Saturday, February 24, 2018

Parkland Vigil at The Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church

The folks at Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist church in Tennessee are hosting a vigil for the Parkland victims Sunday.  It is too far for me to go, but it is worth pointing out - this summer marks the 10th year anniversary of a shooting at the church that left 2 dead.

Friday, February 23, 2018

A Unitarian (Gnostic?) Take on the 10 Commandments

This looks like a very interesting book.  No Other Gods (The Politics of The Ten Commandments) by Unitarian Minister Ana Levy-Lyons takes a Unitarian Universalist perspective on the Ten Commandments. Here is a link to an article in which she is quoted as saying that the Ten Commandment are not just "a vestigial remnant of an oppressive era (though they are that) and far from being a simple rehearsal of ethical norms on which we already agree (though they are, on one level, that too), the Commandments are counter-cultural practices." Reinterpreting religious sources in the light of Unitarian Universalism is a common practice and my wife, Rice Professor April DeConick, has argued extensively that Gnostic spirituality often results in counter-cultural readings of such sources. I will definately be checking this one out.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Jim Kenney in Greater Naples

The Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Greater Naples (in Florida) recently featured Jim Kenney, author of "Thriving in the Crosscurrent: Clarity and Hope in a Time of Cultural Sea Change" in their "Progressive Voices Speak Out" lecture series. The title of the lecture (which here is a link to an article about it) was "Are we Stuck in a Post-Truth World ... or is there Light at the End of the Trump Tunnel?" We can only hope!

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

The Role of Clergy in Differing Traditions

Have you every asked yourself how the role of the folk we call "clergy" differ in different traditions?  Neither have I. But someone did and got some interesting answers on the role of clergy in a few traditions including Unitarian Universalism.  Here is a link to the article.

Monday, February 19, 2018

A Unitarian Universalist Sanctuary Story

From a newspaper in Connecticut, a story about a Unitarian Universalist congregation that has become a sanctuary for an immigrant threatened with deportation. As the story notes, ICE has so far been respectful of sanctuary churches, but that could change at any time.  Becoming a sanctuary church is not an easy decision, and can lead to a lot of complications. Unfortunately, conditions in the U.S. are going to lead to more and more congregations of all faiths to consider the call.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Meeting Howard Thurman

UU services often involve learning about fascinating people.  The First Church Unitarian Universalist in Leominster, Massachusetts, is having a service on February 25th in which Howard Thurman will be discussed.  Thurman is a very interesting fellow who met with India's Gandhi in the 1930s and was influenced by him with regards to Christianity and nonviolence.  He then passed on what he learned to civil rights activists including one Martin Luther King, Jr.  A PBS series about people of faith features him on their website here.  He was not UU, but I love this quote of his (from the az quotes website) that sounds very UU (and gnostic) to me:

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Why I Like Gnostic Spirituality as a Model for UUism

Descriptions of spiritualities (like the Gnostic Spirituality described in this blog here and here) are models of course. By model I mean a representation of an idea rather than the direct experience of it.  I think models are useful if they help a person understand something better so it becomes more useful or satisfying. This is the sense in which I think that understanding UU as a religion with a largely Gnostic Spirituality viewpoint is handy for me.

UUs often struggle with the question of what makes us a religion when we don't have a creedal statement like others that we are more familiar with. I've had this difficulty myself, despite being a UU for about 20 years. I now feel that an important barrier to understanding my own faith came from having covenant spirituality as a model that I grew up with and being unable to see past it.

