Sunday, December 27, 2009

Winter Chalice Lighting

Again the earth shifts;
Again the nights grow long and the days short;
Again snows lace the frigid earth with blankets of chalk
And waves crash under the soft glow of darkening skies.
In this season of flickering shadows and cooling breezes
People all over the world celebrate the faithfulness of God
To distill creation out of chaos
Month after month,
Season after season,
Year after year.
Let this fragile flame be our prayer of boundless gratitude.

Print this post

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Season of Light

As the days grow shorter, the wind gains its frigid bite and thick blankets of snow quarantine frenzied holiday preparations to overcrowded living rooms, many people of faith turn to light as the radiating balm of new hope and regeneration. We light menorahs and kinaras. We string garlands of light on pine trees. "Light has come into the world," we proclaim. And we must not forget that the light we invite into the world shines brighter on account of nature's ongoing dance with shadows.

In this season of illumination, we are called not only to welcome the light, but to embody it. Guru Nanak tells us: "Amongst all is the Light-You are that Light. By this Illumination, that Light is radiant within all" (SGGS 13). The light of God flickers deep within our souls, and this season demands that we kindle that spark through empathy, compassion and the great peace of a softly glowing flame.

When we live into this light, we learn to see the old shadows with new eyes. Universalist minister Hosea Ballou puts it this way: "The action of light in the natural world is not to create objects for us to see, but to manifest those objects of which we are ignorant, or which are hidden from us by reason of darkness." By moving into Love, we illumine the love that sits patiently, expectantly, within each and every heart. We participate in Emerson's "eternal revelation" and reaffirm our faith that "God is, not was; that he speaketh, not spake."

Peace is palpable. People emit quietude. Sitting next to a person with a quiet soul stills our wandering mind and centers our whole being. So too with tenderness. So too with attentiveness. So too with light.

May we take time this holiday season to offer ourselves to the Light. May we, as the Sri Guru Granth Sahib describes it, rejoice in the human "lamp-lit worship service" of life, celebrating those passing moments of unexpected grace that keep the candelabrum burning for yet another day.

This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine.

Print this post

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

On Our Principles

In her recent UU World reflection, Meg Barnhouse exhorts Unitarian Universalists to approach the Seven Principles in a more concrete, embodied way. Try attaching “beginning in our homes and congregations” to each line, she commends practitioners. Extending her own advice, she finally arrives at the following observation: "If I start with my own heart, the demands of our Principles get even heavier. Peace and compassion in my heart? Justice too? Freedom as well?"

It is often easier and, hence, more enchanting to treat the Principles as abstractions, as lofty ideals. I admire Barnhouse's desire to re-focus our attention on the immanent and urgent messiness of being-in-the-world. Interestingly, her intuition that the demands of justice begin in "my own heart" resonates with Francis Greenwood Peabody's compelling assertion that "the individual and the kingdom grow together." For Peabody, Jesus addresses the individual in an attempt to reanimate the social: "The kingdom is to come, answers Jesus, not by outward force or social organization or apocalyptic dream, but by the progressive sanctification of individual human souls." Martin Buber shares this orientation as well: Political uprisings “are futile and bound to be self-destructive so long as a new structure of genuinely communal human life is not born out of the soul’s renewal."

It is no accident, thus, that the Seven Principles begin with the individual and conclude with the collective. As Peabody suggests: "the social order is not a product of mechanism but of personality, and that personality fulfils itself only in the social order."

Print this post

Monday, November 30, 2009

What Would Unitarian Universalists Tweet?

I'm currently working on a project that addresses issues in online ministerial identity. One section of the paper discusses the Twitterverse - which led to the following question: what would a 140 character UU elevator speech look like?

I warmly welcome your thoughts and responses - please, be as creative as you like!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Thanksgiving Blessing

Today's shabad reads: "The beautiful fragrance of sandalwood emanates from the sandalwood tree, and attaches to the other trees of the forest" (SGGS 1351). As we gather with friends and loved ones to share in a Thanksgiving meal, may we humble ourselves in gratitude for the bread of life; may we heal wounds and bridge chasms; may we emanate the beautiful fragrance of tenderness, inspiriting the forest with soft wisps of care.

Print this post

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Unshaken Cave

Today's shabad asks: Where is that cave, within which one may remain unshaken? (SGGS 943)

We might be tempted to answer material wealth, but markets crash and homes foreclose.
We might be tempted to answer occupation, but bosses fire and firms let off.
We might be tempted to answer love, but partners pass and families meddle.
We might be tempted to answer death, but memory resurrects and love sustains.

Where is that cave, within which one may remain unshaken?

When we open to the world and lean into God's grace,
Life shakes with pain and passion
But we remain unshaken.

Print this post

Autumnal Blessing

God of sinking light -
God of growing night -
Ripe with budding hopes, we pause for spitting snows.
Sleeping into shadows, we hallow fading glows.
"Nothing gold can stay" ablaze,
The tumbling leaves depart;
Yet may this holy harvest warm
Our body, mind and heart.

Print this post

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Soil of Human Flourishing

In an 1814 collection of sermons, Rev. James Freeman, former minister of King's Chapel, contends that the best form of prosperity is being rich in good works. He considers human life “a soil, where every kind of seed will vegetate” if you water and nurture it. You plant your own garden. You plant your own life. But just as your plot of land draws its nutrients from sources beyond itself, so too the fertility of your soil directly impacts the plants around you. You affect, and are affected by, the ecosystem of which you are a part.

At the turn of the nineteenth century, Freeman observed how “the air [was] filled with the seeds of vice.” He therefore exhorted his parishioners to “Pluck up…the weeds of evil, as soon as they appear.” Two hundred years later, Freeman’s advice remains frightfully relevant. We, too, must pluck up the weeds of excess and irresponsibility. Instead of living way beyond our means, we should adopt the practice of self-emptying. We should release ourselves from gratuitous desire. We should lose a life of surfeit in order to gain a life of sustainability.

Our garden depends on it. The soil of the world, literally, depends on it.

Print this post

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Freedom and Grace

Actions should reflect sincere intention, ethical behavior should issue forth from interior conviction, our hands should do the work of the soul. In his 1831 tract Formation of the Christian Character, Henry Ware Jr. articulates this mantra in the following way: "It is not the external conduct, not the observance of the moral law alone, which constitutes a religious man: but the principles from which he acts, the motives by which he is governed, the state of his heart.”

Today's shabad appears to share this orientation:

ਅੰਤਰੁ ਮੈਲਾ ਬਾਹਰੁ ਨਿਤ ਧੋਵੈ ॥ ਸਾਚੀ ਦਰਗਹਿ ਅਪਨੀ ਪਤਿ ਖੋਵੈ ॥
If a person is polluted within, he may wash himself everyday on the outside, but in the Court of the True Lord, he forfeits his honor.
[SGGS 1151]

For Ware, the human subject possesses the agency to enact this transformation: "Remember always, that you are capable of being more devout, more charitable, more humble, more devoted and earnest in doing good, better acquainted with religious truth." The burden falls on the individual to ascend to higher moral ground. Similarly, the Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji exhorts disciples to position their "feet on the right path."

Importantly, however, neither text falls prey to a belligerent super-human idealism. We always need God. Ware insists: "these two things, then, may be regarded as axioms of the religious life; first, that a man's own labors are essential to his salvation; second, that his utmost virtue does nothing toward purchasing or meriting salvation." This poignant dialectic of deterministic freedom echoes in Guru Nanak's assertion: "Without the Name of the Lord, everything is false." We always need grace. We always need one another.

We are caught, it seems, in a web of freedom and constraint.

In Jean Paul Sartre's novel La Nausée, protagonist Antoine Roquentin suddenly comes to realize the existential inertia of life: "This veneer had melted, leaving soft, monstrous masses, all in disorder…in a frightful, obscene nakedness." And yet, while casually listening to the syncopating sounds of Sophie Tucker's jazz, Antoine comes to realize that we stake our humanity on small acts of creative transcendence - I would add: small acts of love, faith and, above all, grace.

Print this post

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Clemens Taesler: Between the Gates of Eternity

Translation of Clemens Taesler's poem Zwischen den Toren der Ewigkeit, as found in his 1925 collection 'Free Spirit and Belief':

Between the Gates of Eternity

Through a dark-puzzle gate
we once entered earthly life,
Through a dark-puzzle gate,
we must all eventually depart;

We wander under the light of the sun
Through floods of pain and halls of bliss:

Only a brief span of time -
Between the gates of eternity.

Only a brief span of time
Are we granted for creating and developing
the nascent human-project,
the freedom of one's soul.

In untiring ascension
is the meaning of life unlocked:

Are we also fixed in time-
In us flows eternity.

Eternal darkness prior to birth
cannot awake anguish in us,
Eternal darkness after death
will not frighten us with terror.

From that path on which we once came,
There the journey will continue:

Out of eternity into time-
Out of time into eternity.

Translation mine.

Print this post

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Texts and Interpretation

For French theorist Paul Ricoeur, sacred texts do real work on their interlocutors. Whereas in Heidegger, works of art disclose, Ricoeur takes a further step. Revelation performs, enacting new meaning in the very encounter between text and interpreter. The world of the text figures any reader who risks the seeming coherence and stability of her self-understanding in the process.

