Atoning and Facing the New Year

Living Your Faith, part 3

Rosh Hashanah this year began in the evening last Sunday, Sep 9. Yom Kippur ended on Wednesday evening, Sep 19. In between were the Days of Awe and Repentance. It's the Jewish New Year. How are you going to live your faith this year?

We have options for ways to exercise your caring and compassion muscle on behalf of justice for a bruised and hurting world. We have SJTs -- Social Justice Teams – pick one. Maybe two, but at least one.

Our social justice teams each have a chair, or two co-chairs. They each have a leadership core of five people. Then there are the active members, who show up at the monthly meetings and at events that are the work of the team, who answer and share emails about the team’s activities. Finally, each social justice team has its “on-call” list. These are the folks who don’t go to most of the monthly meetings, who quickly skim and delete the emails about the team’s activities and deliberations, but who have agreed to be “on-call” – to receive those emails, and willing to be called upon for those times when a big project needs all the help it can get.

Some of our Social Justice Teams need some core leaders. Maybe you. All of our Social Justice Teams need all the active members they can get. And if you can’t be an active member, at least be an on-call member of at least one of our Social Justice Teams. (On Sun Sep 16, after the service, CUUC had a Social Justice Team Fair -- with each of the teams staffing a table and display about their activities. A list of CUUC's SJTs is HERE.)

As we think about the new year and atoning, let us consider how we will, in the coming year, engage in healing the world -- tikkun olam. Our SJTs provide us with structures and resources for making a difference, for healing the world, for nuturing our spirit -- for nurturing our spirit BY healing the world, even as our worship experience help us heal the world BY nurturing our spirit.

Rabbi and poet Chaim Stern wrote “Atonement Day”:
Once more Atonement Day has come.
All pretense gone, naked heart revealed to the hiding self,
We stand on holy ground, between the day that was and the one that must be.
We tremble.
At what did we aim?
How did we stumble?
What did we take?
What did we give?
To what were we blind?
Last year’s confession came easily to the lips.
Will this year’s come from deeper than the skin?
Say then: why are our paths strewn with promises like fallen leaves?
Say then: when shall our lust be for wisdom?
Say now: Love and truth shall meet; justice and peace shall embrace.
We are called to follow the right path, and to atone for straying from it. What does this require? The prophet Micah considers the possibilities:
“With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil?Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
No, none of these, says Micah.
“He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
So let us be recommitted in the year ahead to doing justice, loving kindness, walking humbly the way that seems most right.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur call us to consider how we have lived in the year past, and how we may live in the year to come. Traditionally the faults and failings the Jewish people are particularly enjoined to examine at this time are these:
“We failed to work for peace
We kept silent in the face of injustice
We have ignored the poor in our own midst
We have withheld our love from those who depend on us
We have distorted the truth for our own advantage
We have conformed to fashion and not to conscience
We have sinned against ourselves and not risen to fulfill the best that is in us.”
The invitation of Yom Kippur is to reflect on how, in the New Year, to go deeper – deeper into connection, care, love. And thereby into a fuller life of joy and peace.

Yes: next year we will confess the same faults. That doesn’t mean we haven’t done better – it might mean we’ve raised our standards on ourselves. Last year’s work was too easy only by the higher standards we are now expecting from ourselves.

And it’s not all on you. Peace and justice must be built together, collectively.

There’s a name for this constant re-adjusting of our balances and our expectations for ourselves, constantly seeking to care more and more effectively: it’s called life. May you be inscribed in the book of life. G'mar Hatima Tova.

* * *
This is part 3 of 3 of "Living Your Faith"
See also
Part 1: The Infirmary and the Gym
Part 2: At the Center of Joy and Peace


At the Center of Joy and Peace

Living Your Faith, part 2

The "infirmary model" emphasizes to role of the congregation (and the practices and faith it helps its members develop) in tending to spiritual needs of the soul-weary and the heart-broken. The "gymnasium model" emphasizes the role of the congregation in encouraging the exercise that strengthens our spiritual muscles. The "insurance policy model" just says that if you pay the premiums of participating in your congregation and its faith and practices, then God will smile upon you -- in this life (as in, prosperity theology, especially), the next, or both.

