A Simplified (!?!) Guide To The Religiously Perplexed:
The Reverend Peter Edward Lanzillotta, Ph.D.
October 15th, 2006
Outside of the arena of politics, there are few areas of our lives more exasperating and complex to understand than all the names and labels given to the varieties of religious beliefs, outlooks and definitions.
In contemporary American social and religious circles, this confusion impacts directly on all of our connections and relationships, because it addresses how we define, discuss, apply and practice our religious convictions.
It could be said that we, as human beings, like to place the ideas, attitudes, and opinions of others in neat categories and clear boxes. That there is this universal human tendency to confine ideas to spaces that will allow us to appraise or to judge other people’s ideas, behaviors, and actions according to our own box systems- our own categories, beliefs, definitions and meanings. This need to control or to confine, of course, can lead to intolerance, and to the maintenance of religious prejudice around the world.
However, since nothing need stay the same, and one of the few constants we have in our lives is change, there is always room and an ongoing opportunity to examine how we use words religiously. Since we, as religious liberals, promote the use of more broad and inclusive language and wide belief systems among our members, we know that labels that once might have strictly applied, nor longer are seen to be valid or accurate. We also recognize how truly detrimental, how hurtful certain labels are and have been, so we ask our members to develop a respectful listening- As an essential part of being together, as a tolerant, religious community, and as a congregation that values having both clarity and compassion.
However, before I begin an exploration of religious terminology, its important to note a few things about how our society uses certain words… Such as that there is no absolute consistency or definitive overlap between religious terms and political ones. You can be a political conservative and still be a religious liberal; you can be a religious conservative and still be a political liberal- it all depends on where the individual draws their connecting and intersecting lines….
When talking about religion, as well as politics, many of us can experience being blown up by unforgiving definitions as we try to tread carefully across the minefields of meaning, trying to avoid the snappy sound bites of Mass Media or refuse to continue to bash or blow up and exploit words and ideas we no longer honestly use or know as being accurate for us.
As I understand it, religion, faith, spirituality and the words associated with them, cannot be neatly packaged. That is because our ideals go right to the core of our personal identities; to the source of our religious and moral convictions, and to the impulse and feeling behind any and every ethical action. Such powerful words, and such potent feelings that they can muster, cannot be neatly reduced, packaged, or placed into any meaningful design without much soul-work: that is, without involving oneself in a careful, considerate lifelong reflection, an ongoing reassessment.
So, to begin my preparation for this sermon presentation, (or this fool’s errand or this noble endeavor), this daunting project of providing religious definitions for liberals, I will start by appealing to a variety of sources: I have reread Moses Maimonenes- the great Jewish Rabbi who wrote the famous 12th Century Guide To The Perplexed, reviewed a few of my standard theological dictionaries, and I have consulted one of our better known caustic curmudgeons, the witty atheist and Unitarian, Ambrose Bierce. Among his diatribes, jabs, and contentions, some of his definitions that I have included come from his Devil’s Dictionary, would delight the more literary and skeptical among us. As a balance to Birece, I also reviewed our UU ARE curriculum on religious beliefs entitled
“A Catechism for Unitarian-Universalists” by Tony Larson. Lastly, have read the modern author, Kathleen Norris’s book, Amazing Grace- supplying some literary and contemporary Christian definitions. Within all that, and in good U-U form, after reading and trying to digest it all, I will present my version of some core religious words as they have filtered through my own life experiences
Admittedly, these definitions will not necessarily inspire or even agree in the slightest with how you might or how you would render the meanings they might potentially hold…
That’s both the challenge and the invitation… to listen to my meager attempts, and then for each of you to nobly attempt your own definitions as a part of your spiritual explorations in the quest for the maturation of meaning and understanding….
So, here goes… Among the words I have chosen as key or core words for U-Us are the following: God; Self/Soul; Truth; Reality; Sin/Vice; Salvation; Jesus; Faith and Belief; Religion; Spirit/Spirituality; Unitarian; Universalist; Church/Community; Grace; Prayer; Repentance/Forgiveness; Devil/Evil/AntiChrist; Freedom/Liberty and License; Wisdom and Knowledge; Ethics and Righteousness… Heaven & Hell; Kingdom of God; Eschatology; Rapture, Millennialism and if there is any time left over, I will try to define any other words you might want me to consider….
Lets start with the most inclusive and troublesome one, God….
Kknowing that as the Jewish teachers have said, “[that God is a mirror, and each person looking into the mirror can see something quite different}, and, as Thoreau once put it, [Whatever is of greatest importance, worth, or value has a sense of sacredness for you… for you, that thing or idea is your God]” It is from this inclusive basis that I will attempt to define God from the various outlooks found within our U-U churches… (not necessarily conforming to any orthodoxy!)
