Reflecting on Evil

Fountain of Peace, St John the Divine

By most counts I am a religion nerd. Not only is it a favorite topic of discussion, but if there is a church, temple, mosque, synagogue, shrine or ritual place of note in the area that allows visitors, I am there. So when I learned that the fourth largest Christian church in the world - the Cathedral of St. John the Divine - was in New York City, I of course had to go.

The cathedral itself was grand, Gothic, and a little too dark, but what I most remember is that just outside the building was a sign inviting visitors to stroll in the “Children's Peace Garden.” And in the center of the small garden, dominating the space, was a very large statue of the Archangel Michael, wings unfurled, sword drawn, standing over the prone and nearly decapitated body of Satan, his horned head hanging over the edge of the piece by a single bronze ligament. And I thought in horror, “Who in their right minds would put something this violent in a children's peace garden?

Reading the inscription, I understood. For the creators of this garden, peace comes when good annihilates evil. In their theology, there are good people and bad people. If you are a good person, then goodness is inherent and evil is external to you, and if you are a bad person, then evil is inherent in you. Actions are neither inherently good nor evil, people are. So killing an evil person is a good act because it reduces the amount of evil in the world. The ends justify the means. According to that theology, Michael decapitating Satan is the triumph of good over evil.

This is the same thinking, regardless of religion, that motivates religious wars and attacks. It's the thinking behind capital punishment. It's the thinking behind most murders, actually, like the many we’ve grieved this month including in Baton Rouge this morning. And if I am honest, it's the same thinking, on a smaller scale, that I revert to when someone has hurt me and my first reaction is to hurt them back. Verbally. When my desire is to say something so devastating that the person is overwhelmed and does not mess with me again.

In those moments, I have to stop and remember that from a Buddhist perspective, overcoming evil doesn't work that way. First, as the Heart Sutra says, “All phenomena in their own-being are empty.” No thing including us is inherently in and of itself anything. All things including us are conditional upon other things. (That whole interdependent web of existence.) Thus, people are neither inherently good nor evil. Whatever state we're in is the result of our conditions.

Now, emptiness doesn't mean that there is no good and evil. It's not “all relative” and “anything goes.” Rather, the focus is on actions, not people. Those actions that benefit beings are wholesome and can be considered good and those that cause harm to beings are unwholesome and can be considered evil.

The focus is on actions, or karma. In common usage, karma is often interchangeable with punishment. Sometimes, punishment and reward. In the original Sanskrit, however, the word “karma” literally means action. Simply put, karma is the consequences of our actions, all consequences of every action. We cannot take any action, good or bad, without it affecting both the wider world AND ourselves. From a Buddhist perspective, even an angel of God such as Michael cannot kill someone, even the Devil himself, without that act of violence tainting their own being, making them more inclined to violence in the future. Because of karma, the means are the ends. Thus, we cannot end evil through violence, because violence itself increases the evil in the world.

And unfortunately, that includes name-calling and insults. The only way to overcome evil is to meet it with good, to meet violence with compassion. SO MUCH easier said than done. But then I remember that the good news is, if every action we take affects our being, then when we do kind things - even if we don't feel particularly kind at the moment - it makes it easier for us to be kind in the future. Little by little, it makes us better people. We really can “fake it to make it.”

Awe in Response to Beauty

A friend posted this video on Facebook this morning and one of his friends explained that it was created by a Russian missile gone awry.  (Soyuz-u vehicle Oct 15, 2009)  Watching it, two things came to mind:

1.  Wednesday evening I attended the second in a three-week course on Process Theology at UUSF, taught by Rev John Buehrens.  At one point, Rev. Buehrens explained how Alfred Whitehead felt that Western philosophy with its emphasis on "Truth" had veered too intellectual, and thus Whitehead tried to bring us back by focusing on aesthetics, our sense of awe in response to encountering Beauty.  The thing that engenders humilty and recognition that there is something bigger than us.

