Right about now, I’m feeling a bit…disconnected. I’m checking into the live feed from the Iceland volcano, which has been erupting for more than a month now. The lava has been shooting up more than 8k feet (2500m) every few minutes, and cameras have an eye on possible new vents and even new fissures. The last time an eruption was noted for this site was more than six thousand years ago, I believe.
The power of the Earth fascinates me, stimulates awe and wonder in me. The amount of energy required to propel molten rock more than a mile into the sky, and maintain a boiling lake of lava, for more than a month is incomprehensible.
The pressure that has been accruing beneath the Earth’s surface, and continues to be expressed, is the result of more energy than any human can possibly manifest. When humans are described as powerful, it seems amusing when compared to this. This is our most tragic flaw, I believe – the delusion that we are ultimately powerful. That we command our environment. That we have control over what is not our creation. That we are not gods.
I sometimes believe that all of the unrest on this planet informs the natural turbulence seen in things like this volcano. Or perhaps it is the other way around. Regardless, I believe the planet’s turmoil is directly related to our human condition. Both are continually varied, living, not static. Each time we attempt to “get back to normal”, something erupts. There is no normal; things change.
Since there is no normal, we must admit that we are continually making shifts to return to comfort, rather than normalcy. This distinction seems to elude us, and we plod oafishly, heavily, toward the past.
I do a lot of work in my community of faith, which happens to be Unitarian Universalism. We’re an interesting bunch, but theologically and spiritually it’s a good fit for me. Its a non-dogmatic (well, at least formally non-dogmatic) and non-credal faith, based on convenant. There is no requirement that one profess theological loyalty to any historical or formal dogma, and that’s my point of connection with the faith.
But, as with any group of mere humans trying to get through life on this planet, we have…issues. Unitarian Universalism (UU, for short) has been around in its current form since the early 1960s. The Unitarians have been around as a faith for a long time; likewise, the Universalists. Both are minority faiths, and the movements merged to form Unitarian-Universalism as we know it today. It’s still a minority faith, and a lot of people confuse us with the Unity Temple or some cult that has apocalyptic tendencies.
UUs are mostly European-descended, and there are congregations all over the world. One of the more striking characteristics of UU theology is congregational polity, which give each congregation the right – and the responsibility – to choose its own governance and relationships. Consequently, each congregation is apt to have its own flavor, its own relationship with the larger community, its own focus. This attribute, in and of itself, drives most non-UUs a bit nuts.
Without a central theological dogma, and creed, most people cannot understand what binds us together, where our faith is directed. Weeeel, sometimes – despite our advanced academic degrees and credentials – we have difficulty articulating what it is that we actually believe. We can mumble about our guiding Principles, and our history of civil and human rights activism, and our place in the panorama of religion historically, but frequently our explanations return blank stares from questioners.
My reasons for gravitating toward a faith like UU are simple, really. I am attracted to the freedom of a living tradition, one that is not rooted in conformity and obedience. Over my lifetime, I have been attracted to many spiritual traditions, and even religions. I was raised Catholic, but always wondered about other faith traditions. I was always convinced there was something beyond my comprehension to explain how we came to be, where everything we know came from, why things happen as they do.
Since as far back as I can remember, I have been convinced that nobody is wrong about how they explain all of that. There are many images of divinity, of powers beyond our comprehension, and I don’t believe any of them are “wrong”. Something we don’t understand created all of what we know, and whether that is a conscious and sentient power is irrelevant. The fact is that we are here, and we don’t quite know how that happened.
As I mentioned, UUs have guiding principles, rather than creed. Our principles attempt to nail down some core values that guide us responsibly through life, and walk us through how we fit into the larger world. There are UU Christians, UU pagans, UU Buddhists, UU atheists. Most folks can’t quite understand how that works, but since we’re not credal, it works very well, at least for a non-conformist like myself.
Rallying around guiding principles and broader values is a great and wonderful thing, but…we still have issues. We’re still humans, dang it. Because we’re humans, we screw up. Because we’re a mostly white, European-descended, highly educated, and mostly middle- to upper middle class bunch of individualistic, non-conforming, and idealistic bunch we screw up in new and creative ways. But we try. And we keep trying. And sometimes we do good stuff.
