sometimes offered up as a compliment and sometimes as an intended slight against us to say Unitarian Universalists are the NPR of religion. The part of that comparison that is tugging at me now is how we offer a broad range of musical genre – by which I analogously mean beliefs.
How does this fit with the vision of beloved community that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. cast, that dream of equality, that demand for civil rights? The dream called for a particular kind of community. King’s vision included a call to be in community in such a way as to encourage diversity to flourish.
In Unitarian Universalism we thrive on religious diversity. I’m not making so grand a claim as to say we are the reality King dreamed about. No. Our Unitarian Universalists congregations are no more racially mixed than most churches, no more integrated really than they were in the 60’s – which does further beg the question of what we will be like forty or fifty years from now. But first, let me say the connection I am drawing is that diversity is a central aspect of our identity. It is theological diversity first and foremost, but it spreads out from there.
We strive to honor and accept the difference of each individual within our own community. We have humanists, pagans and theists, mystics, atheists and agnostics all mingled together in one community. Respect of other people’s beliefs is a central aspect of our faith; it is our covenant. We’ve codified it in the core of our faith identity. We strive to embody religious pluralism, and to live it out in a shared community as a form of radically interconnected pluralism.
But that is not unique to Unitarian Universalism. Indeed, what I point toward is a broad feature of progressive religion today. We sometimes feel ourselves to be an outpost of sane and humane religious discourse. We occasionally get stuck in a bunker mentality saying we are the last safe place for scientists to be spiritual and for mystics to be rational. But that’s not true. Yes, there are a multitude of religious groups who take it as their mandate to exclude the stranger. Yes, there are forces under the guise of ‘true religion’ that push for extreme interpretations of faith and scripture that advocate violence and hate. Yes it is true that, in the neighborhoods around us and around the world, religion is practiced by many as a method of extremism and intolerance. But it is also true that countless others practice religion with the values of compassion for the stranger, respect for the common good, and tolerance for differences.
I have begun reading the book that has been selected by the UUA and Beacon Press for a common read. The concept of a “common read” is to get as many people as possible to read the same book at around the same time so as to encourage conversation and communal growth. This year’s common read is Acts of Faith by Eboo Patel.
Eboo Patel is the founder and executive director of the Interfaith Youth Core, a Chicago-based international youth movement. Patel talks in the book about growing up an Indian Muslim in America. But the premise of the book is much deeper than just his story:
One hundred years ago, the great African American scholar W. E. B. Du Bois famously said, “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.” I believe that the problem of the twenty-first century will be shaped by the question of the faith line. On one side of the faith line are the religious totalitarians. Their conviction is that only one interpretation of one religion is a legitimate way of being, believing, and belonging on earth. Everyone else needs to be cowed, or converted, or condemned, or killed. On the other side of the faith line are the religious pluralists, who hold that people believing in different creeds and belonging to different communities need to learn to live together. Religious pluralism is neither mere coexistence nor forced consensus. It is a form of proactive cooperation that affirms the identity of the constituent communities while emphasizing that the wellbeing of each and all depends on the health of the whole. It is the belief that the common good is best served when each community has a chance to make its unique contribution. (p. xv)
When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called us to become a nation where we judge one another not by the color of our skin but by the content of our character, he was speaking from the pluralist side of the faith line. When Gandhi proclaimed that an eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind, he was speaking from the pluralist side of the faith line. When Dorothy Day said that loving thy neighbor is not just good for the neighbor, it is essential for our souls, she was speaking from the pluralist side of the faith line. And when Karen Armstrong advocates for a charter of compassion based on the ubiquitous golden rule, she also is speaking from the pluralist side of the faith line.
But let us not get stuck in the trap of seeing religious pluralism as akin to mere religious tolerance. Religious tolerance implies peaceful coexistence. Peaceful coexistence is not a bad thing, but it’s not enough. Peaceful coexistence is agreeing to disagree. There is a middle ground between enforced conformity and blandly ignoring each other. Those two options, each in their own way, gloss over the differences and the particulars of belief or culture.
I think the particulars matter. The particulars of time and place, the details of practice and culture, are important to the religious endeavor. We cannot be religious in general, the details matter. Day to day living is intertwined with eternity. At times, people make an effort to create a single homogenous religion, a universal religion based solely on, for example, the golden rule. But the particulars of time and place matter. This tree, this river, this building, this hour, this series of steps and movements – they are the particulars of time and place that serve as the vehicle by which we transcend time and place. We cannot be religious in general.
The implications that this faith perspective has on racism follow quite closely. We cannot be human in general. The color of my skin and the mix of privileges and disadvantages I grew up with make a difference. The details matter, but the goal is universal. Thus, we still pay attention to diversity. Diversity is more than a means to an end. The essential unity of all humanity is not separable from the unique differences that make each of us beautiful.
Consider trees – there is a remarkable variety to be found. And even when you consider two oak trees, they still grow differently, uniquely. Difference and diversity is the order of life. It is the way we have been designed by God, or if you prefer, it is the result of an effective process of evolution. Either way, it is the way it is! We are each, wonderfully, different. Theologically, we Unitarian Universalists grasp this point quite well. Each person approaches that which is holy in the way that fits for them. The question of race circles back to the larger question of faith today. The same problems of race people were wrestling with throughout the past century are played out in parallel problems along the faith line in this century. It is a question of whether or not it is ok to be different.
Eboo Patel’s writes in his book about the reason he has devoted his life to creating progressive interfaith communities for youth. He is convinced that it makes a huge difference. “Young people have always played a key role in social movements, from the struggle against apartheid in South Africa to the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany.” His point is that young people learn their values and their prejudices from their communities. We learn when we are young either the fundamentalist, totalitarian perspective or the progressive, pluralistic perspective from our communities.
“We live in an era where the populations of the most religiously volatile areas of the world are strikingly young. Seventy-five percent of India’s one billion plus are not yet twenty-five. Eighty-five percent of the people who live in the Palestinian territories are under age thirty-three. More than two-thirds of the people in Iran are under the age of thirty. The median age in Iraq is nineteen and a half. All these people are standing on the faith line. Whose message are they hearing?” (p xvi)
Osama bin Laden started his terrorist career at the age of nineteen (p 127), and Martin Luther King led the Montgomery bus boycott when he was twenty-six years old. (p xviii) Young people are the key to this conversation about the faith line. Patel argues in the book that the groups with extreme totalitarian perspectives on faith do a very good job at recruiting and indoctrinating young people to their side of the faith line. Progressives and pluralists don’t do ‘indoctrination’ and tend to be poor at ‘recruiting. We tend to rely on secular institutions to do the work for us. Public schools and public television programming offer the diversity and the call for tolerance. But it too often comes out at Political Correctness still because it is not grounded in religious values.