The interplay between "gymnasium" and "insurance policy" runs through the debate in the Christian tradition between between “salvation by works” versus “salvation by faith alone.”

The Catholic tradition has emphasized salvation by faith AND works, highlighting such passages as the Christian Testament’s Epistle of James, chapter 2, which says:
“Show me your faith apart from works, and I by my works will show you my faith. . . . Faith apart from works is barren . . . “Faith [is] brought to completion by works . . . A person is justified by works and not by faith alone. . . . For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.” (18-26)
But through the medieval period this idea was gradually corrupted until the primary meaning of “works” was paying money to the Catholic Church. So when Martin Luther in the 16th century rebelled against the Catholic Church, he defended a doctrine called sola fide -- faith alone. Luther was trying to undermine the corruption that had developed around "salvation by works."

Thus, the Protestant tradition has emphasized different passages, primarily from Paul’s epistles. The epistle to the Ephesians, for instance, says:
“For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
Both sides can be seen as versions of the insurance policy model. Where “works” is understood as payments and service to the Catholic hierarchy, then works isn’t so much exercise as it is buying insurance. And if “faith alone” is merely an internal act of believing, then, that, too, is a kind of payment in return for which a pay out comes later.

Catholicism has taken steps to correct the corruption of which Martin Luther complained (arguably, it has not completed that task). Catholic theology since Luther has developed a robust understanding of works as having more to do with service to the poor and oppressed and less to do with payment into church coffers. In the 1950s and 60s, Latin American Catholic theologians such as Gustavo GutiĆ©rrez of Peru, Leonardo Boff of Brazil, Juan Luis Segundo of Uruguay, as well as Jon Sobrino of Spain developed Liberation Theology that particularly emphasized social concern for the poor and the political liberation of oppressed peoples. Liberation theology has never been orthodox teaching throughout Catholicism, but it has been influential within and without Catholicism – including on Unitarian Universalism. It provides a grounding for a view of spiritual development through works of justice, and thus for a view of the congregation as providing a sort of spiritual gymnasium for building strong compassion.

LoraKim and I read Gutierrez and Boff in seminary, as most UU seminarians still do. We found liberation theology insightful and inspiring – and congenial with the Unitarian emphasis that our faith must be lived.

From Unitarian Universalist beginnings, faith must be lived. Our slogan has been “deeds, not creeds.”
Ours is not an insurance policy faith. “It matters what you do” – as Laila Ibrahim put it when she wrote the four noble truths of Unitarian Universalism for a Chalice Camp song for UU kids.

Ours is a faith that must be lived, not merely believed, our Unitarian and Universalist theologians and preachers have insisted from our beginnings. Our Rev. Marilyn Sewell writes,
“Not all UUs are inclined by personality or temperament to be activists.
But do UUs need to care about social justice? Yes.” (UU World)
Takiyah Nur Amin, a member of our Church of the Larger Fellowship and the Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism organizing collective, adds,
“Unitarian Universalism as a faith and philosophy calls us to work toward building a sustainable, equitable context for all of us to live and thrive, and there is no getting around that. If you embrace and believe in our Principles—dignity, justice, equity, and compassion—you can’t sit idly by in the absence of those ideals in our society. We are supposed to uphold, as a matter of principle, the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all. How does anyone propose we get there if we don’t take action to make it happen? This … is about being a person who lives out their principles in their home, at the job, in their congregation, and anywhere else their life might take them. This faith requires something of us in return for being our ideological home, and that requires that we get up, get out, and build the world we dream about. If you aren’t called to act in, on, and through our Principles, maybe you shouldn’t call yourself a Unitarian Universalist.” (UU World)
Unitarian theologian Paul Rasor notes:
“There are many ways to express and live out the Principles and values we hold dear. Activism is certainly one of them. But not everyone has to take to the streets. . . . At the same time, I hope that those called to other roles could support our activists (as one expression of our values), and that the activists could equally support those who undertake other equally important tasks in our communities.” (UU World)
Our faith prepares and strengthens people to campaign for justice in small and big ways – whether marching in the streets and organizing, or in other ways. Our religious movement, from its beginnings has been devoted to transformation: our own spiritual transformation and the social and political transformation of the world. Our faith calls us to love actively in the face of a broken world – and justice is what love looks like in public.

