DIVERSITY: PERIL AND PROMISE
M. Kent Mayfield
August 18, 2019
From Werner Pelz, God is No More
In the sphere of religion…even the most primitive societies have their systems of taboos and observances to make themselves secure against the unknown, to make themselves at home in a universe of the invisible, incomprehensible and threatening. These are essentially the same over time: a protection against change, a sanctification of the status quo and the powers that be; a justification of things as they are; an attempt to give shape and substance to man’s infinite longings; above all, a sanction of his human, all too human aspirations in the name of super-human powers; a desire to contain and trap in human institutions and building that “who does not dwell in houses made with hands.”
No civilization has yet been able to dispense with religion altogether. Whether in the shape of Christianity, or Buddhism, Islam or Hinduism, Communism or Democracy, society needs the “numenous” [sic] to keep awake in its members that loyalty which transcends their family affections and clannishness and gives them a feeling of metaphysical and moral security.
Religion is in our bones.
from Parker J. Palmer, To Know as We are Known
(writing about knowledge as commonly understood)
There is another kind of knowledge, one that begins in a different passion and is drawn toward different ends. This knowledge can contain as much solid fact and theory as the knowledge we now possess…but it begins not in [a desire to control] but in compassion – a source celebrated not in our intellectual tradition but in our spiritual heritage.
Here, the act of knowing is an act of love, the act of entertaining and embracing the reality of the other, of allowing the other to enter and embrace our own. In such knowing, we know and are known as members of one community…in which the world was first created.
From Irving Berlin
Remember these words from Irving Berlin?
I’ve been a roaming Romeo
My Juliets have been many
But now my roaming days have gone
Too many irons in the fire is worse than not having any
I’ve had my share …and from now on
I’m putting all my eggs in one basket
I’m betting everything I’ve got on you
…Honey I’ve decided
Love divided in two won’t do
So, I’m putting all my eggs in one basket
I’m betting everything I’ve got on you!
For the last several years, summer has meant “weddings.”
Weddings of every sort – young lovers charmed by the mystery of each other, going forward on the basis of little more than a ‘hunch;” men dismissing the civil war over gay marriage to do something somehow like marrying but not quite ; women combining households …often ones of all sorts soon to be marred by disappointment and abuse…and older pairs striking out in new directions after divorce, bereavement or lives that now seem insignificant in the face of new love.
Over the past summer I have heard myself begin a number of these services saying:
We are called together here to witness a covenant of love:
love is the voice under all silences
the hope which has no opposite in fear
the strength so strong mere force is feebleness
the truth more first than sun more last than star
From some of these weddings, I have photographs that show bright faces of people young and older, ready to embark on new, altered lives together. They radiate home and promise. They trust in the future. I know something of the heartaches and struggles that lie before them, situations they could not possible imagine when the photos were taken…for that is the fact of human relationships – that they take us where we had not thought to go.
Some of them will work in exciting, adventuresome professions…others in grinding monotony. They may know wealth. They may experience poverty, be touched and maimed by war and disease, raise children, take them on walks to creeks, and lakes and woods, set forth rules, establish curfews, scold, berate and bury some of them.
Whatever else a covenant of love means, it means living for another, for others. Many parents know this sacrifice, not the temporary sacrifice made to assist another but the daily sacrifice to create life at the expense of their personal pleasure, career and dreams. There is drudgery and difficulty in this self-denial. It is not easy. But by giving up parts of ourselves for others, by accepting that we must be willing to lose life to create and preserve life, we honor the world’s timeless wisdom – the Three Pillars of Zen, the FIVE Pillars of Islam, TEN Mosaic Commandments from Ancient Judaism and many, many more from the Chinese sage Confucius.
And at their core: Love – the mysterious life force that comes closest to putting us in touch with the power and majesty of God, the beyond, the beneath. It is the spark of divinity we carry within us. It is what we pass on to others. It is life. The more we reach out to sustain life, as individuals, as communities and as a nation, the more we affirm that which we know we must affirm. The more we fold in on ourselves, worshipping not the sanctity of life but the forces that empower and enrich us at the expense of others, the more we deny the truth of the commandments that have guided civilization throughout time.
We all stray. We all violate some commandments and do not adequately honor others. We are human, after all. But the commandments bind us together. They are a covenant of love. They work to keep us from making false covenants, covenants that will in the end destroy us.
False covenants have a powerful appeal, offering a sense of security and empowerment. They tempt us to be God. They persuade us that what we want to hear and believe is all that is needed, that we can be the center of the universe. False covenants make us feel we belong, that we are special folk in our exclusive communities of race, gender, class, nation and religion….but they inevitably carry within them the denigration of others whom we exclude. They divide us.
On the other hand, the covenant offered by the commandments, the covenant of life, is a covenant of love. It is a covenant that recognizes that all life is sacred and love is the force that makes life together possible.
For years, Kathleen Norris tells us in Amazing Grace, she dreaded hearing the Ten Commandments read aloud in church.
The Ten Commandments are one of the earliest of man’s attempts to lay down rules and guidelines to sustain community. The commandments include the most severe violations and moral dilemmas in human life, although these violations often lie beyond the scope of the law. They were for the ancients and they are for us, the rules that, when honored, hold us together and when dishonored lead to alienation, discord and violence.