2.  Years ago I was talking with a young man sitting next to me on an airplane, and he said that nothing human-made was beautiful, that he only recognized beauty in "natural" things.  I asked him whether he'd ever seen the view of Los Angeles (which we were flying into) at night from the top of Mulholland Drive.  He repeated more adamantly that nothing human-made could ever be beautiful.  And I wondered how strong one's ideology had to be in order to not see beauty in the view from Mulholland Drive at night.

You can't get more human-made than a missile.  All metal and electronics and explosives, its very purpose is ugly, to kill.  If you asked me before I saw this video whether a missile could ever be beautiful, I probably would have said 'No.'  Yet here is this mesmerizingly beautiful video.  (Which is not to say that it might not also have created some real ugliness at the same time.)  And I am watching the video via a laptop connected to the internet.  More human-made metal, plastic, and electronics.  And it's still beautiful.

One of the main points that I see in process theology (or process thought) is that humans are not separate from the rest of existence.  We are part of the interdependent web, impacting it and being impacted by it, no different than any other part.  Together - all the parts of the web together - we co-create reality.   So if nature creates beauty, then how can humans who are an integral part of nature not also create beauty?  (And ugliness and everything in between.)  To claim otherwise is to set humans apart from nature.  It's to claim a special, exalted place, even if we claim that all we do is ugly and harmful.   Ironically, true humility recognizes both the "good" and "bad", both the beauty and the ugliness.

Emptiness and Social Policy

The last time I was in DC, my friend Michael Roehm observed to me that UUs spend a lot of time talking about interdependency, but we don't spend much time thinking about emptiness (both are concepts in Buddhism, and related to each other, kinda like infinity and zero). I have been reminded repeatedly of the truth of his words ever since then, including today. 

This afternoon I was listening to NPR about the disproportionate expulsions of Black and Latino students from schools, and the (misguided) reasoning behind it being that if you remove the "bad" kids, that will make it easier for the "good" kids to learn.  (The article used those words, "bad" and "good," so I am using them too.)  Obviously racism is the primary driving force; how else to explain why black and brown students are thought of as "bad" for committing the same kind of infractions as white students.  But in along side the racism is this belief that people are inherently something.  Inherently good.  Inherently bad... Our social policies are based on this belief.  Hence, we focus on getting rid of the "bad" people, whether by expelling students or locking up prisoners with no attempt at rehabilitation.  (And we let "good" people off the hook with no accountability even when they do decidedly bad things, because, well, they are inherently "good" so the fact that they did something bad was just a temporary glitch, an exceptional circumstance.)  If, instead of thinking of people as inherently "good" or "bad," we focused on emptiness, then we'd see that people reflect back what they experience.  In that case, our social policy would change from that of trying to separate out and eliminate the "bad" to that of trying to create the conditions and causes that lead people to behave in more beneficial ways. 

The Parable of the Two Sons

based on Matthew 21: 28-32

Once upon a time, there was a family that was known through out the town for their goodness.  This family was held in high esteem by everyone.  If there was ever a dispute between neighbors, this family was able to find a solution that worked for both parties.  If there was ever a need in the community, this family was able to support the filling of that need.  This was a good family.  They believed that actions that resulted in the expansion of good were important in order to have a wonderful and loving community. 

Now there were two sons in this family of roughly the same age.  Wherever they went, they met people who told them what a good family they came from.  Hearing these things made them feel good.

In school, the teachers would tell them, “Jason and Bryan, you come from such a good family.  We know your grandfather, what a good man he is. He has been so very helpful to the community.  If it weren’t for him, we wouldn’t have clean water here because he found a way to purify the wells that were contaminated.”  Their grandfather was head of the city health department and made sure that the city had clean water. 

The school’s foot ball coach would say, “Bryan and Jason, I know your father. He is such a good man.  Why if it weren’t for him, we wouldn’t have a decent volunteer firehouse with a Hook and Ladder truck.”  Their father was a volunteer firefighter and helped organize the community to raise the money for the truck to ensure they were ready in case the taller buildings had a major fire.  One such fire happened and because they had a Hook and Ladder truck they were able to prevent a tall building from burning to the ground. More importantly the fire fighters were able to save a family that was trapped on the upper floors. 