In the Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji, we read of a further hermeneutical approach:

ਭਾਂਡਾ ਭਾਉ ਅੰਮ੍ਰਿਤੁ ਤਿਤੁ ਢਾਲਿ ॥
ਘੜੀਐ ਸਬਦੁ ਸਚੀ ਟਕਸਾਲ ॥
In the crucible of love, melt the Nectar of the Name,
and mint the True Coin of the Shabad, the Word of God.
[SGGS 8.8-9]

As with Ricoeur, revelation does not derive from mere proposition, but from active production. Readers are responsible for minting meaning for themselves. And yet, this process of interpretative creation necessitates a distinct disposition: it bursts forth from love. In softening the self, readers unleash a torrid force that melts the abstract (i.e. God's formless Name) into the concrete, the incarnational, the intimately now.

God becomes accessible in the present and, in the spirit of Rilke's archaic torso, introduces novel ontologies that reorient readers by way of an expanded view of the world and a deeper sense of selfhood: 'Du mußt dein Leben ändern' [You must change your life].

Print this post

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Hindu Gods and Humans

How do the Hindu traditions of India depict the nature of God and of humanity? The question belies any simple, one-size-fits-all response. I will, however, offer my inchoate precis:

On Gods:

An initial glance at Hindu scripture unveils a paradoxical and discontinuous image of God. The worshipper is told: “With respect to the bodily sphere (atman), one should venerate: ‘Brahman is the mind’, and, with respect to the divine sphere: ‘Brahman is space’.” The two declarative sentences introduce a perspectival dualism that produces a bifurcation of the sacred into “mind” and “space.” Whereas the former speaks to the interior subjective, the latter suggests an exterior objectivity. The Upanisads and Ramayana epic offer further insight into the nature of this ambivalence.

The Upanisadic texts primarily disclose the God-within-the-self branch of this polarity. Philosophically, they reinterpret, reinvent and, at times, even reject Vedic sacrifical ritual (yajna) in favor of a singular and unitary non-linguistic knowledge (jnana) trapped within the human body. This existential and eternal force on which the world rests, termed Brahman, lies “in that space within the heart” as the “controller of all, the lord of all, the ruler of all!”

Ramayanan conceptions of the holy depict a God-beyond-the-self. More often than not, sacred figures serve as necessary aids to human actions and pre-ordained events. For example, once in exile and crossing the river, Sita speaks softly to the goddess in the waters, imploring her to “protect Rama during their coming ordeal.” In the Ramayana, divine incarnation marks certain human selves, specifically Rama and his eternal consort, Sita, “with signs of divinity” reminiscent of the Upanisads. Ontologically, the “Cosmic Person, the source of all and the support of the entire creation,” takes human form to challenge Ravana and exterminate his entire race. Yet, in contrast with the Upanisadic account, such corporeal manifestation represents the unique product of divine petition.

Instinctively, then, these competing visions of ultimate reality, as both an interior human potentiality underlying the divine and an external manifestation of the divine occasionally infused in the human, appear mutually exclusive. How can God simultaneously reside deep within and far beyond the self? Must not such a formulation imply the existence of two distinct deities, if not more?

The scriptures themselves gesture towards a response. As the ultimate real, the divine stands “at the summit of the hierarchical scheme, or at the bottom as the ultimate foundation of all things.” The former maps onto the Ramayanan articulation, while the latter corresponds to the Upanisadic conception. God directs and pervades existence. Further, the holy texts suggest that “there are, indeed, two visible appearances (rupa) of Brahman – the one has a fixed shape, and the other is without a fixed shape.” Again, the divine incarnates itself in the fixed form of Rama and, concurrently, fluidly inhabits the “lifebreath.” Importantly, these dualities do not stand alone, but inter-connect and inter-penetrate. For example, Brahma, Shiva and Indra appear as Rama reawakens to his latent divine nature. In this way, when Vidagdha Sakalya inquires how many gods there are, Yajnavalkya can, with good conscience, answer: “three and three hundred, and three and three thousand,” as well as “one.”

On Humans:

In the contemporary Hindu traditions of India, personhood is bound up with the notion of dharma. Analogous to Western conceptions of moral justice and social ethics, dharmic obligation performs significant cosmic work, upholding the order of the universe. As such, it plays the role of a timeless, all-encompassing law. The appropriate content of dharma remains elusive and context-dependent, however. After all, as the Apastamba Dharma Sutra explains, “dharma and adharma do not wander about saying ‘Here we are!’” Rather, dharmic practice proves “flexible and adaptable to different circumstances and a variety of situations.” The tension, thus, between stability and volatility, universality and particularity, defines the Hindu vision of personhood.

In the Hindu traditions, desire, and by extension personhood, defy categorical definition, resting instead within the tension between reality and the ideal, which itself is always in flux. Life proves too complex, too multivalent, for absolutes. Perhaps the Ramayana epic illustrates this best. Indulging his desire for Sita, Ravana enlists the help of his magician friend, Maricha, who takes the shape of a golden deer “unlike any seen before.” Despite Lakshmana’s intuitive suspicion and repeated warning, Sita succumbs to her desire, imploring Rama to “catch it for me, my Lord.” In turn, Ravana successfully abducts the unprotected Sita, dragging her to his golden chariot. As the gods watch from above, they grimly pronounce: “Our purpose is accomplished…Ravana’s destruction is now guaranteed. Nothing can save him from the wrath of Rama.” In the end, then, Ravana’s desire proves self-destructive, whereas Sita’s desire allows the providential plan to unfold. Passions kill and passions save. The human condition rests on a dharmic obligation that is sensitive to the tangled interplay of revealed truths, remembered advice and embodied instinct.

Print this post

Friday, October 9, 2009

Life as a Stage

Critics of religion often point to passivity as one of the detrimental side-effects of faith. Such passivity may manifest itself either in an other-worldly soteriology ('just wait until I get to heaven') or in a this-worldly hesitation to act ('just let God do it'). The traces of a 'leave-it-to-God' theology haunt contemporary conversations on subjects ranging from climate change to poverty, as well as, most notably, historical debates over slavery. A New Church pamphlet, for example, put it simply: "the Abolition attempting to thwart the plans of Providence."

Undoubtedly, this line of critique deserves serious attention. The wisdom of Proverbs states it bluntly: "The hand of the diligent will rule, while the lazy will be put to forced labour" (Proverbs 12:24). And yet, today's shabad complicates this account. It reads:

ਆਪਣਾ ਚੋਜੁ ਕਰਿ ਵੇਖੈ ਆਪੇ
Staging His own play, He Himself watches it.
[SGGS, 553]

While life undoubtedly involves the staging of a play, so too it requires those fleeting moments of spectatorship. An action devoid of reflection quickly degenerates into rash judgment and knee-jerk decision-making. Similarly, a life without rest, a week without Sabbath, a meal without prayerful thanksgiving, transforms existence into a monologue - a belligerent projecting of the self onto the world. Watching your play, embarking on a late-afternoon stroll, taking a deep breath, simply inhaling the world, help us to habituate the practice of refraining. As Pema Chodron suggests, sometimes we must refrain from immediately filling up space just because we notice a gap.

Let us heed the critics' call to action. But let us also watch ourselves act. Let us climb to the balcony of the dance floor. Let us find time to be - just be.

Print this post

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

On the Seventh Principle

(Reverence) for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part…

In his first letter to the Corinthian churches, Paul draws an analogy between the inter-dependence of an individual’s bodily organs and the inter-connectedness of the church of God. “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it,” he insists. “If one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.”

When Unitarian Universalists weave a web of intimate relationality, they do so against both a Manichaen dualism of cosmic cleavage and a Neo-Platonic division of the human subject. To enter into a world of interconnection is to move beyond indifference, tolerance, even community, into a metaphysical morass of radical mutuality. Far from the abstract notions of being or existence, with which Heidegger and Satre theorize, the interconnected web necessitates Becket’s rhetoric of “the mess.” In a very real sense, the fortune and fate of togetherness shape every innovation, every act of rebellion, every fleeting feeling, every independent decision, every manifestation of Dasein that is staged on the with-world. As Paul intuits, the same life-force that pulsates through throbbing arteries lifts geese into flight, falls tenderly in tears and booms with daggers of flashing light.

In solidarity, however, nothing is solide. Unity belies uniformity, permanence surfaces as but a “word of degrees” (Emerson). The ever-expanding, ever-consolidating, ever-undulating web of interdependence exhibits Schlegel’s “chaotic universality.” Each fragment holds an imprint of the whole, yet the totality never stabilizes. To covenant is to name this fractured harmony, to make explicit this tenuous cohesion, allowing the promises we share to pull the elastic cord tighter – to introduce the blessing of responsibility: “At home, and outside, I place my trust in You” (Sri Guru Granth Sahib).

Does this stormy pattern warrant reverence? The other day, while co-instructing an unruly mass of eight-graders, I witnessed chaos blossom into affinitive community. Amidst the noise of pubescent pranks, squeals and grunts arose a symphony of shared aspirations, anxieties and avidities. I couldn’t help but think to Venturi’s truism: less is a bore. In that moment of messy vitality, as boys complained and girls giggled, the “difficult unity of exclusion” eclipsed an “easy unity of exclusion.” Everyone was needed, everyone was implicated, everyone was present – even God.