I’m not saying secular institutions are doing it wrong. I’m saying religious institutions can’t rely – shouldn’t rely – on secular institutions to do our work. It is a public school’s job to require all children to read something like Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl. And some religious totalitarian groups will augment that education with stories about how the Holocaust was a hoax. Are there enough youth groups run by religious pluralists offering the messages of compassion and respect for differences? Are there enough groups for young people where the message of religious pluralism is heard, the message of diversity and of honoring differences that is grounded in the religious values of love and respect?
I am convinced the world needs more communities such as ours. The world needs places where children are encouraged to question and to seek and to grow. I am convinced that we have a role to play in how this unfolds. That is what is behind my need to do anti-racist multicultural work as a congregation. Our voice and our presence is needed in the world – not just to help heal the world and guide society as King’s thermostat, but also because if we don’t we will be diminished. I don’t mean we will be diminished demographically. We will be diminished by the shallowness of our reflected faith for we will be turning our backs on our calling. Diversity is at the core of our faith identity. The world needs more communities such as ours. Our work is to respond to that need with integrity – but we do need to respond.
In a world without end,
May it be so
Last Things First
Rev. Douglas Taylor
Eschatology literally means “Last Words”, speaking of final things. It is the theology of how it will all end.
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice. [Robert Frost reminds us]
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
Well, fire or ice – it is fair to admit that apocalyptic visions of the destructive end of all things are an ever-present topic of consideration for more than a few people. The Mayan calendar is supposed to end in 2012. Not one to pay too much attention to apocalyptic predications, I had not realize the calendar is set to run out with the Winter Solstice, December 21. So, we have a little more time. But I hadn’t tuned into that detail of the 2012 buzz until preparing to speak today. Besides, January 1st is our time for beginning not endings. Thus my title leads us to speak first of last things. Mayan or otherwise, end-times are forever on the minds of many people these days.
Progressive religion has its own versions of the end-times, of the ultimate outcome. Unitarian Universalism, my favorite iteration of progressive religion, has much to say about eschatology. Does that surprise you?
Here is one trick to remember. Some eschatological visions are dystopian while others are utopian. It is not always destruction. Hell, for example in a dystopian vision, while heaven is utopian. Some imagine the Mayan long-count calendar running out as a prediction for the physical world to end in fire or ice perhaps. Others eschew the dystopian prediction and declare the event will be a global transformation, a grand spiritual awakening into greater consciousness. Or as gamers say: we’ll all level up.
Me, I suspect December 21, 2012 will be the same sort of experience we had last night, or when 1999 rolled along into the year 2000: no big deal except for the paperwork. I suspect it will be neither dystopian nor utopian. It will be another beautiful day with all the variety of possibility spread out before us as usual. And that is the wondrous vision of the end of all things that I cast based on my faith and understanding of the world.
Let me explain.
Over the years, progressive religion has cast several compelling eschatological visions – none of which involve Armageddon or an apocalypse. Everyone here in the room this morning (or everyone reading this sermon online) shares some version of an eschatological vision, however subtle, undeveloped or subconscious. Such visions give us a sense of how the world should be, of what we are aiming for, perhaps even what we are striving to co-create. Our visions of the future – good, bad, or indifferent – inform how we act today. The eschatological vision of the Christian radical right certainly has an impact on behavior and what is going on in the world today.
Rebecca Parker, author of the reading I used this morning, writes about this in her chapter on eschatology from her co-authored book A House for Hope: the promise of progressive religion for the twenty-first century. She says:
Scripts about the end of the world tend to become compulsive, self-fulfilling prophecies. They feed what theologian Catherine Keller calls the West’s “apocalyptic habit,” the predilection to see the impending end of history in one’s own time and to act it out. Mesmerized by stark, apocalyptic either/or choices in a complex world, people drive toward solutions that place hope in destruction. Such theologies imagine that the promise of a new heaven and a new earth – a new paradise garden with its river and trees of life – will arrive in a future on the other side of apocalypse. In the meantime, they bless war and offer no resistance to environmental abuses. Journalist and commentator Bill Moyers notes that “people under the spell of such potent prophecies” represent a significant voting bloc in U.S. politics. As one leading U.S. senator aligned with this theological perspective put it, people cannot be expected “to worry about the environment. Why care about the earth when the droughts, floods, famine, and pestilence brought by ecological collapse are signs of the apocalypse foretold in the Bible?” [Parker, Rebecca & Buehrens, John, A House for Hope, p5)
The vision of the radical right has so infiltrated U.S. politics and culture that it is hard to imagine a positive alternative. It is tempting to think their version is the only game in town. But that simply is not true. Rebecca Parker contends that there are at least three compelling alternatives offered by western progressive religion alone. And that doesn’t even get into the Buddhist, Jewish, Islamic, Hindu and other visions. So please don’t get caught thinking the version sold by the Christian radical right is the only vision of what we are aiming for.
Parker lists three progressive alternatives, all of which are utopian rather than dystopian, all of which are grounded in a paradise here on earth rather than after we’re all dead, all of which offer hope not through destruction but through compassion. She identifies them as “Social Gospel eschatology, universalist eschatology, and radically realized eschatology.” (ibid p 6) She goes on to give three one-sentence synopses: “We are here to build the kingdom of God on earth,” “God intends all souls to be saved,” and “Paradise is here and now.” Let me unpack these for us. Perhaps you will find your understanding of it amidst these visions.
Over the years I have regularly used the phrase “Beloved Community.” It is a phrase that comes out of the Social Gospel movement. The Social Gospel is the vision that Jesus’ compelling message to the world was to create heaven here on earth by lifting up the oppressed, by having compassion for those in need, and by loving our neighbors as ourselves. We can build a better world because that is what God wants of us; our work is to co-create the Kingdom of God on earth. The term Beloved Community is the egalitarian, non-monarchical version of the Kingdom of God. The vision is that through justice and compassion we can make paradise for everyone in this world.
When we work for fair immigration policy, when we petition for safe drinking water rather than water laced with fracking chemicals, when we campaign for marriage equality for gay and lesbian couples, when we speak out for peace among nations, when we hold vigil in solidarity with Muslims on the anniversary of 9/11, when we educate ourselves about racism and oppression, and when we send our money to local and global agencies working to build a better world, chances are we are living out the eschatological theology of the Social Gospel movement. We are doing these things, working for justice, because we hold a vision of a world made fair and all her people one. “We are the hearts and minds, hand and feet,” as our responsive reading by Kathleen McTigue (#544) reminds us.