Faith must be lived. It’s not like an insurance policy. It’s like a gym membership. Here’s your place where you can strengthen the muscles of care and kindness.

And it’s like an infirmary. If you’re sick at heart and soul weary, let’s talk about that. I’m here. Your Journey Groups – and caring people all around you -- are here. Here’s your place where you can get back your strength for care and kindness.

For care and kindness, compassion and love are at the center of a life of joy and peace. Helping each other flourish into such a life is what our mission is all about: nurturing spirituality, fostering compassion, engaging in service. Because that’s the life of joy and peace. We’re here to help each other realize that life.

* * *
This is part 2 of 3 of "Living Your Faith"
See also
Part 1: The Infirmary and the Gym
Part 3: Atoning and Facing the New Year


The Infirmary and the Gym

Living Your Faith, part 1

There’s a saying about the function of a congregation, I've mentioned before. The two-fold function of the congregation is:
to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
It sounds like two different things: comforting afflicted and afflicting comfortable. You might read this as separating the comfortable from the afflicted in much the same way the sheep are to be separated from the goats: the comfortable being the goats, are to be afflicted.

I don’t believe in a separation of people into sheep and goats. I resonate with Alexandre Solzhenitsyn who wrote:
“If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”
There’s no separating sheep from goats.

It’s not just that all of us are part sheep and part goat. The impossibility goes deeper than that. We can’t tell the difference between our own sheep parts and goat parts.

What we all are is: a bundle of competing drives and needs, and sometimes some of them need to be at the fore and sometimes others do, and we aren’t always perfectly skilled at knowing which drives to attend to when, and we aren’t always perfectly skilled at attending to those drives without collateral damage, so we make mistakes and cause harm to ourselves and others. There are no sheep and goats, and likewise no division into the afflicted and the comfortable.

I think what’s trying to be said is simply: Care about people.

Your congregation is not here to judge you as too comfortable and thus set out to afflict you in various ways. Your congregation is here for joy and peace – to learn about, to practice, to model, to embody, lives of joy and peace. As we go, we soon learn that caring, kindness, compassion -- love -- is at the center of joy and peace.

If you’re not living that way, then you’re not comfortable. This we know: as Benjamin Franklin put it,
“A man wrapped up in himself makes a very small package.”
A person concerned only with their own protection and aggrandizement is a fundamentally unhappy person, never at ease, never comfortable. A certain public figure, perhaps, comes to mind: fundamentally unhappy, never at ease, never comfortable.

Your congregation is not out to afflict the comfortable. We are here to help each other care more, become kinder, less complacent and thereby grow more comfortable with ourselves and our world. Whether you are suffering from a general complacency or a specific grief, the path forward is the same: connect with people through compassionate service to others. Thus there is no two-fold function for a congregation, but a single function, which takes thousands of forms.

Another way the idea of a two-fold function is sometimes expressed is to say congregations have a pastoral function and a prophetic function. The pastoral is care and guidance for grief, loss, and heartache. The prophetic is a reference to the prophets of the Hebrew Bible – Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah, Amos, Micah, et al. The traditional meaning of prophet is one who speaks for God, or by divine inspiration, to guide the people of Israel. Unitarian Universalism has been particularly influenced by strands of thought that view these prophets primarily in their role as social critics. The prophets were the ones who called out injustice – who spoke truth to power – who urged the people (particularly the powerful) to change their ways and turn away from evil.

I once characterized the pastoral and prophetic as the infirmary and the gym. In its pastoral function, the congregation is a spiritual infirmary. When you come here sick at heart, soul weary, broken-spirited, the congregation provides care, sustenance, replenishing rest to help you get better. In its prophetic function, the congregation is a spiritual gymnasium. Here we offer each other the exercises and disciplines which cultivate and strengthen our wisdom, compassion, and equanimity. We’re here to work out together.

Both the infirmary and the gym are concerned with health, as the congregation is concerned with spiritual health, so, again, there’s ultimately one function – though good health requires both rest, on the one hand, and exercise, on the other.