As a quick summary, in my wife's book "The Gnostic New Age" she describes four different Spiritualities - Servant, Covenant, Mystical, and Gnostic.  I've already talked about the Gnostic Spirituality and how that relates to UU. I won't go into detail about the descriptions of the other three, but (very simply and very roughly) the four are:

   Servant: Human beings serve powerful gods, who are wholly other, and our purpose and survival depend on figuring out how to appease them (think Ancient Greek and Roman pagan religions).
   Covenant: Human being make a covenant with a god, who is wholly other, so that the god is bound along with us to this covenant and our purpose and survival depend on keeping up our part of the deal (think Judaism and Christianity).
    Mystical: Human beings can by some method make direct contact with a god which is wholly other, and can come to know or even be transformed into that god or an image thereof.
    Gnostic: There is a transcendent god that an aspect of which is contained within the human being, and our purpose and survival depend on us nurturing that part of ourselves so that it manifests and overcomes whatever evil gods and powers are holding us down in this life.

Okay, like I said this is a very simple and very rough description of these four spiritualities.

Anyway, I grew up in life pretty atheistic. I viewed myself as a secular humanist when I was young.  I knew I had interest in religion (and even in being religious maybe) but I just couldn't bring myself to believe in a personal type god that the folk around me who were religious did.

When I became a UU it was because UU had a tradition of accepting humanists (even secular humanists) into fellowship - in fact many of their founders were humanists. But this was always a bit unsatisfying to me in that it didn't feel like I was necessarily part of a religion or religious community. It was more like I was at a place that humanists could hang out with like minded (liberal) religious folk and have a community. Not a bad thing, but not quite what I deep down really wanted - a religion I could whole-heartedly feel a part of, intellectually and spiritually.

My difficulty was that I could never get fully behind the idea of a personal god who took an interest in the day to day workings of life and intervened in human affairs.  What April's book gave me was a spirituality that could circumvent that problem.  While the covenant spirituality I grew up with seemed difficult to conceive of without such a god (as did the less familiar, to me at least, Servant Spirituality and Mystic Spirituality), Gnostic Spirituality, with its transcendent God, did not.  When theologians like Paul Tillich wrote about God as a "ground of being" or "ultimate concern," those were concepts of God I could get behind, but there was still something missing in the sense that it was hard for me to reconcile God as a "ground of being" with the very personal God metaphors to be found in the religion I grew up with (Christianity, a religion with a Covenant Spirituality).

Once I saw that I could shift the spirituality of the religion to a Gnostic one, I could quite easily match the "ground of being" type of idea of God with the transcendent God (or in UU terms, transcendent mystery and wonder). They fit, for me, in a way that the "ground of being" God and the covenant God of conventional modern Christianity didn't.

Finally, the UU religion didn't seem anymore like a square peg being fit into a round hole. The characteristics of Gnostic Spirituality form a grouping that religious and philosophical groups have used consistently through the last couple of thousand years and that makes for easy metaphors and consistent mythologies that fit (I think) extremely well with the theology of folks like Paul Tillich and my chosen religion, Unitarian Universalism. Once I decided to view UU using that frame, the possibilities seemed endless.

What I want to focus on in this blog is this general gnostic spirituality, Unitarian Universalism, and the intersection of the two in our churches, lives, and pop culture. So I plan to feature links to UU events and happenings nationwide, and notes about UU and gnostic references I see in pop culture. And I hope, thereby, to learn a little more about how to develop a sense of Unitarian Universalism that works for me both intellectually and spiritually.

UUism and the Five Characteristics of Gnostic Spirituality

Let me state up front that this is not intended to be any kind of academic analysis of the post topic as given above.  (I am not professionally qualified for such and don't have the time for it anyway!)  What I intend with this is to share how the Five Characteristics of Gnostic Spirituality, as described in my wife's book "The Gnostic New Age" have helped me personally relate to UUism in a new way.

