Why We Still Read the Bible
Why We Still Read the Bible
Rev. Douglas Taylor
May 3, 2015
According to the story in the book, Jacob was running away from his brother Esau (Gen 28) after stealing his birthright and his blessing from their father. He stops for the night and lays down with a stone for a pillow. He dreams of a ladder reaching up toward heaven upon which angels are climbing up and down. In his dream God continues the Abrahamic Covenant and promises to be with him, that God would not forsake him. Jacob wakes up and says “Surely God is in this place and I did not know it!”
There are several classic interpretations of this passage. Some political interpretations say it is a foretelling of the numerous exiles the Hebrew people experience as described later in scripture. Some more personal or spiritual interpretations say it shows how we move up and down in our closeness to God based on our behavior. A literal interpretation claims that this is the exact spot where the Jerusalem Temple was later built and rebuilt. Later Christian interpretations propose that Jesus is the ladder, the bridge between heaven and earth.
My point in sharing all that is to show that there has not ever been a single authoritative interpretation declaring what a bible passage or story means. One of the first steps for serious bible study I learned in seminary is to sort through the common interpretations that have been offered over the years. Interpretations are the key. When we sing about climbing Jacob’s ladder as our closing hymn, you can ponder what interpretations are offered in this sung version of the story – especially if you are familiar with the original lyrics.
In the reading this morning, Plotz listed two reasons why people should read the Bible. He gave an intellectual reason and a personal reason. I agree with his two reasons and will add a third: political. As Unitarian Universalists, we gather as a community of people with differing beliefs. We are not bound by a central belief or prophet or book. We are each free to not read the Bible or listen to the words of Jesus if that is our wish. And yet we are a religious community of free thinkers in the midst of one of the world’s most religious countries. When we choose to ignore the Bible we essentially choose to be blind and deaf to a significant amount of conversation happening in the world around us. Plotz, in the reading this morning, argues for Biblical awareness, not as a believer, but as a free-thinking and literate citizen.
His book is titled Good Book and its subtitle is The bizarre, hilarious, disturbing, marvelous, and inspiring things I learned when I read every single word of the bible. That is exactly what he did. This is not that dramatic of a claim, but it is usually a task reserved for Evangelicals rather than lax, agnostic Jews. Plotz adds the point that as a Jew, he read the Hebrew bible, leaving someone else the task of tackling the New Testament of Christianity. To which, I will add the point that the Hebrew scripture makes up more that 75% of the pages named “the Bible.”
America is a very religious country. Nearly 2/3 of Americans believe that the Bible holds the answers to most of life’s basic questions, yet only half of American adults can name even one of the four gospels and most Americans cannot name the first book of the Bible. (From the jacket cover of Stephen Prothero’s Religious Literacy) “Nineteenth-century agnostic Robert Ingersoll … once contended that the reason everybody in the United States believes in the Bible is that no one actually reads it.” (Ibid p145)
Stephen Prothero’s book Religious Literacy makes the point that we in the United States are not religiously literate. He sources one of those scenes from an old Tonight Show episode where Jay Leno asks the average person on the street how much they know about the Bible. “Interviewees told him that God created Eve from an apple, that Jacob gave his son Joseph a new car, and that Matthew was swallowed by a whale.” (Ibid p 30)
Other than serving as a clever joke, what does it matter if “Many high school seniors think that Sodom and Gomorrah were husband and wife”? (Ibid 6) How is it significant that “A majority of Americans wrongly believe that the Bible says that Jesus was born in Jerusalem”? (Ibid p30)
Biblical trivia is not a worthy goal in itself. But consider the arguments Plotz, Prothero, and others make. The intellectual argument is rooted in cultural and literary understanding. Huge swaths of art and literature have layers of Biblical reference. Knowing the basic outline of the conversion of Saint Paul, for example, makes it easier to see and appreciate and critique conversion experiences (religious or otherwise) in literature or even the news. When politicians make Biblical references to walking the Jericho road or seeing the log in one’s own eye, it is a rhetorical tool that is lost on a great many.
But this is not merely academic, this is also personal. Recognizing the passages is one thing, using them for something of value is what comes next. Some of the passages from Isaiah, like the one from our opening hymn (#209 O Come You Longing Thirsty Souls,) flow so elegantly and speak to the spiritual earning for a deeper connection with the holy. Many of the parables and healing stories in the gospels are about resilience and forgiveness and grace – lessons I constantly need to rediscover. There are Psalms I return to again and again for spiritual nourishment, Psalms 121, 139, 91, 22, and of course the ever popular Psalm 23. The message of the resurrection, the words the angels say to the shepherds: ‘be not afraid,’ anytime the story has someone showing up to a well. The book is replete with passages and stories that feed my searching heart.
Yes, the Bible is also filled with repulsive and confusing and just-plain-boring passages as well. Yes, many people have been fed shame and judgment instead of beauty and dignity from these passages. But part of our work as a Unitarian Universalist congregation is to help one another mature and grow spiritually. Interpretation is the key. How you read the texts makes all the difference.
In the monumental “I Have a Dream” speech, Dr. King evoked phrases from the biblical prophets such as Amos 5:24 “Let Justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream,” a passage that also features prominently in one of our favorite hymns
We’ll Build a Land
Where justice shall role down like water
and peace like an ever flowing stream (SLT# 121)
In the original passage, the prophet Amos is crying out against Israel – not on her behalf. Amos is warming Israel to remember the Law. Dr. King and others in recent times have reinterpreted the text as a call to justice from God, turning the warning into a call, changing the tone from God scolding us for falling behind to God luring us forward into where we yet can be. The key is in how we interpret the stories.