For Norris, they seemed – as they perhaps seemed to many of us – overwhelmingly negative – injunctions to be interpreted in drastic ways. She writes: “My …aunt Mary… threatened to move out of the house if my father brought cigarettes home from college. Going to moves on Sunday was sinful, and my father never dared to do so until he was 18. …my grandfather Norris (a Methodist minister) had been fired from one of his first churches back in West Virginia, for playing hymns on the banjo with the youth group and teaching them to play dominoes.”
Now, I do not see that tobacco, banjo playing and dominoes figure in the Decalogue as recorded in the Book of Exodus. But particularly in 19th and 20th century America, faithful Christians have been adept, and remarkably inventive, at interpreting God’s commandments to cover just about anything they don’t approve of. The effect, of course, is to make the surpassingly large God of the scriptures into a petty Cosmic Patrolman.
Nonetheless, however the commandments have been distorted over time, they strike me (and especially these days) as eminently sensible, both outwardly, as tenets that help to sustain civil and social order, and inwardly, as principles that assist us in naming and resisting the more negative emotions, such as greed, malice and covetousness. When I’m made aware that I’ve broken one of the commandments…and that coming to awareness in itself has come to seem a grace…I’ve also been forced to pay attention to the trouble that follows, the loss of trust and the capacity to love that dogs broken relationships. I’ve begun to see the commandments…and especially the first commandment…in the light of an underlying covenant, as essential to the relationship that God was establishing with Israel…and with us.
Any relationship, to remain alive, requires at least two living participants. In this case…a god who does not exist as a convenience, magically giving us what we want or feel we deserve but a God (who/what/whom/he/she/it/THEY) simply IS — – the great “I Am.” And with this God, experienced by the prophet Jeremiah as “the true god…the living God,” the ground of being, we can come into our own, no longer in fear of being nothing but as people who can listen, who can change, who can be surprised…even by a jealous God who loves us enough to care when we stray and who has laid out a map to help us find the way home.
There is a temptation in all this, however.
A couple of weeks back, I was in Chicago for a meeting and took an hour to visit an exhibition of Toulouse Lautrec at the Art Institute. I was early and sat on the steps beneath the entry lion statues to wait for the doors to open. A man sat down next to me. It seems he was the owner of a tree service in Memphis, Tennessee, and was treating himself, his wife and his two teenagers to an extended train trip around the country. Almost as soon as he said a warm “how-ja-do?”, he began regaling me with stories of his work as a lay missionary. This, not tree-cutting, is where his real passion lay…and he was eager to share his yeoman-like service on behalf of the Lord.
This loquacious gentleman’s enthusiasm was so great that I had little opportunity—even if I had wanted to—to share my own perspective. So, I listened patiently to his Tennessee twang, nodding, wondering what this fellow would make of Lautrec and his Parisian wenches, watching over his shoulder for some sign that the Institute doors were opening…until his monologue carried us across the border into Mexico. Every year this man reported he and others from his church travel to rural Mexico with supplies of rice and beans AND a resolve to convert the “natives” to true Christianity…making it clear that these sorry people should have no other Gods than (his) God.
Because I didn’t want to provoke an argument on the steps of the Art Institute of Chicago, I controlled the impulse to ask why he was doing mission work among people who were already Roman Catholic Christians. Still, this was a fellow who had probably never been in conversation with a Mexican priest, never listened openly to villagers describing the satisfaction they feel at mass, a man who had no interest in learning only in recreating the human race in his own religious image.
Fifty years ago, when I returned from an extended stay in Japan, mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics were terminating programs of this fellow’s sort, programs whose purpose was to replace other religions with the “one, true way.” Instead, opportunities for interfaith dialogue were being created. Contempt and suspicion were gradually being replaced by mutual respect and acceptance of differences.
Today, unfortunately, those experiments with interfaith bridge building have been buried again in an avalanche of self-righteous rhetoric and self-aggrandizing behavior. To be sure the evidence does not all point in the direction of intolerance and close mindedness. In the wake of 9/11, Americans generally refrained from scapegoating Muslims for the terrorist attacks and more than a few tried to learn something about a religion that claims the loyalty of well over a billion people.
Still, all these years later , some of the faithful are still spoiling for a fight…aware of and confident about their power across the country. He hate-speech has become the rhetoric of choice – bullying, humiliation, dehumanizing labels of infestation, invasion, perversion, far from being condemned are part of the daily media fare.
Yes, opinion polls reveal widespread approval of the government’s “faith-based initiatives” – social programs funded by tax dollars and administered by churches. 60% however would exclude non-Christians for eligibility. And in Texas, I understand,
A much more serious threat to an inclusive understanding of religious practice has been the state legislature is being asked again to deny tax exempt status to any faith community that does not profess belief in a personal God…not just an abstract “higher power” you understand, but a personal deity of the mythic Hebrew sort. Such would in effect place Buddhists, Humanists, Taoists and many Hindus outside the accepted definition of religion, while reserving that status for those whose view of God falls within Biblical parameters.