Throughout western religion – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – theologians and faith leaders have also grappled with and sometimes promoted another model: call it the insurance policy. On the insurance policy model, congregational life is your insurance that God is on your side -- that, as one insurance company advertises, you’re in good hands. You will be provided for on earth – and, afterwards, heaven. You pay your premiums by giving assent to doctrines and tithing to a congregation and when the time of need comes, God will issue the check to cover your need.

* * *
This is part 1 of 3 of "Living Your Faith"
See also
Part 2: At the Center of Joy and Peace
Part 3: Atoning and Facing the New Year


Voting and Belongingness

Why do we vote? I mean, those of us who do.

I'll begin with something that appears completely different: the case of a German rueful about insufficiently resisting the Nazis in 1935. From there, we move to the broader question of Kantian fantasy -- and from there to our popular rationales for voting, and why they miss the point.

Milton Mayer's book, They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-45 (originally published 1955) includes a story of a German who says,
"The world was lost one day in 1935, here in Germany, and it was I who lost it."
The man tells how, in 1935, Germany adopted the National Defense Law. The man was employed in a defense plant at the time, and the new law required him to take an oath of fidelity. The man opposed it in conscience, was given 24 hours to think it over, and, in those 24 hours, changed his mind. He took the oath -- and, in so doing, he recounts years later, "I lost the world."

There was certainly coercive pressure. Had he not taken the oath he'd have lost his job. He would also, he knew, have been blackballed from subsequent employment. He could have left the country and found work elsewhere, but he rationalized that he might be able to help some people from "within" -- whereas leaving the country would make him powerless to help any friends in trouble. How did the oath of one defense-plant employee "lose the world"? The man explains:
"There I was, in 1935, a perfect example of the kind of person who, with all his advantages of birth, in education, and position, rules (or might easily rule) in any country. If I had refused to take the oath in 1935, it would have meant that thousands and thousands like me, all over Germany, were refusing to take it. Their refusal would have heartened millions. Thus the regime would have been overthrown, or indeed, would never have come to power in the first place. The fact that I was not prepared to resist, in 1935, meant that all the thousands, hundreds of thousands, like me in Germany were also unprepared,...if my faith had been strong enough in 1935, I could have prevented the whole evil."
Empirically, this is untrue. The man's decision to refuse the oath would not have caused anyone else to refuse the oath. The day I decided to become vegetarian was not a day -- or even a decade -- that hundreds of thousands of demographically, economically, and educationally similar people also decided to become vegetarian. If I enter my voting booth and decide to vote for a minor party candidate who has been polling at about 2 percent, changing my mind from what I told (or would have told) the pollster the day before, that candidate will still finish with about 2 percent of the vote. Moral decisions made in the individual isolation of conscience are, unsurprisingly, individual and isolated.

"Don't waste any time mourning. Organize!" telegrammed labor organizer Joe Hill in the days before his 1915 execution on false charges. Hill understood that mass movements that bring real change require organization. One person's strong faith doesn't strengthen anyone else's faith unless there is an organized effort to frame and disseminate a certain story about that person. Case in point: Hill's own faith mattered because the story of that faith became the rallying cry, "Don't mourn -- Organize!"

The German man's reasoning adhered precisely to the ethics of his country's philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), who argued that the "categorical imperative" was to "so act that the maxim of your actions may be willed a universal law for all." When considering a choice, Kant is saying, we should ask ourselves, "what if everyone did that?" Kant seems to have mostly had in mind bad consequences. If everyone lied, or murdered, then society would be destroyed -- no one could wish for a world in which everyone lied constantly or murdered even occasionally -- therefore, we should not lie or murder. The man in our story is imagining a good consequence: if everyone had refused the oath, Nazism would have collapsed. Either way, it is a fantasy to imagine that "the maxim of your action" could become a "universal law for all" -- or even a regional law for a few. So whether the imagined consequences be good or bad, what we're seeing is ethical reasoning via Kantian fantasy.

As long as we recognize Kantian fantasy as an ethical exercise and don't make the mistake of imagining that mass movements really will form around our example, Kant's fantasy is sometimes helpful. Asking ourselves, "What if everyone did that?" isn't the only question worth asking in an ethical context, but it is one of the questions. The empirical utilitarian question, "What will actually be the results of my action, to the best of my ability to predict?" -- and the question of calling, "What is it that I, and I alone, am called to bring to the world?" -- are very different but also worthwhile questions to consider.