One of the bits of UU history that attracted me is their documented social justice activism. Unitarians and Universalists were deeply embedded in the abolitionist community in the United States, acting valiantly in support of anti-slavery and slave liberation efforts. UUs were very active in the U.S. Civil Rights Era, marching and protesting and doing acts of civil disobedience. Two UUs were murdered (Rev. James Reeb and congregant Viola Liuzzo) during the effort, and continue to be cited in the public square by modern civil rights and Black liberation leaders. That meant something to me. That meant “deeds not creeds”, as we frequently say. It meant “faith without works is dead”.
What the civil rights history of the UU movement has also meant to me is…walk your talk. Pretty words are just that – pretty words. What have you done for me lately? Sitting home and talking about the best political candidates, and the morally correct policy to support, is just talk. If you go out and vote, and become informed about policies before you do, that’s action. If you tell other people about voting, and how to vote, and talk about why you support or oppose a policy proposal, that’s one step farther. If you make it possible for even more people to vote and become informed, that goes even farther. If you throw your money into the pond to support candidates and policies that uphold your values, we’re just about golden. If you run for office, or become involved in boards and commisssions that fashion policy, you might be just about there.
UUs also frustrate the living hell out of me, down to the roots of my hair follicles. The idealism can translate into a paralysis by analysis. Just as my 12-step recovery program has always taught, there is no one too stupid to succeed in recovery, but there are many who are too smart to “get” it. UUs are similar, because some of us are way too smart to “get” it. We are privileged people, by skin color and/or education credentials, and we’ve been largely sheltered by those circumstances. We have a tendency to believe that we are the smartest people in the room, and that we have the best answer for any problem that needs a solution. We charge to the rescue, with all sincerity, but often little authenticity or humility.
Lack of humility is one of my larger complaints about UUs who believe they are ready to go into ethnic communities and teach them how to “fix” things. Um, no. Sit the eff down and don’t say anything. Listen to people who are directly impacted by the situations you’re wanting to “correct”. Don’t do what generations before you have done, and strip the culture from people you don’t understand because they are simply different from you, and in the name of “improvement” and “progress”. Having a Ph.D. in music does not make you the best musician on the planet, so recognize raw talent as valid, and not in need of conformist improvement. Every budding Louis Armstrong does not need to go to college to learn music theory.
My hope is that we’re learning, myself included. There are some UUs who will never come around. Some who truly believe that white guys are victims of political correctness and blamed for everything that is wrong in the world. Just like in the larger community, I don’t waste my time with that. I have shit to do, and I’m not going to change the mind of someone who is already on that page. Carry on, dude…and have a great day.
What I’m more concerned with these days is connecting the dots on how implicit bias, and what we were ALL taught a long time ago has gotten us…here. I was taught white supremacy the same as white people were taught it – we didn’t have the vocabulary to name it what it was. It was just “normal”. Like being right-handed is “normal” . Like being heterosexual is “normal”. We didn’t question it. We went along with the program, because the gap between what we expected ideally and what we got was not as enormous as it is today.
I need people to understand how where you go on your summer vacation every year is not the way everyone else lives. Some of us don’t get a summer vacation. Understand that how you’re glad to be back at work after being out with the flu for a week is like salt in a wound for someone who doesn’t get paid sick leave on their job, and had to go to work with a fever and body aches because they couldn’t afford to lose the money. Understand that parents working two and sometimes three jobs still cannot afford money for their kids’ field trips, or sports equipment, or books.
I need people to understand that not everybody lives as they live, that how they live is a privilege, an advantage, and not a right or even “normal”. I understand that you worked for everything you have, but some of us work just as hard, if not harder, and can’t even reach up to scrape the gum off the heel of your shoe. More importantly, I need them to understand the system of advantages they encountered is not equivalent that encountered by other people who have different racial and ethnic identities. I need people to have some idea how what they take for granted is luxury to some others, so don’t schedule every aspect of community life around having evenings, or weekends, as non-work hours. Some folks are working every day, and often more than eight hours a day. Don’t judge parents’ lack of attendance at parent-teacher conferences as lack of interest.
For all of the frustrations involved with being a person of color navigating a predominantly white and Euro-Centric community of faith, for all of the head banging and foot stomping I do throughout the year, I continue to believe that UUism constitutes the best chance of building a community for me. I am never going to be capable of conforming to a creed, or memorizing some dogma that is policed by authority figures. I am not willing to give up my optimism that my childhood beliefs are somehow true, that many paths to the unknown are valid, and that no one religion of belief structure is more correct than another. I refuse to believe that any human has the right answer.