There was another time when a complete stranger came up to them and said, “Aren’t you Elizabeth’s sons?”  They shook their heads, yes.  “Well, your mom is one of the finest women in town.  She helped my children have access to the town library because it wasn’t wheelchair accessible.  You see, my two children were born with physical disabilities and they are unable to walk. But your mom worked with the library and the city to find the money to put in ramps to enable my children and other children like mine to use the library. I am so glad to have met you fine young men.”      

Everywhere Bryan and Jason went there were accolades given to their family about all the good things their family did for others.  The stories of how their family made the community better for others continued to be told.  And in time Bryan and Jason came to believe that they were good simply because they came from a good family.

Then one day something happened at school.  Bryan and Jason told their parents about it.  There were two girls who wanted to go to the school dance as a couple and were told that they could not go; only boy/girl couples could go.  Their parents asked them if it was fair that a girl couple be denied to attend the dance.  After some discussion, their parents asked Jason and Bryan if they would be willing to start a petition to give to the school board requesting these girls to be allowed to go to their dance.  Jason said he would not because he didn’t want to be made fun of by his football team.  Bryan said he would do it. 

But Bryan did not start the petition.  He decided he didn’t care if two girls could go to the prom or not after all it didn’t affect him.  

Jason begin to think of his grandfather’s work with getting clean water, his father’s work on having a fire truck, his mother’s work on having wheelchair ramps at the library. He remembered all these good things that his family did to help others and so he changed his mind and began the petition after all.  Jason reasoned that if the school could tell two girls they couldn’t go to the school prom, what else would they do to keep people from being themselves?  On Saint Patrick’s Day would they keep him from wearing the green plaid kilt his aunt bought him in Ireland to honor his Irish heritage? 

So Jason circulated the petition. Teachers, students, and community members signed it.  He received so many signatures that the school board decided to allow the girls to go to the dance as a couple.

Now sometimes, Bryan gets asked if Jason is his brother.  When he tells them yes, he is told, “Jason is a fine young man.  He stood up to fight an injustice in the school and if he hadn’t done that,  then girl couples and boy couples who wanted to go to the dance would not be allowed.  He is a good man just like his parents and grandparents.” Bryan tells them that he initially wanted to help with the petition and that Jason did not.  They reply, “But did you act on your good intention?” No, Bryan would shake his head.  They would sigh and say, “Good intentions mean nothing; it is good actions that make a difference.”

Reflections on Pluralism and Theologies of Justice

Like Adam, I am lucky enough to be able to attend the Convocation on Theology of Justice and Ministry currently being held just outside of Baltimore. It is late Wednesday night, almost Thursday morning, but I am just posting about Tuesday because it’s taking me that long to digest the rich diet of ideas being offered.

We started the Convocation by devoting the first session to our UU theological and historical background in social justice – our religious grounding. We heard from three provocative panelists – Rebbecca Parker, Dan McKannan, and Jill Schwendemn. One theme that emerged was to recognize the rich history that we have coming out of two liberal Christian traditions – the Unitarians and the Universalists, and the importance to ritual to reaffirm our values. This being a UU convocation, those of us in the audience were asked to engage in these questions for ourselves – to think about how our own faith impacts our social justice work. I thought about how both the Christian tradition of the culture in which I grew up and the Buddhist tradition of my ancestral culture were equally important to me. The Judeo-Christian stories are so familiar and emotionally powerful. Yet at the same time, I do not want those traditions to be privileged over others such as Buddhism and Hinduism. The need to recognize the religious pluralism within our UU congregations mirrors the need to recognize and celebrate diversity in all its forms in our society.