Let us now consider the matter of voting. Here's a case where the arguments encouraging people to vote tend to indulge Kantian fantasy. The individual voter is asked to imagine that her vote matters because if lots of other people followed her example then it would matter. The nonvoters who could have voted tend to be poorer, younger, and disproportionately people of color. If they voted in larger numbers, then more Democrats would win more elections. But from the standpoint of a single individual deciding whether to go to the bother, it is Kantian fantasy to imagine that her decision will have any effect on a significant portion of everybody else.

An NPR story this morning asked why so many Americans don't vote. (SEE HERE.)

Let us not ignore the fact that, as the NPR piece points out, "Hundreds of thousands of nonvoters want to vote, but can't." Restrictive voter ID laws, registration difficulties, or ineligibility due to a criminal record are true and real problems (or, for the party that benefits from suppressed turn-out, true and real solutions).

Still, many nonvoters could vote. They just don't. Here are some excerpts from the story:
"Some are apathetic or too busy. Others don't like their choices, they don't think their vote matters, they think the system is corrupt, or they don't think they know enough to vote....Megan Davis, the 31-year-old massage therapist in Rhode Island, never votes, and she's proud of her record. 'I feel like my voice doesn't matter,' she said on a recent evening at a park in East Providence, R.I. 'People who suck still are in office, so it doesn't make a difference.'....Tammy Lester, a 42-year-old fast food worker in McDowell County, W.Va., can't remember the last time she voted. 'We vote these people in and they don't help McDowell County,' she said, as she walked along the deserted streets in the rundown downtown with her daughter. 'There's nothing...there's no jobs when our kids graduate, they have to leave....What good does it do, though, when they'll promise you anything and then it's a lie?'....'I just don't think my vote matters,' said Josh Mullins, as he pushed a stroller along the street in McDowell County. The last time Mullins, a 33-year-old unemployed former restaurant worker, remembers voting was in 2004 for Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry. Nowadays, he sees no point, saying the system overrules what people want....Many analysts predicted that Donald Trump's offensive rhetoric about Latinos would mobilize records numbers of Latino voters in 2016, but turnout remained relatively even with 2012. 'You may be upset about somebody like Donald Trump and what you're hearing,' said Romero. 'But if you don't see how or why...politicians and the political landscape matters for you...you don't think you have agency.'"
Included in the audio of this story, but not in the on-line print version of the story, is a brief interview with a nonvoter named Raymond Taylor, who explains that his vote won't matter because his state is a red state anyway. The reporter goes on to add,
"He told me the one and only time he voted was in 2008 for Barack Obama. He said he wanted to be part of history. But this idea that his vote doesn't matter because of the political leanings of the state he lives in is something we see across the country. If you look at turnout from 2016 you'll notice that some of the states that had the highest turnout were places where the margin of victory was less than five percent."
All of these rationales for nonvoting are perfectly rational and true. But did you catch that brief aside -- so minor a point that it didn't make it into the print version online? Raymond Taylor voted in 2008, because he wanted to be part of history. He wanted to be part of something. Something bigger than himself. He wanted to add meaning to his life by placing it in the context of something as large as "history." Voting didn't make any more difference in 2008 than it has any election since -- but when it meant joining a larger context of meaning, he voted.

We don't vote to make a difference. Manifestly, as individuals, we don't make a detectable difference. Even in an incredibly close race, decided by only a few hundred votes, my decision to vote will not make even a few hundred others also vote. We vote -- those of us who do -- because we feel we are a part of something bigger than our ourselves. Voting is an act of social-spiritual connection. It places the meaning of our lives in a larger context, joins us with something bigger.

This makes sense of why it is that nonvoters tend to be poorer, younger, and people of color. These are people who would naturally have a harder time feeling a part of the larger systems that constitute the body politic. As I listened to the NPR story, what I heard nonvoters Megan Davis and Tammy Lester and Josh Mullins expressing was that they don't feel connected to their fellow citizens in one big decision-making body. Without that connection, voting is only about, "Will it make a difference?" And it won't. But when you do feel that connection, voting is not about, "Will it make a difference?" It's about participating in action that affirms, enacts, and embodies connection.