Rather than thinking we can ignore environmental collapse because there will be a big cosmic battle in which flood and famine are signs that the righteous are about to be raptured, we are thinking we must respond to the environmental collapse because that is part of the beatific vision of the beloved community in which nothing and no one are considered disposable or unworthy of redemption and restoration.
If you have a sense that we are working to create the beloved community then that is your eschatology; that is what you offer the world as an alternative to this fuss of rapture and Armageddon.
Now, you might be thinking: “Hey, beloved community sounds perfect. We’ll take that one. We don’t even need to look behind door number two.” Ok, but I should warn you, there’s an edge to this one. You might want to hear about the other two progressive alternatives. And quite likely, we have a general mix of all three in practice, but I’m getting ahead of myself with such comments. First let me say: there is a down side to the Social Gospel eschatology.
If paradise is defined as the beloved community and our work is to eradicate injustice and to usher in an era of peace and equality, then clearly we have traded the pie in the sky heaven hereafter for a pie on earth ideal that is equally unrealistic. The efforts we offer to make heaven on earth will never be enough. We’ve ended slavery, for example, but that wasn’t enough. We’ve legally stopped Jim Crow laws and racial segregation but that wasn’t enough. We’ve achieved civil rights and voting rights for racial minorities but that wasn’t enough. We elected an African-American as president but that wasn’t enough. Racism is still alive in our society. We have not arrived at the beloved community.
In the Social Gospel model, God’s great vision is the beloved community, but we are the ones to build the better world. “We are the hearts and minds, hands and feet.” In the Social Gospel’s message, it is we who create the beloved community. And despite generations of labor, we have not worked hard enough or smart enough to bring it into reality yet. The hoped for future perpetually judges the present as still wanting. We strive to realize ‘the dream’ but it remains hauntingly out of reach. As an ideal it is glorious and worthy of our efforts. But the demands it holds when lifted up as THE ultimate end are exacting ones. It feeds us the same line of dissatisfaction the consumer culture kills us with: all you have and all you have done is not enough, and by all the evidence of history and experience, it never will be.
So let me tell you about a few other eschatological alternatives. They mix well with the Social Gospel message and allow a way through the fix that a thoroughgoing Social Gospel message traps us in.
Universalist eschatology also has deep roots among us, obviously. It is the vision that all souls will be united with God in the end because God’s love demands no less. This does, quickly, get tangled up with the Social Gospel message because as Rev. Gordon McKeeman puts it, “We are all going to end up together in heaven, so we might as well start learning to get along now.” This eases the pressure applied by the Social Gospel message. We don’t have to accomplish the full vision now and it doesn’t all rely on our work. God’s plan is for us all to be together in the end – that part is set. It’s going to happen. Our work now is not to make it all happen here on earth but to start it, to take the steps that are before us now toward that ideal, that vision.
A universalist eschatology does not let us off the hook. We can’t rejoice in war or ecological destruction as the Christian radical right’s version does. We can’t sit back and let God do all the work, but neither does God sit back and let us do all the work. In a universalist vision, God has set the course, has defined the arc of the moral universe. We still have a role to respond to God’s love and God’s vision by helping to usher in more justice and compassion here on earth. In a way, the universalist eschatology takes the whole question of eschatology off the table. It’s already set. No cosmic battle is needed. No earthly striving for justice will change the ultimate end. Instead, the striving for justice is our response not our duty.
Of course, the old critique against universalism still stands: why bother. If my efforts don’t change the outcome, if I and my loved ones will end up in heaven no matter what, if building the beloved community here on earth is not a condition by which I can experience heaven then why bother. “Brother Ballou,” one circuit riding preacher said to Hosea Ballou, “If I believed your theology there would be nothing stopping be from knocking you off your horse and stealing all your belongings.” To which Ballou responded, “Brother if you believed as I do, such a desire would not enter your mind.” A lot rests on trusting good and beloved people to act as good and beloved people. And history and experience teaches us that this is not always something we can count on. But then I suppose that is why it is called faith.
Let me offer the third vision of progressive religion, radically realized eschatology. The “realized” part is to say, the hoped for end is already happening. It’s not something that will happen in the future, we’re in the middle of it right now. The “radically realized” part pushes this further saying not only is it already happening, it is always happening; not as some transhistorical grand performance but in every moment of history. It is not the end of all things, but the ever unfolding transformation of all things.
Rebecca Parker says this:
Radically realized eschatology … begins with affirming that we are already standing on holy ground. This earth – and none other – is a garden of beauty, a place of life. Neglecting it for some other imagined better place will be a self-fulfilling prophecy. … Our religious framework can shift from hope for what could be … to hope that what is good will be treated with justice and love and that what has been harmed will be repaired. [ibid p 12]
In the Gospel of John, Jesus says “But the hour is coming and now is when the true worshipers will worship god is spirit and in truth.” [John 4:23] “The hour is coming and now is.” I’ve always loved that phrasing. It is about to happen and it is already happening. I could perhaps spend a sermon on the second half of that verse, but today I am caught by just that opening phrase: “the hour is coming and now is.” It is ever unfolding anew. Or as Peter Mayer sings about it: “everything is holy now.”
All three visions fit our progressive liberal religious understanding and faith. “Social Gospel eschatology, universalist eschatology, and radically realized eschatology.” “We are here to build the kingdom of God on earth,” “God intends all souls to be saved,” and “Paradise is here and now.” [ibid p 6] Perhaps you will find your understanding of it amidst these visions.
In any case, you need not resign yourself to a terrible vision of what we are hoping for. You need not resign yourself to either nothing or the Christian religious right’s dystopian destructive version of the end of all things. You need not set your hope for the future as the end of the world.
As progressive people of faith we can cast our eschatological hope for a world made fair by our work of justice and compassion with room for all and beauty abounding. Indeed, perhaps we are already here.
In a world without end
May it be so.
Rev. Douglas Taylor
In the eighteenth chapter of the Gospel according to Luke, Jesus tells The Parable of the Persistent Widow (Luke 18:2-6).
He said: “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared about men. And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’ For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care about men, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually wear me out with her coming!’”