Today, it is blindly naïve to think of the United States as a spiritual patchwork quilt, a tossed salad of tolerant, open-minded thinking. Exclusivist fundamentalism has been on the rise for several decades and is today a predominant strain in American thinking. Truth be told, were it not for the prescience of the Founding Fathers who inserted the First Amendment into the Constitution, ours would be a far less diverse and more religiously repressive culture than it is. And it is ONLY the First Amendment that keeps at bay the forces clamoring loudly and working tirelessly to “make America great again” as a “Christian commonwealth.”
I understand…even appreciate at a certain level…the fundamentalist impulse as a natural response to the steady erosion of social and spiritual stability in the modern age. There is a great comfort in putting “all your eggs in one basket– to give up the days of roaming…to bet all you have on one alone.” The deep need to establish order and stability in a rapidly changing, highly mobile culture must be acknowledged. And, our own response as religious liberals to the fundamentalist challenge must not be to further make personal values points of dispute and outright combat or to compromise the goal of a beloved community even further.
Pluralism is…Diversity is…a fact of life…Voices across time and cultures have struggled to give words to the transcendent. These voices whether in t he teachings of the Buddha, the writings of Latin poets or the pages of the Koran, are part of our common struggle as human beings to acknowledge the eternal and the sacred. Nearly every religion has set down an ethical and moral code that is strikingly similar to the 10 commandments. The 8-Fold path of Buddhism forbids murder, unchastity, theft, falsehood and especially covetous desire. The sacred syllable “om” for Hindus is called the sound of silence or the sound of the universe…an attempt to go beyond thought and to reach the stillness and silence that constitutes the Transcendent, the Divine. No human being, no nation, no religion, however, has been chosen to be its sole interpreter. This is the most powerful testament to the reality of the Other. It is a reminder that each of us find Truth not in what we know but in what we cannot comprehend and cannot see.
Yet is it this feature of faith that offends and frightens those who crave a single solution a single unambiguous response to life’s mysteries…but once we choose to believe that we alone understand the will of the Divine and can act as its agent, we become dangerous, a menace to others and a menace to ourselves. We forget that we understand only in part…that we see only as in a mirror darkly. As the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr argued: “Religion is so frequently a source of confusion in political life and so frequently dangerous to democracy, precisely because it introduces absolutes into the realm of relative values.” Religion, he cautioned, could be a source of error as well as wisdom and light. Its role should be to inculcate not a sense of infallibility but a sense of humility.
Like all upright people, Americans are never safe against the temptation of claiming God too simply as the sanctifier of whatever we most fervently desire. This is vanity. To be effective in the world, we need a “sense of modesty about the virtue, wisdom, and power available to us” and “ a sense of contrition about the common human frailties and foibles which lie at the foundation both of the enemy’s demonry and our vanities.”
Today –harnessed to science and technology as we are –in a world that is purported to be explicable on human terms alone (a successful premise to be sure – enabling us to reach the stars and penetrate the puzzles of the genome but creating also a consistent hostility toward all things supernatural) we – whom we consider among all people somehow the only ones of free minds– have constructed a totally secular society in which the very idea of a presence beyond ourselves is alien.
No one of us, I suspect, whether in a sacred cloister or a commune of the born-again or here at 17th and Iowa, living as we do in a culture whose modern notions saturate the arts, entertainment, advertising and education, is entirely secure in traditional constructions of faith, piety and morality. There is a great spectrum of faith stretched between destiny and desire, from frivolous to fanatical with a long unimaginative path of dreary earnestness in between.
I doubt that we shall ever again come to a singleness of mind and heart – a unifying (dare I say UNITARIAN) understanding of reality in which all things make sense, but surely as faith cannot involve a flight from all that is modern neither can it fully dismiss those dimensions of reality that modernity ignores and often actively denies.
None of the insights of religious faith or scientific fact can contradict our duty of preserving the community of caring, the core of civilization. They are, in fact, the prerequisites for saving it.
Unitarian Universalists are a people who believe and who must daily demonstrate that uniformity is not a precondition for happiness and harmony; that, in fact, life is far more interesting when we “reach out across lands, across barriers of ethnicity, race, culture and religion” to keep commandments ancient and modern.
Our good news is this: In diversity there is more than peril, more than uneasiness, there is promise. In our questions, even more than in our answers, with wit, warmth and a firm pinch of absurdity to render the unbearable bearable, we find hope in the strange and often contradictory fragments of our lives.
As Eli Wiesel said – “simple answers don’t appeal” to us
This is not [a place] for the faint of heart, as Paul Rasor reminds us.
Instead, it is a place:
Where doubt and uncertainty and questioning are inextricably bound with faith in the unknowable –
Where, as Miriam Toews (the author of Women Talking) would say we can simply and painfully be “forgiven for being alive, for being in the world, for the arrogance and the futility of remaining alive, the ridiculousness of it, … the unreasonableness of it.”
Where all our puny sorrows somehow find a place, a rich existence, a way of being in the world .
Where we begin to comprehend the most vital contours of human experience: what is knowing, what is meaning, what is justice, what is love.
May it continue to be so for us and those around us.