This is the cultural or intellectual reason to read the Bible. But it starts to lead us into the political reason as well. Once you recognize the references, if you get past the Biblical trivia – in which you know the quotes and passages – then we can begin to use the passages in interpretive ways to impact society. As one Unitarian Universalist colleague has said, “If you can’t or won’t understand the Bible, others surely will interpret it for you.” (John Buehrens, Understanding the Bible, p8)
Throughout the history of America, religion has played a critical role. Biblical interpretation has shaped our political and social conversation on many issues. For example, the nineteenth-century abolitionists wrestled with the biblical passages about slaves obeying their masters. The Women’s movement had to deal with passages enjoining women to remain silent. The temperance movement and prison reform, public education and care for the mentally ill were all issues that were fought with the bible in hand. What does the bible offer in terms of the issues of the environment, gay marriage, or abortion? Are we blind to the ways in which policy is being and has always been influenced by moral and doctrinal arguments from the bible? Surely we are not blind to the impact religion and Biblical interpretation has on foreign policy! There certainly are situations in which this religious illiteracy, our national amnesia of biblical trivia, borders on dangerous.
And it is important to remember – this is not a question of whether the passages in scripture are true or factual. It is about how the interpretations are being used today to impact society. The interpretations are the key.
Consider a political interpretation of the Biblical injunction from Jesus to ‘turn the other cheek.’ This is often rendered as a spiritual or personal interpretation – “be forgiving, do not return insult for insult, break the cycle by choosing to not retaliate.” And that is a good personal or spiritual interpretation.
But as a political interpretation we drift into very dangerous territory. Too often the suggestion to ‘turn the other cheek’ is seen as a weak resignation to violence. If someone hits you, let them hit you again. It can be misconstrued as Jesus advising us to say “Thank you sir, may I have another.” “Let me lay down so you may more easily walk all over me.” This is the kind of interpretation that supports domestic abuse rather than challenges it.
“As it stands, this saying seems to counsel supine surrender. If you are a woman and you are struck by your spouse on one cheek, turn the other; let him pulverize you. … And the crowning blow: don’t resist evil at all.” (Walter Wink in Religion, Terror and Violence, Rennie and Tite eds., pp 115-116)
I have shared a reinterpretation of this before, but it bears mentioning again. Walter Wink, a Biblical scholar, insists that Jesus’ intent was not weak resignation, but dignified resistance. Listen to how Wink unfolds this passage.
Jesus says “if someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” Well, we might ask, why the right cheek? What if someone strikes you on the left cheek? It probably does matter! Walter Wink suggests that it does. If someone strikes you on the right cheek they will have done so either with their left hand: which back in that time period was almost unheard of. “The left hand was for unclean tasks, and even to gesture with it brought shame on the one gesturing.” (Ibid, p116) Thus a backhanded blow is being described. To strike someone on the right cheek was to put that person in their place, a master to a servant, parent to child, Roman to Jew. It is the blow delivered to an inferior. To turn the other cheek is to deny another backhanded blow, leaving the attacker to do what? Slap the slave? No, that was not a manly thing to do. The rigidity of gender roles were as firm as those demanded by social status. Strike with a right hook with the fist? No, one did not fight with fists unless one was fighting an equal.
This, is the point Jesus was leading his followers to see. You can strike me on the right cheek because I am socially inferior to you, but by turning the other cheek I am saying if you strike me again you must strike me as your equal. The Master can certainly have the slave then flogged for the insolence, but the statement has been made: I am your equal. We are both children of God. This is not submission, it is resistance. It is fighting the violent force with what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called soul-force. Yes, you can hit me, but on my terms, as your equal. This puts the oppressor in a shameful position.
This is why we still read the Bible. So that we can recognize passages and the interpretations and even offer better, more life-affirming interpretations than those out there in the common conversation. The context and culture Jesus was in when he called people to turn the other cheek is not the one we now live in. But the message is still good. What are the injustices we suffer from today, where are people oppressed and how might they use the cultural expectations to subvert their oppressors into being ashamed of their actions? That is the deeper question! Answer that and you will launch the next civil rights movement or Gandhi-style liberation.
David Plotz, from our reading this morning, says “Everyone should read [the Bible] – all of it.” (p300) But his commitment is not a religious one. Indeed, his reasoning actually runs in the opposite direction of becoming more faithful or developing enhanced beliefs. Plotz describes his year of reading the bible as a year of argument with God. And that is exactly what some Jewish scholars claim to be the heart of faith, the committed engagement with the text and with God.
I contend that there are several good reasons why we Unitarian Universalists should continue to read the Bible. Between full belief and acceptance of every word as literally true and full rejection in an equally literalistic fashion – there are a multitude of ways to explore the Bible for spiritual wisdom, ethical guidance, cultural competence, and even a good argument. Any way it turns, it is worth a deeper look.
In a world without end,
May it be so.
Rev. Douglas Taylor
April 19, 2015
One of the central values in modern Unitarian Universalism is inclusion and acceptance of all people. I remember asking my mom about this when I was young. I grew up Unitarian Universalist. The building, where my mom served as the Director of Religious Education and then as Minister of Religious Education, was a huge brick building. It looked a little like a fortress. This image was supported by an equally imposing brick edifice directly across the street of Temple Beth El, a conservative Jewish community. Indeed the two buildings were built within a year of each other.
I remember asking my mother one day about the people in the other building. She told me a little about Judaism but also that our community and their community do not do anything together, we didn’t mix. This led to the question: Would we welcome a Conservative Jew in our Unitarian Universalist congregation? My mother’s answer reflects the basic stance of inclusion prevalent in Unitarian Universalism today: “Yes, we would welcome such an individual, but that person would probably not be comfortable in our community and prefer to attend their own congregation.”
One of the design features of that big brick church building of the Rochester where I grew up is the heavy front doors. Stay with me, this all leads to the same point. The architect wanted the form to fit the function, to make a statement about the purpose of the building. So the sanctuary is a large open space, the classrooms wrap around the sanctuary, the light towers in the sanctuary feed natural lighting into the space – all of these features serve to reveal a facet of Unitarian Universalist theology and community.
Thus, the heavy front doors are heavy on purpose. Another architect, describing aspects of the UU church building of my childhood, said this of those doors: “The first touch of the heavy handles confirms the visual impression that the solid doors are meant to make the visitor conscious of the process of entering.”
There is a hymn in our hymnal with the line “Where all the doors are open wide for all who choose to step inside.” This line in the hymn and the entry doors of my childhood church reiterate my mother’s answer to me. Yes, we are welcoming for all those who really want to be here. This, I have come to see, is a passive form of invitation and inclusion. There is a difference between saying “we are willing to let you join us,” and “we want you to join us.”
