Saturday, May 2, 2009

A Prayer for Serendipity

God of Chance,
Contingent Creativity,
Pregnant with possibility-

Energy and matter once intermingled
on barren lands.
Energy and matter now intermingle
in Tristan und Isolde, Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
I hear and read Your evolutionary fervor.

How inspiring Your breath-of-spirit!
How animating Your breath-of-life!

I cannot help but smile and wonder
at this miracle.

God of Serendipity,
Surprise me.

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A recent survey concluded that the more often an American goes to church, the more likely she is going to support the torture of suspected terrorists. Well, almost. Breaking down this generalization by tradition, the report indicates that over 60% of white evangelical Protestants advocate torture, in comparison with 40% of the religiously unaffiliated and just over 30% of 'mainline' Protestant denominations. The study's undeniable limitations in terms of breadth and scope leave us with more of a suggestive gesture than any reliably 'empirical' truisms. That being said, on my view the findings point beyond a mere political impasse to some significant differences in ethical reading styles. The Hebrew Bible and New Testament (especially) are replete with calls for merciful justice. What does this report tell us about differing encounters with and interpretations of the parable of the unmerciful servant, for example (Matthew 18:23-35)? If taken seriously, what role does the story advance for humans in the acts of mercy and forgiveness (Matthew 18:35)?

I cannot help but think to Micah 6:8 - "What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?"

God of All,
God in All,
Minister of magnanimity,
Provider of patience,
Endower of empathy -
Please shower us with Your Mercy,
And carry us across the terrifying world-ocean.

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Friday, May 1, 2009

Point of Intersection

Leafing through the Unitarian Universalist hymnal Singing the Living Tradition, I was thrilled to find closing words by Tegh Bahadur, the ninth Guru (1666-1675), who was executed by the Mogul emperor Aurangzeb:

Why do you go to the forest in search of the Divine?
God lives in all, and abides with you too.
As fragrance dwells in a flower,
or reflection in a mirror,
so the Divine dwells inside everything;
seek therefore in your own heart.

[UU: Hymnal #599 || Sikh: pannaa 684]

Interestingly, the following line in the Sri Guru Granth Sahib affirms a strict monotheism reminiscent of early antitrinitarian heresies during the Christian Patristic Age: "Outside and inside, know that there is only the One Lord."

Does this point of intersection mark the beginning of my newfound call?

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Rev. Michael Relland got me thinking: Etymologically, the term 'believe' derives from the Proto-Germanic 'ga-laubjan' - to hold dear, to love. What would it mean to move from a religion of believing to a faith of beloving?

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Opening Bodily Gates

We are likely quite familiar with Jesus' declaration, "I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved" (John 10:9). Here, Jesus functions as a deity whose open gate beckons those followers desiring salvation. In the Catholic ritual of Eucharist, the breadly host undergoes transubstantiation as its reality is changed to that of the divine body - an open gate through which believers may enter. In Christian theology more generally, Christ serves as the head of the unified church, imagined to represent a divine body comprised of many parts: Paul explains, "Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it" (1 Corinthians 12:27). In both schemes, there emerges an engrossing interplay between the figure of Jesus, the body and the opening of gates.

This morning's shabad from the Sri Guru Granth Sahib extends and inverts this trope. After poetically describing the way in which the True Guru trickles Ambrosial Nectar into the mouth of the faithful, the texts reads:

ਦਸਵੈ ਦੁਆਰਿ ਪ੍ਰਗਟੁ ਹੋਇ ਆਇਆ ॥
My Tenth Gate has been opened and revealed.
[Guru Ram Das on pannaa 1069]

In SIkh teaching, the Tenth Gate refers to a region in the head that eventually opens through the study of sacred texts (Gurbani) and self-discipline in the ways of the holy (Gurmat) - in contrast to the Christian invitation into God's body, the Sikh invites God into her own body. It is only through an opening of the self - a turning oneself over to the spirit of God - that we achieve a state of heightened awareness re: ourselves, those around us and our world as a whole. In short, by giving ourselves over to the workings of the world and opening our own gates, we find a life not of happiness but of joy deep within the soul: "In intuitive peace he wakes, and in intuitive peace he sleeps" (Guru Ram Das on pannaa 1069).