For Frankfurt pastor Clemens Taesler, life occasions reverence (Ehrfurcht), “in us, beside, under and above us.” To experience God, humanity and the natural world is to celebrate glory, honesty and privilege (Ehre), while acknowledging the tenderness of awe and fear (Furcht).

Print this post

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Three Poems by C. Taesler

Three poems by Clemens Taesler, pastor of the Unitarische Freie Religionsgemeinde in Frankfurt/M from 1918-1962, as published in Unter dem Lichte der Sonne (1958).

God in you
If the light of God is not in you,
how would you even detect it!
And if salvation is not in you,
how should God save your spirit!

The way to God
Should you seek to unearth the all-world-being,
You must consecrate your life with meaning!
Should you seek to find God in all creation,
God must first direct your worldly action!

Having God
As much sun as you place in your life,
That much of God you carry in your soul.

Translations mine.

Print this post

Monday, October 5, 2009

Ballou's Justice

In an anecdote relayed by Universalist historian Ernest Cassara, a skeptical hostess confronts Hosea Ballou in the kitchen. Asking the woman whether she is planning to mop up the floor just as it is, Ballou continues: “True. You do not require it to be made clean before you will consent to mop it up. God saves men to purify them; that’s what salvation is designed for. God does not require men to be pure in order that he may save them.” In contrast with Unitarian gestures towards ‘Salvation by Character,’ Ballou’s brand of Universalism places the agency for salvation not in humanity’s hands, but in God’s.

Ballou, thus, necessarily expands and explodes the idea of justice as well to accommodate a new divine judge. Deviating from the connotations of harsh retribution, wherein justice equates to fairness and mercy to deficient softness, Ballou enjoins the two. In so doing, he infuses justice with the virtues of forgiveness, reconciliation and compassion: “My opponent will say, the blessed are happified in consequence of the misery of the wretched. But what reason can be given for such an idea?” (Treatise, 141).

Thus, Ballou stands in a unique strand of thinkers ranging from the ancient Greeks (e.g. Aristotle’s ‘equity’) and later Seneca to Martha Nussbaum’s ‘equity tradition.’ Ballou, too, challenges us to redirect justice towards ‘moral outcomes’ and to understand human behavior as implicated in a complex narrative of effort in a world of obstacles.

Prophetically, he asks: “how would a judge appear who should manifest joy and gladness on pronouncing the sentence of death upon one of his fellow-men? Who would not turn from such a court with disgust and deep abhorrence?” (Treatise, 193)

Print this post

Thursday, September 17, 2009

God - Clemens Taesler

A poem by Clemens Taesler, pastor of the Unitarian Free Religious Community in Frankfurt, Germany from 1918 - 1962:

Clemens Taesler

God looms eternally near and far,
above and within the world; –
he is its innermost intimate law,
all things he carries and holds.

God is the ever unmovable Being
becoming and passing on;
he is the line of reason
in every worldly concern.

God is the meaning in worldly fate
and radiates back in us
in all our yearning for the light
in all our sorrow-aged bliss.

Endless, eternal, unexplored, –
he nears our journey’s path,
when we try to unlearn our ego
in a precious loving-act.

Translation mine.

Print this post

Monday, September 14, 2009


In her 1842 collection entitled Words in a Sunday School, Unitarian teacher Eliza Thayer Clapp instructs her female students that “words are very important things” (136). Sikhism, as well, recognizes the power of language: even as countless names prove insufficient to fully capture the entirety of God, "words are required to describe God’s virtues and to praise them" (SGGS 4.7). In the Western imaginary, following Wittgenstein, language exists relatively, amounting to a game in which we all participate, with nothing real or fixed behind it. And yet, in Vedic tradition, there exists no qualitative or ontological difference between the signifier and the referent (i.e. the word and the thing it represents). To recite a mantra, for example, is to actually summon the gods.

What would it mean for our speech if we were to adopt such a mindset - if we were to see words as very important things? Might we replace hurtful slurs with verbal gestures of love? Might we summon tenderness over bigotry?

Print this post

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Prayer for Academic Beginnings

Oh gracious living, loving, laughing God,
Great Spirit of Life,
You who are known by so many names,
And yet by no single name fully known-

Ours is a petition for nothing less than transformation.

We come bearing textbooks, steeped in study,
Overcommitted, overindulgent, overexpectant;
We come with cares and concerns,
Joys and sorrows,
Twitches, tremors, tosses and turns.

Surprise us, o God, with the miracle of new joy;
Open our eyes to the pregnant promise of new hope;
Attune our minds to the profound prospect of new faith;
Awaken our souls to the purifying potential of new love.

Call us, o God, to our knees.
Call us, o God, to break bread and praise life.
Call us, o God, to serve one another and this world with humility and grace.

As Your wind lifts up the birds;
As Your sunlight colors the seasons;
As Your rainfall nourishes our gardens;
Grant us Your strength, Your light, Your sustenance;
So that love may surround us
Everywhere, everywhere,
We may go.


Print this post

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Freedom From Religion?

With all the blogosphere hubub surrounding the recent advertisement in UU World for the Freedom From Religion organization, I couldn't help but take a look at the spread myself. While I wholeheartedly welcome humanist, even atheistic, perspectives, my issue with the advertisement derives from its rhetorical campaign not against God, but against religion itself. A Freedom From Theism or Freedom From Peeping Tom in the Sky organization would be welcomed by some in our denomination - which is fine. However, the notion of a religious magazine publicizing an organization committed, at least in name, to the eradication of religion seems at best counterintuitive, at worst ludicrous. 

Print this post

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Guilt and Responsibility

I have begun archival research for this semester's independent study on the genealogy of free religion in Germany. Already, I intend to rename the project German Unitarianisms, on account of the multiple strands and specificity of nomenclature enmeshed within this quilt of German liberal traditions.

Naturally, one of the first questions to surface revolves around the role of self-identified unitarian churches in the NSDAP: preaching the Good News of tolerance and human dignity, these congregations encountered head-on the greatest test of their ethical (and political) resiliency with the rise of a racist and exclusivist ideology under Hitler. I hesitate to offer a conclusive answer thus far as to the degree of involvement and accommodation, yet I did come across challenging and provocative confessions by Pfr. Clemens Taesler, then-pastor of the unitarische freireligioese Gemeinde in Frankfurt, Germany: his tangential participation in the NSDAP should be explained, he insists, in terms of his responsibility for his family's safety and concern about the dissolution of his congregation. Moreover, without his gestures towards the NSDAP, thousands of people would have had to suffer through the toughest periods without religious support ("hätten tausende von Menschen auf jeden religiösen Trost ... in der schwersten Zeit verzichten müssen").

While this explanation certainly does not amount to a clean absolution, it raises a profound issue: to whom is the minister responsible? Does a pastor's decision to appease a hate-filled ideology in the name of maintaining a fellowship of religious support necessarily stain him with guilt? When faced with the decision for abstract justice or concrete community, which does one choose?

Print this post

Thursday, August 27, 2009

A New Form of the Clinical

The New York Times recently reported on the degree to which the CIA premeditated and executed its intelligence-gathering program "with the painstaking, eye-glazing detail beloved by any bureaucracy." The protocol included hour-by-hour prescriptions on interrogation practices, calorie intake, and confinement and enforced nudity duration, as agreed upon by select managers, doctors and lawyers. One CIA document puts it this way: the detainee “finds himself in the complete control of Americans; the procedures he is subjected to are precise, quiet and almost clinical.”

'Almost clinical.' Reminiscent of Foucault's work on the birth of the medical clinic, the phrase smacks of institutionalized gazes and self-preservation below the "level of the noisy episodes of its history." In her own unique penetration of the body's secrets, the CIA interrogator invents new tests and signs, even touches and prods the 'patient,' in the name of "diagnostic wisdom," so as to uncover hidden truths. From clergy to doctors to psychiatrists and now intelligence officers, the trajectory of clinical authoritarianism takes a new turn towards national security.

Print this post

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Capitalism, Imperialism, Perfection, Gods

What great timing! I arrived home from the gym this evening just in time to catch the Point of View (POV) Shorts series on PBS. The four featured documentary films showcased fascinating imagery and provocative themes, touching on various aspects of the contemporary socio-political and cultural landscape. Below I have outlined my take-away from each short:

Utopia, Part 3: The World's Largest Shopping Mall - Located in a country believed to be sailing to newfound financial heights on account of its participation in the global capitalist economy, the South China Mall outside of Guangzhou, China, awes spectators with its overwhelming scale and size - it even boasts an indoor roller coaster for post-meal amusement. The mall's dirty little secret: it's virtually empty. Alex Hu built it, but 'they' didn't come. In a hauntingly existential way, capitalism's greatest monument becomes the very sign of its excess; the wild speculations of capitalist power are completely severed from the material reality; or, as Slavoj Zizek warns, "the capitalist incessant development and revolutionizing of its own material conditions, the mad dance of its unconditional spiral of productivity, is ultimately nothing but a desperate flight forward to escape its own debilitating inherent contradiction." What does the limit of our seemingly infinite thirst for consumption look like? After the illusion withers, all that's left are deserted concourses and empty amusement rides.