Over the years, that Rochester UU congregation notice the unfortunate implication that the doors were physically difficult for some people to open. A little over ten years back, they redesigned their front entrance, removing the step and adding automated openers to those heavy doors, to make the entrance more inviting and accessible for people with mobility issues.
The architect’s bigger point still stands: the form ought to fit the function. As the message of inclusion and welcome expands, the way we demonstrate that also should expand. I’m not suggesting our Binghamton congregation needs an architectural fix to a sociological problem, or that we should launch a capital drive this month. But when we do start talking about any changes to our building, we would do well to ask deep questions about function and how our space promotes our theology and our message.
Don’t get me wrong, the congregation of my childhood was a very welcoming and inclusive place. Our Binghamton congregation today is welcoming and inclusive as well. Inclusivity is a very Unitarian Universalist trait. Our theological history leads us to be inclusive, to stretch beyond a homogenous ideology or demography. But we should still ask the question. I think there will always be someone who is not yet here but would want to be.
As a child I asked “Would a Conservative Jew be welcome?” because that was the identity group that I suddenly noticed. Substitute whatever identity you like and you will have the root question. Are political conservatives welcome, are people without a Bachelor’s Degree welcome, are ethnic minorities or mentally ill people or folks struggling with addiction welcome, are gay people or gay couples or transgender people welcome, are people with physical disabilities welcome, is my neighbor – with whatever aspect of difference – welcome, … am I welcome?
Unitarian Universalism has long stood for the strongest possible ‘Yes’ in answer to such questions of inclusion. Both sides of our theological lineage proclaim there is no separation between the saved and unsaved, the clean and unclean; instead, we say all are welcome, all are worthy. Universalism in particular proclaimed a fearless message of God’s all-encompassing love – no one is outside the love of God. Over the years as our theological identity has evolved into a nuance ambiguity with no single statement about the nature or even existence of God, we have held the message still. No one is outside.
In some ways that are problematic and in other ways that are stunningly elegant, we have largely substituted God for the Beloved Community in what was this root Universalist proclamation. The vast majority of Unitarian Universalists of any theological stripe will gladly proclaim that no one is cast out of the Beloved Community. All are included.
Here is the trick, however. Proclaiming that as our message does not make it our reality. When we declare that all are welcome, we can’t then just sit back with the doors wide open and assume we will blithely stumble into Beloved Community. We will more likely stumble into an echo of the dominate culture.
This is why the Welcoming Congregation program exists and is so successful. We declare ourselves to be welcoming specifically to gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer people. This is not to say other people are not welcome, but that we recognize the need to be specific. Otherwise the unspoken assumption is that those who are different are not welcome.
Being inclusive is not the default setting for any group. When we applaud ourselves for our inclusivity, it is worth the praise – being inclusive, even having the goal of being inclusive while working to become more inclusive, is counter-cultural.
I mentioned a hymn earlier. Our music is one of the ways people feel included or excluded. We’ve changed the words to some of our hymns to be more inclusive of women when we degenderize it, or to be more inclusive of the plurality of theology when we adjust the God language. This gets tricky, when we remove references to God, then the people who are looking for God in their worship hear that they are not included. But what we include the God language, atheists do not feel included. This is what I mean – we can’t be inclusive in general – it needs to be specific. But when we get specific, we need to also develop a capacity to hear each other deeply and allow for the other. I will come back to this point.
One of my favorite hymns, “Guide My Feet,” is a spiritual hymn about courage and perseverance. But consider it from the perspective of someone in a wheelchair, from the perspective of someone who will never run and whose feet do not work. I don’t want to give up this hymn, it means a lot to me; it reveals my spiritual work. But I also don’t want to send the message that people with disabilities are not included. Including more people is also part of my spiritual work.
This is a conflict I feel sharply. I love these hymns but I also want to challenge them. Being able to sing this hymn is a point of inclusion for me. But it is a point of exclusion for others. I think I will not be able to fix this. Instead I will learn how to live with things being a little messy and imperfect.
This is the point I wanted to circle back to. Inclusion can be as simple as honest hospitality. Welcoming one more person into the circle without regard for differences. Inclusion can also be complicated work, creating safe space and stretching into unfamiliar and uncomfortable territory. When we get specific about who we are including, it necessarily means we are taking a stand in favor of one thing in particular.
Being an ‘inclusive community’ takes a little extra work. But I suspect most of you know that. I put out a request for people to share experiences of inclusion. Or even challenges of not be included. I asked people to send me a brief account of their story that they would be willing for me to share. I said “Help us to both celebrate our strengths and challenge ourselves to live more fully into our ideal.” One person talked with me about the moment, soon after she started attending, when she spoke up and was not judged or shushed. That was when she really felt included.
Amorena Wade sent me a similar story:
When I first started attending UUCB, the only pants I had were heavily torn jeans. I wore them to services and expected that to be fine, but the day an usher asked me to pass the collection plate in my tattered clothing, I was truly touched. It is one thing to say “all are welcome”, but it took a marked integrity to put someone dressed the way I was on display as a representative of the congregation. It was the moment I truly believed I was included in the flock and not just the recipient of polite and cordial treatment.
Dee Davis sent me this account:
Of course, Suronda and my story is that we met at UU, were welcomed by the congregation and ultimately felt it was the only place we could possibly be married. Our hope was that we could have had a blessing during our wedding from someone in the faith tradition Suronda was raised in the Roman Catholic tradition. After meeting with a couple of priests, we found that no one was comfortable being present at a gay wedding, let alone being seen as condoning or blessing a same sex marriage. Because of this, I have resigned from my job of interpreting Mass at a local Catholic Church, because I can’t give my best work to a place that sees us in the LGBTQ community as less than deserving of the most human of emotions, love. Standing on the side of love is where I want to put my energy and spread the message, and UU is the best faith and has the best allies to help us all recognize each other’s worth and dignity.