Paraphrasing these five characteristics from the book, they are:
  1. Experiential knowledge (gnosis) of a transcendent god.
  2. Ritual that is used to obtain these estatic states of gnosis.
  3. Belief that humans have an innate spiritual nature that in the extension of this transcendence.
  4. A countercultural method of interpreting tradition religions that is transgressive.
  5. A willingness to incorporate ideas and practices from many sources.  Gnostics tend to be open-ended with their beliefs and uses of religious ideas, and to remain "seekers."
Although Unitarian Universalism is a non-creedal religion, the member congregations of the UUA (Unitarian Universalist Association) agree to affirm and promote seven principles:
  • The inherent worth and dignity of every person
  • Justice, equity and compassion in human relations
  • Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations
  • A free and responsible search for truth and meaning
  • The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large
  • The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all
  • Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.
The UUA also specifies that
Unitarian Universalism draws from many Sources:
  • 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
  • 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
  • Wisdom from the world's religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life
  • Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God's love by loving our neighbors as ourselves
  • Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit
  • Spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.
Some of these UU principles and sources line up directly with April's Gnostic Spirituality characteristics.  Characteristic of a Gnostic Spirituality is an "experiential knowledge (gnosis) of a transcendent god."  UUs don't use the word "god" but do express as our first source, "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." It is quite a bold claim to say that "all cultures" affirm the direct experience of a "transcending mystery" and it is hard to imagine that it means anything other than (at least for some cultures) gnosis of a transcendent god.

Gnostic Spirituality's "belief that humans have an innate spiritual nature that in the extension of this transcendence" corresponds very well with UUs first principle "the inherent worth and dignity of every person."  The key to the link between them is the word "inherent" in the principles.  In UU the worth and dignity of human beings is not given by a higher power, it is "inherent" - not a gift of grace, but a gift of existence itself.  One can certainly think of this inherent worth being a result of the innate spiritual nature of human beings.

Like Gnostic Spirituality, UUs certainly have a countercultural way of interpreting traditional religions. Although the sources make it clear that UU draws upon "Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God's love by loving our neighbors as ourselves" and general wisdom from the world's religions, the very fact that our net is so broad is very transgressive.  In practice UUs draw from all these religions in ways that allow us to see the UU principles as transcending all of them. We draw from all world religions but interpret them transgressively to fit all of them into the seven principles. Most obviously, UUs do not accept the exclusivity of any religion in favor of acceptance of each other's spiritual growth utilizing a free and responsible search for meaning. Exclusivity of any one religion would hinder acceptance of those who did not adhere to it, and is difficult to reconcile with a "free and responsible search for truth and meaning."

 Gnostic Spirtuality's "willingness to incorporate ideas and practices from many sources" is obviously more than compatible with UUs list of sources.  UUs are, in a Gnostic Spirituality sense, very open ended with our beliefs and religious ideas.

Of the five Gnostic Spirituality characteristics, the above four line up very well, in my view, with UU principles and sources.  Even ignoring the final Gnostic characteristic, UU therefore has a very "Gnostic" feel to it. But I don't think the last characteristic of Gnostic Spirituality is a lost cause for UUs either.  That characteristic is that Gnostics often employ ritual to obtain estatic states of gnosis - the state of gnosis being the afore-mentioned experiential knowledge of the transcendent. The closest UUs come to this characteristic in the principles or sources would, I think, be the "direct experience" of the transcendent mentioned in the first source and the "wisdom from the world's religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life" found in the third listed source. Although UUs do not specify any kind of particular ritual to have a "direct experience" of the transcendent, in practice UUs often study meditation and other specific methods in their pursuit of this experience. A common practice among UUs is to adopt a variation, or UU version, of a Buddhist meditation (as a part of the wisdom of that world religion) to do so. But there are many other common practices too (such as humanists who often talk about using walks in nature that they say induce a sort of Emersonian transcendental experience of the transcendent for them). In other words UUs adopt many different individual rituals and practices to have "direct experiences" of the "transcendent mystery" mentioned in our first principle.  This is, I feel, a too often minimized part of our UU faith and in my experience UU congregants are quite thirsty for such rituals and are delighted when we explore them in our services or covenant groups.

The bottom line of all this to me was that UU fits quite well with Gnostic Spirituality.  The next post will discuss why I consider this important for me.