God: The Supreme unknowable mystery- the unfathomable Reality; The Ultimate Concern; The Force; The Prime Mover; The Timeless Cause, The Love/Intelligence, and other such global terms…
For the liberal Atheist: It is the Being that does not exist– and that is a fact that they are assured of, and a reality that defies their life experience or understanding so far… It is said that an atheist is someone who actively pursues the subject of God to more conclusively reject those dogmatic or traditional claims; that she or he is closer to the Universal spirit or source of wisdom and divinity than are the majority of people who are content with trite answers, conventional expectations, and superficial regard for religion– and at the core of it, an atheist refuses to be a tasteless hypocrite or take their portion of religious life as half-baked! As Bierce puts it; Religion or belief in God: “It is the daughter of Hope and Fear explaining to Ignorance the nature of the Unknowable.”
For the liberal Agnostic: According to French wit, Rabelais, “God is the Great Perhaps…” whose existence is neither a mere trifle nor is it so certain as to be assuredly consequential. The agnostic is someone who does not yet know, who questions without surrendering, and is someone who is always probing, exploring, yet rarely settling… Instead, they choose an approach to God that is similar to Rilke’s advice to the young poet, they chose to “to live in their questions,” and allow the questions of life, to work out their answers with you- They approach such religious questions with a holy skepticism- an outlook that suspends making quick judgments or rash conclusions, while remaining open to further possibilities for greater awareness and understanding.
For the liberal Theist: Classically, Theism states that God is the Supreme Being, most often conventionally accepted as male in character, tone, and temperament, that stands outside the human arena called the experience of this world. God for the Theist is transcendent, majestic, powerful and yet can act capriciously, or as the old Methodist Hymn puts it “God moves in mysterious ways, his wonders to perform”.
When this God does decide to act, this direct divine involvement with humanity can be jealous or compassionate, and can directly enter into human history in ways that humans have called grace, awe, wonder, providence, crises, fate, destiny, atonement, miracles, and on the other side, even disasters…. More recently, there is the androgyny of God that is being increasingly affirmed, the inclusive and gracious qualities of feminine God that are being maintained, and that God and Nature, ethics and actions are all a part of one’s understanding and application of one’s liberal faith…
For the liberal Christian: Almost all of the above concerning the Theist, but by choice, taking a more restrictive preference; they affirm their personal or greater faith or emphasis on life of the human born and teaching savior, Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ, as being their preferred guide. That Jesus was a divinely inspired man who became humanity’s best example of how to live an inspired or divine life.
Through his example, God now has a human face, a human body and an earthly dimension. Without getting into great theological details and creedal assertions, the U-U Christian choose to follow Jesus down an open-ended, non dogmatic path. Also, there is the Christian version of Spirit that gave birth to the Western idea and ideal of church. Church, for Christians, maintains the story of the community- those legends/myths/metaphors and meaning concerning Jesus and remembers those teachings as they relate to the progression and application of those beliefs about him in the world today.
The next two categories are modifiers, or further refinements of these above groups. These two orientations can be found in any or all of the previous groups… These two dimensions are the Mystical and the Prophetic… So we can theoretically have a mystical agnostic, or a prophetic Pagan, etc., and so on…
For the liberal Mystic: Someone who may or may not be allied with Christianity, or even Western Theism in any way. Here the emphasis is on the Spirit, widely defined is being the experience of God, or whatever is deemed to be holy, what is transcendent, and extraordinary. This experience of the sacred or the holy is central to one’s understanding of themselves, God, Nature, life. This is part of a perennial theology- and links itself to Indigenous traditions that range from the Native American, the Aboriginal to the Wiccan and the Pagan.
There are many among us who see and who seek the transcendent wonder and awe, that sense of the sacred that is hidden then is revealed or found in the ordinary. He/She sees God as the intimate guide from within or as a presence or force that can be considered holy as being connected to the Ultimate. Often, we find U-U mystics to be our consummate nature lovers; Those among us who find the beauty, wonder and inspiration of nature to be their path to sacred experience. (Panentheism)
Additionally, for those who are mystically inclined, there is a more overt and gracious embodiment of the female and the male qualities and energies within the whole mystery of life- a mystery and a majesty that is CO-created and that goes beyond what piety, theology, or rationality creates or tries to constrict, explain, or contain. As Emerson put it, “We dare not try to fence the Spirit,” For the Mystic, it is the Spiritual that is primary; that which serves to uplift, inspire, unify, create, redeem and beautify from its essence and its impulses.