The frustrations I encounter being a person of color in this mostly white world are daunting at times. There is white supremacy culture, as there is just about anywhere else in this country with a significant complement of white people. I have been made invisible, been silenced, been ignored, been passed over, been shouted down. When I come close to some waypoint on the journey to decision-making authority, they change the rules. This is not new, and not even original. Even so, it’s disappointing that people who talk a good game about racial equity cannot see how they contribute to the status quo. They do not see my experiences racially tinged at all, and therein lies the issue. I have no choice but to see it that way, and perhaps they have no choice but to see it otherwise. Either way, it’s about race.
For all those reasons, UUism still contains more hope for me, and resonates closer to my core than anything else I’ve explored. It’s not simply a religion – it’s a belief structure that does not jump over my individualism on its way to the Divine, or Great Mystery, or what ever I want to call it today. There’s a casualness about how I present in my Fellowship, but the casualness does not extend to my belief or my agency. They get that, and that’s important to me.
I have told many people in the UU faith that one of the reason I stay, despite the frustration and, unfortunately, those times I feel invisible and silenced, is what constitutes faith. It’s the faith that at some point we’ll get it. At some point, the promise of those principles we have accepted as guidance will be true. At some point, we’ll be the change we want to see in the world and all that stuff. I believe that will happen, and for me, that’s the essence of faith.
This faith, this movement, still talks about its mistakes, its missteps, its screw ups…and that can make all the difference in how we grow and evolve as people of faith. We’re not perfect. My personal spirituality has expanded beyond my wildest dreams since becoming involved in the UU faith, because I have not choice but to question. That’s been my way of moving through the world since as long as I can remember, but here in this faith I’m surrounded by others who are also questioning. That never happened before I became involved here. That’s what community means to me.
I enjoy history, and find some comfort in exploring and comparing ancient religions and traditions. But I am more rewarded by a living tradition like UUism, that examines and questions itself about even its most fundamental underpinnings. Our principles are just that – principles. Not creed. There have been seven of them since long before I got there, and now we are contemplating the addition of an eighth. Nothing is etched in stone, literally or figuratively. That’s what living means to me.
So, on I go. I probably don’t practice UUism like many other folks, but they tell me I’m still part of the crew. I am not the same person, in the spiritual sense, as I was when I first showed up in this congregation more than 20 years ago. I’m not the same person I was yesterday, if I want to be honest about it. Spirituality is not a question box on a spreadsheet with an expected response of Y or N. It goes much farther than that for me, and it always has. This is the place that agrees with me about that.
Back to where I started, though…I am feeling disconnected today. I haven’t gone anywhere today, didn’t even tune into the Zoom broadcast of my congregation or any congregation. Nothing they scheduled for today interested me in the least, and as per some of my earlier comments, I feel as though I’ve been excluded from a couple of things and silenced about a couple of other things. I’m not losing sleep over it, though, but really didn’t have the energy to put on a smiley face this morning, even on Zoom.
Fact is, I’m doing what I need to be doing, there and other places. I definitely want to move beyond working for change in just this congregation…they are who they are. They don’t represent the entire UU movement, or faith, so as I said earlier, I don’t need to waste my time trying to change anyone’s mind. Their “normal” is not MY “normal”, but they are welcome to it.
I will say, however, that if “normal” is the goal for everything we do, especially during these times, we’re not going to be relevant very long. That’s up to them. Just like it’s up to the nation at large to figure out whether comfort and traditional status quo is worth digging in your heels to avoid change of any kind. If we’re trying to elevate ourselves, that would imply an uphill climb. If you stop climbing, and stop on an incline, you’re moving backward. It’s just that simple.
This stuff is not easy, and the stakes are high. If we stop climbing, we’re going to be deposited back in the quicksand at ground level, and we are going to be stuck. I don’t want to be stuck. I want to be shot out of the caldera we’re in, like a volcanic eruption. Shot up to the sky, and on falling back to Earth having benefit that one, glorious, blazing moment of flight, when you can see forever. Have to keep on going, up, up, up. Standing still is not an option, doing nothing is not an option. Falling down is not a choice, but it happens…not getting up is not an option. Many of us are tired, but still on our feet, and still climbing out of that hole we’re in