This little parable has grown on me over the years. I imagine a small older woman who keeps showing up each day in this judge’s court to plead her case. Every day she shows up. “Oh, great here she is again,” he probably thinks to himself. “Doesn’t she ever take a break?” The passage says she “kept coming to him with the plea.” It may be she would follow him home some evenings. She’d see him in the grocery store, “Grant me justice against my adversary.” They would bump into each other at the post office, “Grant me justice against my adversary.” He would check his facebook page and she’d have posted on his wall, “Grant me justice against my adversary.” Constantly, incessantly, relentlessly she keeps after him.
Finally he throws his hands up and says “I’ll see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually wear me out.” It says, you will win not simply because your cause is just, but because your cause is just and you are persistent. One of the things I really like about scripture is that there are layers of meaning and interpretation. One interpretation of this passage is that it is not about seeking justice at all, that it is really a metaphor about seeking a spiritual life and how we need to be persistent and constant in that. But the interpretation I want to work with this morning says that seeking justice is exactly what this passage is about.
The persistence of the people who seek justice, who accomplish reform, who make a difference, is remarkable. The persistence of those who stand up to injustice though the odds are stacked against them, of those who stare unjust authority in the face and say, “grant me justice against my adversary,” is remarkable indeed. The persistence of those who strive for justice is the key to accomplishing justice.
This story reminds me of the Occupy Wall Street movement. The Occupy Wall Street movement is nothing if not persistent! Day after day after day the people keep saying to those in power, “Grant us justice against our adversaries.” Grant us justice against a system that has failed to care for the common good; that has allowed such injustice to flourish. Grant us justice against the corporate greed that has poisoned our civil government.
I think the Occupy Wall Street movement has been a long time coming. Occupy Wall Street began on September 17th 2011 when people gathered on Wall Street in New York City to demonstrate against the financial district. It was preceded by the similar demonstration in Wisconsin earlier this year as well as the revolutionary events in Arab countries and the protests in Spain, Greece, and other locations. The Occupy Wall Street movement is a grassroots effort against economic inequality, corporate greed and corruption, and the financial sector’s undue level of influence on government. A month after it launched in New York City, it had spread to include a multitude of cities. By the middle of October over a thousand “Occupy” locations were listed, (including in other countries) forming a single, massive, unified protest.
This Occupy Wall Street movement is a new thing. It reminds some of Dr. King’s “Poor People’s Campaign” of 1968, in which poor people of all races established a tent city in the nation’s capital. But this is happening in several locations and several weeks so far. It is a landmark experience in the life of this nation. The media and pundits can’t figure out how to critique it and dismiss it effectively because the Occupy Movement is a new style of civil engagement. It is the new generation’s moment. And I believe it is shaping into the biggest protest event this nation has seen and will have a revolutionary impact on our nation.
What is the Occupy Wall Street movement all about? What are the demands? I talked about this in a recent newsletter column. The complaints are that the group has no clear leaders, no clear issues, and no clear focus. “They are too various,” the criticism goes. “They are unfocused, all over the map.” They are against hydro-fracking here and against poverty over there; some are anti-war, others are anti-greed; and many just want to tax the wealthy. So which is it? What is the focus?
And that is a key difference in the new generation. The older style – the style the media knows how to critique and dismiss with boilerplate scripts – the older style of prophetic activism was to rally people around an issue, build a protest event, demand change, and when the event is over people go home. The new style is to gather people together first, listen to the ways things are broken, allow the issues to arise and a consensus to emerge – all of which is happening while people are doing what looks like traditional protesting.
But we do have demands, a general consensus has certainly emerged that the focus is on corporate greed. We are frustrated with the economic inequity created by a broken economic system, a system that has allowed corporations to destroy the underpinnings of our society while largely avoiding its share of the consequences and dodging any meaningful new regulations. These corporations are “holding onto more than $2 trillion in cash and liquid assets–assets that could be used to put people back to work but are instead being hoarded by the already wealthy.” (According to William Schulz, CEO of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee in his article, “Why the Left Is Often Late to Tea”)
Oh, the Occupy Wall Street movement does have a focus, but it is a dangerous and radical one. It has a real focus. I’ve been preaching against greed and corruption regularly. We often have an emphasis on the commons, on our interconnectedness as Unitarian Universalists. Unitarian Universalism and the Occupy movement is an easy match up.
Unitarian Universalists have been supporting Occupy protest movements in cities and towns around the country, joining protests, providing food, and leading worship. I thought it was delightful when the local paper was reporting on the various types of protesters at the Occupy Binghamton events. There were the anti-fracking people and the labor coalition and the Unitarian Universalist Church and the Vets for Peace. I love it – we were listed as a cause-base!
But that’s what’s been happening for UUs all over the country. The Unitarian Universalist Church of Ogden, Utah has been allowing protesters to camp on the church’s front lawn a few blocks from city hall. Similarly, the front lawn of The UU Society of Northampton and Florence in Northampton, MA has been an Occupy site with a few tents up since mid-November. It helps that they are located right next to City Hall.
Occupy protestors in Grand Rapids, Mich., are camping in the portico of the Fountain Street Church, a non-denominational liberal church that has been led for many years by Unitarian Universalist ministers. The protestors had been camping in the church parking lot, but were invited to move under the cover of the church portico for a bit of shelter from the oncoming cold.
Unitarian Universalist principles and values line up very well with what is happening in the Occupy movement. Our prominent position on plurality and our easy acceptance of ambiguity are two examples of what our faith communities share with the Occupy movement. It’s an easy fit.
There was an article in our UU World Magazine Online from November 11, 2011 entitled “The spiritual Heritage of the Occupy Movement” by Daniel McKanan. McKanan is a historian and is the Emerson Chair at Harvard. One particular line in the article says this: “As the twentieth-century economy built on cheap oil and mass consumption unravels, [the] challenge is to create social and cultural wealth with fewer material resources. If [we] succeed, it will be because [we] have embraced the sort of cooperative and spiritual practices that so many are now trying out in the Occupations.”
The spiritual practices McKanan is referring to is aspect whereby the people’s voices are heard, people gather and are empowerment by sharing the commons. But it is more than simply an individual desire for empowerment. Were that the case I would not find it remarkable. The remarkable aspect is the way this activism is tangled up with public space, with what used to be called ‘the commons.’ As the Occupy folks gather and searching out the root of what went wrong with our country, they do so in parks and on public lands.
A key part of the message is that as the people are reclaiming the people’s land, they are also reclaiming the people’s place in our government. We have as a deep part of our American democracy a promise of equality and liberty, yet evidence of this equality and liberty is grossly absent these days.