The second session took up the problem of suffering, brokenness, and evil in the world, and our appropriate response. If the earlier session celebrated our UU and American heritage, then the evening’s panelists – Taquiena Boston, Victoria Safford, and Sharon Welch – all gave beautiful, painful testimonies as to where we have been unable to fully address the challenges that arise in an imperfect world. The room struggled with the concept of evil and wondered whether it was necessary to confess complicity by making the statement “I am evil.” Dr. Welch stressed a non-dualistic approach, recognizing and addressing acts of oppression while at the same time not labeling others as “evil” in a way that evokes animosity towards them and thus perpetuates the cycle. And Rev. Safford talked about how the choices that we make to no longer do harm are not one-time events. The choice must be made over and over again. What I understood from her was that we have been conditioned to be inclined to make the choices that we make. That doesn’t absolve us of responsibility for our choices but it recognizes that simply choosing once would not be enough.

As I listened to the conversations from both the afternoon and evening – discussions of “sin” and the means to “reconciliation” – I felt that it would be helpful if we UUs became conversant in other faith traditions – if we truly understood the concept of karma.

I do not mean the Westernized understanding of karma as a punishment and reward system. That comes from imposing the concepts of “good” and “evil” and a “divine judge” on an Eastern concept. Karma is not based on judgment. It is merely the consequences of one’s actions. Harmful acts have harmful consequences. Understanding this allows us to name and admit to oppressive acts without the debilitating judgment of “evil doer.” It tells us that the need to choose to end oppression is urgent for every moment that we allow it to continue (which is a choice), we generate more bad karma, the consequences of our actions (or inaction). What’s more karma reminds us that even when we choose the loving act, our work is not done. We will have to choose over and over again because the consequences of past harmful choices are still with us. It reminds us that there are no easy fixes to repair the world and build Beloved Community. But it also follows that if we act in love, steadily, that reconciliation and wholeness are inevitable.

Five L's

By Eric Burch

Delivered at First UU Congregation of Second Life

On Oct 16, 2008


>> The Global Chalice Lighting for October 2008.

I'm going to start a little tradition here in Second Life.
The International Council of Unitarians and Universalists has been distributing a "Global Chalice Lighting"
every month for over 5 years.
They ask that particpating congregations include it in one service every month,
and identify the chalice lighting as the "Global Chalice Lighting."
This will remind us that we are part of a worldwide movement.

Bless the work that we do,
And the silence that falls upon us,
And the joy that stirs within us.
And let praise rise to our lips
Naturally out of the fullness of our hearts.
 --Sheila Crosskey, British General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches

>> Reading
A reading for one part of my topic today.
It is from the current minister of the Church of the Larger Fellowship.

"The Glove in the Subway"

A one-paragraph newspaper article describes a subway platform during the morning rush hour at Grand Central Terminal.
A train pulls in; a well-dressed woman gets off.
Before the doors close, the woman realizes that she is holding only one of her leather gloves.
She looks back into the train and spots the matching one on the seat.
It is obviously too late to dash back in to retrieve it, so with a cavalier shrug,
she flings her arm out and, the doors about to close, tosses her glove onto the seat alongside its mate.
The doors shut, and the train pulls away.

What a great image.
One could use it, I suppose, as a metaphor for facing the inevitable,
or arguing for an orderly universe, or even, with a little stretch, for sharing the good things in life.
But, as we move into the summer season, the metaphor that comes to mind is the one of "letting go."

To throw a favorite leather glove into the oblivion of a moving train
must involve small pangs of uncertainty, pangs of some degree of loss, pangs of upset.
After a lifetime of struggling not to lose our mittens, then our gloves, cavalier abandonment does not come easy.

In New England at least, our pattern is to cling, as we cling to our gloves,
to routine, hard work, and obligation, all fall, all winter, and right through to the Fourth of July.
But in the summertime, there is a letting go.
We close up our schools and our churches, put our overcoats in mothballs,
and dust off the swan boats, the lobster pots and last year's new gas grill.
We need that.
We need to cast that glove of responsibility back into the train.
We need a vigorous and decisive toss about now to free ourselves of the confining gloves of life, even if we love them.