ਕਹਤੁ ਕਬੀਰ ਨਵੈ ਘਰ ਮੂਸੇ ਦਸਵੈਂ ਤਤੁ ਸਮਾਈ ॥
Says Kabeer, the nine openings of the body are being plundered; rise up to the Tenth Gate, and discover the true essence.
[Devotee Kabir on pannaa 339]

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Thursday, April 30, 2009

Divine Incomprehension

In his Berry Street Lecture of 1871, Charles H. Brigham detaches the category of principles from that of doctrines. The former, he argues, pertains to the ideas that move a religious community and give it power. Conversely, the latter embodies constantly shifting, temporary opinions. At the start of his lecture, Brigham teases out seven core values that animate and ground Unitarianism: the right of private judgment, that reason is the arbiter of truth, that no man is infallible, that no creed can contain the whole of religion, that differences of faith are inevitable, that sincere faith is the only true faith, and that character is better than profession of any kind. Brigham then goes on to address the doctrine of God. He writes:

The finite cannot comprehend the infinite. And [Unitarians] say of God, that no searching can find him out, and that all dictation of what he must be and what he must do, is foolish and irreverent. They affirm, as much as any sect, the mystery of the Godhead; only it is to them real mystery by its greatness and fulness, and not by its mathematical enigma. God is the eternal wonder of the human soul, so high, so vast, so complete in glory, that no thought can attain his being.

This statement, while explicitly marked by a specific context (and witty anti-trinitarian jab), resonates with the wholly Otherness of the divine as expressed in the Sri Guru Granth Sahib:

ਅਕਲ ਕਲਾ ਨਹ ਪਾਈਐ ਪ੍ਰਭੁ ਅਲਖ ਅਲੇਖੰ ॥
God is not found by intellectual or clever devices; God is Unseeable and Incalculable.
(Sri Guru Granth Sahib, 1098)

ਖਾਲਿਕੁ ਖਲਕ ਖਲਕ ਮਹਿ ਖਾਲਿਕੁ ਪੂਰਿ ਰਹਿਓ ਸ੍ਰਬ ਠਾਂਈ ॥
The Creation is in the Creator (God), and the Creator is in the Creation, totally pervading and permeating all places.
(Sri Guru Granth Sahib, 1350)

In both Unitarian and Sikh formulations, then, the act of meeting God trumps the futile attempt to name God.

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James Baldwin's Intuition

In his collection of brilliant essays entitled Notes of a Native Son, civil rights activist James Baldwin advances more than a few poignant axioms about selfhood, critique and the function of literary arts. I have listed and reflected on some of my favorite points below:

1) Rock of Ages: Baldwin - foreshadowing the post-structuralist work of Butler et al - puts forth the supposition that the accumulated 'rock of ages' stands between the singular ego and the self-in-community. In other words, our own past - in Baldwin's case, the oppressive burden, overwhelming responsibility and emancipatory imperatives of being black in mid-20th century America - serves as the rock against which our identities are shaped. In his words, "in order to claim my was necessary to challenge and claim the rock." What socio-cultural inheritances, justly received and unjustly imposed, must we claim to achieve "the hope of salvation - identity"?

2) Connected Critic: Americans should perpetually criticize America as Americans, Baldwin suggests - it is through a deep and implicated connection to a culture and a people that visions of improvement emerge. Further, all theories are suspect to the demands of life, such that the 'common citizen' possesses a pragmatic agency to reform. How does the element of connection to - of a bonding with - community alter our understanding of and approach to critique? How are we thereby stripped of our 'objective' distance as an outsider?

3) Unending Circle: Anticipating Foucault, Baldwin illuminates the relationship between master and slave: "It must be remembered that the oppressed and the oppressor are bound together within the same society; they accept the same criteria, they share the same beliefs, they both alike depend on the same reality." Here, Baldwin gives voice to the power of discourse to shape reality as it circulates through and maintains institutions, convictions and rhetoric. As many post-colonial theorists note, victims of imperialism frequently internalize the tactics and logic of the colonizer. Are we left lamenting with the biblical writers that "What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun" (Ecclesiastes 1:9)? Where is the ark in which to escape the waters of the all-pervasive flood (Genesis 7:7)?