The Occupy movement is seeking to reestablish our society as a fair and just society, a place where values such as honesty and shared responsibility can bring us a new day with room for all. We are occupying the commons, those locations where we all have a stake in the land – the parks, the schools, the bridges, and these public locations are also metaphors. It is about what these public locations represent. Thus, the movement is also about occupying the voting booth and the public conversations in our society. The movement is about reclaiming the common good for the people.
As it gets cold and as some local officials crack down on the tent cities that have sprung up, some worry that the movement will fade away. But I say the movement will live on because the occupying of a location was always only a symbolic act of getting the people together, of reclaiming the commons, of reminding ourselves that we are not impotent in the face of corruption and shameless greed.
As winter settles in, the movement will not die when most of the people pack up their tents and go home. The movement will not die as local officials crack down and evict the people from the public spaces. The movement to occupy will shift as it already has to the movement to march across bridges. The movement to occupy will shift as it already has to the movement to post and blog and tweet. The movement to occupy will continue because the people are right and it has been noticed and it is working.
Go down to our local Occupy Binghamton movement. By all lights it looks that our Occupy is not going to be moved by cold or cops. So go down and, (as it says in our new mission statement,) Explore, Encourage, and Act. The people involved in the Occupy movement have started what we may hope is the biggest peaceful revolution in our country’s history, restructuring our government to serve us rather than ruling over us. “Grant me justice against my adversary,” the movement is saying over and over again. Though some in power care not for the high principles on which our country was founded, though the powerful and wealthy who pull the strings care not for god or man, we shall persist until we wear them out. Grant us justice against the inequity and greed. Grant us justice and grant us peace.
In a world without end
May it be so.
We gather as a people of faith
To engage with spiritual issues
And to wrestle with ethical topics
We hold this space open
For all who will come in peace
To worship with us
We stand firm in the conviction
To walk together
In the ways of truth and affection
As best we know how
And that there is mutual strength
In willing cooperation,
And that the bonds of love
Keep open the gates of freedom.
In that spirit we gather
In that spirit we pray
A Charter of Compassion
Reading: Charter for Compassion
The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves. Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there, and to honour the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.
It is also necessary in both public and private life to refrain consistently and empathically from inflicting pain. To act or speak violently out of spite, chauvinism, or self-interest, to impoverish, exploit or deny basic rights to anybody, and to incite hatred by denigrating others—even our enemies—is a denial of our common humanity. We acknowledge that we have failed to live compassionately and that some have even increased the sum of human misery in the name of religion.
We therefore call upon all men and women
- to restore compassion to the centre of morality and religion
- to return to the ancient principle that any interpretation of scripture that breeds violence, hatred or disdain is illegitimate
- to ensure that youth are given accurate and respectful information about other traditions, religions and cultures
- to encourage a positive appreciation of cultural and religious diversity
- to cultivate an informed empathy with the suffering of all human beings—even those regarded as enemies.
We urgently need to make compassion a clear, luminous and dynamic force in our polarized world. Rooted in a principled determination to transcend selfishness, compassion can break down political, dogmatic, ideological and religious boundaries. Born of our deep interdependence, compassion is essential to human relationships and to a fulfilled humanity. It is the path to enlightenment, and indispensable to the creation of a just economy and a peaceful global community.
The root of compassion is found within yourself. Compassion is a relational word, I am not denying that. Compassion is about thinking about another person’s needs or feelings. It is something that happens between individuals. But the root of it is found within each discrete individual. In the book of Leviticus we read “…thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” (Leviticus 19:18) The grammar of this phrase reveals what I am trying to say. It begins with thyself. First, love thyself – then love others. Compassion is a relational word that begins in each person’s private experiences of life.
There is no way to fully understand another person’s experiences. You know your own experiences. Someone may be able to tell you about their experiences but you can’t fully understand them the way we like to think we can. Truly the goal of walking a mile in another person’s shoes is impossible in a literal sense. Compassion is the exercise of getting out of yourself, stepping outside your familiar self to consider the needs and perspective of another.
Our word “Compassion” is often seen as synonymous with “Pity.” Pity means a feeling of sadness because of another person’s trouble or suffering. Pity is sympathy tinged with embarrassment. Compassion also means a feeling of sympathy and sadness for the suffering of others, but it also tends to include a desire to help. Of course one can be moved by Pity to be of help. So it is easy to see how compassion and pity are seen to be nearly the same thing. In her most recent book, The Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, religious scholar Karen Armstrong takes umbrage with this conflation of compassion with pity. Compassion, she likes to point out, has both a Greek and Latin root that offers a very different connotation than “pity.”
“Compassion derives from the Latin patiri and the Greek pathein, meaning ‘to suffer, undergo, or experience.’ So ‘compassion’ means ‘to endure [something] with another person,’ to put ourselves in somebody else’s shoes, to feel her pain as though it were our own, and to enter generously into his point of view.” (Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life by Karen Armstrong, p 9)
Compassion is to endure with, to suffer with, to experience with another person. And this will lead us to behave in certain ways toward each other. A Buddhism text puts it this way – compassion is to ask oneself: “…a state that is not pleasing or delightful to me, how could I inflict that upon another?” (Samyutta NIkaya v. 353) Greek philosopher Socrates said “Do not do to others that which would anger you if others did it to you.” All the world’s religions offer this message. All the great philosophers wrestle with a way to name this deep truth. Compassion is the heart of the Golden Rule and the base of any serious ethic.
Evidence from scientific research points to compassion being a deep aspect our humanness. We are predisposed to being compassionate. Now, there is of course a wealth of data to the contrary saying that humans are self-focused first, that we are inescapably selfish. The idea of altruism is considered a quaint error by a generation of scientists. And it is certainly true that the most basic part of our thinking, what happens in the reptilian brain as some call it, is indeed the model of selfishness. But that is comes from the basest layer of our brain, hardly the part worth raving about when discussing the best qualities to be found in humanity.
Of course the reptilian brain is interested in only the most basic needs. That’s its job. Yet we have art and a yearning for beauty and goodness. There is more to the human brain than the drives of self-interest. If you see someone else burn her hand, if you notice a child about to fall off a wall, if you see a car careening toward a stranger, you react. It is instinctive. The urge to reach out is in your gut, it’s visceral. Neurobiologists are studying what they call “Mirror Neurons” located in the frontal cortex that light up in such scenarios. Humans have a natural capacity for compassion. A Confucian philosopher from over two thousand years ago named Mencius (c. 371 – c. 289) argued that one could lose the natural capacity for compassion and sympathy in the same way one could lose the natural capacity to walk or speak. Likewise, one could exercise that aspect in oneself to full development as one might exercise one’s memory or one’s muscles.
