wizdUUm Blogs on Theology

There IS an Elephant

One of my pet peeves about what passes for "liberalism" these days is moral relativism. Don't get me wrong, I am a post-modernist through and through. I do believe that things must be judged in the context in which they are created and that people with different experiences can interpret the same thing differently and both be right.

But it does not follow from that that anything goes. Even if morality is contextual, there are still some things that are always wrong. For example, I can think of no context whatsoever where torturing a baby for the fun of it would be considered ok.

I understand to some extent the motivation for eschewing judgment. So many times in the past, moral judgment has motivated great harm. If we say something as stupid as "Christians good, Jews bad" then yes, it is the judgment itself that is the problem. But it doesn't follow that all judgment is to be avoided. The laissez-faire kind of "liberalism" is morally lazy imo. If we can't respond to the immorality of something like the holocaust, then what good are we? When someone else is killing people, "live and let live" is not an appropriate response. And really, that kind of liberalism is an option reserved only for the privileged, only for those who do not suffer.

Another common argument that I've heard is that there is no such thing as right and wrong, that it's all a human construct. Ironically, many of these folks point to eastern traditions such as Taoism and Buddhism to bolster their arguments. But it's based on a false understanding of these traditions, imo.

For example, some people point to the balance between Yin and Yang in Taoism - between light and dark, male and female, heaven and earth - and extrapolate from this that Taoism advocates for a balance between good and evil. But comparing good and evil to things like light and dark immediately begs the question, which is which? Is darkness evil? No. In Taoism, "evil" is not darkness, or Yin. Instead, evil arises from the imbalance between Yang and Yin. Taoism, like all the other great religions, seeks the balance - the good.

I've also heard people use the parable of the blind men and the elephant as an argument for relativism. They argue that the parable teaches us that there is no objective Truth, and therefore we can't judge. This is a distortion of one of my favorite parables. Indeed, the story says we can never know Truth/God's will with certainty. By perceiving Truth subjectively we distort it, but subjectively is the only way in which we can perceive it. Therefore the story cautions us to be circumspect in our judgments, but does not negate their validity.

What some people forget in this story is that there IS an elephant. Our limited sense may allow us to only experience a small part of it, but the elephant (Truth/God's will) still exists. The corollary to that is ALL of the interpretations of the elephant are valid. They are REAL experiences of the Divine. The mistake is to then try to impose one's own experience and subsequent interpretations on others as the only valid viewpoints.

There IS an elephant. We ARE capable of perceiving it, albeit in our limited ways. And we ARE capable of perceiving what is right and what is wrong, albeit in our limited ways. It would be far easier to give up due to the difficulty in navigating this terrain. But as moral agents who carry the divine spark in each of us, we have the capacity and obligation to respond to injustice.

The Theology of the Privileged

UU World published an article called, Not My Father's Religion in its Fall edition that I didn't think much about. I didn't think much about it because I agreed with what it said and thought it fairly obvious. Ours is a religion of the privileged. It is less likely to appeal to those who are working class. This is something that we need to work on.

But the latest issue of UU World is out and a firestorm of angry letters by supposedly open-minded and enlightened UUs made me take another look. Not everyone was critical, but for those who were the gist of the argument is that UU is welcoming of all folks, and that it's the author (Doug Muder) who is biased for thinking that our message would not appeal to the working class.

This is very similar to how some people accuse us of being racist for wanting to address racial privilege. At the heart of the disagreement is the inability to see how one perspective is just a perspective, not universal. It is invisible to them, so they angrily think we are inventing problems where none exist. They think that it's the messengers who are the problem.

We who have grown up middle to upper-middle class, we who are mostly college educated if not more, we who had family who were able to assist us when we needed it, our experience tells us that the world is full of possibilities and all we have to do is be smart enough to make the right choices and work hard and we'll succeed. And if we do make mistakes there will be other chances. Our experiences influence our world view influence our theology. And our theology is based on the celebration of choice. Mine certainly is.

My theology says that when Adam and Eve chose to eat of the apple, they did not "fall" but rather opened up a world of exciting possibilities. I celebrate the story as our collective claiming of our freedom (and responsibility) to choose and to be responsible for the consequences of our choices. And in our history, early Unitarians emphasized a spiritual practice of "self-culture," believing in our potential to grow to become more and more like God by the choices that we make. Early Unitarians were also the cultural elite of New England, the "Boston Brahmins."

What does this theology mean for whom the next paycheck is the difference between a roof over head and being out on the streets? For whom contemplating a career change at mid-life because the current one "isn't fulfilling enough" is not an option - not if you want to be able to feed your kids. What does the theology of choice mean for someone whose choices are extremely limited?

I am deeply invested in the theology of choice, and yet I also know this theology has little meaning for someone like my parents, who did what they had to do so that my brother and I could be angsty about "personal fulfillment." I don't know how to reconcile these things. But I know these issues are important for us to hold.

The Spirit in Islam

I am feeling that shiver of excitement that I feel every time I discover a connection.

Over the last few weeks, a discussion group at church, has been reading "No god but God" by Reza Aslan. For those of you who still don't know about it, I can't possibly praise this book enough. It's a loving yet critical overview of the history of Islam, starting with an account of the religio-socio-political environment into which Mohammed was born, then the Prophet's life, then the four caliphs up until the Sunni/Shi'a split. The insights that Aslan presents are astounding, describing Islam as in the throes of a Reformation, with its future dependent on which side wins.