And the train's about to leave.
 -- Jane Ranney Rzepka

>> Homily "Five Ells"

As en engineer, one thing I use are checklists to make sure that I follow all the steps of whatever activity I'm performing.
My wife has always been amused that I have always used a checklist to make sure I take care of all the
little steps of preparing the house when we leave for vacation: things like turning off the water heater and checking the windows.
At work I have two checklists: one covers all the little things I do just before I leave; things like insure certain
computer systems are still running and certain safes are locked.
The other list is for the start of the day, and it has 5 short statements to remind me what I have to do during the day.

"God is a verb" said Buckminster Fuller, a Unitarian.
It is one expression of Process Theology--where God is not thought to be like a separate personality,
but is something that is larger than what we see.
"God" is something outside of us, yet we are part of God.

I have talked about Process Theology, and probably will again.
But if God is a verb, what would the verbs be?

One list of words that I have heard about is the "Five 'L' Verbs."
Let Go

These are the words I have on that checklist at work:
these are the five things that I really do try to do every day.
And I can say that in the year that I've had those words on my wall at work,
many of my best days are those when I can do all 5 items.

I wrote most of this homily last night, before the call from Puerto Rico with the sad news about my mother-in-law passing away.
Like many things one writes, a few minutes can change everything.

"Love" is the simplest, and can be the hardest.
But it means to love everyone--to deeply and genuinely respect everyone.
Here in SL, sometimes we have to rise above those whom we sometimes encounter.
At work, it might not be more than the respect for the inherent worth of some individuals you work with.
Love mostly works at your home, where your day starts and ends; where your thoughts are both under the roof
with those close to you, and with those thousands of miles away.

"Learn" is another simple one, though one has to be ready to learn at any time.
The hardest part at times is to admit that one must learn something--we don't always know everything,
and sometimes what we think is right is wrong.
We have to see beyond that which we are familiar; it is the unexpected lesson that is most valuable.

"Labor" is what we spend most of our week at work, of course.
But we also have to labor outside of our employment; we have to work at home, and work
to help those who we love.
Labor should be more than intellectual--one has to move, one has to get the energy flowing.
You have to feel the world moving around you.
We have to know that we have moved something form one place to another, improving our entire world.

"Laugh" is easy, at times.
It is important to not take ourselves terribly seriously.
I am reminded that at then end of it all, it's not what we might have done that people will always remember,
but how we have touched others.
And many times, that is our laughter, shared.

"Let Go" is the hardest, and this can be harder than we imagine.
We have to learn to let go of those things that hold us back.
Sometimes they are concrete things--objects that vex us--the example of the glove in the reading.
Many times it is ideas, dominating our thinking and keeping us from moving to the next step.
Sometimes it takes two to fully let go--many times it takes one to let the other know that it is
time to let go.
"Letting go" is hardest because there are times when it is healthy to hold on to ideas and things
for longer than we think we should--"letting go" becomes "giving up" and that can be worse.

These are just 5 verbs.
They are one attempt to pin a definition on the undefinable.
A useful exercize for a small-group ministry might be to try to define other small lists that try to define
our relationship with the fullness of existence that Process theologians try to pin down.

>>  Discussion.

Do these verbs work?
Is the list missing something very important?
Perhaps limiting ourselves to just one letter is too small?
Love, Learn, Labor, Laugh, Let go....
What are your thoughts?

 >>  Closing Words.

Go in peace.
Hold in your heart the certainty
That the spirit of life is with you always.

When your heart is torn asunder
Or when you soar with sweet joy,
You are never alone, never apart,
From the spirit that resides within us,
That guides our lives and cherishes us always.

Take comfort.

Be well, the service is over.  Amen.

Free Will, Meaning and Morality

An interesting discussion came up on one of the online discussion forums. Someone posted the results of an fMRI study where researchers found patterns of brain activity that predict people's decisions up to 10 seconds before they're aware they've made a choice. The poster then asked the question whether this was the end of the belief in free will.