Others have shared stories with me over the years, stories of broken-heartedness. Nobody contacted me this week with a specific challenge around inclusion in our community but I know such stories are out there. That is part of the messy reality of community. I know, for example, it is easier to be openly gay around here than it is to openly talk about loving Jesus – more than one person has share that with me. I know, for example, it is hard to bring a child with significant special needs to our community because we are not set up with the kinds of support to help the child and the parent to really be here. It involves a lot of extra work. I know, for example, it is not easy to come up to the pulpit for some people because of the steps and the lack of a handrail, or to attend a meeting in the basement room because of the stairs. I know. And I also know there is a quite a bit that I do not know.
So here is what I want to offer you as we look around our community and consider our inclusive nature and our love of justice. Notice that our authentic hospitality really matters at more than just the level of being pleasant to new people – it has a positive impact on the systems of exclusion people experience. We really are welcoming here. And second, notice we are not done. “Love and I had the wit to win, we drew a circle and took him in!” We are always redrawing the circle.
When you encounter differences that challenge you, don’t shush them or ignore them or pretend they are not important. We are always redrawing the circle. Introduce yourself. Listen to those who are different. Educate yourself. It may be messy and at times we may get it wrong. But don’t take it for granted. Inclusion is a worthy value and it leads us toward wholeness. And we don’t ever just stumble into it – we create the community and the justice we long to see in the world.
God’s love is all encompassing. The Beloved Community has room for everyone. In my father’s house there are many mansions. There are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the ground. Inclusion is a central value in our modern Unitarian Universalism. It is what we are called to become together as a community – it is our gift, our challenge, our spiritual work.
In a world without end,
may it be so
Beauty Is the Highest
Rev. Douglas Taylor
April 12, 2015
One of the activities that we do during the formal New UU class, held two or three times each year, is called the Four Corners Game. It starts with religious labels: do you consider yourself a Theist, a Humanist, or a Pagan? Each of these three theological perspectives is designated to a different corner. The fourth corner is for everything else: mystics, agnostics, Buddhists, eclectics, and those who are simply confused or uncertain. Then, everyone in the room stands up, locates themselves and moves off to one corner or another. Typically there are a few who try stand between two or more corners. You know the joke: get two Unitarian Universalists in a room together and you’ll uncover three or more theological perspectives!
One point of such an activity is to show the pluralism of our communities. We don’t all believe the same thing, instead we are bound by a promise to encourage each other in the search for truth and in the living of our values.
One of the other questions we ask n for the Four Corners game is “Which value do you hold as highest?” As in, which one is most important? The four options are: Beauty, Truth, Goodness, or something else. The “something else” corner is for you to name a different value, one that you hold closest. Where would you be in this activity? I won’t make you all get up, we don’t have time. But by a show of hands, think about this … which corner would you be closest to? You know where I am going to stand, it’s in the title! How many for Truth? How many for Goodness? How many for Beauty? Over the years in which we have been doing this, I have found most people choose to stand in the corners for truth or for goodness, or at least at that end of the room advocating a mix between those two values. [And we did have a show of hands, and the majority voted for Truth and for Goodness]
You may recognize Beauty, Truth, and Goodness as Plato’s trinity, or the “transcendentals.” Plato posited that these three values are at the core of existence. This gets a little complicated because Plato never actually listed Beauty, Truth and Goodness together in any of his essays. The closest is actually when Plato spoke of the One, the Good and the True (unum, bonum, verum). Yet the notion persists through ages of philosophers that Beauty, Truth, and Goodness are basic to Platonism because while he didn’t line them out systematically or simplistically, it is all in there.
In Plato’s Symposium, for example, at heart a discourse on Love, there is deep reflection on the notions of Beauty, Truth, and Goodness. Plato lines out goodness as a basic drive within all humans. Love arises in the beginning from Beauty, “from then on” he writes, “the ability to love beauty has created all the good things that exist for gods and men.” Plato goes on to say that the essence of the human endeavor, of being, is to be creative and bring forth ‘the beautiful.’ I don’t want to slip too far into the nuances to the philosophy. Mostly I want to highlight that this question of values and virtues is an old and important conversation.
The other significant aspect of the transcendentals I will mention here is that they are ontologically one – that is they are convertible: e.g., where there is truth, there is beauty and goodness also; where there is goodness, there is also truth and beauty; and so on. And most people, when pressed, will agree with Plato that Truth and Goodness are close companions. If something is true, there will also be good in it. And vice versa. This is harder agree when Beauty is added into the mix. Perhaps it is because Beauty is a concept that, in more modern times, has developed as a very thin and surface idea.
“Beauty is only skin deep,” we say. We equate beauty with a pretty face, with youth and romance. Beauty is a distraction or even a disguise and may hide a cruel heart. “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” we warn. The Russian novelist and philosopher, Leo Tolstoy wrote, “It is amazing how complete is the delusion that beauty is goodness.” Think, for example, of the ‘femme fatale’ characters who, while beautiful to the eye, bring disaster to those around them.
But I think there must be some other quality wearing the same name of Beauty when Confucius, for example, says “Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.” Or when John Keats proclaims that “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.” This sent me haring off on the question of just what exactly is Beauty in this deeper, philosophical or spiritual sense.
Poet John O’Donohue has a book entitled Beauty. It is rather esoteric at times but there are some good gems as well. He opens, for example, with this elegant story.
I was with a friend out of Loch Corrib, the largest lake in the West of Ireland. It was a beautiful summer’s day. Time had come to rest in the silence and stillness that presided there. The lake slept without a ripple. A grey-blue enfolded everything. There was no division any more between earth and sky. Reaching far into the distance, everything was suffused in majestic blue light. The mountains of Conomara seemed like pile upon pile of delicate blue; you felt you could almost reach out your hand and pull them towards you. No object protruded anywhere. Trees, stones, fields and islands had forgotten themselves in the daze of blue. Then, suddenly, a harsh flutter as near us the lake surface split and a huge cormorant flew from inside the water and struck up into the air. Its ragged black wings and large awkward shape were like an eruption from the underworld. Against the finely woven blue everywhere its strange form fluttered and gleamed in absolute black. She had the place to herself. She was the one clear object to be seen. And as if to conceal the source as she soured, she left her shadow thistling the lake surface. This was an event of pure disclosure: a sudden epiphany from between the worlds. The strange beauty of the cormorant was a counterbalance to the dreamlike delicacy of the lake and landscape. Sometimes beauty is unpredictable, a threshold we had never noticed opens, mystery comes alive around us and we realize how the earth is full of concealed beauty. (p 11-12)
A cormorant is a diving bird, with wings better designed for underwater movement than for flight in air. These birds have been known to dive as deep as 45 meters and be underwater for up to 80 seconds. I imagine John O’Donohue knew the bird was in the water when he tells us about his peaceful lake. I suspect the first half of his account is for effect. Many people name beauty as that picturesque calm, that serene stillness – skin deep – as he describes in the first half of his story: Beauty as perfection or a pretty face. The point of his tale, however, is the beauty in contrast or counterbalance. The harsh beauty of the cormorant against the backdrop of the serene, blue, beautiful landscape – the full exchange and interchange is where the deeper beauty resides.
