“Finding Our Religious Label” by Mark W. Harris
May 15, 2016 – First Parish of Watertown, MA
Call to Worship – from Essentials by Jean Toomer (adapted)
“I am of no particular race. I am of the human race, a man at large in the human world, preparing a new race.
I am of no specific region. I am of earth.
I am of no particular class. I am of the human class, preparing a new class.
I am neither male nor female nor in-between. . .
I am of no special field. I am of the field of being.”
Reading – from Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (p. 6-7)
Seventeen years ago when British Unitarian minister Ernest Baker, and his wife Marion visited Watertown and lived in our First Parish parsonage, they commented about their frustration with all the choices they encountered in the supermarket. Rather than a few items to choose from they found endless aisles of cereals and crackers and cookies, frozen items, and ice cream flavors galore.
At the time I remember thinking, these Brits simply do not have the wonderful variety of foods we Americans have. I felt sorry for them. Now years later, I completely understand their frustration. The other day I went to the supermarket to pick up one of my favorite crackers, Wheat Thins. There were no less than twenty different varieties to choose from, including spicy buffalo. Why can’t I just get a plain cracker? Now there are not only the endless flavors, but also reduced fat, no fat, no salt, no taste, and even Wheat Thin chips, of which there are probably twenty more varieties. I never did find just plain Wheat Thins. We all stand in the cracker aisle viewing endless choices, of endless labels and varieties.
The endless labels and choices do not end with our consumer habits. In an era of identity politics and multiculturalism, we have every identity, every group and every label clamoring for recognition and attention. These groups seek affirmation and acceptance, equal access and rights, and yes, a bathroom where simple human functions do not make them feel uncomfortable or excluded or shamed.
It may seem sad that society is arguing over who gets to use which bathroom, when wars are being waged, and toddlers are shooting themselves with guns. Now white people have become the latest identity group, and they have a spokesperson who expresses their anger and frustration for them and shoots from the hip. We have lost the ability to value what we hold in common. In our rage against the establishment, we have forgotten what working together can produce. As a liberal, my fellow citizens who share my left leaning politics and religion are often the first in line to clamor for more and more labels, so that everyone feels accepted. We think this is a good thing. We learn and grow from encountering different cultural perspectives. Each person gets to tell their own story and feel affirmed and accepted, but where do we find commonality or unity?
Gender and race are two areas where our societal struggles are reflected in many of our news headlines. Gender identity, as reflected in the North Carolina bathroom controversy is the new frontier. In my sheltered life, I am often unaware of the latest happenings in sexual behavior and gender awareness. A few years ago when a friend of mine was in seminary, he told me how there were four different people in his small circle of students who had adopted their own personal pronouns to identify themselves. At the time, I am sure I thought this was going too far in the effort to label or categorize ourselves. Students at Andover Newton began to refer to “cisgender,” which means your gender identity aligns with what you were assigned at birth. I have had to consult the younger generation, meaning our intern minister, to know what is acceptable nomenclature in the classroom. Two weeks ago when we dedicated Clara, Jolie took a portion of the service where it said men and women bring their children to houses of worship, and changed it to say “persons bring their children.” This moved me to ask her what a professor should do about handling a new generation of students, some of whom will be gender non-conforming. She said at the beginning of classes students state their name and reveal their “Preferred Gender Pronoun.” This is a challenge to an old fashioned “he, his, him male,” who also happens to be hetereosexual. Yet I want my students to feel accepted and affirmed.
We have come a long way in a short period of time from treating homosexuality as a psychological defect, to accepting the idea of being naturally gay and lesbian, and then broadening the affirmation and acceptance to LGBT, and now adding Q and I. How do we feel about this trend? Are people exaggerating with all these labels or making it too confusing, or do we accept as many labels as necessary so that the person does not have to feel weird, or abnormal or an outcast? Does it reach a point where there are too many labels, and people are only expressing yet another one to gain attention? Or does it mean we are hesitant to accept the rich variety of sexual choices and identity beyond gay and straight? Sometimes a label we adopt will be used as a weapon against us because a person has made assumptions about what it means. I remember when some people interpreted “feminist” to mean a woman who could not attract a man. Ultimately if a label helps a person move more comfortably in the world, and with more assurance, free from the limitations or expectations of gender roles then it is a good thing.
While labels may be helpful in sexual and gender identity, we can also see how destructive labels have been with regards to race. In Ta-Nehisi Coates’ best seller, Between the World and Me he asks how “the people” in “government by the people” acquired their names. While there is some argument as to the validity of the idea of race, we have come to accept it as a defined feature of the natural world. This belief in race was assigned as an unalterable condition to people, but it has no coherent biological meaning, except in the public mind as a fact of the manifestation of power in social structures. He says to his son that the differences among the people are not about genealogical or physical differences, but about hierarchy. In fact those precious cultural differences of Catholic, Corsican, Welsh etc, were lost in the naming of a generic people as white. They were all white, and white was best. Now we may be at a point where we label all these differences once again in our assertion and celebration of cultural backgrounds. We now reject the idea of melting pots where Irish and Italians and everyone else was taught to become homogeneous Americans, but how will the multiplicity of truth help us find unity beyond the celebration of self?