Along with the mystical, and included within it, there is the Prophetic dimension- the concern for the world, for ecology and for others, that impels our actions from out of our core ethical beliefs and experiences. For the prophetic among us, even those unsure of how or in what way they would try to define the ultimately unde finable- God can be found at the extension of our hearts and at the tips of our fingers as we act in our world for justice, equality and dignity; when we act kindly, unselfishly, exclude none, and actively practice compassion.
Phew… if that is the first word, we all better pack a long lunch or better yet, tell people to leave the lights on for us, it will be a long time before I am through ….
Seriously, I hope that my admittedly incomplete definitions, along with their theological and literary origins, will assist you to appraise and better define your thoughts and words. As I see it, it is up to every person to seek clarity in their ideas and in their commitments- to find the words that best serve or that best approximate how they truly feel and think about a wide variety of religious topics and the spectrum of spiritual beliefs.
By providing each other with a working definition of who and what a person is, who and what our community strives to become, the process of listening, re-languaging and then finding the best words possible that describe our community will serve to accelerate the accomplishment of future goals, and begin to clarify how the community choose to publish and promote itself – how it will be publicly known.
Simply this: Language contains power, possibilities and potentials. So I say in closing, May all your dictionaries, theosauri and encyclopedias never be the same! So Be It!
From James Luther Adams The Prophet hood of All Believers
[There are 5 tenets of a liberal faith…
1) The first is our ultimate dependence for being and freedom is upon a creative power not of our own making…
Our ultimate faith is not in ourselves.
2) A free person’s faith is in a sustaining, transforming reality… And in our cooperative efforts for the common good.
3) The achievement of freedom in community requires the power of organization and the organization of power. It is a shaping power, that works through people to share their community towards justice and love.
4) It is a community that abandons any reliance on the unreliable; it is a community in which the living spirit of faith tries to create and mold life giving, life transforming beliefs…
5) No mere return to religion… will give us vision …
An unexamined faith is not worth having…]”
From The Rev. Marni Polite Harmony of the Orlando church:
… The God who calls me is not so much a god of tradition, or of laws, contracts or a god of rhetoric, but rather a god of essence and presence. This God… lives right at the heart of all that is most alive in our human experience.
How do you prove God? How do you prove Love?…
One feels God… And then one knows… AMEN
As I will offer a variety of definitions of God this morning, I was looking through the various writings available to me and found this mystical and prophetic writing in the UU Catechism that I will share with you… It needs no other words than it is from The Rev. Edward Frost, formerly of the Atlanta Church:
What is God?
We have heard that God is all goodness;
All sweetness and light and joy in the morning.
But God is the crises we do not hear.
The depth of hell that the other suffers.
The darkness and confusion of the permanent night.
God may be the Chaos- missed in our neatness and order–
Who shuns the glistening temple to walk in the gray
Repositories of twisted and divided souls.
God is the one who cries, “Know me!”
Through the mouths of those we choose not to know.
We have heard that God is love.
But God is the demand to love; a demand unheeded thus a God undiscovered.
Press through the grown-over path to another’s aloneness
And there, with the other,
The pain and the bearer of pain
More definitions follow, but cannot be included in this particular sermon because of time considerations….
9 or 1
Next, let’s get into Sin and/or Vice… Originally, the word for sin in the Hebrew was associated with having a bad aim or purpose for one’s life- it was literally “Missing the mark” or forgetting that it is God, Truth; Love and other noble virtues that are the center- the goal or the bull’s eye for us as human beings. there is another sidelight to this answer, since it is the one most of you already know…
it ties into my studies in feminism, and early origins of patriarchal religions. It goes like this: Sin was the name of an Assyrian Moon Goddess- a powerful feminine force ruling over the night- Night being the actual darkness and also the metaphor for the human unconscious and all of its troublesome and illicit, all of its transformative and sacred drives, impulses and needs… From that perspective, you can see how the early Hebrews who were extolling the might and right of the male storm God, Yahweh as being the one and only supreme God, disapproved of the fact that Sin was such a rival influence- therefore, she would have to be demonized and subjugated– in that way, sin became that which God overcomes, and that it is the negative parts of us humans, which developed into theological doctrines about how awful & evil sin is …
To sin boldly- one of my other sermons- is to understand, with compassion, that we are all unfinished, growing and learning creatures; that in order to gain wisdom we cannot be afraid of making mistakes… sinning… in order to grow in the recognition of what strengths- or classically speaking, what virtues we need to practice to prevent the repetition of the more harmful practices that could impact us and our world more negatively… Sin is simply trying valiantly but missing the mark and vice is the institutionalization or categorization of those trends, drives, and tendencies so labeled by the philosophers, ethicists and theologians of the world.