Thus we are truly born with an innate capacity for compassion and for selfish cruelty. From an evolutionary perspective one is superior as it is biologically located in the more advanced areas of the brain. And philosophers and prophets have been saying this for millennia. What these neuroscientists are discovering is what religious sages have been calling the Golden Rule. It’s just that now, science can add its own version of the Golden Rule to the poster hanging on my office door. The scientific quote for my poster would say something about mirror neurons. I’ll have to look and see if I can find a good science quote for my Golden Rule poster, tape it up there.
“The first person to formulate the Golden Rule, as far as we know, was the Chinese sage Confucius (551-479 BCE) [over 2.5 thousand years ago] who when asked which of his teachings his disciples could practice “all day and every day” replied: ‘Perhaps the saying about shu (consideration). Never do to others what you would not like them to do to you.’ [Analects 15:23] This, he said, was the thread that ran right through the spiritual method he called the Way (dao) and pulled all its teachings together.” (Ibid p9)
And all this fits into our own Unitarian Universalist theology as well when we speak of the Inherent Worth and Dignity of Every Person. We acknowledging that everyone has the capacity to choose either good or evil actions, but at an innate level we are loved and loving. The evidence of humanity’s evil and cruelty does not negate our capacity to be compassionate.
All the world’s religions make clear that compassion is at the heart of how one is to live faithfully. Yet time and again those same world religions are cited as the reason for wars and violence. These two statements seem to contradict each other. Religion is either about violence or about compassion, which is it? Let me say unequivocally: all the major world religions are about compassion and the misuse of any of them to advocate violence is a perversion we bring to it ourselves. War and violence are caused by greed, egotism, pride, fear, and a lust for power and control. We spray a perfume of sanctity and religiosity over such unhealthy drives within us to pretty them up. But in so doing, we misuse and abuse the true nature of our religions.
Karen Armstrong, whom I mentioned earlier, has a book out on the topic of Compassion that is a companion to the Charter for Compassion she helped create. This book, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, is a deliberately titled book. She meant it to be heard as a link to the Alcoholics Anonymous 12 step program. She was intending to make the point that we are normally compassionate people – that compassion is a basic state for us but we are addicted to egotism. We get a high, she argues, from out pet hatreds. We get a self-righteous rush from our own clever displays of triumph over an annoying store clerk or a rude colleague. We are addicted to the opposite of compassion. We are drawn to behave in the reptilian brain ways because there is a bigger buzz to being right than there is to being kind.
And so, Armstrong wrote this book as a tool to help people to choose to be more compassionate. It is a lifetime’s work – not unlike being sober. Armstrong includes steps such as “Learn about compassion” and “look at your own world” early in the 12 steps. “Concern of everybody” and “Love your enemies” are found near the end. When she was invited to speak to the gathered Unitarian Universalist general assembly delegates this past summer as our distinguished Ware Lecturer, she focused on the seventh step which she titled “Who little we know.” I thought that very apt.
I would like to spend a little time today in her third step: Compassion for Yourself. There is a tendency we have to project our own shadows onto others. All of the cruelty, depravity and violence we have simmering around in our own psyches unacknowledged is fodder for what bothers us most in other people. All of us have less savory drives and desires, and left unexamined or unacknowledged these shadow inclinations color the world we see – and I will then see in others what I refuse to see within myself.
So, the solution is to acknowledge my depraved and vile urges? No. It’s harder than that. The path to a compassionate life is to have compassion for myself in the face of my shadows. Often I am harder on myself than I would ever be to another person. I make a list of all the terrible things about myself and I acknowledge the ways I am depraved, the ugliness I hide from others, my capacity to be cruel – even listing examples from the past. And then I dwell on it, I feed this list of inadequacies to myself regularly, and slowly poison myself on my own failings. Simply acknowledging them is not enough.
My anger, fear, and selfishness are all there within me, a part of me. And when I can acknowledge it all – but not be consumed by it or defined by it – then I can have compassion for that in myself … and in others. By having compassion for myself, I see all that I can do to offer compassion to others.
Karen Armstrong tells a very good story to illustrate this point.
“The late rabbi Albert Friedlander once impressed upon me the importance of the biblical commandment “Love your neighbor as yourself.” I had always concentrated on the first part of than injunction, [Armstrong tells us] but Albert taught me that if you cannot love yourself, you cannot love other people either. He had grown up in Nazi Germany, and as a child was bewildered and distressed by the vicious anti-Semitic propaganda that assailed him on all sides. One night, when he was about eight years old, he deliberately lay awake and made a list of all his good qualities. He told himself firmly that he was not what the Nazis said, that he had talents and special gifts of heart and mind, which he enumerated to himself one by one. Finally, he vowed that if he survived, he would use those qualities to build a better world. This was an extraordinary insight for a child in such circumstances. Albert was one of the kindest people I have ever met; he was almost pathologically gentle and must have brought help and counsel to thousands. But he always said that he could have done no good at all unless he had learned, at that terrible moment of history, to love himself.” (Ibid, p75-6)
To be an agent of compassion in the world you must first have compassion for yourself. Rabbi Albert Friedlander did not say he learned, in the face of oppression, to love humanity or his oppressors, or even just his fellow Jews more deeply. No, he said he learned to love himself. The rest flows from that. Compassion is rooted in the individual experience; it starts with loving yourself. Islamic texts say, “None of you [truly] believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself.” (Number 13 of Imam “Al-Nawawi’s Forty Hadiths.”)
So, what do you wish for yourself? What would you have done unto you? The Golden Rule is a call to compassion that – as I said at the beginning – is a call that is rooted first in your experience. To love your neighbor as yourself you start with a love of self. Without this you cannot possibly offer love or compassion to another.
Saint Augustine of Hippo (354-430) is considered to be one of the foremost theologians of the western Christian world. He insisted that scripture taught nothing but charity. Charity was the word used in older English interpretations of the letter by Saint Paul to the early church in Corinth – “Faith, hope and charity abide, these three. And the greatest of these is charity.” Today we use the English word “love.” Augustine argued that this charity was the sum of all scripture.
Now, he was not blind to all violence in scripture. Augustine was not ignoring the passages that speak of war and hate. But he had a method of interpreting scripture that allowed for multiple styles of interpretation – literal interpretation was only one style. Augustine argued that whenever a passage in scripture seemed to be talking about hatred or hurting others then it must be interpreted allegorically and made to speak of charity.