Voting is an expression and affirmation of belongingness, of being a part of something bigger than ourselves. When we don't feel belonging, we're a lot less likely to vote.

Kantian fantasies will not persuade nonvoters to vote. They see right through that. If we want more people to vote, we have to think about what would help them feel they belong and are connected in meaningful community with their fellow citizens.


That "Letting Go" Sigh

Asking myself: What exactly do we do when we "let go"?

It occurs to me that: We sigh. Sighing is the physical correlate of letting go. Or is it?

I gave Science a call. Science and I chat regularly. She is particularly keen to bend my ear about climate change -- and she has quite persuaded me that the matter is indeed urgent -- but she is also happy to chat about lots of other things. About sighing, Science says that a sigh is a fundamental life-sustaining reflex. It’s not just a sign of frustration or despair. “A control system in the brain keeps humans sighing about a dozen times an hour,” says Science.

Apparently our lungs have tiny sacs called alveoli, and regular breaths don’t inflate them fully. They need periodic full inflation to stay healthy, so we have a control system that tells us to take some deeper breaths from time to time -- like, about every 5 minutes. Most of the time we don’t notice that we’ve sighed.

“So, Science,” I says, “when I’m going about my work, I’m not thinking about my breathing much – which is great, because I have other things I need to be thinking about. So I'm happy to have an unconscious control system handle the breathing. But when I’m meditating, my breath is very regular – and also each breath is a little deeper, I think, than regular breaths. I don’t sigh when I’m meditating – and I know because I’m paying attention to my breathing at that time.”

Science said, “Well, but you do sometimes sigh during meditation.”

And I had to admit that, it’s true, my meditation isn’t always totally focused. My mind may get to wandering, and thinking about something sad, or the items on my to-do list, and then I’ll sigh. And I’ll notice that I’ve sighed – which reminds me to refocus. But there are also days when a 25-minute sit goes by without any sighing. Is that because I’m taking somewhat slower-and-deeper-than-regular breaths, and that’s enough to keep the alveoli happy? Science said, “I don’t know.” (Science says this a lot.) “We need more research,” added Science. (Science also says this a lot.) “But I will point out,” added Science, “that when the timer bell rings to end your 25-minute sit, the first thing you do is take a somewhat deeper breath.”

Good point, Science.

The occasional slightly heavier breath aside, none of this addresses the association of sighing with, you know, the usual associations: exasperation, regret, despair. These are the real sighs – not merely somewhat heavier breaths that happen 12 times an hour, but long, audible (especially on the exhale) breaths. What’s going on with that?

My hypothesis is that the especially heavy breath gets more oxygen into your blood stream, which helps you relax AND LET GO of whatever the issue is. Something problematic comes to your attention. Can you do anything about it – or, more to the point, will you be doing anything about it immediately? If so, your body gears up to spring into action. You might take a deep breath before taking the plunge, but this is not a sigh (the exhale doesn’t come out all at once). If not, then your body may want to sigh just to help it relax. A sigh is the letting go of anxiety about a situation that you're not going to take action to change right away. The sigh is fundamentally a device for letting go.

“What do you think, Science?” I asked when I had finished explaining my hypothesis. Science didn’t say anything. But I’m pretty sure I heard her sigh.



Dear "Spiritual But Not Religious" person,

I'm encouraged by the interest in spirituality -- in spiritual growth and development. There are lots of ways to walk a spiritual path: books, classes, spiritual directors and counselors, practices you can undertake by yourself, guided by a teacher, or books, or youtube videos.

Even without intentional cultivation of spirituality -- without any books, classes, counselors, teachers, or videos -- "being spiritual" might just mean that you're open to, and value, those intimations of wonder and peace when they come: seeing a sunset, hiking in the woods, or strolling on a beach, say.

My path happens to be more the intentional kind. I find that following some disciplines helps me be open to wonder. My path also includes congregational life as a central aspect.