Plato again, in another of his essays, Phaedrus, describes how beauty awakens the soul. He says beauty is the link between the eternal and all that is mortal, between the gods and humanity. Beauty is the path by which we transcend, the interplay between the lake and the dark bird, or between Peter Mayer’s memories of hymns and the singing red-wing bird. Talk of beauty does not always lead to birds, but it happens often enough, I have notice. But the story is not about the bird. The beauty in John O’Donohue’s story of the bird emerging from the lake is not that the beauty is in the bird any more than it was in the lake. The beauty is in the experience.
In her amazing book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard talks about beauty as a form of seeing. She tells a story, of course, about seeing a bird step off the gutter of a four story building in a “Straight vertical descent.”
The Mockingbird took a single step into air and dropped. His wings were still folded against his sides as though he were singing from a limb and not falling, accelerating thirty-two feet per second per second, though empty air. Just a breath before he would have been dashed to the ground, he unfurled his wings with exact, deliberate care, revealing the broad bars of white, spread his elegant, white-banded tail, and so floated onto the grass. (p8)
Dillard writes that she had just turned the corner when the bird caught her eye. She then goes on to talk about the act of seeing is at the heart of living.
The fact of his free fall was like the old philosophical conundrum about the tree that falls in the forest. The answer must be, I think, that beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.
This is the heart of that old cliché that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, or as H.G. Wells reframed it, in the heart of the beholder. It is in the seeing, beauty exists as a quality of experience. John O’Donohue agrees, saying, “Beauty is quietly woven through our ordinary days that we hardly notice it.” (Beauty p12) Not unlike Peter Mayer’s claim that “everything is holy now,” we recall Confucius saying, “Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.” Or as the reminder comes from the Ann Bowman story earlier (as a reading in the service), the mountain top is there to be seen but you must look higher – above the cloud line – to see it. Beauty is all about how we are looking.
This is the Beauty we would compare with Truth and Goodness. This is the level at which we can talk about the ontological interchange between the three. Beauty is a quality of experience on a par with Goodness and Truth in terms of the heart of living, the essence of the human endeavor on earth.
Emily Dickenson opens a poem with this stanza:
I died for beauty, but was scarce
Adjusted in the tomb,
When one who died for truth was lain
In an adjoining room.
All that is background for where I want to go next. Say ‘Yes,’ Let’s just say that Beauty is worth it – what then? And that is to see the link back to Plato’s Symposium, wherein we read that Love arises in the beginning from Beauty, “from then on” he writes, “the ability to love beauty has created all the good things that exist for gods and men.” The essence of the human endeavor is to bring forth ‘the beautiful.’ And everything beautiful is tinged with love. Think for a moment on anything you would name beautiful. Is it tinged with love? Is there ought that you can do to bring it forth?
To look at it from another angle, acknowledge that Beauty is a quality of experience that arises from our capacity to give our attention to it. It is experienced in relationship between yourself and something or someone else. Beauty happens in relationship. Perhaps not even needing to include a human experiencer! And that is where it begins to get elegantly tangled up with every other relational concept we know.
If beauty is always present waiting to be disclosed to our experience, the element that needs tending is not the beauty but our ability to experience it. In their book, Adventures in the Spirit, the authors write, “The relation of beauty to justice is that God wants all creatures to achieve the maximum intensity of beauty in their lives, not just some of them and by no means only us.” (Clark Williamson and Ronald Allen, Adventures in the Spirit, p56)
If there is a broken link for why Beauty is not seen as an obviously essential aspect of life, perhaps it is here at the place where Beauty and Justice connect. If there is a break – perhaps it is at this spot. Plato said the goal of Love is to bring forth ‘the beautiful’ in our world. But that is about both the bread and the roses, not just the roses. Beauty is not merely a quality of art, romance, and the natural world. Beauty is found in the elegance of mathematics, the sophistication of ecology, the grace of righteous politics. Beauty can be found in the call to justice, for justice is the call to experience the needs and joys of others.
An experience of Beauty hurls us out of our self-focus. Any true experience of Beauty will lead us into awe, it will break through the circle of self-preoccupation. The experience of Beauty is something that lifts us and calls us to raise our eyes above the cloud line to see, to really ‘see;’ it is all about how we see. That is why I say Beauty is the highest, for it borders on the mystical. Beauty is always tinged by love. And so – to love! When we must chose between Beauty, Truth, and Goodness, it is always worth it to find a way to sneak in a vote for Love.
In a world without end, may it be so.
Words of Prophecy
Words of Prophecy
Rev. Douglas Taylor
March 29, 2015
I had a professor in seminary whose preferred way of teaching theology was through biography. She believed that the stories of people’s lives illuminated the heart of the theological venture. Thus, one class I took from that professor was all biographical accounts of the religious activists of the 19th and early 20th century. We would read about the person’s life and then interpret their theology and values. A colleague of mine, Ann Fox, talks about a spiritual teacher who shared much the same sentiment with her. Read biographies, the stories of people’s lives. “You will read about that life and ponder it deeply” Rev. Fox’s teacher advised, “and will likely not forget the story even as you are creating your own story.”
As Unitarian Universalists we honor this idea about the stories of people. When we drafted out statement of 7 principles back in the ‘80’s, we also drew up a list of our sources of authority and inspiration. The second source is “Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love.” We lift up, not a single sage or prophet. Instead we bring many names from our history and the history of all humanity.