This is not unlike what I describing earlier when I spoke of having compassion for oneself. It’s not that these negative, non-compassionate qualities are not present. It is that we can and must interpret them in life-giving ways. We seem to have lost the capacity to do that these days. The line in the Charter for Compassion that most struck me was the line that proclaims, “Any interpretation of scripture that breeds violence, hatred or disdain is illegitimate.”
Let me offer you as I close a brief story Karen Armstrong shared when she spoke to the Unitarian Universalists this summer.
“There’s a Sufi philosopher, Ibn Arabi, in the 12th, 13th century—great, important Sufi Sheikh. And he says that every single human being that has been born into the world, whatever his or her religion, is a unique and unrepeatable revelation of God to the world. Every single human being is an incarnation of one of God’s hidden names.
“In a sense, this is an exercise to help you realize the utter indescribability and mystery of God. If you just think of all the people in this room and that each of us expresses one individual aspect of God, you see how impossible it is to sum up God. Our task is to look beneath the frequently unpromising exterior to that sacredness.”
We are living in a remarkable age. We are on the edge in so many ways. But I tell you this: we can participate in the movement of our human venture forward though compassion rather than remaining in the rut of selfish, self-defeating greed and ego. Compassion is a dynamic force of clarity and illumination in our polarized world. Compassion can break through the dogmatic and ideological boundaries we have built up around ourselves. Compassion is that essential bridge of human relatedness that we need to employ to become a full humanity together.
In a world without end,
may it be so.
Rev. Douglas Taylor
I used to get excited about an old book with the word “myth” or “mythology” in the title, but usually it was really a story book of old Norse or Egyptian or Hindu gods. Unless it was written by Eliade, Jung, or Campbell, I’ve learned to ignore books with such titles. So, when I talk about myth here I am not talking about old stories of the Greek gods and goddesses. I also do not mean “myth” as a falsehood or a superstitious untruth. I speak of myths as deep truths, deeper that fact, that give us information about who we are and how we fit in the world.
Religious scholar and history Karen Armstrong wrote a small book a few years ago titled A Short History of Myth which offers a cultural anthropology survey of myth. Armstrong covers the broad sweep of human history from the Paleolithic and Neolithic eras, through the birth of city-states and the rise of civilization, the Axial and Post Axial ages into the great Western transformation of the Enlightenment and Modernity. She explores the evolving nature of the myths through these different eras in the evolution of humanity.
According to Armstrong, myths were not told or written once and then left unchanged. “There was never a single, orthodox version of a myth,” (p11) Armstrong contends; and then she backs this up throughout the book. Myths served a purpose. The word ‘myth’ is commonly used today to mean ‘an untruth.’ But throughout time, the word ‘myth’ held a deeper – more nuanced – meaning. A myth is not meant to provide factual information or eye-witness history. The purpose of a myth is to guide people in understanding problematic aspects of the human condition and the world we live in.
When we hear of gods walking the earth, of dead men striding out of tombs, or of seas miraculously parting to let a favored people escape from their enemies, we dismiss these stories as incredible and demonstrably untrue. Since the eighteenth century, we have developed a scientific view of history; we are concerned above all with what actually happened. But in the pre-modern world, when people wrote about the past they were more concerned with what an event had meant. A myth was an event which, in some sense, had happened once, but which also happened all the time. Because of our strictly chronological view of history, we have no word for such an occurrence, but mythology is an art form that points beyond history to what is timeless in human existence, helping us to get beyond the chaotic flux of random events, and glimpse the core of reality. (p 7)
Throughout the living history of humanity, we have needed our myths to guide us through different situations. The needs and questions of the stone-age hunter-gatherers were different from the needs and questions of enlightenment era people. As humanity grew up, so did the mythic stories. Let me walk you through some of what comes up in Armstrong’s Short History of Myth
The earliest period is ten to twenty thousand years ago, a time before written history. It was a time before cities and civilization, a time preceding the agricultural revolution. The tribes of people were dependant on hunting the major migratory mammals around them. The myths supporting the lives of these hunter-gatherers were so potent they survived beyond their era, which begins to explain how we can write about things that happened before written history. Also, there have been several living tribal cultures that have not taken the step into the agricultural revolution and their stories and myth parallel those of Paleolithic times. The myths from this time focus on the deepest questions of life and death. The people were living at a time when all activities were considered to be what we today might call ‘religious’ or ‘spiritual’ activities. There was no divide between sacred and secular. Everything they did had a sacred component to it. And that sounds nice, but the consequences were significant.
The first and earliest myths dealt with the hunter who went away on a journey to bring home food for the tribe. These myths were not just about going out and returning a hero – a hunt was dangerous and death was an inescapable part of what would happen – either the possible death of the hunter or the hoped for death of the prey so the tribe would have food. But the animals that were their prey were just as much a part of the sacred world as the people. “Anthropologists note that modern indigenous peoples frequently refer to animals or birds as ‘peoples’ on the same level as themselves.” (p28) Ancient myths and rituals served to help the people understand what their life meant when life was so dependant on “the destruction of other creatures to who they felt closely akin.” (p29) Myths and rituals of a First Hunter would serve to help the people come to terms with the complicated emotions. It helped them understand the meaning of death and life.
Of course an even more powerful myth arose at this time too, a myth of birth and creation. While the hunter leaves the security of the caves and the tribe to face monsters and wilderness to back what is necessary for life, every infant would likewise journey through the narrow passage of the birth canal into a new and frighteningly unfamiliar world. Each hunt the men went on was an echo of the heroic quest. And that is nothing if not an echo of birth or re-birth.
As powerful as the male hunters were, they must have known that the women were the source of new life – life that would ensure the continuation of the tribe not just through the next hunting season but into the next generations. Again, these are not quaint stories to be told around a fire for entertainment. These myths and rituals conveyed deep knowledge about the meaning of life and death.
And then things changed. With the agricultural revolution ten thousand years ago, hunting was no longer needed. Leaving the village to embark on a dangerous journey became a less compelling story. “Every time men and women took a major step forward, they reviewed their mythology and made it speak to the new conditions.” (p 11)
Now the people were farmers. “As they watched the seeds descending into the depths of the earth, and realized that they broke open in darkness to bring forth a marvelously different form of life, planters recognized a hidden force at work. … The earth seemed to sustain all creatures – plants, animals, and humans – as in a living womb.” (p42)
The Neolithic period gave rise to new stories about gods and goddesses and heroes who would travel underground and return from death with new wisdom, new life. “Where once people had imagined themselves ascending to the heights [during a hunt] in order to encounter the divine, they now made ritual contact with the sacred in the earth.” (p44) Through these new myths and rituals, people came to terms with the ebb and flow, the waxing and waning, the living and dying of the world and of people and of all life.