The study itself does prove there's no free will. But it does highlight how disassociated our "consciousnesses" are. We perceive ourselves as an integrated whole when in reality, different parts of the brain attend to different things. We are, as Buddhism teaches us, collections of aggregates.

But even tho this study doesn't disprove free will, if one understands the nature of science, one understands that there is no room for the concept of free will within science, just as there is no room for the concept of God. Let's be clear here. This isn't to say that science says there is no God/free will. Science doesn't say anything about either; it can't by its very nature. 

And so, even if/when in the future neuroscientists map out our entire complex brains and find predictive correlations between neural activity patterns and what we perceive as our "decisions," even when science gets to the point where it says it can explain "choice," there will be no room for free will in there.  Any scientific explanation of "choice" has to be a reductionist, materialist explanation.  The only reason why we can hold onto the illusion of free will is because the decision making process is as of yet unexplained.  When it is explained, it will be in terms of synaptic weights and stimulus strengths - wiring, environment, and chance.

It was this realization that caused me to leave science. Not because I was disillusioned - I still love science - but because I realized that I most wanted was not to be found there.  I want meaning, which for me necessitates free will.  I need to believe that I have a choice (even if highly constrained) and that my choices matter.

My theology is that God and creation work together in partnership to co-create creation. (I am that I am. I am becoming that I am becoming.) In my theology, which is a process theology, free will is that which allows co-creation by us having the ability to choose differently. To create the new, the surprise. Without it, there is no "creation." Just... randomness constrained by patterns playing itself out.

What's more, I can't make sense of ethics/morality without a concept of free will. What does it mean for someone's actions to be moral or immoral if there is no choice? What would it mean to try to cultivate moral character as Aristotle encouraged us to do?  Ethics and morality are based on the assumption that we have a choice in the actions we take. There is no point in delineating what is a moral action and what is an immoral action if, in the end, we have no choice in what we do anyway.

Holy Saturday

Btw, Happy Purim, Happy Holi, and Happy Norooz!

I'm told that the day between Good Friday and Easter Sunday is called Holy Saturday.  It seems more like "Holely Saturday" to me, as in something is missing.  From the despair of Good Friday to the exultations of Easter Sunday, what happens in the in-between time?  Caught between death and rebirth, Saturday almost seems like a time to sleep.  A time to rest and dream.

Let's assume for the sake of argument that there was a resurrection - whether bodily or spiritually or (to phrase it in the language of Buddhism) somehow the collection of aggregates known to us as Jesus of Nazareth continued on in some way.  (Certainly, that much seems to be the case, doesn't it?)  Assuming there was a resurrection, my question is: did Jesus even want to be resurrected?  Maybe when he was in the garden pleading with God to "take this cup from me" he wasn't just talking about the impending crucifixion but also the resurrection.  Maybe Jesus was tired and wanted to sleep.

As he lay in the cool, dark tomb, did he take refuge in oblivion?

But we who were left behind, we couldn't be satisfied with his dying for us, paying the ultimate price for his love for us.  Earning a respite.  There was no comfort in that for us, we who still fear death.  So we dragged him out of death by our sheer will, held him up as a shining example, made him our intercessor for the entire world.  Congratulations, we've given you eternal life.  Now you can be our savior forevermore.  

I don't really know where I'm going with all this.  I'm just thinking that maybe Jesus was tired and wanted to sleep.  Did anyone ever ask him what he wanted?

Of course, we don't always get what we want, often not.  And in a world as broken as ours, we may want to rest and not have that luxury.  Maybe the time between 3 pm on Friday and sunrise on Sunday was all Jesus got.  I hope he made the most of it.

Universalism: what a radical idea

Back in October, I participated in an Interfaith Dialogue facilitator training.  Tonight, a few of us finally got around to going to the next level - engaging in Dialogue amongst ourselves and practicing facilitation.  Our group consisted of ten participants, 2 Christians, 3 Jews, 2 Baha'i, 1 Muslim and 1 Unitarian Universalist (me).