Congregational life brings some unique features to one's spirituality. Some of these features may not be all that attractive -- so I can understand a decision to be "Spiritual But Not Religious" (where "not religious" means "not participating in a congregation"). For better and for worse, congregational life includes these five features you generally won't find on other paths of spiritual development:

1. Self-governance: involvement with committees; democratic participation in, and approval of, the budget process; deliberating about policies, procedures, bylaws; creating and leading programs. Yoga classes or sessions with a spiritually oriented therapist don't include giving you a role in running the institution. I know that the prospect of being on a committee may not be very appealing. For me, spiritual community that is run by the seekers themselves offers a unique level of richness, meaning, and connection. The activities of self-governance form an inseparable and integral part of my path of growth and deepening.

2. Group Identity and Belonging. Again, this may not be much of a selling point for you. In fact, the “tribalism” of religious groups may be a big part of what turns you off about "religion." I have found, nevertheless, deep satisfaction from being a member of the Unitarian Universalist “tribe.” Belongingness in a community of care and concern is a deep human need. Many such communities -- including Unitarian Universalist ones -- work at mitigating the negative, insular aspects that some communities develop. We want to ensure our identity as “UUs” doesn’t exclude other identities. UU Christians, UU atheists, UU Buddhists, UU pagans, UU Jews, UU Humanists, and others, all find belonging as Unitarian Universalists.

3. Family membership. Adults and their children share in congregational life. The concept of family involvement in a faith institution -- belonging together as a family rather than as separate individuals -- is an integral feature of congregational life. You don't get that with a spiritual counselor or a yoga class.

4. Caring for each other. Call it shared pastoral ministry: the love and care that congregation members show to other members – building friendships in church, visiting each other for social occasions and when one of us is sick. These things will naturally happen among a circle of friends, but congregational life affords the chance to have a bigger circle. It’s nice to care and be cared about by people that know you well. Caring and being cared about by group members that may not (yet) know you all that well adds a rewarding layer of meaning to life.

5. Social justice action as a faith community. You don’t have to be in a congregation to work for social justice, but in congregations justice and spirituality are integrated. This may not be so true in some denominations, but it tends to be the Unitarian Universalist way. Working with fellow congregants on justice projects is an essential part of our spiritual path.

I find these to be essential components of a rich and empowering life. That's why I choose to be Spiritual and Religious.


Good Women, Bad Women

There was something telling in one word, a mere conjunction, buried in a sentence in the 19th paragraph of an article in this morning's New York Times. Under the headline, "The Daughter of a Maverick Goes to Battle" [it has a different title online], the Katie Rogers' article began:
"As Meghan McCain delivered a eulogy for her father on Saturday, she was at times too grief-stricken to catch her breath. As she described his sickness from brain cancer or his love for her, she struggled to look up at a crowd full of boldface Washington establishment figures who had gathered at National Cathedral. But as Ms. McCain shared one of her father’s dying directives — “Show them how tough you are” — her voice stopped wavering. The warrior’s daughter steeled herself, drew her eyes up and stepped into battle."
I love that description. I went and watched Meghan McCain's full eulogy on Youtube, and I loved that too. Yes, I'm certainly ambivalent about glorifying warriors and violence, but warrior metaphors -- evoking, outside of contexts of violence, a determined and fierce resolve to represent or defend ideals one sees as more important than one's own life -- can powerfully move me.

Later in the article is the word I want to invite us to reflect on -- and it has no direct connection to the eulogy itself. (So, fair warning: the topic of this post is about to drastically change. Also, in the interest of full disclosure, in case some of my readers don't know: I'm a man.) The word at issue comes as the article moves to reviewing Meghan McCain's various political views -- as expressed on "The View" and in her writings -- and notes that she
"has long confounded Republicans who say they cannot easily suss out her beliefs, and she has frustrated Democrats who want to believe that she is secretly one of them."
Offered as an illustration of a position that confounds or frustrates is this sentence:
"She has said that abortion is tantamount to murder, but has been a proponent of sex education and birth control."
The perplexing word here is the conjunction "but." "But" indicates that the bit before (saying "that abortion is murder") and the bit after (being "a proponent of sex education and birth control") run contrary to each other. This is false. If you think that abortion is murder, then of course you would be in favor of what reduces the number of abortions -- birth control and sex education. Nothing could be less contrary to an opinion of the wrongness of X than support for steps that mitigate X. Right?