Nutkin's Last Stand - A gang of renegade Brits take to the streets (or, more accurately, the fields) to trap and destroy the foreign grey squirrel presence that is diseasing and killing off the local red squirrel population, which holds a special place in the native literary imagination. Implicitly, and in some scenes explicitly, the film illustrates how European villagers project their fears of American imperialism onto the infectious squirrel pox invasion. How do societies draw their circles of inclusion, and how far will they go to protect 'their own'? How can one colored species be labeled a disposable pest, and another colored species national treasure - even sacred?

34x25x36 - Enter into God's laboratory of corporeal perfection. The Patina V Mannequin Factory in City of Industry, California, has been tasked with the construction of American culture's religious statuary: the ideal woman of the moment. Veneration of fashion symbols represents but another link in the long chain of icon-worship. What is the significance of society's transition from the apotheosis of Mary to that of a chic female physique? In both cases, the εἰκών signifies a form of unattainable perfection, either spiritual/moral or physical/aesthetic. Must humanity always have some object of worship? And what are the implications of the owner's admission that no human model could possibly achieve the mannequin's level of perfection? Is Macy's this century's house of worship?

City of Cranes - Cranes dot the urban skyline, yet few people notice the lifting machines or the individuals that inhabit them. Why? Because we hardly look up. And yet, the cranes represent the very promise of future growth - a promise seemingly deferred, as the building never stops. There's always work, one construction operator explains: if he's not building a new structure, he's removing an older building he helped put up twenty years ago. The work, however, is solitary, often quiet, with sprawling panoramas of the hustle and bustle below - voyeuristic, and yet calm, patient. Crane maneuverers reportedly learn to tell stories about the people they view from above - narratives based on individual patterns and daily routines. Are these individuals our new gods? Do they inhabit another world above ours, marked by a ballet of coordinated machinery, that literally controls and constructs the world in which we live down below?

Print this post

Monday, August 17, 2009

Sharing Global Faith - Issue V

Sharing Global Faith gathers Unitarian and Universalist voices from around the world in a unique devotional e-resource. Reflecting on various aspects of faith life, participants share spiritual insight into the stories and thoughts that fuel their ministerial call. Distributed monthly from April until September 2009, the publication seeks to deepen international connections and nourish the individual spirit.

In the fifth installment, three global luminaries explore the meaning of FAITH to our religious tradition. We are honored to include the following contributions:

Bishop Ferenc Bálint Benczédi (Transylvanian Unitarian Church) moves towards the cusp of the physical and spiritual worlds, where he begins to apprehend life’s completeness, God’s worldly presence and the existence of the good, beautiful and true.

Drifting away from the creedal mode of belief that characterized his upbringing, Rev. Fulgence Ndagijimana (Assembly of Christian Unitarians of Burundi) reimagines faith in terms of relationship, solidarity and responsibility.

Rev. John Buehrens (First Parish Needham, MA) excavates the biblical etymologies of the term ‘faith’ and arrives at a definition that lifts up the courage to step forward in trust and affirmation.

Woven together, these three reflections highlight the importance of living one’s faith in freedom as embodied vocation – standing, and moving, with this faith.

More here.

Print this post

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Contextual, not Textual

By and large, Unitarian Universalists are contextual, as opposed to textual - we focus on reason, conscience and personal experience (all subjective and located) and value contemporary thought over (and occasionally against) stories and truths inscribed in ancient holy texts. In fact, we are prone to view the Bible as itself contextual. In his 1885 Manual of Unitarian Belief, Rev. James Freeman Clarke explains how Unitarians see the Bible as both a human and divine product, full of "human experience, sorrow, joy, temptation, sin, repentance, trust, hope, love."

On his blog Reignite, Stephen Lingwood recently posted a video of Marc Driscoll explaining the four strands of the Emerging (Christian) Church. While affirming the first three (Evangelicals, House Church and Reformers), Driscoll fears that the fourth strand, the Emerging Liberals, threatens to theologically undercut the foundation of Christianity, by calling into question the literal veracity of the New Testament and the supernatural state of Jesus Christ. At one point, Driscoll reads the decision to welcome the LGBTQ community to church as a form of "outright dismissing the Christian doctrine that has been established for a really long time." This, he submits, is disastrous.

Aside from the fact that literalist proof-texting fails to take into account the inherent (human) fallibility in scriptures themselves (consider, for example, KJV's misinterpretation of the term 'almah,' which transformed an eligible bachelorette into a superhuman miracle-birther), I find Driscoll's comment intriguing and worthy of further consideration for the non-textualists among us. Of course, every reading serves as an interpretation, and thus an 'absolutely truthful' reading proves nonsensical, meaningless. However, the very notion that a single text could claim absolute authority (not to be confused with the claim that the text is absolutely true) challenges Unitarian Universalism in many ways. Do we hold certain texts to be authoritative? Entirely authoritative? What role does our hymnal play? Our seven principles? Or congregational covenants? Further, if we do not hold any of these suppositions to be true, where do we turn for guidance, and why? What do we mistrust about texts? Their static nature? Their inevitable universalizing subjectivity?

In my experience, certain texts deserve considerable respect and authority, contextualized (!) of course by their innate fluidity and hermeneutical ambiguity. The issue, I believe, is less the suggestion that no text is fully 'truthful' and more the realization that no text is fully 'complete' - that no text has figured everything out. One of the reasons that Unitarian Universalism encourages its flock of faith to engage differing viewpoints and differing prophetic material is precisely this acknowledgement. For me, at least, reading the Bible 'rabbinically' as mytho-poetic literature does not threaten my faith. Rather, I would take issue with the idea that the Bible represents the only mytho-poetic literature deserving of to be read.

Print this post

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Faithful Healthcare

Today, I visited the local office of Congresswoman Jean Schmidt (R-OH) to share my thoughts on the brewing healthcare reform debate. The experience was quite positive: I felt heard and affirmed, despite obvious ideological differences. In particular, I was thanked for offering a unique perspective grounded in faith - a point of view new to the office. This remark reconfirmed my belief that liberal religionists must get their voices out there.

Below is a copy of the letter that I left behind. I tried to strike a chord with Rep. Schmidt's devout Catholicism.

Dear Rep. Schmidt:

Healthcare for all Americans is more than a political quarrel over formulas calculating premiums and deductibles – it is a deeply religious issue.

For Christians, as modern theologian Karl Barth suggests, general world history exists only in relation to the history of Jesus. The ethical implications of this are clear: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets (Matthew 22:37-40).

Jesus’ reference, here, to the Jewish Shema reinforces the fact that reverence for God is intimately bound up with love of neighbor – the two are, in the strictest sense, inseparable, for humanity is made in God’s image (Genesis 1:26-27).

Hence, the question of Healthcare for all Americans strikes at the core of the Christian faith – I would go so far as to suggest: if Christianity fails to work in the worst of places it is unworthy of the best of places. How shall I serve my neighbor, as Paul insists, if my neighbor cannot serve herself? How shall I love my neighbor, if my neighbor is unable to access the basic treatment to maintain adequate mental and physical health? How shall I love God and love others, if I, myself, am suffering from debilitating disease?

Without the promise of good health, every other consideration in life disappears. Today, over 45 million Americans remain uninsured – drifting, helplessly, on the waves of medical uncertainty. No one should have to earn the right to a healthy life.

You have been tasked with the overwhelming burden of bending the long arc of the universe towards justice. Currently, both political parties find themselves embroiled in petty bickering over minor clauses that fuel unproductive ideological warfare. As a person of courageous faith, I ask humbly that you live up to the life and words of Jesus – that you offer each and every American the right and possibility to love God and love one another with heart, soul and mind – healthy, and intact.


Erik Resly
Student, Harvard Divinity School

Most disconcerting was the fact that Fox News was blaring on the office television monitor. Shouldn't politicians be in the business of independent opinion-making?

Print this post

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Liberal, Radical or Prophetic Pragmatist

I have taken great interest in recent blogosphere discussions surrounding the nature of radicalism in contrast to liberalism and conservatism. All participants agree, I believe, that these ruminations reflect potentially dangerous generalizations, but nevertheless contain the theoretical frameworks necessary to process contemporary ideological heuristics and methodology. Much has been made of Terry Eagleton's categorization originally posted here:

Radicals are those who believe that things are extremely bad with us, but they could feasibly be much improved. Conservatives believe that things are pretty bad, but that’s just the way the human animal is. And liberals believe that there’s a little bit of good and bad in all of us.

My initial reaction was to throw Unitarian Universalism in the boat of liberalism, as I locate a certain willingness in dominant U*U circles to acknowledge, at times celebrate, brokenness as a fundamental reality - much as Slovenian Marxist theorist Slavoj Zizek calls for a new aesthetic of trash, so too, I would argue, U*Uism embraces the beauty of fragmentation. In many ways, I see this as a liberating and inspiring move.

And yet, just as I was beginning to get comfy with my newfound truism, Stephen Lingwood made the following accute observation: "The problem with liberalism can be seen as it's tolerance of opposition. For example there were plenty of Unitarians fighting against slavery (and we rush to celebrate them today) but there were plenty of Unitarian slave-holders, and we never insisted they cease their involvement in the slave trade." The liberal category, while perhaps an accurate description, cannot serve as the most apt prescription.