But that's not why I bring it up tonight. I'm excited because of the following passage in his description of Sufism.

During the first stages of the Way (where the majority of humanity find themselves), the nafs, which is the self, the ego, the psyche, the "I" - however one chooses to define the "sum of individualistic egoistic tendencies" - remains the sole reality. As the disciple moves along the Way he discovers the ruh, or Universal Spirit. The Quran refers to the ruh as the "breath of God" blown into Adam to give life to his body (15:29). In this sense, the ruh is equated with the divine, eternal, animating spirit that permeates creation - that is itself the essence creation. The ruh is Pure Being. It is that which Hindus call prana and Taoists call ch'i; it is the ethereal force underlying the universe that Christian mystics refer to when they speak of the Holy Spirit.

Not only are there the wonderful similarities to Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism with reference to the Way, ch'i, prana, and the expansion of the understanding of self from individual self/soul/atman to Self/Soul/Atman/God. But there is ruh, in Hebrew Ruach. The breathe of God. The Spirit of God. The Holy Spirit. The Spirit of Life.

The Enneagram

I learned something new today - the Enneagram.  It's kinda like the Myers-Briggs, a personality "inventory."  A colleague shared it with us today. 

The word enneagram actually refers to a nine-pointed geometrical structure (just like a pentagram is five-pointed). But in terms of the enneagram of personality, it is the belief that all people fit into one of nine different personality types - nine archetypal ways in we view ourselves and the world and our relation to the world.

It's thought that these nine types originally come from Sufi beliefs, and that together the nine types of people make up "the face of God." (This is interesting to me because I know that in Islam, nine is the perfect number, the number closest to God.) In that context, contemplating the enneagram is more than just a way to understand psychological interactions, but is a means to enlightenment. 

I'm still digesting it, and frankly find it to be more difficult to grasp than the Myers-Briggs but that may just be familiarity.  Anyway, I won't go into detail except to mention one thing I noticed with respect to the ennegagram as a spiritual tool.

According to Susan, the nine types are grouped into threes.
Types 8, 9, and 1 are motivated more by anger - they think w/their gut.  They are doers.
Types 2, 3, and 4 are motivated more by need for recognition from others - they think w/their heart.  They are relators.  
Types 5, 6, and 7 are motivated more by fear - they think w/their mind.  They are thinkers.  (I'm a 5.)

Well these three groups remind me of the three margas (paths) or yogas (unions) of Hinduism - karma (action), bhakti (devotion), and jnana (wisdom) respectively.  Hinduism recognizes that different people have different natural proclivities, and thus are suited to different spiritual paths.  No path is better than another, tho a path may be better suited for any one person than another path.  In short, there are those who prefer to act/do things, those who prefer to relate/show their devotion, and those who prefer to philosophize.  In the end, all three are necessary for moksha (liberation).  That is, all three are necessary for union with the Divine, much like the three groups of the nine types of the Enneagram.

And I do truly believe, lest we end up in feckless navel-gazing, maudlin sentimentality, or blind action, that all three - head, heart, and hands are necessary for the full spiritual life.

If you're interested in learning more, I found this site to be very helpful:
www.enneagraminstitute.com

And here's an online diagnostic:
www.similarminds.com/test.html

 

The Fall and the Fall

Happy Autumn Equinox Everybody!!

And Happy Fall. The "Fall" of Adam and Eve, that is. I would like to take time today to celebrate what Milton called "the blessed Fall."

In standard Christian theology, the Fall is seen as a tragic event. Humanity entered into sinfulness and were tossed out of Eden as punishment. I believe that the Fall was not only a blessed event, but inevitable, in "God's plan." The "Fall," the conscious decision to choose something different from "God's will" was necessary for humanity to grow up - to take moral responsibility, and thus be able to co-create (as partners with God) our own "destiny." Not something "pre-ordained" by another but chosen by us.

The loss of Eden was not a punishment; it too was inevitable. A&E learned the difference between good and evil and were no longer innocent. With their new-found knowledge they simply could not stay in that state of blissful ignorance. Before A&E ate from the tree/disobeyed, they theoretically could have been torturing baby animals and it would not have been a "sin" because God did not say they couldn't, and they were incapable of knowing why it was wrong. That was the "paradise" in which they lived. But after gaining the knowledge between good and evil, then they did not need commandments to tell them what was right and wrong. They knew it for themselves and could not help knowing it even if they didn't want to.

We leave Eden when we separate from God, or from Ultimate reality if you prefer. And yes, it is painful and yes, we want to return. Many would like to return to that exact same state of innocence/ignorance and lack of responsibility. It is the wrong kind of innocence to be pursuing. The only true option is to go forward. The Paradise/Heaven/Nirvana ahead of us is not the same as the one we left. The paradise ahead of us is the one that is without guilt because we do not do those things that would make us guilty. It is the Beloved Community.

As a questioning Christian teen one of the things that I never understood was why it wouldn't start all over again. Ok, so Adam and Eve ate the fruit and now we're all cursed with original sin. Then Jesus died for us so that our sins washed away and we can get into heaven. But then.... what's to prevent the whole thing from happening over again? The only way it wouldn't all happen over again is if there is an internal transformation, not just external "salvation." Christ may show us the way but we are our own "saviors." Ain't that both awesome and an awesome responsibility?

Celebrate the Fall. Celebrate your moral agency. And work towards our Paradise. Happy Fall.

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