During the course of getting to know each other, I got to explain how Unitarian Universalism comes from the joining of two traditions that both came out of Protestant Christianity - how Unitarianism rejected the trinity and the Calvinist notion that we are "totally depraved," and how Universalism rejected the Calvinist notion of "limited atonement."  Only a few are going to heaven.

Granted that everyone in the room was there for the purpose of interfaith dialogue, so we have a self-selected group of people who are more likely to be accepting of differing beliefs.  So it was perhaps not surprising that as I explained how UUs don't believe that Jesus is God, everyone in the room nodded politely, even the Christians.

But when I got to Universalism, and explained how it meant that no one was going to hell, there was a minor uproar in the room.  "No one goes to hell?" someone asked, "But what about people like Jeffrey Dahmer?"  Technically, this kind of response is against the rules of interfaith dialogue, but I understood their shock.  I sat there and remarked, "Yes, I guess it is a very radical concept."

It is an amazingly radical concept, much more so than rejecting the trinity.  The participants in the room soon caught themselves and we went on in polite exchange.  But I have heard from other people who tell me that the idea of universal salvation offends their notion of justice.  "If God is just," they tell me, "then there has to be a hell."  Oddly, they seem to put conditions on God, that this particular thing has to be true, regardless of God's omnipotence, because their sense of justice demands it.  

What about the sense of mystery?  What about, "I don't know how it works but God's love is powerful enough that God can bring everyone back into right relations." Everyone.  Anything less is failure.

I don't know how it works.  But I do agree with Hosea Ballou, who argued that we human beings, being finite creatures, are incapable of committing infinite sin.  And that being the case, infinite punishment is not justice.

I don't know how it works.  These days I do not think much of the afterlife, if there is one.  In this life and in this divided world, the way that I interpret universal salvation is thus: No one is saved unless everyone is saved.  Salvation, whatever that means, is communal, not individual.  And we cannot create God's Kingdom on earth so long as we see only some of us as saved, and some of us as damned.  

I don't know how it works.  But I know that we have to start with the assumption that everyone is saved.

Why We Are Non-Creedal

Another thing that came up at the "Now is the Time" conference, surprisingly, was creedalism. One of the participants, in his desire to spread the good news of Unitarian Universalism to people of color, argued that we should do away with our wishy-washy "noncreedalism" - that this type of moral relativism would turn off PoCs who's realities tell them that not all views are equally valid. He argued that it was time we UUs took up a creed and suggested our Seven Principles.

I went up to him and adamantly defended our non-creedalism. (We parted on good terms.) Actually, I agreed with him whole-heartedly about being against moral relativism, which is, I think, a superficial, "feel-good" stance reserved only for those who have never experienced oppression. But creedalism is not the answer. There is a world of difference between saying that all views are equally valid and saying that there is only one right one, which is what creedalism does. I want to be somewhere in between those two extremes.

Not all views are equally valid. Some are in fact quite harmful. Unitarian Universalism does NOT say that you can believe whatever you want. NO. But UU does explicitly affirm "acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth" (our third principle), "a free and responsible search for truth and meaning" (our fourth principle), and "the right of conscience" (our fifth principle). All of these assert that there is no single correct Truth - something that people must agree upon before they can be in community with us.

And that is what a creed is; it's an assertion of "Truth" that others must accept in order to be part of the religious community." The Nicene Creed. The Apostles' Creed. They are a test about "correct beliefs" to see who gets into the club and who doesn't. For us to say we are creedal would be to say that we don't accept people for who they are, we don't encourage them to grow and search for truth (because, after all, we already have it), and we deny the right of conscience. Right of conscience is like one of the cornerstones of UU, imo.

If we are to take our Seven Principles seriously, we cannot have a creed. Our universalism is quite clear and demanding on this subject. If for some reason a skinhead or a Nazi came through our doors wanting to be in relationship with us, then we are in relationship with him or her. We can unequivocally reject his/her racist beliefs and forbid their expression within our walls, for the sake of our other members. But we cannot reject the person.

Unitarian Universalism has no creed.


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