It seems there must exist a position between the often belligerent anthropocentrism of radicalism and dangerously complacent neutrality of liberalism. It would affirm the urgency and possibility of communal change, while simultaneously acknowledging the inherent limitations and fragility of the human condition. To my knowledge, Cornel West's 'prophetic pragmatism' comes closest to this description. West carefully balances between tragedy and revolution, tradition and progress, grounding reformist actions and a visionary outlook (Niehburian in tone) in the harsh reality of structural tragedy (reminiscent of Augustine and Du Bois). We must work for justice, but we will only get so far - yet, we keep moving.

Print this post

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Other as Guru

How often we righteously chase after that which puffs us up! How often we condemn and dismiss those who do not share our pursuits! Might that threatening gaze of the condemned, however, not serve as the greatest instructor? In his poem 'Possible Answers to Prayer,' Scott Cairns affirms the worth and dignity (and by extension God's presence) in all, while gesturing towards the realization that, as the Dalai Lama suggests, "one's enemy is the best teacher."

Your petitions—though they continue to bear
just the one signature—have been duly recorded.
Your anxieties—despite their constant,

relatively narrow scope and inadvertent
entertainment value—nonetheless serve
to bring your person vividly to mind.

Your repentance—all but obscured beneath
a burgeoning, yellow fog of frankly more
conspicuous resentment—is sufficient.

Your intermittent concern for the sick,
the suffering, the needy poor is sometimes
recognizable to me, if not to them.

Your angers, your zeal, your lipsmackingly
righteous indignation toward the many
whose habits and sympathies offend you—

these must burn away before you’ll apprehend
how near I am, with what fervor I adore
precisely these, the several who rouse your passions.

Those who "rouse our passions" quickly call us back to our better selves - or, at least our truer selves. They force us to take note of our convictions, to take responsibility for that which we hold to be self-evident. They challenge us to seek further, to look beyond, to widen our net. They make us face our implicit ways-of-being.

According to the Puratan janamsakhi, the learned pandit Brahm Das approached Guru Nanak to ask him where he could find a Guru. Nanak pointed towards a hut that housed four faqirs. Upon arrival at the hut, Brahm Das was instructed to walk to a nearby temple. When he finally reached the temple, he was severely beaten with a shoe by the temple's guardian. Upset, Brahm Das returned to the hut and shared his pathetic tale. "That was Maya," the faqirs explained. "She is your guru."

The story can be read in multiple ways. One interpretation speaks, I believe, to Cairns' insight. It was only through his encounter with the temple guardian who roused his passions, that Brahm Das came to realize the superficiality of the path he had been following - namely that of Maya, or worldly pleasure. In a similar way, does not Cairns insinuate: if you are so easily angered and offended by particular habits or sympathies, perhaps you should reconsider the nature and intended destination of your path. To what have you attuned yourself? Where are you going, and why? Is there perhaps a tincture of Maya enveloped within?

Print this post

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

On Tradition

Postliberal theologian George Lindbeck warns of emptying out the specificity of a religious tradition and substituting a “vapid lowest common denominator” in its place. Believe it or not, our faith tradition did not begin in 1961. Too often, the tangled webs of liberal religion’s genealogy get brushed aside. What would it mean for our future, if we were to reclaim our past – not out of nostalgia, but out of the firm conviction that Unitarianism and Universalism represent the ground of our being, and the foundation for our flourishing? I suspect that if we were to take our history seriously, we would learn of internal vibrancy, dynamism and diversity. Contrary to the Christian straw men we erect, our historical roots branch out in a multitude of directions: Deism, Transcendentalism, Pragmatism, Liberal Christianity and Humanism, to name but a few. We have never been a monolithic faith tradition. We do ourselves a disservice when we remember ourselves – or, with time, forget ourselves – as such.

Print this post

Monday, August 3, 2009

East vs. West

My mother recently received a birthday card that charmed and challenged me in countless ways. It read: "Eastern philosophy tells us to live in the present...Western philosophy tells us to open the present."

Print this post

Thursday, July 30, 2009


Whoever loves money never has money enough. Although this platitude could very well have been composed to describe the shameless greed that has brought the financial markets screeching to a sudden halt, the quotation derives, in fact, from the Book of Ecclesiastes.

Countless courageous voices throughout human history have borne witness to money's inherent potential for moral corruptibility and degeneration. Written over two millennia ago, the First Epistle to Timothy reads: "For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil." Two hundred years ago, convinced that America's historic love of individual liberty was being eroded by inordinate love of wealth, Theodore Parker lamented how “everything gives way to money...Mammon is a profitable god to worship – he gives dinners!”

So what is it about money?

An anecdote from Guru Nanak's travels through Lahore provides some clues. One day, upon special request, Guru Nanak agreed to have dinner with Duni Chand. Arriving at the rich man's house, Guru Nanak realized just how much wealth Duni Chand had acquired, and remarked: "You must be very happy and content with yourself!" He responded: "I cannot tell a lie: there are some people who are much richer than I am. This makes me jealous. I would like to be the richest man in the city and thus cannot feel completely satisfied until my desire is fulfilled." To this, Guru Nanak remarked: "But aren't the people who are richer than you also trying to become richer? In the end, you may not be able to beat them in this race for the most wealth, in which case you will never be content." Duni Chand stood silently. Guru Nanak smiled and proceeded: "I have a favor to ask of you: will you take this small, precious gold needle and return it to me in the next world?" "Gladly," Duni Chand replied, and took the small item out of Guru Nanak's hand. Later that night, Duni Chand explained what had happened to his wife. Laughing, she remarked: "Are you mad? How will you be able to take a needle to the next world? Don't you see: Guru Nanak wanted to teach you a lesson: if you are unable to take a single needle to the next world, you will surely not have any use for all your material wealth."

Unlike food, which can be directly consumed, or sex, which can be immediately experienced, money represents a wish deferred. Lacking intrinsic value, as Marx observed, coinage or paper money merely correspond to a tenuous promise projected into the future. The realization of imagined happiness, thus, transfigures into a distant expectation. As such, people are alienated from the now, fixed on the soon-to-come, riding on the never-ending asymptote.

As the parable with Dani Chand illustrates, money may bring temporary happiness, but it will never allow for extended joy. The Trinity of Coin, as Parker disparagingly referred to it, threatens to overwhelm and control our lives, setting up an equation that will never be solved anytime in the near future.

Print this post

Monday, July 27, 2009

Dive In

In the Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji, we read:

ਤੂ ਸਾਗਰੁ ਹਮ ਹੰਸ ਤੁਮਾਰੇ ਤੁਮ ਮਹਿ ਮਾਣਕ ਲਾਲਾ ॥:
(O God) You are the ocean, and I am Your swan; the pearls and rubies are in You (884).

In the above citation, the Holy becomes the surface of the ocean, with priceless pearls and rubies of spiritual knowledge and ecstatic love hidden deep within. When we merely stand at the edge of the water and count the waves, we never gain access to the secret treasures underneath. Should we desire possession of such qualities and states of being, we will have to jump into the water and dive deep down in it, beneath the surface, like the swan. The bank remains static, whereas the life of the ocean is marked by dynamism, spontaneity and flourishing. Dive in!

Print this post

Saturday, July 25, 2009


Standing in the shadow of the Transcendentalist legacy, Unitarian Universalism frequently prioritizes individual experience over church dogma and scriptural revelation. Clarifying this approach, Eliza Thayer Clapp described 'Emerson's Method' as a search for the presence and authority of spiritual law in one’s own consciousness, which is at one in nature and with God, and consequently divine in essence and infallible in its moral guidance. Doing theology, then, begins with the personal, the phenomenological, the intuitive, the guttural, the experiential.

Derridean theorist Avital Ronell raises an important caveat, however, for the continuation of this hermeneutic into the present. In effect, she calls our notion of experience into question: what does experience look like today? Consider, for example, our obsession with living a virtual life through Facebook and Twitter, or the way we now take photographs and immediately look at them; we have conceded to a "traumatic theory of existence, which is to say you’re not truly present to your experience.”

What does an experience-based faith mean when “experience as such no longer carries authority”? Are we worshipping the God of the LCD screen?

Print this post

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Worth and Dignity

Following his conversion from Unitarianism to Roman Catholicism, Orestes Brownson maintained a voice in the press through his highly opinionated publication Brownson’s Quarterly Review. With the onslaught of the Fugitive Slave Act and the tenuous Compromise of 1850, Brownson increasingly vocalized his long-standing (Unitarian?) belief in the unity of the races and the inherent worth of human life, even as his words challenged the views of his intended audience. Critiquing the complacent (and hence complicit) position of his fellow religionists, Brownson opined: "the friends of religion seem to be more oppressed with the weakness and degeneracy of human nature, than encouraged by a sense of its innate greatness and dignity" (The Works of Orestes A. Brownson, 274).

Despite inevitable (and occasionally apt) blogosphere nitpicking, the UUA's newest campaign to Stand on the Side of Love courageously promotes "respect for the inherent worth and dignity of every person" in the midst of countless incidents of exclusion, oppression and violence based on people’s identities. Much as Brownson heard the quiet promise of goodness amidst racial apartheid, so too this faith again chooses to put its trust in hope. May it be so.