We speak of the people who were our founders such as Channing, Emerson, Murray, Ballou, David, and Socinus. We also love to talk about Clara Barton, James Reeb, Horace Mann, Susan B. Anthony, Olympia Brown, Jane Addams, and William Lloyd Garrison.
This second set of names is not a list of ‘founders,’ they were prophetic voices along the way that help guide us into who we have become today. We also reach back to the wisdom spoken by those who were not Unitarian Universalism’s history. We pull on the wisdom of the Hebrew prophets, the eastern mystics, Sufi sages, and modern activists. We listen for the prophetic wisdom of Amos, Jesus, Buddha, Gandhi, Dorothy Day, and Dr. King.
I think, for example, about Rev. John Haynes Holmes. Holmes was the Unitarian Minister from Community Church in New York. I was rereading his biography recently because I was looking for the information about how he was one of the founding members of the NAACP, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. While I was reading, though, I was reminded that Holmes was also a founding member of the ACLU, the American Civil Liberties Union. And I was reminded about his commitment to pacifism, particularly during World War I. I was reminded about his connection with Gandhi, (Holmes being one of the first Americans to recognize the significance of Gandhi and doing a lot to introduce our country to what Gandhi was doing in India.)
But if you go looking for the story of how the NAACP was founded, you are not going find a lot about Holmes. If you look into the story of Gandhi’s introduction to Americans, you are not going to find much, if anything, about a guy named John Haynes Holmes. But you have heard of Gandhi, right? You are familiar with the NAACP and the ACLU – perhaps you’re even a supporter of these organizations. That is what Holmes was trying to accomplish.
Holmes believed in justice and in building institutions to support the continuing work of justice. Holmes was committed to the power of religion to make a difference in society, to be a positive force for justice in our world. He wrote:
Religion must be used in furthering great works of justice and reform. It must be used to establish right relations between different groups of [people], and thus to make a reality of [the kinship of humanity]. It must be used to abolish poverty, the breeding ground of all misery and crime, by distributing equably among [all] the abundance of the soil. And it must be used to get rid of war and to establish enduring peace. Here is the supreme test of the effectiveness of religion.
Dorothea Dix is another example I would offer of a prophetic person from our history. Dix was a Unitarian from the 1800’s who is remembered for her tireless advocacy for the civil and humane treatment of the mentally ill. When she started her work, chronicling the disturbing conditions in Massachusetts, the mentally ill were customarily kept in farm basements, poor houses, correctional facilities and jails. Dorothea investigated every place where mentally ill persons were kept in Massachusetts, every place! Taking careful notes, she was able, at the end of her 18 months of research, to convince the state legislature to respond with a bill to relieve the present situation and provide for future accommodations. Her efforts ushered in sweeping reforms.
She went on to investigate other states, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island. One of the stories told of Dorothea Dix involves her work to establish the New Jersey State Hospital. She met with phenomenal opposition. The New Jersey legislature even passed a resolution providing $100 for a one-way train ticket to “get Miss Dix across the Delaware River and out of the state.”
Dorothea however, did not give up, and within three years, New Jersey appropriated funds to build a hospital. Indeed after visiting Europe where she instigated reforms in Scotland and Italy; and returning to the states to organize the Army Nurses during the Civil War, she finally retired to live out her last six years in a small apartment behind that New Jersey State Hospital.
At her funeral they read the passage from scripture: “I was hungered and ye gave me meat; I was thirsty and ye gave me drink; I was a stranger and ye took me in: naked and ye clothed me; I was sick and ye visited me: I was in prison and ye came unto me.” The prophetic words and deeds of Dorothea were inspired in many ways by the prophetic words and deeds of Jesus and others who came before her.
This, of course, is not just about people who are Unitarians or Universalists. I, like many, continue to find inspiration in the words and deeds of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. But this is not just the luminaries, it is also about more ‘regular’ people who offer insight and inspiration toward making the world a better place. And this is not just about people who are now long dead. Think about the impact of actor George Takei! He was in the original Star Trek series as Sulu. In recent years he has become a prominent voice for gay rights leading public opinion through social media. Takei is not a UU, but he is appreciated by many UUs as a voice of reason, wit, and acceptance.
This week I was introduced to the work of writer and activist Chris Crass. People were talking about inspirational people around today and a colleague mentioned Chris Crass. Crass works to build “working class-based, feminist, multiracial movements for collective liberation.” (Wikipedia) He has been and organizer and public speaker who uses lessons from feminism to build anti-racist community. His book Towards Collective Liberation: Anti-Racist Organizing, Feminist Praxis, and Movement Building Strategy was published in 2013.
Interestingly, Crass was introduced to Unitarian Universalism through a partnership with UU Youth and the Catalyst Project. He was impressed with the youth and that is what eventually led Crass to become a Unitarian Universalist. When I looked him up online I was a little surprised to discover That Chris Crass looks a lot like me: a middle-aged white guy. But what he is doing is working to transform the community of which he is a member. He claims that his goal is “to help turn race, class and gender into catalysts to help us build our progressive Left movement rather than have them continue to divide us.”
And closer to home I think of conversations from earlier this month at our Board meeting. We and Geri brought a proposal to the board for input about asking the congregation to take a stance on climate change. And I am reminded of Doris Reed’s life story, which several of us heard half of at an Elder Wisdom talk in 2014. I understand the Elder Wisdom organizers are settling a date for part 2. And later today, we will be having a panel discussion about politics and money. My point is not to make heroes out of people, but to lift up that all of us have the capacity to be part of the story.
Humor me a moment and pull out your hymnals for a responsive reading. Turn to reading #565. It is called “Prophets” by Clinton Lee Scott. Scott was a Universalist minister who inspired many of the elder colleagues I now look up to. I will offer the regular text and ask you to respond with the italicized text.
Always it is easier to pay homage to prophets
than to heed the direction of their vision.
It is easier blindly to venerate the saints than to
learn the human quality of their sainthood.
It is easier to glorify the heroes of the race than
to give weight to their examples.
To worship the wise is much easier than to profit by their wisdom.
