Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Clarification and Musings on Moral Authority

Before I head out to the gym, I want to jot a few words about what my readers may perceive as my recent cheerleading for the UCC because of my positive experience at one of their gatherings last weekend.

Congregation to congregation, I have no doubt that the UCC and the UUs are as full of love and joy and dysfunction and pettiness as any other religious people who gather in communities to do God's work together (or the work of love and justice, for non-theists).

My point about the UCC gathering wasn't to say "hey, they're better than us," it was to say, "How much more could we get out of our denominational gatherings if we came together in real unity instead of suspicion and hyper-individualism?"

As every reader of this blog knows, I adore my congregation. Truly, madly and deeply. I believe, because I have evidence of at least one, that there are many, many other amazing UU congregations out there. I hope that for every nasty little in-group social club parading as a congregation there are at least one or two terrific ones. I hope this for every religious movement, none of which is immune to its own besetting sins.

My raging around, sackcloth and ashes routine isn't about what's going on in YOUR congregation, which you love and support, and I'm so happy you do. It's about our collective, denominational torpor. What I am saying is that, as congregations can become hamstrung by a small group of folks who want to keep their church or fellowship paralyzed by their own negative, stifling agenda, so does this happen on an associational level. I believe we have simply gotten into the habit of allowing this, and that when we gather to do the work of proclaiming our good news, we have learned to actually expect that that work cannot and will not be done without a good deal of insult and bloodshed.
I believe we have mistaken being paralyzed with being "inclusive."

Meanwhile, we do these wonderful things as an assembly like affirming a woman's unconditional right to total reproductive freedom, supporting marriage equality (and those who disagree with it still stick around instead of splitting off another denomination), working for justice as best we can considering our small numbers, and so on and so on. Yet when we try to say, "We are one, and here's what makes us One," there's a total meltdown into hyper-individualistic anxiety.

Instead of saying, "C'mon, work through it. We all need to trust that there is a place for us at this table," we stop and roil around in the anxiety until we're all so tired we just want to go home. In the name of Inclusivity, many of us wind up feeling totally alienated. It is the saddest kind of irony.

Inclusivity does not mean changing the definition of who you are to accommodate every single person with an opinion and enough extroverted courage to approach the microphone.

To me, the first point of breakdown -- and an absolutely astonishing one because it's so unintentionally comic -- is when someone says, for instance, "How shall we share the good news of this religion?" and a thousand people scream, "This is not a religion! Religion is BAD and I want no part of it! And what is this 'good news' thing!!? I left that behind at Bible camp!"

How many of our congregations are currently embroiled in this kind of conflict at this very moment? Wounded people come in wanting religious life but refuse to call it such, want to change the name of the church, want to spend their energies counting the "Gods" in the sermon or carefully combing the worship calendar to assure that every holy day from every world religion is observed (and there's hell to pay if one isn't!). The congregation's leaders spend a tremendous amount of their time and energy responding to the anxious and angry demands of this person or people. What would happen if we agreed together that UUism is a hospital for the religiously wounded, and if we agreed that one of the first spiritual tasks of our new members would be to enter into a ministry of healing from those wounds? What if we did this first instead of trying to frantically accommodate that person and then putting them in a position of leadership? What is our center? What is it we will not be willing to give away to every anxious, demanding newcomer or old-timer? What are the boundaries and the sacred trust handed down from generation to generation of lay leaders in your congregation? Therein you will find much of your strength.

All the while, even religion-phobic UUs want to sit at the table with other religious groups, have the privilege of tax-exempt status, and claim the moral authority that comes from being a religious people. This just doesn't have integrity, and we cannot come of age as a movement until we take responsibility for that.

Every religious person I've ever met wants to know this about UUs:
if we're a non-theistic religious organization, whence do we derive our moral authority to make all the public statements we make and to do all the public ministry we do?
Don't we understand that the rest of the religious world claims (for better or for worse, and often for worse!) that their authority comes from God? If we are not going to make the same claim, we are under sacred obligation to declare whence we derive our moral authority in such terms as other people of faith can understand them.

This seems spot on to me, and has been an area of weakness and avoidance among us for too long.

We are a faith tradition.. We are in intimate fellowship and interdependent relationship not just with whales and endangered species and Gaia and those we love, but with other faith traditions, no matter how some UUs may wish to place us completely beyond the Pale of the religious life in America and abroad. When I decry our Terminal Uniqueness, it is this failure to recognize our place in religious life that I am referring to, and the lack of honesty and integrity it represents.