Print this post

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

A Difficult Unity of Inclusion

Religion and architecture - strange bedfellows, perhaps. Yet, I find Robert Venturi's 1966 publication entitled Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture especially relevant to and descriptive of the Unitarian Universalist faith project. Critiquing the reductive nature of corporate modernist design, Venturi advocates for a “difficult unity of inclusion,” thereby praising the poetic value of ambiguity in architectural construction. He suggests that aesthetic simplicity (not to be confused with simpleness or over-simplification) derives from inner complexity (e.g. the Doric temple, Alvar Aalto, Louis Kahn, etc.). He writes:

I prefer "both-and" to "either-or," black and white, and sometimes gray, to black or white. A valid architecture evokes many levels of meaning and combinations of focus: its space and its elements become readable and Workable in several ways at once.

Is this not the thrust of Unitarian Universalist religion - unity in multiplicity, beauty in messiness, faith amidst dynamic belief? Just as Venturi's architecture of complexity "must embody the difficult unity of inclusion rather than the easy unity of exclusion," so too Unitarian Universalists promote a faith that radically affirms and welcomes specificities, contingencies and eclecticisms - that sees a simple grace in hybrids and composites - that values the struggle (and explicit mess) of including more, over the ease (and hidden violence) of including fewer.

This, then, embodies the Spirit of our denomination:

In fact, the connection is already manifest: First Unitarian Church, Rochester, New York, by Louis I. Kahn

Print this post

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Ad Campaign: The Living Tradition

While I appreciate the sincere effort that went into the (somewhat) recent UUA advertising campaign, I never felt the message connected with people of faith - often, it ridiculed or misunderstood religious expression (i.e. 'when in prayer, doubt'). Thus, with a bit of extra time on my hands, I drafted the following campaign of my own! My intent was to play with Emerson's infamous mantra: 'God speaketh, not spake.' In my view, Unitarian Universalism offers a safe and supportive venue for exploring the meaning of faith in the 21st century - in light of contemporary humanistic and scientific thought.

Photo credits: Lawrie Cate 'Torah' and Wonderlane 'The Holy Bible' - Flickr Creative Commons 2.0 License

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Thoreau, Solitude, Being-With

Henry David Thoreau, a beloved prophet of Unitarian Universalist thought, celebrates his birthday today. We express gratitude and awe for the complex works which he left us - specifically, his unique fusion of the literary, the poetic, the natural, the scientific, the moral and, most of all, the mysterious.

For Thoreau, the truest, most authentic self can be excavated deep within the individual - in that secret, inviolable and enigmatic place of solitary individuality. As such, his 'Walden' account favors a simple life of withdrawal, in seclusion, enveloped in Nature (sic?):

I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.

Many have questioned Thoreau's obsession with the private - and rightly so.

In the Janamsakhi tradition, there exists a story about Guru Nanak's travels to a sacred site high in the Himalayan mountains that illustrates the danger of Thoreau's position. Upon arrival, a band of yogis approaches him and utters: "You seem like a true spiritual aspirant, if you want to complete your spiritual journey you have to renounce the world. Renounce your desires and join us." To this proposition, Guru Nanak answers: "You have not renounced the world, you have run away from it. The world is on fire. You have the knowledge of how to put it out. What kind of spirituality is this that leaves humanity to suffer?"

In effect, as Heidegger suggests, being-in-the-world involves being-with-others; Dasein is neither worldless nor isolated. Rather, subjectivities are always interdependent and such intersubjectivity forms the condition for being itself.

Nevertheless, there is much to be admired in Thoreau's work. For example:

So thoroughly and sincerely are we compelled to live, reverencing our life, and denying the possibility of change. This is the only way, we say; but there are as many ways as there can be drawn radii from one centre. All change is a miracle to contemplate; but it is a miracle which is taking place every instant.


Print this post

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Doing and Being

"But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves." (James 1:22)
"Do you want to be shown, you senseless person, that faith without works is barren?" (James 2:20)

ਕਰਿ ਕਰਿ ਕਰਣਾ ਲਿਖਿ ਲੈ ਜਾਹੁ ॥
Actions repeated, over and over again, are engraved on the soul (4:13).

Print this post

Creationism and Evolution

Jeannie, a close friend of mine and fellow seminarian, passed along a link to the following article that recounts a group of evolutionists trip to the Creation Museum in northern Kentucky:

But here in the Creation Museum in northern Kentucky, Earth and the universe are just over 6,000 years old, created in six days by God. The museum preaches, “Same facts, different conclusions” and is unequivocal in viewing paleontological and geological data in light of a literal reading of the Bible.

I, too, had the opportunity to peruse the exhibits at the creationist theme-park not too long ago. In many ways, I enjoyed the experience: interactive showcases, neat multimedia, a live petting zoo! And yet, I too shared the general reaction of Derek E.G. Briggs, director of the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale: “It’s rather scary" - though for slightly different reasons. Aside from the blatant intellectual dishonesty (the proverbial 'let me poke a hole in the Titanic and tell you it sunk' approach to contemporary scientific consensus), I worried about the role of religion within this pseudo-scientific hubbub. What ever happened to allegorism in the interpretation of Scripture?

Not only can we trace the allegorical hermeneutic back to the Apostolic Fathers (e.g. Barnabas) and Origen, among others, we find this non-literalist approach within the scriptures themselves: Hosea, Solomon, even Paul. Whether understood as symbolic, typologic, philosophic or mystical, such striving for the other (ἀλλος), more authentic (i.e. closer to God's intent) meaning appears completely absent from the mission or content of the Creation Museum.

In the process, scripture loses its vitality, its playfulness, its ingenuity, its creativity - its life. When flattened into a static ancient document of minimalist proportions, I wonder whether it deserves a museum in the first place.

Print this post

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Religious Truth

What is truth? More specifically, what is religious truth?

In the post-Enlightenment Western tradition, truth amounts to a set of beliefs or assertions that correspond to objects in the world (Bertrand Russell). Hence, religious truth exists at a propositional level - it all revolves around what you espouse.

Yet, another option exists. For Plato, (religious) truth was better conceived as a way of life, a mode of existence, paideia – a maturation of the soul. This notion exists in many Eastern traditions as well. In Sikhism, for example, truth is a wine to be consumed and incorporated, a scented oil to be applied to one's bodily existence. The Sri Guru Granth Sahib reads: "My mind is imbued with the Lord's Love; it is dyed a deep crimson. Truth and charity are my white clothes" (16.14).

At the end of the nineteenth century, Rev. Edgar Buckingham writes in the Unitarian Review and Religious Magazine: "It may be too much to say that [truth] is never used in Scripture in the singular number, as expressive of intellectual conceptions or statement of external facts or conditions; but, in its more common and important uses, it seems to have much the same meaning as holiness or purity, which also can be spoken in the plural as holinesses or purities."

In this way, religious truth speaks to the multiple ways to live truth-fully. It's about cultivating a disposition, habituating a Dasein. Thus, we must ask ourselves: What are the ways in which I can sustain my quest for truth? On which channels, paths, inputs and journeys do I lean?

Print this post

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Independence Day

Today is a day to pause and reflect on what it means to live, move and have our being in the United States. Both nationally and internationally, we are confronted with countless challenges that test our hope and faith. I celebrate this day in a spirit of optimism for the path of nuance, diplomacy and equity on which our President appears to be leading us. After all, as Mark Twain notes in his 1904 Notebook, "in the beginning of a change the patriot is a scarce man [sic!], and brave, and hated and scorned. When his cause succeeds, the timid join him, for then it costs nothing to be a patriot."

Let us lead with compassion and follow with grace. I am reminded of the warning that Martin Buber once offered: political change is "futile and bound to be self-destructive so long as a new structure of genuinely communal human life is not born out of the soul’s renewal." Let us remember that with independence and freedom come the responsibilities of stewardship and justice, as grounded in a profound place of reverence for that which lies within each and beyond all.

Happy Fourth!

Print this post

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Guest Blog: Building Holy Community in Bosnia

[My close friend and fellow seminarian Tiffany Curtis recalls her moving encounters with the Holy while visiting Bosnia on a Disciples of Christ mission trip.]

Today we experienced communion. Our journey began with a visit to a Serbian Orthodox church near Mostar in Herzegovina. Week of Compassion has funded the rebuilding of the simple church, which was leveled during the war, as well as the creation of a youth and cultural center. In the beautiful new yellow community building, the church now provides computer classes, recreational opportunities, and education in traditional Serbian culture, all primarily for youth. This is particularly significant for the community because Bosnian Serbs in this area were refugees during the war, and now those who have resettled are in the minority. Of the over 2,000 Bosnian Serb homes in the area before the war, only 300 have returned thus far.

The priest, Nemanja, is young--probably just a couple of years older than I, with a broad forehead and sparse brown beard. His wife Gordona is slight of build with short orangey hair and a delicate face. They both sit with us at a long table laden with bottles of juice and sparkling water, and bowls of long, thin pretzels and fresh fruit. We are blessed by Nemanja’s enthusiasm for meaningful theological engagement, as we share our experiences in ministry--our calls, our visions. When I ask him what he sees as the center of his ministry at this point, his response is lengthy and moving. He says that in the post-war context, where the community is slowly returning to the area, it is most important to help people re-engage with the liturgy, and to bring people to Holy Communion. For him, this both symbolically helps the community feel connected to one another and to God, but also literally brings Christ into their community. As a people who were displaced during the war, as were countless others, this focus on the tradition and the liturgy is a key way in which religion can play a vital role in recreating the identity of the faith community. We talk about the role of the Holy Spirit in making all things new, and the weight of that image in the context of a war-torn and smoldering country. Maybe sometimes the Spirit takes the form of a phoenix, rising from the ashes of destruction, and creating new life in the very craters left by the impact of the bombs and mortar shells.