Great leaders are honored, not by adulation,
but by sharing their insights and values.
Grandchildren of those who stoned the prophet
sometimes gather up the stones to build the prophet’s monument.
Always it is easier to pay homage to prophets
than to heed the direction of their vision.
All of us have a part to play, have a way in to making a difference.
Last weekend I sat on a panel on Spiritual Wellbeing at the Pride and Joy Families Conference. We were a Priest, a Rabbi, a Methodist Minister and a UU Minister… no joke. And while the focus of the conference was on how to support gay or lesbian families, and the focus of our panel workshop was on how faith communities can support gay and lesbian families, the conversation ranged through various topics.
For example, one woman asked us about how she could respond to her child’s anger at God. She said “my transgender child is in pain and is asking why God made him wrong.” We on the panel spent a few minutes just acknowledging her pain and her child’s pain. “Yes,” several of us said, “that is a real question. Yes, that pain is real.” Then we added, “God did not make anything ‘perfect.’ And God didn’t make anything ‘wrong’. The world and we are as we are. But we are co-creators with God, perhaps most clearly when we are advocates for justice. Our work is to build a better world – not because God got it wrong but because that is our part of the work. That is the whole point of justice-work. It is not a statement that God got things wrong and we need to fix it. But justice is a response to the brokenness within us and around us, a response to the pain and separation experienced in life.
If you think back on the examples of John Haynes Holmes and Dorothea Dix, you will see that everything they did was a response to the pain and brokenness, a desire to build something lasting that would continue to make the world more whole. Looking at the other examples, that’s what we are doing. The work of justice is everybody’s work and it is a response of compassion to the brokenness and the anger and the separation we experience.
It has long been a point of Unitarian and Universalist theology and practice that all people hold the capacity to act in the world in ways that enhance justice. We do not leave the work to a select few.
Yes, it is good and edifying to consider and carry forward the prophetic words and deeds of women and men from the past, words and deeds that inspire you and challenge you and call you to step up. But then we each can do exactly that: step up. Each of us can make a difference. Each of us can offer prophetic words and deed.
It need not be grand. It need not be far-reaching. It need not be accomplished soon. It need not be something you do alone; indeed it is better to find good people with whom you can engage. Hand in hand. Your voice need not be the most profound or even remembered in the years to come. You need only listen to the heartbreak and brokenness within your heart and in the world around you – listen and respond. Hand in hand, stone by stone. Add your words and your deeds to the ever-growing wellspring of justice that brings the world one step closer to wholeness.
In a world without end, may it be so.
Rev. Douglas Taylor
March 15, 2015
My colleague Meg Riley serves the largest UU congregation of all. She is minister of CLF, the Church of the Larger Fellowship, a ‘church by mail” as it used to be known; although nowadays it is mostly an internet community with a great newsletter called Quest that I still receive in the mail. Meg writes a Minister’s Column for this quarterly mailing, and a few years back, on the topic of Transcendence, she shared these poignant slices of humanity:
I am talking to a man whose wife has just told him she loves someone else. “I need to go to the ocean,” says this Midwesterner, “to see something bigger than my pain.”
I am on the phone with a woman whose sister is dying. Her sister’s young child is inconsolable. “Even here,” says the woman on the phone, “there is beauty. There is joy. Even here, there is something beyond the pain.”
I am reading a letter from a prisoner, behind bars for more than half of his 37 years on the planet. “I have to work hard,” he says, “to see things to be grateful for. But they are always there, and my spiritual practice is to notice them.”
Meg lifts these vignettes up as stories of transcendence. They are examples of the way people tap into something larger than themselves. They are about how folks experience a wholeness and a holiness in the midst of difficulty. Not all stories of transcendence are rooted in hardship, but many are. A. Powell Davies says: “We must find our faith, not in the daylight, but in the dark. If we are ever to come to the light of morning, we must carry our own light with us through the night.” And so, stories of transcendence are often tinged with trauma.
Transcendence is one of those numinous words that are a tricky to really grasp, it is a word that points to a reality beyond our words, a reality that many people have experiences of but few talk about. And yet it is a word that appears in various key documents for us. We talk about it in our UUA sources of authority. “The living tradition we share draws from many sources,” we say. And the first source on that list is “Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life.”
We have that word Transcendence in our local Mission Statement. Our UUCB Mission Statement, as you can read on the back of the order of service, says: “We offer a spiritual home where we explore, celebrate and cherish our interconnectedness, encourage growth and transcendence, and act with justice and compassion.”
We adopted this statement a few years back, and one point I remember hearing at that time was a question about transcendence and the way we use the word in this statement. “We … encourage growth and transcendence.” How do we ‘encourage’ something that we can’t control?
Back a few years ago, the process we used to develop our current mission statement began as an interesting series of conversations. We didn’t start by asking each other to try to name the purpose of the congregation. We began by asking people to each tell a story of transcendence. Then from those stories we lifted up the values that were evident. From the piles and piles of value words we began to create a shared sense of which values we as a community would name as most important. Later those common value words became the backbone of our Mission Statement. But it all started with people telling stories of transcendence.
I have a story I circle back to again and again in my thoughts, a story of transcendence. When I was in high school, I remember sitting alone in the woods near a friend’s house one afternoon. I was not doing anything in particular or thinking about anything in particular. I was not waiting for something or someone. I just had a free afternoon and nothing better to do, so I sat on the ground in the woods. I was staring at a stone. It was not a distinguished stone in any way: just a regular gray flat-ish one about the size of a melon. I suppose I had recently had science lessons about atomic structures because I started thinking about the small parts of the stone that go into making it a stone. I stared at the stone and thought about how it was made up of smaller parts that are in turn made up of even smaller parts. How far down does it go? What is the smallest part made of?
As I thought of little electrons swirling around a nucleus and tried to think about what might be inside subatomic particles, I remembered the silly philosophical question that asks, “What if our universe is just a swirling atom in the big toe of someone in another universe?” Suddenly my perspective shifted, it telescoped out from the very small to the very large. Atoms became planets. I reeled with the awareness that the subatomic particles and giant big toe of another universe were the same thing. For a brief moment a whole universe swirled inside that stone, my whole universe. Everything was connected. Inside that instant the stone and I and ten thousand universes were the same thing.