4) Literary Care: Any piece of literature with a social purpose to persuade must also carefully attend to its art. This is also true in our justice work and daily lives: we must resist the tendency to dehumanization, whereby we depict persons as carriers of a moral or political agendas, i.e. as types. On the contrary, we must learn to operate within the complex human web of ambiguity.

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Wednesday, April 29, 2009


During a recent interview with Fareed Zakaria, New Yorker staff writer gone author Malcolm Gladwell discussed the findings of his latest work, Outliers, which examines the interplay between (seemingly arbitrary elements in an individual's) social environment and opportunities for personal success. As an example, Gladwell pointed to the painstakingly intense eight-hour-a-day practice regiment that the Beatles undertook while in Berlin, Germany. Summarizing his anecdotal evidence, the author asserted: "Talent is the desire to practice."

I doubt Gladwell meant to downplay an individual's innate natural proclivities to excel in certain domains; rather, I understand Gladwell as refocusing our attention on the nurture side of the equation - specifically, on the environment that one intentionally (and at times merely by chance) enters into for cultivating and disciplining the body through repetition. How often, in our own lives, do we labor tirelessly for an outcome or skill-set that, once achieved, subsumes its own past? How talented are you at riding a bicycle?

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This morning's shabad from the Sri Guru Granth Sahib reads:

ਗੁਰਮੁਖਿ ਨਿਬਹੈ ਸਪਰਵਾਰਿ ॥
In the midst of his family, the Gurmukh lives a spiritual life.
[Raag Raamkalee on Pannaa 941]

I find this line enthrallingly accurate. In Punjabi, Gurmukẖ popularly translates to 'follower of the Guru' - but taken literally, the term disjoins into 'to face' (mukẖ) the Guru (gur)'. The image is poignant; a person of faith finds herself constantly turned towards - facing - the divine. Much as a flower grows into bloom through direct contact with the sun, so too, here, the Gurmukẖ moves towards God for spiritual germination.

Notice, though, the context for this flowering: the family. In this regard, the text achieves a multi-layered meaning. On the one hand, it suggests that the God-facing person attains a deeper spiritual existence in and through family, understood both narrowly (nuclear or extended family) and broadly (family of co-religionists). An intimate community of trust and vulnerability, it seems, helps bring the individual closer to that which sustains and transforms all meaningful existence. On the other hand, this line could similarly be read as an indication that God resides within and among family. To encounter God, then, is to live with and love one's relatives - a hard truth, perhaps, to swallow at times!

On my view, both of these allegations resonate with those fleeting moments of sanctity and solidarity with the eternal web of one's heritage and/or religious tradition. Transcendence, in such moments, blossoms with the overpowering awareness of relative-ity: we are all bound to an interwoven braid of kinship.

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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Belief Systems and Religion

In his recent UU World reflection entitled Holding the Center, Doug Muder teases out James P. Carse's distinction between tidy belief-packages and provocatively ambiguous religiosity: "In a nutshell, belief systems provide the comfort of clear answers; religions provide a sense of wonder in the contemplation of mystery." He goes on to explain: "Where belief systems rest on “the authority of power,” religions rely on “the authority of poetry.”"

In many ways, this dichotomy between the calcified and the cabalistic - between the certain and the curious - reinvests 'the act of doing religion' with an element of surprise. It speaks to the eternal incompletion of the finite human experience. It addresses the nature of the divine as that which "invades any mind or heart open to it, luring it on to richer or more relevant achievement - a self-surpassing reality" (James Luther Adams). And yet, I suspect that after we wallow in the profundity of the question for a while, life will call us back with the simple demand: now act. It is at that moment that those silly belief systems come into play, grounding our behavior, guiding our imagination and saturating our discourse. As the great 20th century theologian so disturbingly admits, "there is no such thing as poetry without poems, art without paintings, architecture without buildings, and there is no such thing as an enduring faith without beliefs" (JLA: "A Faith for the Free").