Maybe we will learn to celebrate each story, and will reject the idea of white over black. Like those who claim discrimination or destruction because of sexual and gender identity, Coates claims sovereignty over his own body, or centrally that blacks have been denied the right to secure and govern their own bodies. While we might see celebrating our cultural backgrounds and identities as a positive step away from white bread homogeneity, and it does make us feel individually strong and proud of our own stories, it still fails to build commonality. Postmodern times have meant that there is no one universal truth to unite us. There is no absolute we can rely upon, and thus only moral relativism and the self-reference of personal story and feeling. Coates is searching for this commonality, when he says, “Perhaps they (all the people) will truly become American and create a nobler basis for their myths.”
When Prince died a few weeks ago, I felt a genius was lost. This feeling was not derived from much knowledge of his music, as he became famous just as I was drifting away from listening to popular music. Yet in his ability to write, perform and play he had few equals, and underneath it all was an inclusive philosophy that defied our culture of labels and sought a synthesis of human meaning. In one song, he said there was no black and white, and as the New Yorker declared, Prince was like Jean Toomer who gained fame in the Harlem Renaissance, and spent his life in struggle against labels, saying, I am of the human race.. I am of Earth. I am of sex. I eliminate the religions. I am religious.” Unlike Toomer, Prince celebrated his blackness, but he also aimed toward creating a new kind of person, and you could see that just looking at him – he was beautiful, but was he male or female? He wanted to use our racial and ethnic diversity to celebrate not difference, but togetherness.
Jean Toomer resisted racial classifications and wanted to be identified only as an American. He claimed ancestry among seven ethnic and national groups. He said that he was a representative of a new, emergent race that was a combination of various races. “From my own point of view I am naturally and inevitably an American,” Toomer wrote. “There is a new race in America. It is neither white nor black nor in-between. It is the American race, . . . the old divisions into white, black, brown, red are out worn in this country. Now is the time of the birth of a new order, a new vision, a new ideal . . . .We are the new people. “
But is it possible to proclaim one truth, one race or one humanity when we live in a world of such plurality, such entropy, and such complexity? We are not sure of meaning in any given minute any more. Religiously speaking we may try to define meaning through labels. Think of all those religious labels: Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, and Taoist. Then, for example, subdivide Christian again to Catholic and Protestant, and subdivide again to Methodist, Baptist, and 350 more denominations down to Unitarian Universalist. And who are we? We find our own labels of Atheist, Agnostic, freethinker, humanist, pantheist, and then Christian and Buddhist, all over again. How did this happen? Our origins as a faith were with one defined label – Christian. Yet even that was Protestant first, because we also protested authoritative truths, and said truth should be continuously sought and never sealed. And as Christians we were liberal because we said Jesus is not God, but merely a person, who, as Emerson believed, was true to what is in you and me. Many of the early Unitarians said we believed in a pure form of Christianity, or an ethical faith based not in what we believe to be true, but in how we act in the world. For many of those Unitarians though, belief in a human Jesus or a benevolent God, or the goodness of humanity while important for affirming what was true for them, did not want to exclusively define Christianity as liberal, but instead wanted a broad faith that welcomed all Christians. Unfortunately other Christians would not accept that kind of breadth, and said, get out.
Some Unitarians said that kind of behavior was not very Christian, and so John Lowell published a pamphlet wondering “Are You a Christian or a Calvinist?” inquiring if true authority lay with Jesus or the Genevan reformer. So they remained Christian for a time, but mostly Christian by themselves, until they linked up with another group who thought of themselves as liberal Christian, too, the Universalists, who declared the radical idea that God’s love was meant for everyone, not merely the followers of the Genevan reformer, or Muhammad, or even the Flying Spaghetti Monster. This openness to new truths led those who embrace the label Unitarian down an even broader path of faith. The Transcendentalists, most of whom were radical Unitarians, began to read scriptures from other world religions besides Christianity – the Qu-ran, the Gita, the Upanishads, and soon discovered there is religious truth in other faiths, and although Christian forms and devotion to Jesus mostly held sway, many UUs began to find inspiration elsewhere. While early Unitarians found meaning in the Enlightenment idea of a natural, rational order in the universe, others like Thomas Wentworth Higginson, wanted an experiential faith and so they looked to a cultivation of the Inward Light. He said churches and Bibles come and go, but there is an undisturbed foundation to all religious truth alive at the heart of the universe. This gave birth to a multifaith approach to religion where we find truths in all religious exploration. While this sounds like what we Unitarian Universalists espouse today, that is not exactly the case. In fact, there are two issues that remain problematic.