Stories of Demeter and Persephone, Inanna and Dumuzi, Ishtar and Asherah and Tammuz and Adonis – they all taught the people that death, while fearful and inevitable, was not the end of the story. The seed had to die in order to produce grain. A confrontation with death could lead to spiritual renewal. It was not about immortality, it was about learning “to live more fearlessly and therefore more fully here on earth.”
Do you begin to see that these stories arising from their own time and circumstances were most useful to that time and circumstance … but in a very powerful way they each continue to offer important information about life even today? The Paleolithic and Neolithic eras provided the foundational myths and myth-structures into the future which formal religions picked up and made their own. For the people in the Neolithic era, the myths taught them about life and death, seeds and harvest.
And then things changed. Some six thousand years ago, human beings began to build cities. With the building of somewhat permanent and magnificent cities, a new type of myth began to emerge among the people. “Every time men and women took a major step forward, they reviewed their mythology and made it speak to the new conditions.” (p 11)
The cities they built were actually fare more fragile and subject to decay ad decline than one might at first imagine. These new city-dwellers were constantly concerned that life might revert to the old agrarian ways – as step backward into barbarism by their lights. The new urban myths mediated on the endless the struggle between order and chaos.” (p60)
If you read the biblical books of Genesis and the Gospels, you can pick out the Paleolithic stories of the Hero’s Quest and the Creation Goddess, the Neolithic stories of rebirth and of the God who dies to the earth and is reborn, and the Early Civilization stories of the God who mediates order and chaos. And in some ways, each new era’s myths stand in critique against the previous era as well as absorbing and carrying forward the old myths. Rituals grew in which the city-dwellers play-acted times of chaos – times when there were no cities – and then order is restored or order rises up to save them. The myths and rituals helped them learn the value of fitting into the system of order and civilization that now existed.
And then things changed. During a brief period of a few hundred years between 800 and 200 BCE, in a variety of locations, a remarkable array of prophets and sages rose up – all with a similar compelling message: “It would not be sufficient to perform the conventional rites meticulously; worshipers must also treat their fellow-creatures with respect.” (p81). Thus a new type of myth began to emerge among the people. “Every time men and women took a major step forward, they reviewed their mythology and made it speak to the new conditions.” (p 11)
It is German philosopher Karl Jaspers who called this time period the “axial age” because it was a pivotal time in the spiritual development of humanity. It is seen “with the Hebrew prophets of the eights, seventh, and sixth centuries; with the sages of the Upanishads, the Buddha in India, with Confucius and the author of the Dao De Jing in China; and with the fifth-century [Greek philosophers,] Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.” (pp 79-80) It used to be enough to go through the correct rituals, to enact the mythic story or take on the role of the First Hunter or the Great Mother. It used to be enough to offer up the sacrifice as prescribed in the story. But as humanity matured, more was needed.
I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream! (Amos 5:21-24)
We had to treat each other with respect, with justice. To survive and still be useful, all the myths needed to be recast with a more personal and interpersonal interpretation. Ethics became important. It was Confucius who first promulgated what has become known as the Golden Rule: “Do not do unto others as you would not have done unto you.” (Analects 12:2) The Axial age demanded inner reflection so people could know their own motives and needs. What would you have done unto you, or not done unto you? This is the first step in understanding the motives and needs of another, in knowing what others would have or not have done unto them.
Post Axial Age
The period that follows is largely a time of response to the Axial Age. The Post-Axial Age is the creation of Christianity and Islam and living into the powerful stories of the three great monotheistic traditions. For the sake of time I am glossing over a lot, but between the advances and regressions in culture over the nearly two millennia that are known as the Post-Axial Age, “there would be no comparable period of change. … The status of myth remained basically the same until the sixteenth century CE.” (p104)
Great Western Transformation
And then things changed. Over the past five hundred years we have been in the modern era.
The long process of modernization … involved a series of profound changes: industrialization, the transformation of agriculture, political and social revolutions to reorganize society … and an intellectual ‘enlightenment’ that denigrated myth as useless, false, and outmoded. (p 120-121)
The modern heroes of Western modernity were the technological and scientific geniuses, not the spiritual geniuses as in previous eras. Enlightenment and modernity were the embodied destruction of mythology. Mythological thinking was diametrically opposed to rational, logical thinking. An anti-myth became the new myth. The tool humanity used to understand who we are and how we fit in the world was a tool that dismantled mythical thinking altogether.
But has this lead us to a new maturity as a species? Has this taught us, guided us to a new way to manage the complex emotions underlying the anxiety of existence we now live in? If we answer yes, it is only a tentative yes, a yes that affirms our intellectual and scientific advances and maturity. Spiritually, Karen Armstrong contends, we are still working through the myths of the Axial Age. (p 136) We are myth-making creatures, but the myths we have been creating continue to fail to meet the Axial Age criteria found in the spirit of compassion and justice.
The next era is overdue. We need to unfold our next myth. Dare I suggest that the mythic story coming will indeed carry a message of compassion and justice but will be a reinfusion of the ancient understanding of the sacredness of all things, the interconnectedness of all things, and an appreciation for the whole over the parts and pieces of life. As Joseph Campbell said (from the reading this morning in Hero with a Thousand Faces) – we can’t revert or ignore the current enlightenment science. We need to move forward by addressing our current condition.
The new condition we need our myths to speak to is a condition of fragmentation. We need a myth of connection, a ritual of connection. We need to learn how to integrate the great scientific realities we live in with a renewed depth of spiritual connection. The stories of God & science in harmony are out there. The stories of God as love and justice are present. The stories of God in the connections among us are here – but to rise to the level of myth these stories must also be enacted in the life of a community. A myth is not just a good story; it tells us how to behave in a complex and evolving world.
When we see a thread of spirit in everything we do, when we feel we are interconnected with all that is, when we stand up and speak out and gather in witness to the call of justice and equality, when we step back and take in the beauty, when we do these things we are enacting a new story that sets us on the path of life with both integrity and imagination. The current anti-myth continues to fail to serve. It fails to help us resolve our anxiety and fragmentation. But we can enact a new story of connection that sets us on the path of life with both integrity and imagination.
In a world without end
May it be so.