As old theology states, “we are all sinners…” and yes, I agree, from my nontraditional but inclusive understanding, we are all unfinished works in progress; each of us is in need of further learning, humility, compassion, caring, instruction. It is our aspirations to improve, to learn, to redeem and to discover any other ameliorating influence for good, that makes us work for justice, equality, dignity and respect together.
On to Salvation … presumably the outcome of a life that successfully copes, learns and thereby avoids sin…
Salvation is not one of great concerns for U-U’s, since most of us have already rejected the conventional doctrines of Heaven and Hell– two more concepts for my list…
Salvation, originally, meant to be free of any ills or negative feelings; it was organic and visceral sign of grace or God’s favor to be well- healthy; whole… That, by the way, does not mean problem-free, without challenges, or even cured.
It was closer to being at peace, living with acceptance, or seeing certain kinds of illness as an opportunity or as a gift through which you could learn of your shortcomings, and reach for greater understanding of God more fully or completely in your life…
Salvation refers to a sense of wholeness and being at peace- only as the theologians and the church separated the body from the mind, the mind from the heart, and the body from the soul, did the exclusive emphasis on morals and conduct become the concern for salvation and the rationale for judgment, condemnation, and damnation. Today, we see a healthy, positive trend in alternative and complimentary medicine toward the reunification of body and soul, of wholeness with health.
Next is the idea of Faith or Belief… One’s degree or capacity for Faith is simply where one has learned to place one’s trust and the degree that one relies on, depends on, and accepts that faith or trust. Trust in what has been said, read, lived or experienced is faith in what you consider to be wise and worthwhile. Whether it is your faith in God or science; your faith in yourself or your government, each has its degrees, depths and dimensions that assist you in making choices, or building a belief system of one’s own. …
Belief… to believe is by its original Greek definitions, is what one commits themselves to, without doubt or reservation- with all one’s heart… Beliefs create the intentions behind our actions and our ideals.
When we believe in something or someone we have faith in them.. We give that idea or person a depth and a degree of meaning and value for us. Our faith, trust and beliefs become our core concerns, what we cherish, what we love, and what we fear… Beliefs are those ideas and impulses that promote value and sustain meaning and purpose for us.
These above concerns and considerations can be assembled into various and complex belief systems about God, reality, truth, sin, salvation etc. that we then call religion….
Religion, in its definition comes from the Latin, religiare- that is, to bind and to unify. To bind: Well, most come-outers from other religions who find U-Uism each have their history of how the religion they were brought up with held them back, held them down, restricted or bound them. This quality of religion was used or enforced as a way to protect wandering people from unsavory ideas and unhealthy actions. Religion bound people to was considered the good, the right, and the true… all other competing ideas, ideals and activities were held suspect, or shunned. And, if truth be told, heretical ideas, independent notions, dissenting ideals have always been the enemy of organized religion and its orthodoxies.
Religion, however, also serves to unify; to promote a centrality, a common mind set, a communal voice, and a shared heart from which the caring, support, and inspiration of a religion can be felt and where its people can feel affirmed and nurtured. If a religion fails to unify, bring its people and its members closer, fails to promote the sustained sense of sister and brotherhood, then the heart and the vitality of the religion dies out, and a we are left with the brittle bones of rules and conventions and the decaying flesh of tradition that is unconnected to either the people or the community it once enlivened.
When a religion is vital- a church truly happens and a community has its authenticity, vision, mission and purpose clear available, and its participation in it is lasting and sincere.
Which brings me to the next, and last word, Church or Community… Some within our liberal congregations prefer community, since church, for them, is too exclusively a Christian word, one that might alienate or separate people from participation, if their background was not Christian…
The church or community is the name given to that group of people who have intentionally gathered to celebrate, sustain, and affirm a commonly held credo or faith statement- be it a formal theological doctrine, a covenant, or a statement of principles that each member willingly adheres to and promotes in their lives. Those ideals and principles are used as a guide for all their interactions inside the community as they seek to model or demonstrate their efficacy the larger, outside world. A church has to prove its value and importance to its members; its existence depends on how important an ideal it is for each of them. While money, prestige, and other external factors do influence the growth and well-being of the institution called church, the living vital reality called church is sustained by the mutual affection and aspiration held by its members and associates.
Church is the repository of a community’s hopes and dreams- it is where the ideals taken on meaning and are given direction and application to life and to the greater society and world in which those members live.
From the church, its people learn how best to survive hardships and how they can thrive in opportunities; from a church, the people with a vision or a dream lead, and those with the courage follow; each sharing in the building of a greater common goal of promoting and preserving cherished values and sacred meaning in their personal and family lives over time, over circumstance, over it all…
enough for part 1…. someday part 2…