When I was minister at the Universalist church in Palmer, we found an old metal sign in the back of a neglected closet. The sign had a picture of the globe, and said, Universalism, A Religion for One World. What the Universalism of the 1950’s and UUs of the 1960’s and 1970’s sought was a world faith that went beyond all exclusive faiths to create a synthesis of all the world’s religions. This was a time when many liberals taught that all religions are really the same underneath, and there were various attempts to show how the Golden Rule was applicable to all. This was a time in our history when we thought UUism could combine religions to achieve a universal faith, almost like the Star Wars mantra, May the Force be with you. Long time supporters of the League of Nations, and later the United Nations, UUs sought a kind of melting pot of religion where each faith would submerge itself into the others creating a higher and great truth. We still see this in our UU Principle that calls for a goal of world community.
Because we have learned that religions are culturally and historically based, we cannot magically declare the validity of a melting pot of them all. In fact, scholars would argue that they are drastically different. The second problem has to do with misappropriation of their deepest meanings. Too often we have tried to celebrate another faith by incorporating language, rituals and expressions that we have little knowledge of. Our multifaith approach can be a superficial appreciation of a religion without true respect or understanding of what it means. Maybe this includes the Sukkoth celebration we held here for many years. In addition we need to ask who is defining the terms? We are mostly people who are trying to appropriate other’s languages and traditions by our terms, and this can easily be disrespectful. It is easy for us to assume that any tradition is ours for the taking, and this is problematic, too, as religions have often appropriated from others in the past to create a new faith. A hero born of a virgin who then resurrects and comes back to life did not begin with Jesus. We know that many faiths are created from universal myths retold in a new cultural context.
What can Unitarian Universalist proclaim to the 21st century? There is a group of us who collect the left over bread from Panera bakery every Sunday night. On those Monday mornings when I deliver it to the food pantry at St. Patrick’s the Catholic women in the office often echo that old refrain, we all worship one God. They are talking true Catholicism, small “c.” They merely want to live their faith with compassion for others, letting people affirm their personal dignity, while living together in community. Freedom has often been the central framework we UUs have adopted. Yet we spend so much time proclaiming our individual search for truth, while saying it can come from anywhere, we leave people feeling as though it doesn’t matter what we believe, and it becomes a very individualistic label of this or that, because we never convey a common truth. While I know the old Universal truth of the oneness of all faiths does not exist, I also know that there is a common spirit to humanity, and we need to work together interdependently for people to flourish, for our environment to be sustained, and to feel a common spirit of love and compassion for our fellow human beings.
There is still an inherent message in Unitarian Universalism of creating one world together. We all speak a profound truth. That is a pluralistic journey that we can affirm, but it must be taken one step further than telling our own individual story as sustaining and affirming as that may be. When I was telling Jolie the other day that there is no melting pot, she responded that we have to create a tossed salad, where each ingredient adds flavor and color to make it delicious. But then I said, the salad needs a bowl, something to hold it, just as we need to be held as newborns and as we die. Our faith is not merely about individual expression of others religions it must be about the experience of the one common holder of the world who makes human life whole and holy. Adrienne Rich once said we must dream a common language, and so we are called to express the common spark of divinity in each of us that yearns to create one world
Many UUs find spiritual sustenance with the Sufi mystic, Rumi. He became a follower of a wandering dervish named Shams. He was convinced of this teacher’s knowledge when a professor asked the Dervish a question. Who is greater, Muhammad or Bestami? Shams noted that the teacher Bestami had proclaimed of himself, “How great is my glory!, whereas Muhammad had confessed to Allah in prayer, We do not know You as we should. Shams declared that clearly Muhammad was the greater of the two because while Bestami celebrated his great knowledge, Muhammad confessed the limitations of his, and was ever searching to extend the truth. Therefore, Rumi realized he must reopen his own search to find new manifestations of the divine within himself and within the creation. We, too, try to continue the search in humility, but knowing that common breath that animates human life and finds expression in all people regardless of nation, or ethnic origin. We all belong to that beloved spirit that we are called to know and behold it. Those who see God and the world as one are labeled Unitarian Universalists.
Closing Words – “Only Breath by Rumi
Not Christian or Jew or Muslim, Not Hindu,
Buddhist, sufi or zen. Not any religion
Or cultural system. I am not from the East
Or the West, not out of the ocean or up
From the ground, not natural or ethereal, not
Composed of any elements at all. I do not exist,
Am not an entity in this word or the next,
Did not descend from Adam and Eve or any
Origin story. My place is placeless, a trace
Of the traceless. Neither body nor soul.
I belong to the beloved, have seen the two
Worlds as one and that one call to and know,
First, last, outer, inner, only that
Breath breathing human being.