We must, we simply must, move beyond the answer, "Our moral authority comes from our own individual conscience. That's really who are we are: we're a collection of interesting individuals who think it's really groovy to do their spiritual seeking in free and supportive community." Really? Then what are the checks and balances to our own individual conscience? Why do we then gather in covenanted congregations under one name? Is there no other authority higher than the individual, and what the individual wants? What are our methods of discernment, or are we willing to have any?

In short, strong UU congregations are a good and blessed thing, and I know there are many. But I believe that they become strong almost in spite of our crippling associational anxiety and unwillingness to enter into serious theological reflection about the claims we make in the broader society.


Blogger fausto said...

Covenant is the yang to personal authority's yin.

When personal authority leads us alone into the wilderness, covenant brings us back, however rebelliously, into to the fold.

Covenant binds us in mutual obligation not only to one another, but also to whatever it is we idealize as "God", and to the "communion of saints" -- in the case of my own congregation, over 300 years' worth of them. PB's congregation is even older than mine. All those who have gone before us are still in covenant with us, and if we are truly a "living tradition" we owe our covenanted obligations to them and the witness they have bequeathed to us just as much as we do to one another.

It's long past time we UUs bring the yang back up to parity with the yin. It would do us wonders.

Blogger LaReinaCobre said...

We must, we simply must, move beyond the answer, "Our moral authority comes from our own individual conscience. That's really who are we are: we're a collection of interesting individuals who think it's really groovy to do their spiritual seeking in free and supportive community." Really? Then what are the checks and balances to our own individual conscience? Why do we then gather in covenanted congregations under one name? Is there no other authority higher than the individual, and what the individual wants? What are our methods of discernment, or are we willing to have any?

Hmm. I am okay with working out checks and balances with other folks in my community.

I don't want us to take for granted the importance of a community where spiritual seeking is central. This is not the norm in general society. Outside of university and religious community, I have not been able to find a space where people can talk about their spirituality freely and with support from others. If there is such a space, then perhaps I would consider it instead of UUism.

Blogger Mystical Seeker said...

Checks and balances are very important, I think, in a religious community. I see religion as a process of continuing attempts by people over time to develop an understanding and relationship with the Divine. But every individual doesn't have to constantly reinvent the wheel, because we have historical records of other people's attempts at doing the same thing--which are contained in the scriptures of various religions. So the historical record helps to give people a sense of proportion and understanding of the issues that were involved, so we can build on the past and increase our understanding.

The value of the community as a check and balance is that it helps to influence postively, but ideally without suffocating, the impulse towards continuing revelation.

When a religious community claims that its authority comes from God, that is always self-aggrandizing and wrong. No one really knows for sure what God wants. All people can do is try to approximate an understanding of God's will, from which that supposed authority eminates. Understanding the will of God from which this authority supposedly stems is one of the biggest problems that has faced religious communities over the millenium. Religion is always a human construct. The best that religions is claim is that they have made an attempt at understanding the will of God; that is a poor basis for asserting an authority of any sort, let alone a moral authority.

But seeking to understand the moral authority of God is still a worthy endeavor, I believe. But no one can do that alone. That is why we have religious communities.

My two cents worth, anyway.

Blogger LinguistFriend said...

What one appreciates in another religion will certainly depend on what one feels lacking in one's own, and the other commenters have done well on the issue of moral authority. I am struck by the issue of how we relate to other relgions, however. In a sermon I gave last year, I quoted Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel(with gratitude to John Donne):
"No religion is an island. We are all involved with one another. Spiritual betrayal on the part of one of us affects the faith of all of us. Views adopted in one community have an impact on other communities. Today religious isolationism is a myth. For all the profound differences in perspective and substance, Judaism is soon or later affected by the intellectual, moral and spiritual events within the Christian society, and vice versa. We fail to realize that while different exponents of faith in the world of religion continue to be wary of the ecumenical movement, there is another ecumenical movement, world-wide in extent and influence: nihilism. We must choose between inter-faith and inter-nihilism. Cynicism is not parochial. Should religions insist upon the illusion of complete isolation? Should we refuse to be on speaking terms with one another and hope for each other's failure? Or should we pray for each other's health, and help one another in preserving one's respective legacy, in preserving a comommon legacy?" At the present point in world history, I think that this is an important point of view, and that the answer to Heschel's last question must be affirmative. But we must not forget that nihilism may assume the name of religion.


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