Saturday, April 25, 2009


Are we human beings having a spiritual experience, or spiritual beings having a human experience?

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The Liberal Gospel

While combing the internet for reflections on the infamous hyphenated UU identity ('I am a UU- fill in the blank'), I came across an article in UU World that records Helene Knox's first encounter with the Good News of a liberal faith. The liberal Gospel that she heard preached included:

Individual authority in religious matters;

The continuing search for truth;

The right to use reason as well as emotion in the search;

Freedom of belief;

No fixed creed required to be a member of the church community;

Tolerance for all beliefs;

Equal rights for all persons, including women;

Affirmation of the goodness of life and human nature;

Belief in the natural tendency of people to be loving;

Belief in the democratic process and in working for social justice to make the world a better place.

The list is impressively comprehensive, on my view, and largely attends to the seven principles (aside from the striking lack of an international or ecological component). At the same time, I am left wondering: where's God in all of this? By this I am not asking for a one-size-fits-all definition of the divine mystery - rather, I long for a reverent recognition of the transcendent as implicated and involved in the aforementioned commitments. Further, as I gestured in my previous entry on EcoQuestions, I question the transportability of these guiding principles to non-Western (read: non - largely white, middle/upper-class) contexts. What does the affirmation of life's goodness mean for communities ravaged by genocide? What does the natural loving nature of humanity look like in communities exploited by capitalist imperialism? It seems to me that such contexts might demand a more robust expression of sin and redemption.

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Friday, April 24, 2009


With Earth Day still lingering in the air, I found myself contemplating and reflecting on the intersection between ecological responsibility and faith. Below are a few of my thoughts and questions:

1) Story-telling: how can communities of faith weave individual and group stories into the larger, cosmic story? Might we thereby see our personal relationship with God as bound up with our relationship with the world around us? Further, can we begin to re-theologize the self in light of our physical dependence on and bodily composition of ecological sources (ecology of human dignity)?

2) Bridging duality: can we move beyond the spirit-matter and humanity-nature dichotomies towards a more holistic view of dynamic oneness?

3) New dimensions: rather than reinvent the theological wheel in the sterile classrooms of the academy, faith leaders should emphasize the ecological dimension of existing ministries, liturgy, scripture, etc.

4) Interconnection: will we take seriously the seventh Unitarian Universalist principle and recognize our own complicity in the environmental concerns of others? Will those in the upper socio-economic brackets come to acknowledge their implication in the lives of those who primarily carry the burden of ecological irresponsibility?

5) Management: how odd that humanity is now in the position of managing its own climate-related sins! Is the call to stewardship one of management and mitigation? What vocabulary do we use to express the dual reality of God's gift and human responsibility?

6) Beyond the anthropocentric: a select few have the resources and privilege to approach nature on their own terms (e.g. 'I will go immerse myself in nature by camping, fishing, etc.'). How do we give voice to those people whose interaction with nature is out of their control (e.g. hurricanes, pollution, etc.)? What happens when we move from ideas of natural bounty to questions of theodicy?

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Reading Texts

Rev. Dr. Charles Adams shared the following anecdote the other day: After a lecture at the University of Chicago Divinity School, an eager and curious student approached Paul Tillich and asked: “Dr. Tillich, do you or do you not believe that the Bible is the holy word of God?” Tillich responded: “If it grasps you, yes. If you grasp it, no.”

Adams mentioned this episode as a warning against a 'biblical literalist' reading approach. The impossibility (by definition) of truly arriving at a neutral, authentic, non-subjective exegesis aside, Adams' critique speaks more, I believe, to the danger in trying to pin down that which transcends and moves through. Bibliolatry rejects the contingency, dynamism and fortuity of God's immanent being-in-the-world. It elevates laws over love and, to quote Adams, "freezes Christ into a creed."

As Unitarian Universalists we need not necessarily be reminded of the danger of such textolatry. Our drinking water already contains a heavy dose of skepticism. Instead, we must guard against its equally harmful opposite - textophobia. Just as the former disregards God's indeterminate transcendence, so too the latter discards God's concrete manifestation in our lives.

Perhaps the middle way of 'cautiously reverential' reading will most powerfully guide us through the hard nights.

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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Green God

It's earth day - fitting, considering we wouldn't be celebrating any other holidays without it. At the Divinity School, eager and committed students have taken up the mantra 'Green is the new Crimson' to push through an impressive list of eco-friendly initiatives. My friends Tiffany and Whittney head the effort. Among them: reducing mail and the number of publications delivered in print; freecycling (a forum for exchanging unwanted items); extensive use of recycling bins; source reduction; energy reduction; renewable energy credits; green cleaning products; organic landscaping; environmentally preferred purchasing; the list goes on. It is promising to see that HDS recognizes the urgency for protecting the earth through the implementation of concrete gestures. After all, this is a deeply theological issue:

He’s the lily of the valley
Oh my Lord !

