Alternative Explanation of Our National Religious Journey

Alternative Explanation of Our National Religious Journey

It doesn’t get mentioned a lot, but the number one problem with having our denominational headquarters (The Unitarian Universalist Association) in Boston is that city’s long association with a particular view of religion and civilization, namely the City Shining on a Hill. It keeps us stuck in that characterization of what we’re here to do. Our publishing arm is called Beacon Press. We refer to our social justice efforts as Standing on the Side of Love — as if only the truly evil could hold countervailing political views. The university wherein we house our archives displays the simple word “truth” on its shield — although that used to be “truth and light.”

It’s all so Manichean, so “I’m right and you’re wrong.” You wouldn’t be surprised to find the leaders of such a faith in the forefront of the early twentieth century eugenics movement. You wouldn’t be that shocked to find out that folks who believe in a Shining City on a Hill feel comfortable with cultural genocide of other civilizations. It’s not such a stretch to realize that we’re incredibly inclusive of all visibly different human types, so long as they subscribe to the same few principles that we describe as “universal.”  “Common sense.”

Obviously, I subscribe to these principles,too. But it’s a choice, not an evolution. And I don’t believe that everyone who believes differently — even in the political realm — is evil incarnate. I believe I can learn from listening to them, that their ideas can often help me to improve my own.

But isn’t that why all the voluntary immigrants came to this country– to enter this shining city on a hill? Didn’t all the colonial Americans share generally the same beliefs about God and society? Except, of course, for slavery, but that’s mostly been settled…

Well, Massachusetts was not the oldest of the thirteen colonies, and it was not the most liberal. In particular, it was the least liberal on social and religious diversity. Europeans came to the other colonies for other reasons, and settled them around radically different metaphors.

My own favorite is New York, because the Dutch who founded it were a trading company expanding their network into a fast-growing realm. When the religious among their settlers wanted to exclude a group of Jews who sought refuge from Brazil in 1642, it was the trading company who forced compliance. Likewise, the Carolinas and Georgia were settled by investors who wanted anyone who could invest or provide labor. These states, with their huge unconquered expanses, soon found the most expedient course was “Grudging Toleration” of non-Christians and dissenting sects. (Roman Catholics, believed to be French and Spanish Fifth Columns, were excluded.)

Two colonies — four, depending on interpret the Quaker-influenced designs of Pennsylvania and New Jersey — advocated full religious freedom for everyone. The two clearly free states were Rhode Island, composed of religious refugees from Massachusetts, and Delaware, again heavily influenced by Quakers. Virginia, famously, worshiped according to the dictates of the British crown (as did the Carolinas and Georgia, technically, but they couldn’t find Anglican clergy willing to live there). These colonies, despite being official oppressive had inadequate means to enforce social conformity.

Massachusetts had foreseen that problem, which explains why it so quickly founded a local university to provide itself with “a learned ministry.” For the next two hundred years, young men of promise were spied out and educated by their local pastors, regardless of financial means. To ensure they could achieve the expensive education that Harvard provided even then, leading families would invite promising young men to live with them for a few years and teach in the village schools; often such settlements resulted in marriages between affluent daughters and previously penniless religious leaders. What once had been an Errand to the Wilderness was transformed into a carefully managed garden.

As the Shining City tightened its grip on the Bay State, much of the rest of the East Coast Anglo-European network was abandoning the dream of a religiously homogenous society. Sure the Great Awakening elevated orthodox Protestantism to a frantic level, but the paroxysms soon played themselves out, leaving behind a quiet piety known as the Second Great Awakening. Universalist rejections of the same Great Awakening theology swirled through so many regions, from Lake Champlain to New Pennsylvania — that it’s impossible to state conclusively where this religion was founded or planted as the nation claimed independence.

The First Amendment to the Constitution, rejecting establishment of any religion by Congress, might have been an outgrowth of the recent English Civil War and French Revolution (not to mention the Hundred Year War and Peasant Rebellions that were as recent to our founders as those founders are to me) — but it signaled the new nation’s intention to survive militarily and thrive economically. Yes, in many of these matters the founders were ruthless, callous sinners toward Natives and African Americans, but it must be said that among themselves they were working on “live and let live.” “Worship where you want, so long as I can do the same.”

This was the philosophy which conquered the City on a Hill and spread across the mountains, the prairies, reached even the farther shore. When we maintain our denominational headquarters on a hill still mourning its loss of primacy, the very stones under our feet, the water we drink, the beaches where we swim, reinforce an arrogance whose constant reappearance keeps us distracted from the fundamentals of religion. The legend keeps forcing us to sanctify our vision of access. But those we would welcome learned long ago, in other places, that they are fully equal, fully proud. “Can I come in?” is not their question. “What are you inviting me into?” is their reply.

We need to settle into a part of the nation where religious conversation hones, renews, progresses religious answers.

Sandy’s Gifts

Weird things happen in such storms as this. One friend told me about her dog that just wouldn’t go out for the daily walk with the same enthusiasm — a day before it hit. My partner, who has Huntington’s Disease, took our wonderful new Bose radio and huddled under the covers for several happy days. My heart raced with  thoughts of friends I haven’t seen for awhile, and my fingers itched to start making phone calls — of which I am ordinarily terrified, for some reason.