At stake here, I would argue, is not the deceiving totalism of colonizing belief-sets or arresting beauty of religious wonder. Rather, it is a recognition that the two must live side-by-side. Unfortunately, the polarization of the contemporary religio-political landscape has divorced the two spiritual expressions in extremis, leaving the form empty and the transformative shapeless. What is needed, then, is a re-opening of conversation and reciprocity between the ways of the spirit (religion) and its concrete manifestation in human understanding (belief systems). The two must engage in a mutually inflecting dance, redefining and re-enchanting one another with the onslaught of the novel.

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Quenching Our Thirst

This morning's shabad from the Sri Guru Granth Sahib reads:

ਕਹੁ ਨਾਨਕ ਸੁਖ ਸਹਜੁ ਮੈ ਪਾਇਆ ਗੁਰਿ ਲਾਹੀ ਸਗਲ ਤਿਖਾ ॥
Says Nanak, I have obtained celestial peace and poise; the Guru has quenched all my thirst.
[Raag Saarang on Pannaa 1212]

Thirst, here, can claim multiple referents: it might speak to the mind's Mayaic material desires, lust, anger, corruption, emotional attachments, envy, stubbornness, fame, etc. - all of which function as instinctive forms of bondage and make us thirsty for liberation. Or, it might speak not to a state of over-attachment, but to one of pervasive emptiness - a feeling of directionlessness and triviality in our lives that hungers for plenitude and fulfillment.

Of course, the two poles may very well be related. At those moments when we experience an isolating sense of aimlessness - a withdrawal from life and from God into the egocentric self - do we not also find ourselves enveloped in the transitory nature of material things?

Bhupinder Singh describes this scene perfectly: when a young child receives a lollypop from her mother, she initially expresses tremendous gratitude to the person who gifted her such joy. With time, however, she becomes so enthralled by the pleasure of eating that she fails to notice as her mother wanders off. Upon finishing, the girl looks up and notices that her mother is nowhere to be found.

So, too, with our spiritual thirst. We must learn to cultivate both a lasting appreciation for the gift of Divine Essence and a willingness to indulge in the impulsive and creative fancies of the world around us, all the while staying present to the temporariness of the now moment. One might conclude: we must discipline our perception through spiritual practice (of whatever form: meditation, recitation of the Naam, prayer, etc.) so as to awaken the affective qualities deep within. In so doing, we will blur the stark distinction between the intangibility of God and the materiality of the universe, allowing us to see divine presence in all. We might even begin to see the world through the eyes of peace and poise.

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Monday, April 27, 2009


The number four must be sacred. The cross on which Jesus was crucified - since transmogrified into an abstract symbol under Protestantism's austere aesthetic - possesses no more or less than four points. The intentionally unpronounceable name of the Jewish deity consists in written form of four letters (the Tetragrammaton). Buddhist traditions identify four Noble Truths in the quest to achieve cessation from suffering. In earth-centered pagan practices, the seasonal cycle is divided into four parts. And let us not forget that in music theory, common time counts four beats.

The spiritual and physical universe, it seems, jives and swings to the four-fold rag. All the same, I wonder: to what extent does this coherent symmetry reflect but an artificial projection - an answer to the human need to order the sporadic, to discipline the violent, to control the inconsistent?

Whether reducible to four or countless more, the world's partitions most poignantly display an inter-penetrating relationality of mutual bonds. Much as the seasons flow opaquely into one another (dependent on the previous to set the stage for the subsequent), Joan Goodwin encourages us to view the markings on our own lives in terms of circling filiation:

Ground us in the wisdom
of the changing seasons
As we celebrate the spiraling
Journey of our lives.

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Sunday, April 26, 2009

Balancing Hyphens

Last night, I had the fortunate opportunity to speak with a close friend of mine about her paired Unitarian Universalist and Buddhist orientations. She spoke of her need for both traditions to work in conjunction - the former providing a safe cultural space for living in community, the latter deepening her experience of the world through distinct meditational praxis. Interestingly, she lifted up the feeling of interconnection as the thread stitching the two together.

At one point, I asked her whether she could suggest any specific rubric for determining which truth-claims or devotional practices to adopt from either side. Poignantly, she counseled: "Choose whatever fulfills you that you do authentically."

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