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.

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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).

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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.

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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)

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