Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Why a Gnostic UU blog?

I have been a Unitarian-Universalist since first encountering the faith in Decatur, Illinois, back in 1998.  So about 20 years now.  Those of you familiar with Unitarian-Universalism (or UU as it is commonly abbreviated) probably know if has some difficultly being described and summarized.  It is a religion that requires no particular or set beliefs about God - in fact you can be an atheist and still be a perfectly good UU.  Rather than a religion of shared beliefs, it is often referred to as a religion of shared values.  Congregations agree to affirm and promote seven principles that aren't specific beliefs but rather are general value statements.  And individuals in the congregations don't have to affirm or promote all of them - the individual just has to commit to be a part of the congregation that does.  (In practice if you don't buy into the seven principles, staying with the congregation that affirms and promotes them probably becomes tedious.  I don't know many folk [though I did correspond with one on email at one point] who are UUs but profess to not support the seven principles.)

But one does wonder what makes such system a religion as opposed to a gathering of folk who just happen to share some values.  After all, many Christians and Hindus share many values but don't consider themselves to be part of the same religion.  What defines UUism as a religion is not simple.  A popular thing for many Americans to say these days is that they are "spiritual but not religious."  If you look at the characteristics of folks who identify that way and compare them to UUs there is lot of overlap.  Many UUs fit very closely into the description of "spiritual but not religious" but are part of a religion!  This is hard to wrap one's head around, but recently I got some help in my thinking on this.  As usual the assistance came from my wife.

She is a religion scholar at Rice University and her most recent book is "The Gnostic New Age: How a Countercultural Spirituality Revolutionized Religion from Antiquity to Today."  In it she comes up with a new way of thinking about what a religion is and how it relates to spirituality. In her model spirituality "points to the metaphysical orientation that directs our lives. ... It is our view of reality.  It is the metaphysical matrix that we live within."  How are spirituality and religion related in this model?  "It is the spirituality of a people, their orientation toward the existential, transcendent, and sacred, that generates an organized religion in which people can come together in community.  The religion serves as the institutional platform, reinforcing the spirituality that originally generated the religion."  (Quotes taken from the first Chapter of "The Gnostic New Age" - a really important chapter entitled "The Matrix of Ancient Spirituality.")

The way this helped me with UUism is that the spirituality is the foundation rather than beliefs.  And although UUism professes to have no set creedal beliefs, the sources and principles that each UU congregation covenant to affirm, helps us define a spirituality that UUism institutionalizes and then generates a religion.  In her book April (sorry, I just can't call my wife Professor DeConick - just doesn't feel right!) discusses several spiritualities common in western religions the most recently developed one being Gnostic spirituality. I won't go into the details right now, this post is getting pretty long, but the basis for me calling this blog "The Gnostic UU" is that of the four types of spirituality she describes the one that for me describes the UU spirituality is the Gnostic form of spirituality. I plan to use this blog for providing links to UU news, ruminating on UUism and Gnosticism, venting on politics, and discussing popular culture items related to UUism and Gnosticism.  It will be a journal for myself as I continue to work my way through all this for myself.

The immediate impetus was that my son is going through his "coming of age" year at our local church "Emerson Unitarian" in Houston.  I thought it would be a good time to go through a bit of thinking about UUism myself as he begins a year of study at Emerson exploring his own beliefs.  Harold Bloom has written about Gnosticism being, in a way, the American religion whether folk know it or not.  He was onto something, but rather than Gnosticism being the American religion, if seems to me that Gnosticism might be the American spirituality.  It is that idea that I would like to explore for myself over the coming years on this blog.

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