While we feast on tiny sweet strawberries and fleshy dark cherries, and slowly sip delicious little cups of strong Bosnian coffee, the community treats us to a performance of traditional Serbian dance. The children who perform have learned folkloric dance through the church’s cultural education programming. With broad smiles stretching across their small faces, the boys and girls hop about rhythmically in pairs, draped in traditional ethnic costumes, happy, it seems, to share their rich cultural heritage with us.

We finish our time at the church by touring the small sanctuary itself, with its pale blue walls festooned with imitations of gilded icons. After Nemanja shares with us about the liturgy and the centrality of the Eucharist, I turn to a tall young man who has been diligently following us, snapping photos. I ask him about himself, and he diffidently tells us that his name is Markos, and that he is a university student, and a volunteer lay leader in the church. We ask Markos what motivates him to dedicate himself to the church, and with a shy smile betrayed by fiery eyes, he says quietly, “Love. Simply love.”

Filled with joy, we make our way to a Serbian Orthodox monastery fairly close by, in Žitomislići, where we are met by a handsome young monk named Lazar, with mysterious dark eyes and a towering stature accentuated by his long black robe. After telling us about the tragic history of destruction and rebuilding of the church, dating to at least the 1500s, we are led into a simple banquet hall, where we are generously and lavishly met by a feast prepared by one of the monks. The long table is piled high with heaping platters of fresh cabbage salad, steaming bowls of egg and nettle soup, freshly baked bread, roasted chicken, fresh white cheese made from cows at the monastery, rich cheese pastries, delicious crispy potatoes, and homemade wine and grape brandy. Laughter rings throughout the hall, and we feast in the spirit of love and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. After lunch, we sit in the grassy courtyard, drinking Turkish coffee and homemade wine while Megan plays one of the monk’s guitars, and our driver Mujo plays accordion. Megan’s sultry voice melts through the heavy afternoon heat, and Mujo’s accordion punctuates the air with traditional Bosnian music. We all laugh and dance and sing in a truly holy community.

The day ends in the town of Blagaj--which means “blessing” in Bosnian--with a walk to a Sufi tekija cradled in the womb of a massive rock edifice, which births a spring that feeds the River Buna. At the Sufi House, we women are wrapped up in hijab and we are all invited to observe the worship. We clamber up the stairs and silently kneel down in the doorway of the small worship room. A group of probably 10 men sit in a circle in the darkened room, wearing dark vests and red fezzes. They rhythmically exhale and sway, chanting the divine name of God and repeating phrases and verses from the Quran over and over and over again until they reach some point of mystical connection. New cadences begin slowly, increasing in speed and volume until climaxing. The imam switches the pitch or words subtly and the song continues. We sit in awe of a truly ecstatic worship experience, each of us swept up into the divine music emanating from that place. God seems to be pulsating in my very veins, filling my heart with unbounded love and flooding my body with a peace and vitality.

After what could have been hours or merely minutes, the men in the dark room are done praying, and we are invited to tea. Dzevad and Andrew join the men and we women enter a separate room with the Sufi women and their children. The women welcome us warmly and we sit and drink small cups of sweet hot black tea.

On our walk home in the stillness of the late night, under the warm blanket of bright stars, Andrew tells us that while he was drinking tea with the men, the imam imparted a story: their sheikh back in the 18th century famously said, “If someone comes to the threshold of your tekija, do not ask him about his faith. If he has a soul from God, give him bread and tea, and invite him in.” We certainly were invited in, and shared in communion with these Muslim mystics on the banks of the clear, pure waters of the River Buna, bound together in holy community with all of God’s people.

Print this post

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Ocean of Life

In his stirring sermon entitled 'The Art of Life,' Rev. Galen Guengerich submits that as humans we must decide on the type of ocean in which we want to swim throughout our lives. Much as fish easily (and figuratively!) waste away their lives without ever taking notice of the water in which they live, so too we humans have a tendency to accept our ways-of-being as fixed and unmalleable - unaware of the dynamism in environment and social structure that shape our beings. In contrast, the art of living speaks to our capacity to craft and mold our attitudes towards the people and places we encounter daily.

The Sri Guru Granth Sahib describes the ocean in which we have our being as one of divine proportions:

ਸੁਖ ਸਾਗਰੁ ਹਰਿ ਨਾਮੁ ਹੈ ਗੁਰਮੁਖਿ ਪਾਇਆ ਜਾਇ
The Name of the Lord is the Ocean of Peace; the Gurmukhs obtain it (29.2).

What ocean do we construct when we orient ourselves towards and attune ourselves to, according to Forrest Church, the "mystery that dwells within and looms beyond the limits of our being" (Lifecraft, 105)? What if we were to paint an expansive, generous and compassionate imaginary?

Print this post

Saturday, June 27, 2009


We are all well aware of the fleeting nature of happiness - it comes and goes, ebbs and flows, enflames our hearts and stills our souls. Whether a hearty meal, witty joke or afternoon shared with friends, moments of genuine delight sparkle like fireflies on a balmy summer evening. Such gaiety proves temporary, finite, fleeting - but breathtaking, nevertheless.

Of course, happiness (in Gurmukhi: sukh) can easily turn to pain (dukh). With the euphoria of fame comes the disenchanting lifestyle of mass exposure; with the delectable bite of chocolate comes the necessary trip to a drilling dentist; with the luxuries of money comes the unquenchable thirst for superfluity. The Sri Guru Granth Sahib records this truism:

ਸੁਖੈ ਕਉ ਦੁਖੁ ਅਗਲਾ
But in the wake of happiness, there comes great suffering (57.13).

Most discontentment, most unhappiness, derives from unfulfilled desires. We read:

ਸੁਖ ਦੁਖੀਆ ਮਨਿ ਮੋਹ ਵਿਣਾਸੁ
Some are happy, and some are sad. Caught in the desires of the mind, they perish (152.19).

Hence, we need to cultivate more appreciation and less wanting, more concern for depth and less for quantity.

Ultimately, happiness does not depend on the external, but arises from deep within. Happiness derives from being held by and connected to the greater-than-me. One might suggest that God embodies eternal happiness, eternal joy, eternal bliss. Again, we learn:

ਹਉਮੈ ਬਾਧਾ ਗੁਰਮੁਖਿ ਛੂਟਾ
Egotism is bondage; as Gurmukh, one is emancipated (131.9).

Gurmukh, or faithful one, literally means she who wears God's face (Gur-mukh). In this way, any individual who forgoes fleeting temporal desires and attunes his being to meeting God by serving others holds the key to a happiness that lies beyond the short-sighted bursts of ecstasy. While the latter are undoubtedly fulfilling from time to time, they never satisfy our longing and inner suspicion that somewhere there exists something more.

Harkeerat Singh proposes that we see knowledge as pebbles and faith as a box. Without the former inside, the box could easily be flattened and destroyed. Similarly, without the latter to hold them, the pebbles would get scattered and lost. Happiness operates analogously. We must strive to collect our worldly pebbles of joy in the great box of the Beloved. And we must recognize that access to this box lies hidden deep within:

ਤਿਚਰੁ ਵਸਹਿ ਸੁਹੇਲੜੀ ਜਿਚਰੁ ਸਾਥੀ ਨਾਲਿ
As long as the soul-companion is with the body, it dwells in happiness (50.16).

We should strive to awaken to our own being-in-God; hence, to our being-in-God-in-community with others. In the Unitarian Pulpit, Rev. J. H. Thom. insists: "the first Law of the realm of spirits - to love God and Man - is a sure provision for Blessedness,- to find our happiness in the happiness of others."

We must live as Gurmukhis - with the faces of God, turned towards the world.

Print this post

Friday, June 26, 2009

Death and Individuality

In the song 'Living Planet,' Emma's Revolution sing: "I don't know where we're going, but I know we're going far / We can change the universe by being who we are." Indeed, individuality breeds creativity, innovation, generosity, confidence and an appreciation of diversity. Yet, how do we achieve such subjectivity?

The great German philosopher Martin Heidegger argues that death 'individualizes Dasein down to itself.' In effect, coming to terms with death as a possibility that is present as a possibility shatters our reliance on cultural norms and practices, as we realize that no way of being will allow us to continue being who we are post-death. Hence our anxiety not towards physical/biological demise, but rather in response to 'the possibility of the impossibility of every way of comporting oneself towards anything.' We take responsibility for ourselves when we run ahead into death (Vorlaufen in den Tod), i.e. when we act in light of the inevitability of dying. For Heidegger, public opinion and pressure fade away in the face of death and are thereby rendered irrelevant. There is simply no correct way to be-in-the-world. Thus, we are set free to be ourselves - we are free to make choices of great significance - we are free to change the universe.

The Sri Guru Granth Sahib instructs: "Let the remembrance of death be the patched coat you wear" (6.16).