And then, the phone started ringing! Yesterday, the storm blew in a dear long-ago roommate, driving back to Maryland from Montreal when her plane was cancelled. So I took the storm day on her behalf, a pleasant ramble along our lakefront, followed by a Chinese dinner, despite all my recent shopping.

Today, a friend in New York City called. How could she have known I checked her address against the evacuation maps, when we haven’t spoken for more than a year? How could she have known — in asking her wonderful question about European roots of Flower Communion — that I’ve been reading medieval and Roman history in desperate hopes of learning exactly that kind of information?




Hard to speak of the last month or so. The spirit has been calling me to live on the far side of my own brain, from EN/S(?)TP to ESFJ. Not successful at all. Warning: it is still perilous to ignore one’s fundamental nature.

But there were things to show me, and no other way except to knock me upside the head.

I ventured into my 40th high school reunion — a truly draining ENFJ event that was great at the time but left me feeling as if it had been a major illness.

I got my long-delayed book off to its publisher and had to learn how to live with that lack of control over each word, and, more significantly, each reaction to it.

My partner’s Huntington Disease has shifted into a stage which drops her into many more hours of sleep. She looks so peaceful, but the resemblance to dying is unmistakeable. Happily, so far she always wakes up with revived ambitions, and carries them out.

I’ve gotten really satisfied by answering the phone to provide funerals for free-range liberals.

But what ties all this together is a spirit and force unfelt for many years. Tomorrow is the 20th anniversary of my ordination to UU ministry, but I’ve never heard of a twenty-year itself. A lot of it felt took me back to adolescence, in many cases resolving or reframing unfinished business. At the same time, I’ve been digesting spiritual and religious writing with unprecedented clarity.

Is this my reward for the soon-to-be three years with daily doses of Ritalin? I mention this because it turns out ministers in search with congregations are completely not free to talk about how a proper regime of neurological or other medications enhances and reactivates spiritual staleness.

It’s too soon to say I’ve broken that lifetime of bad habits that passionate intellectualism imparts. But I love being able to look at their antidote as an adventure in a wonderful new mind-space.


Closing Twenty Years

Earlier this week I resigned from the Unitarian Universalist Ministers’ Association. At the same time, I recommitted to the Unitarian Universalist Society for Community MInistries. But I’m not sure that will last, either.

My UU identity and work are stronger than ever, but they’ve become completely private endeavors. My daily reading is a wonderful resource from Beacon Press, Rabbi Chaim Stern’s Day by Day, an interfaith gathering of wisdom through the Jewish Lectionary Year. My history interest is still UU polity, in which I’m examining the immediate post-Roman Empire Western World for deep roots of elected governance combined with pagan ritual. Surprisingly, once you drop the Rome-centered view of the same regions, a coherent and unbroken story emerges. How much we could learn from the Jews about having a canon which tells that story, with all its contradictions and imperfect characters, week by week, every year, with no goal other than lifting our sense of self out of any particular time and place, into union with The Eternal from which our faith was given.

When I visit the local UU society on Sunday, I get none of this. The overwhelming sensation is that last residual of a dead faith, one from which God has moved on, leaving behind obligations that never end. The worship experience is delivered with excellence and commitment, and we had a huge turnout last weekend for our Beyond Categorical Thinking workshop — which means the ethical and spiritual core of our leadership stands ready to grow and serve — but I just miss a central presence of that God Who Unifies History.

As a caregiver, I need an unsullied message about larger concerns. Where does suffering come from? What will give me strength for one more day? As an aging person, I want to know who will mourn for me as me when I’m gone. Who will even know me well enough to say who I have been? A society that avoids discussing the God Who Unifies History — not just European history, not just national history, not just human history — cannot know my soul, any more than can a society that limits God and History to any one faith, place or species.

From the return of Jupiter and Venus this week through the quadrennial ritual of watching a Presidential debate, I believe in a God who speaks through knowable systematic theology. It is not chaos, it is not abstract or mystical. That doesn’t mean there are not mystical moments or chaotic disruptions to the sequence, it just means things return to that place of relationship, where Abraham and Sarah received the promise of descendents as numerous as sand in the desert or stars in the sky. Where Noah received the rainbow and the dove, and Jesus went apart to regather his strength through prayer. The place where Lao Tzu watched the butcher and cherry blossoms represent the fleetingness of beauty.

This place is not in the Middle East; it isn’t in the Far East. It isn’t on a timeline that historians can lay out and ask for on tests. This place is a one to one connection between Eternal and Mortal realms, in which each knows itself to yearn for and trust in the other.

I know there are many others who feel the same longing, which is why I bother to share. But as my partner sleeps longer and longer hours and my care-giving obligations grow, I need a religion that wants to take care of me, to reinforce its sense of my place in this larger realm.

Well, that’s it for today’s whining. The good news is, we had a weigh-in yesterday,and Lynne is back up to 140 pounds. The bad news is, her chorea is starting to fight back against the miracle drug we depend on to keep her going. We’re going to look into physical therapy, but we can’t deny that Huntington’s Disease remains fatal. Is it time to be grateful that we had this last good year? That we refuse to concede.