[Excerpt from a Negro Spiritual]

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Finding Your Story

Many religious and secular moral traditions attest to the centrality of learning to the realization of a full life. Growth of the mind, through study, experience and verbal exchange, proves internal to mature subjectivity. But in gathering and internalizing the stories of others, the student must also find solid footing in the self, as the book of LE JIN insists:

The Master said, 'A scholar, whose mind is set on truth, and who is ashamed of bad clothes and bad food, is not fit to be discoursed with.' (CHAP. IX)

One might take this excerpt from the Confucian Analects as a forewarning to academics of the unprofitable nature of that trade! I read the verse, however, as a call to finding a sustaining narrative that grounds inquiry and motivates the 'free and responsible search for truth and meaning.'

The Master is really asking: what story do you tell of yourself? Is it one premised on luxury and vanity? Is it one of shame for outward appearance? Or, is it one of modesty? Is it one of passionate devotion to the permanent amidst the transient (Parker)?

Which story inspires and defines your discipleship?

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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

A Prayer for Illumination

This past Sunday, the lectionary text spoke of a turning towards God's light in places of darkness and despair - of seeking others in positions of isolation. Following Iranian President Ahmadinejad's destructive (and unproductive) characterization of Israel as "racist" during the recent United Nations conference in Switzerland, I was all the more saddened to read the following this morning:

Israel's deputy prime minister has compared Iran to Nazi Germany, in response to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's criticism of the Jewish state at a United Nations conference..."What Iran is trying to do right now is not far away at all from what Hitler did to the Jewish people just 65 years ago," Shalom said at the site of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Nazi death camp, hours before a Holocaust memorial ceremony.

Standing, physically, in a space infected with opaque memories of genocidal cruelty, Silvan Shalom chose darkness over the healing power of God's light. "If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another" (1 John 1:6-7).

Oh God, illumine the path towards wholeness,
That we may achieve union with You -
And through You with the Beloved Community of all Persons and Things.

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Monday, April 20, 2009

The Divinity of Jesus

Apparently, christological controversies are re-surfacing in light of Eastertide. I recently stumbled upon a fascinating reflection by Joel Monka in response to another post re: 'left' vs. 'right' interpretations of Jesus' normative Trinitarian two natures in one person status (Chalcedon). What a tangled world wide web indeed!

I want to briefly respond to Joel's sentiment that 'wholly God and wholly human is one too many wholly's for me.' Despite the many flaws in and reductionist logic of nineteenth century hunts for the historical Jesus, contemporary scholarship has reached a loose consensus that the New Testament figure likely existed in concrete, fleshy, human form. Of course, the scriptural inscription of this Nazarene has catapulted his identity into the world of mythology. And it is precisely this narrative role that helps me navigate questions of divinity. In Poetic Justice, Martha Nussbaum identifies in stories an invitation to solidarity that carries with it ethical and transformative implications:

Literary works typically invite their readers to put themselves in the place of people of many different kinds and to take on their experiences. In their very mode of address to their imagined reader, they convey the sense that there are links of possibility...between the characters and the reader. (5)

So too, I would argue, with the literary-poetic accounts of Jesus. Christian witness to the divinity of Christ occurs not on the logical plane of reason or on the historical plane of empirical fact, but on the affective plane of encounter. To characterize Jesus as divine, I believe, is to speak of an unshakeable sense of direct encounter with God in the present.

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The Obama Doctrine

Recent activity on the foreign affairs front has led political scientists to begin piecing together the Obama Doctrine. Whether openly admitting America's undeniable responsibility in the escalating worldwide financial crisis, lifting travel restrictions on Cuban Americans wanting to return home, identifying America's unquenchable thirst for illegal drugs as a catalyst for Mexican border violence, or accepting reading material from the supposedly villainous Venezuelan leader, the United States President appears to be validating Qoheleth's observation that there is "a time to tear apart and a time to sew together" (Ecclesiastes 3:7). Of course, history will record whether Obama's mutuality (of respect, responsibility and resources) ultimately produces the desired cooperation and peace. Nevertheless, if Paul serves as any indication, the act of responsibly reaching out to all has a solid and optimistic biblical precedent: "Remember this: The person who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the person who sows generously will also reap generously" (2 Corinthians 9:6).

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