Print this post

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Cove

I recently watched The Cove as part of AFI's SilverDocs film festival in Silver Spring, MD. Replete with secrets, suspense and sorrow, the movie transports viewers to a mysterious cove in Taijii, Japan, where local officials curiously limit access to and censor photography of specific sections of the town. The documentary powerfully exposes the exploitative industry of dolphin entertainment and the brutal market for dolphin meat worldwide.

It is truly incredible to witness individuals emotionally and cognitively connect with the animal world on such a deep level. For people of faith, the movie seriously calls into question unexamined theologies that privilege the human at the expense of the non-human, i.e. that ascribe humanity the right to dispose of nature as it sees fit. Stewardship and interconnection both take on new meanings, here.

In short, I would highly encourage you to see the film before dining out next time at Red Lobster or taking a family vacation to Sea World.

Print this post

Monday, June 22, 2009

Reclaiming Our Origen

Dare I suggest that for many Unitarian Universalists, Christmas festivities trump Easter celebrations in terms of theological comfort and cultural familiarity. The former, after all, lift up the miracle of birth, the reverence we share for the inherent worth and dignity of every person. In contrast, the latter smack of anti-scientific, psuedo-historical supernaturalism.

I would ask us to rethink this stark dichotomy in light of early Christian universalist Origen's philosophical system. Writing in the late second, early third century CE, the brilliant though highly controversial theologian from Alexandria in Egypt sought to infuse a neoplatonist worldview into the religion of/about Jesus Christ - in short, to sublate the Greek world into Christianity. This move has had profound consequences: Unitarian Universalists readily flock to Origen's doctrine of the restoration of all things (apokatastasis ton panton), which paves the way for the rejection of eternal punishment in hell - even the devil must hold out for the promise of redemption. Yet, Origen's model of 'scientific theology' (another Unitarian Universalist favorite: viewing religion and science as compatible) similarly shifted the theological 'center' from salvation history to soteriological meta-structures - in other words, from Good Friday's exaltation christology (human Messiah made Son of Man/God) to Christmas' incarnation christology rooted in the realm before and above (the pre-existence and incarnation of the Son of Man/God). Apocalyptic temporalism gave way to cosmic spatialism. Ontological concepts replaced biblical metaphor. God's dynamic revelation in history took on the form of a more static image of God's location in divine eternity.

For deeply personal reasons, many Unitarian Universalists may reject the Easter story a priori, filing it in an archive of offensive and hurtful theologies that privilege suffering and the irrational. However, I would encourage those of us who have been spared such doctrinal torment to reconsider these two nodes of Christian worship. Before eagerly dismissing the crucifixion narrative, let us appreciate some of its more empowering elements: that a human being may reach spiritual union with the Holy; that in our time cataclysmic change may take place; that the lived poetic complexity of life may rival philosophical abstractionism; that God's immanence may enflame our hearts and souls in this life, in this age, in this moment - our moment.

Print this post

Thursday, June 18, 2009


In Zen Buddhism, practitioners strive for the 'don't know mind' - a state of unattachment to preconceptions and excessive meta-reflection. One approaches every new situation with an openness, a willingness to meet each experience head-on.

In the book of Ecclesiastes, we encounter the following verses: "Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever. The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises. The wind blows to the south and turns to the north; round and round it goes, ever returning on its course. What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun" (Eccl 1). The author makes a compelling argument for habituating an unattached disposition.

We are all vessels, overflowing with life - pouring out the old, welcoming the new, available and attentive to the present. We strive for unattachment to the impermanent, the illusive, the maya. And yet, we do not whimsically float without direction. The Guru Granth Sahib observes: "He alone is attached, whom the Lord attaches" (797).

God's roots hold us close in the transindividual (Tillich); let our wings set us free.

Print this post

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Sharing Global Faith - Issue III

Sharing Global Faith gathers Unitarian and Universalist voices from around the world in a unique devotional e-resource. Reflecting on various aspects of faith life, participants share spiritual insight into the stories and thoughts that fuel their ministerial call. Distributed monthly from April until September 2009, the publication seeks to deepen international connections and nourish the individual spirit.

In the third installment, three global luminaries explore the meaning of FELLOWSHIP to our faith tradition. We are honored to include the following contributions:

Recalling his childhood encounter with Buddhist and Christian teachings, Rev. Nihal Attanayake (Unitarian Universalist Church of the Philippines) finds a reason to rejoice in the art of being in relationship along the spiritual path he has chosen.

Mr. Karsten Urban (Deutsche Unitarier) comprehensively details the current state of religion in Germany, while calling on the global U/U fellowship to model a religion of the future.

Viewing community-building as a deeply religious act, Rev. Eric Cherry (UUA, Office of International Resources) expresses gratitude for a faith that addresses human neediness.

More HERE.

Print this post

Living Truth

I met this evening with a kind woman at the gurdwara to discuss Gurmukhi pronunciation - as is to be expected, we got talking about other matters, specifically issues of faith. She explained how in her reading of the Sikh teachings, as epitomized by the opening verses of the Japji Sahib, neither the accumulation of knowledge nor of wealth will secure a healthy relationship with God. Rather, the promise of life's fullness arises from the dutiful remembrance of God's grace, honest work in the world and the sharing of treasure and love with others (Nam Japna, Kirt Karna and Vand Chakna respectively).

Certainly the latter two requirements necessitate entering into the world with heart and mind, while maintaining a spiritual dimension - I have encountered the image of a lotus flower swimming in a dirty pond used to describe this striving towards beautiful living within a world susceptible to greed, hatred and corruption. In this way, the prospect of uniting with the Holy resides not in an excessive introspection, but in the acts of laughing, playing, eating.

We read in the Sri Guru Granth Sahib:

ਗਲੀ ਭਿਸਤਿ ਨ ਜਾਈਐ ਛੁਟੈ ਸਚੁ ਕਮਾਇ ॥
By mere talk, people do not earn passage to Heaven. Salvation comes only from the practice of Truth.

What Truth do you feel called to live - and to live out?

Print this post

Monday, June 15, 2009

Prayer for Strength

Dearest Beloved,
O Holy One,
Gracious God of Generous Giving-

Endow me with Your strength,
That I may persevere on this path of union.

Endow me with Your strength,
That I may crawl ever-closer to Your glory.

Endow me with Your strength,
That I may uncover the unbounded within.

Endow me with Your strength,
That I may learn the language of Your love.

Endow me with Your strength,
That I may defy drudgery with gratitude for life.

Endow me with Your strength,
That I may embody empathy towards others.

Endow me with Your strength,
That I may rejoice in the radiance of small things.

Endow me with Your strength,
That I may grow in compassion,
And imagination,
And appreciation,
And exploration.

Strengthen my resolve to fly.


Print this post

Saturday, June 13, 2009


In his 'Song of the Mahamudra,' the late wandering yogi Tilopa (988–1069 CE) exclaims:

Although sages report
the nature of awareness to be luminosity,
this limitless radiance cannot be contained
within any language or sacramental system.

I consider Tilopa's words to be a powerful articulation of the need for pluralism. He carefully navigates between an absolute relativist position (all systems are created equal) and one of imperious exclusivism (only one system reigns supreme), advocating instead for a humble recognition of God's overflowing presence beyond-all-graspness (Rahner). HDS Professor Diana Eck expresses a similar sentiment: "The challenge for the pluralist is commitment without dogmatism and community without communalism" ('Encountering God' 195). Standing independently but relationally allows us to re-construct the Holy using disparate pieces of faith.

Both Unitarian Universalism and Sikhism understand this. As for the former, Chworowsky and Raible poignantly observe: "Unitarian Universalists believe that no religion - including their own - has exclusive possession of all truth. All ought to be honored and respected for the truths in them" ('What is a Unitarian Universalist?' 272). The diversity of theology and background in our congregations reflects our belief that people must decide about God for themselves. Similarly, Sikhism encourages its followers to take seriously the 'many paths' approach. In a moving passage, Guru ji advises: "Do not say that the Vedas, the Bible and the Koran are false. Those who do not contemplate them are false" (Sri Guru Granth Sahib, 1350). In fact, Guru Nanak relied on the companionship and wisdom of Mardana (Muslim) and Bala (Hindu) during his extensive travels, as recorded in the janamsakhis.

For the Indian spiritual teacher Chinmoy Kumar Ghose, "tolerance is a secret and sacred way to enrich our human life." In this spirit, may we all delight in the overflowing.

Print this post

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Building A House - Joke

Harvard students from the different schools have been tasked to construct a livable house:

1) Education - recruits local students and teaches them building techniques using a hybrid instructional model that combines theory and hands-on experience.

2) Business - pays off the Education School's students using hidden off-shore accounts.

3) Kennedy - not too concerned about finishing first, as the judgment call ultimately rests in the hands of those evaluating the process; thus, starts building coalitions among judges, promising cabinet positions for votes.

4) Law - studies the initial entry form for loopholes, so that in the event of a loss, they always have a way out of the contract.

5) Undergraduate - has already pulled two all-nighters to begin the project ahead of schedule.

6) Divinity - four possible responses:
i) prays that God will provide wisdom and perseverance;
ii) creates and inhabits an imaginary house in meditation;
iii) establishes a church committee to evaluate the long-term strategic benefit of beginning the project;
iv) studies the intersection between shelter, the body and a theology of homelessness.

Just a little early morning laugh.

Print this post