In terms of the rhetoric of partisan divide in this country, however, one cannot fault journalist Katie Rogers for this use of "but." She is correct in her assumption that "abortion is tantamount to murder" is language associated with one party and that support for birth control and sex education is associated with the other party. So Ms. McCain's position, cast solely in terms of party orthodoxy, does have one bit that runs contrary to another bit. I get that. But this begs the question: how did party orthodoxy get so crazy?

In particular, what is going on in the psyches of people who are so horrified by women's reproductive choice that they seek to . . . ? oh! I see it now. They seek to restrict women's reproductive choice because they are horrified by women's reproductive choice. Duh.

Of course, this is not what supporters of banning abortion say. They don't come out and say that they are against reproductive choice tout court. Rather, they draw a distinction between reproductive choice before conception (which is fine) and reproductive choice after conception (which is murder). But if this is really what they think, then why the opposition to measures to ensure reproductive choice before conception -- i.e., sex education and access to birth control?

I don't know. I suspect they don't know either. (None of us understands very much of our own motivations, and others can often see them better that we ourselves can.) My guess is that they really are, despite what they say, uncomfortable with reproductive choice tout court -- whether before or after conception. Here's how I think that works.

There's a moral narrative about "good women" and "bad women." There are many variations on this narrative -- and they usually include some internal contradictions when unpacked -- but a common thread is that good women don't get pregnant outside of marriage. Pregnancy and motherhood are the appropriate consequence for bad women: either as a punishment for being sexually active, or as a way to bring them under control (subdue them into the domesticity of child-rearing), or both. It's offensive that bad women would be allowed to "gallivant around" (i.e., be sexually active in a way that is acceptable in men), yet continue, between liaisons, to carry on their lives "acting" as if they were good women. The social order requires that the bad women be clearly demarcated -- and if they don't get pregnant, how can they be identified? That these "hussies" would get to "parade" around as if they were "normal, virtuous" women is intolerable. Women themselves sometimes pick up on this narrative, and, seeking to prove themselves to be among the good women, or adopting a device for condemning a female rival for a man's loyalty, become reinforcers and perpetrators of the narrative. Hence the proportion of women that support an abortion ban is only slightly lower than the proportion of men who do.

There are also class and race aspects to the narrative. Poverty is itself a moral failure, according to the narrative, and dark skin an indicator of suspect morality, so poor and darker women are in particular need of moral policing. That is, wealthier and paler women may be allowed more sexual freedom because they are basically good women. Their virtue entitles them to a certain gallivanting -- just as wealth entitles them to a more expensive car (or a car at all) to use in the process. Part of what's going on is that the spectacle of poorer and darker women being as free as wealthier and whiter women is difficult to abide.

When you have a moral narrative so powerfully at work, all the attention is on the moral judgment. Empirical facts are beside the point. Standing upright against moral evil is important -- conducting and paying attention to research on what will actually, in fact, reduce that evil is not important. Thus, it's irrelevant that empirical findings show that sex education and access to birth control reduce the incidence of unwanted pregnancy and thus reduce the number of abortions. The important thing is to stand against evil, not to reduce it.

We don't always know what the elements of our moral revulsion are. Studies have found that moral revulsion is tied to sensory revulsion: people standing next to a smelly trash can, for instance, express harsher condemnation of, say, first-cousin marriage. So I imagine that revulsion against images of fetal dismemberment is part of the picture among proponents of an abortion ban. I have a negative reaction to those images, too. But, for me, positive associations with images of fierce and independent women (e.g. "the warrior's daughter steeled herself, drew her eyes up and stepped into battle", or, say, Sojourner Truth's "Ain't I a Woman" speech) are stronger. I don't doubt that pro-ban folks truly are horrified by fetal death. But I think that horror is significantly boosted by an underlying and often unconscious horror at women's, especially poor and darker-skinned women's, sexual freedom.

How does one get to a place of moral outrage while not caring about what would reduce the purported evil? In this case, one arrives there from a sense that the evil is not, or isn't just, the purported one (abortion). The deeper evil is the prospect of women being free and in control of their own sexual and reproductive lives.

Why else would "but" be the conjunction between "has said that abortion is tantamount to murder" and "has been a proponent of sex education and birth control"?