And then it was over, in less space than a breath it was finished because I noticed myself. I thought, “Hey, I’m having a really profound thought.” And suddenly it was over, my parietal lobe turned back on, the universe fell back into place, and I was simply sitting alone in the woods staring at a stone. Try as I might I could not get the stone to do that trick again.
Transcendence. “Trans,” meaning: beyond, across, over; and “Scandere,” meaning: to climb, as in ‘ascend.’ The roots of the word call to mind early mythic stories of ascend a pole, climbing Jacob’s ladder, sliding up a shaft of light, or riding a golden chariot into heaven – into the realm of the gods, or some higher plane. In Fred Campbell’s book Religious Integrity for Everyone, the author notes how the word “transcendence” implies “larger than.” He explained that “Communities are larger than individuals [and] God is a word used to point to some inclusive reality much larger [still].”
But a story of transcendence does not need to be a story about God – those are just the easiest ones to recognize. A story of transcendence might be about an experience in nature or an encounter with suffering, it might be a story about connections or creativity or compassion. The story might be about anything in the details. The point, particularly for that exercise we were doing to create our Mission statement, was that the story be personal. The story of transcendence you tell does not need to conform to some set of expectations, all it needs is to be yours.
There is a story of an adventurer who went out to explore uncharted regions. He discovered majestic mountain ranges, rolling hillsides, waterfalls and river systems of unsurpassed beauty. He returned to his home town and told the people of his adventures, he tried to convey the wonder and beauty with his words but eventually felt at a loss to express adequately what he had experienced. And so he implored the people to seek out these sights for themselves. They asked him to draw a map that they might see what he saw. The adventurer complied with their request, hoping to inspire them. They received his map with reverence, framed it and displayed it prominently. Generations of scholars studied the map and the people prided themselves on possessing the key to such beauty and wonder – but never once did anyone else from that town ever set foot on the lands represented in the marvelous chart.
The maps are not bad, they’re just not enough. Leave them behind, go forth and meet your own life, experience the universe for yourself. Ten years ago British singer/songwriter Natasha Bedingfeld’s debut album and title song made a splash on this side of the pond. “Feel the rain on your skin,” she sings, “no one else can feel it for you.” Beliefs, doctrines, and great books like the Bible are but maps describing other people’s stories of transcendence. Go discover your own burning bush. Walk through your own 40 days of desert fasting. See with your own eyes the red wing bird in the shifting light. Go get your own experiences, Natasha exhorts, channeling Emerson a bit. “No one else can speak the words on your lips,” she warns. “Drench yourself in words unspoken. Live your life with arms wide open. Today is where your book begins. The rest is still unwritten.”
And here in Unitarian Universalism we sing that same tune. We have maps like the one the adventurer offered that little town. We also know where to find rain you can feel on your own skin. We offer a great many maps, but we affix a warning label to each one declaring that none are authoritative, yet all are reliable! That’s the point of a transcendent experience – it doesn’t need to be anything other than your experience. We all have them.
Peak experiences, that’s what we’re talking about. Lifted moments, mystical flashes or in some way spiritual experiences! It is in these moments we experience an abandonment of mere self and a connection with that which is larger than the self. It is the moment when wonder breaks through and lifts us into new awareness.
Ah, now follow me down this next line of thought. These moments lift us into a new awareness, but an awareness of what? Popular religion author, Karen Armstrong delivered an address in 2000 entitled “The God of All Faiths.” In her talk she said,
All the major traditions that I have studied teach that one of the essential prerequisites for true religious experience is that we abandon the egotism and selfishness that hold us back from the divine. They all teach in one way or another that we are most fully ourselves when we give ourselves away. It is ego that diminishes us, limits our vision and is utterly incompatible with the sacred. But it is very hard to rid ourselves of egotism. Much of what passes for religion is in fact an endorsement of the selfishness that we are supposed to transcend in the ecstasy of faith. People want their prayers answered; they want to get to heaven. They go to church, synagogue or mosque not to cultivate self-abandonment but to affirm their identities.
Armstrong wants the religious experience, or the transcendence story of a person, to lead to a positive change in behavior. She has spent a considerable amount of study on the ethical side of religion and religious experience. Her work on the Charter of Compassion is one of the reasons I am drawn to her books and her writing. So, following that line of conviction on her part, we might ask the following question. If our personal stories of transcendence are rooted in an experience of selflessness, in the transcendence of mere ego, do we become better people after such experiences? An encounter with the holy ought not make a person more bigoted, self-righteous, or dismissive of others.
This leads me to consider that there might be two levels to the experience of transcendence. There is the experience itself, and then the resulting interpretation and impact. Transcendent experiences takes us out of ourselves, connect us if only for a few moments with something larger than ourselves. I experienced a connection with All That Is through a spontaneous meditation in the woods. Over the subsequent years I have applied various interpretations, layers of meaning to that experience and others like it. It took me decades to articulate a link between the experience and my moral compass. I’m not convinced that there is a direct cause-and-effect relationship between my wonder-filled moment of transcendence and my personal moral code. I know there is a connection, but I’m not convinced it is as direct a connection as Karen Armstrong suggests.
But I would definitely say the experience made me a better person. Not because I was kinder or more humble. But I was more aware. I began to move about the world with the knowledge that such experiences do happen, so I watched for them and paid more attention to them when I did experience transcendence again.
Our Mission Statement says “We … encourage growth and transcendence.” Can we ‘encourage’ something that we can’t even control or make happen? Perhaps this hinges on what we might mean by the word ‘encourage.’
I can encourage the seed to grow by giving it good sun, soil, and water. I can encourage my spirit to be in balance by giving it practice and attention and discipline. I can encourage myself to be aware of the moments of transcendence when they come. And even if I never experience another moment of transcendence, I will move through the world with a heightened awareness. I will be watching and listening. I would say that counts as ‘encouraging.’
I bid you to be encouraged. We cannot make transcendent moments happen, but we can prepare ourselves to be receptive for when they do happen. I bid you, be encouraged.
In a world without end,
May it be so.