Retold Christmas: The Innkeeper's Tale

A priest, a rabbi, and a Buddhist monk walk into a bar...

Into my bar, in fact. This is no joke. Let me back up. My name’s Louie Knight. I run a respectable establishment down on Staten Island. Got a bar downstairs, and six rooms upstairs that we rent out – by the night, by the week, or by the month. It’s an Inn. I’m an Innkeeper – and this is my story.

A year ago last October we got hit by superstorm Sandy. Knocked the power out, knocked the phones out. My cell phone battery was soon dead, and it took a few days to find a way to recharge it.

The bar was closed, but I was in there with several candles burning. In the dim light I was seeing if the glassware could be secured a little better. I hadn't locked the door, though, and in the midst of the storm – high winds and driving rain – a couple stumbled into my bar. They were drenched – soaking wet – still clutching their useless inside-out umbrellas. They both looked, maybe, Hispanic. Or maybe Middle-Eastern. The woman was around 25 or 30 -- and was very pregnant. About to pop. The man looked a little older, and had a beard.

I said, “Can I help you?”

The woman said, “I sure hope so.” I could tell from the sound of her voice, this was not good.

I said, “Lady, maybe you need the hospital. There's a hospital just three blocks north from here . . ."

“I just came from there," she said, on the verge of tears. "The power's out, the back-up generators are out. The hospital wouldn’t take us. They can't. Yours was the first door that was open.”

“What do you need?”

“We just need a dry place. For one day," said the man. "We can’t get home in this storm.”

“You can’t stay here," I told him. "I’m all full up." The two of them stood there, looking at me. The guy decided to go for the sociable approach. He stepped forward, stuck out his hand. “I’m Joseph," he said. "This is my wife, Mary”

“Mary and Joseph. Of course you are,” I said. "I don’t care if you’re Simon and Garfunkel – I don’t have a room. I got the Barbescues in room 1, Charlie Fillmore in room 2, Montefiore in room 3, Billy DiAngelo in room 4, the Robertses in room 5, and Sandra Duquesne in room 6. I’m full."

Slowly they turned. They got to the door – Joseph had his hand on the knob -- when my wife, Miriam, popped out. I guess she’d been listening the whole time. Miriam said, “We’ve got a garage.”

"Oh, geesh Miriam," I was thinking. But the truth is, this couple was breaking my heart, and I’m glad she said it. I made a big sigh, and I said, "Yeah, we’ve got a garage. Nothing to sleep on."

Joseph said, “We don’t need anything. A little floor – until the storm lets up.”

So I got a candle and led them downstairs to the garage. It was no stable – no cow, no horse – but it did have a Mustang: a 1964 vintage Mustang, in fact. I’d just finished fixing it all up – good as new. Beautiful new paint job: royal blue, with white racing stripes. My pride and joy.

It was a project I’d been working on for two years, and just a few days before I had put an ad in a car magazine that it was for sale. It wouldn’t be easy to part with – but it was time to let somebody else enjoy this wonderful car – and for me to see some profit on my labors.

Anyways, I showed Mary and Joseph to a corner. I gathered an old coat and an old quilt I had, so they’d have a little bit of padding between them and the floor – and I went back to my bar. Billy DiAngelo from room 4 came down, and I told him the whole story. He went down to the garage to meet this Mary and Joseph, and before I knew it, he came running back up.

“Mary’s water broke” he blurted, and out the door he ran, right into the storm -- no raincoat, nothin' -- just straight out the door.

Now Miriam and I were freaking out. We didn’t know what to do. Boil some water. Get some towels – the clean ones.

But in just 10 or 15 minutes, back came Billy, and he brought a couple with him. Billy was soaking wet, and the couple were wearing full-length yellow ponchos. “They’re doctors," he said. "We met last week. They just moved in around the corner. So I went to get them."

The woman shook my hand and introduced herself. “I’m Doctor Deborah Shepard,” she said, out of breath. “I’m an obstetrician. This is my husband, Michael – he’s a pediatrician.” Each of them was carrying a black satchel just like doctors in the old movies.

"OK, let me get this straight," I said. "You’re the Shepards, and you’re here on accounta DiAngelo told youse to come?”

The doctors Shepard nodded. So I led them downstairs, and they went straight to Mary. "Anything you can do to get us more light?" said Dr. Michael. So Miriam and I went rounding up all the flashlights and candles we could find.

And that’s when the priest, the rabbi, and the Buddhist monk walked into my bar. They looked remarkably dry, given the storm.

“Call me Barry,” said the priest.

“I’m Sam,” said the rabbi.

“Frank,” nodded the Buddhist monk.

They each had a copy of the car magazine in their hands. “We’re all members of a Mustang fan club, and we’ve been looking for a '64 mustang for a long time” said the priest, Barry.

"We'd brave any storm for a chance at a good one. Supposedly, you've got one that's quite the car of wonder," said the rabbi, Sam. Then he opened the car magazine and read from my ad:
“Car of wonder, car of Knight, car of royal blue and white.”
So what could I do but show them the car? I took them down to the garage.

I said, "There you go. You’ve come following yonder car."

The Buddhist monk, Frank, said, “I can’t help noticing that there’s a woman who appears to be giving birth right next to your car of wonder.”

“Correction,” said Dr. Deborah, “has given birth,” and she lifted up a tiny baby, the most beautiful thing I've ever seen. It seemed to glow and light up the whole garage -- but maybe that was just the electricity flickering briefly for a moment just then.

“Is there something to wrap him in?" called Dr. Michael.

Miriam ran and got a T-shirt. She started babbling about how the t-shirt belonged to her nephew, who's a model, and, in fact, he had once done a shoot wearing that exact t-shirt. I took the shirt from Miriam and handed it to Dr. Michael.

"Let me," said Mary, sitting up and taking the shirt.

"You can set him down right here," I said, opening the car door and indicating the bucket seat. It was the only thing that was upholstered or reasonably soft and clean.

So Mary, she wrapped the babe in modeling clothes and laid him in a Mustang.

The babe's feet were sticking out. Sam took off his fur-lined mittens and gently slid one over each foot. They went up to the knee. Frank lit a stick of incense in one of the candles. Barry looked from Mary to Joseph, and said, "Congratulations. A new hope is born."

"A new love," added Sam.

"A new faith," said Frank.

Barry reached into his pocket and pulled out a gold coin. "This was given to me by a parishioner about a year ago. Let me give it now to you, in token of this blessing that is to you, and also to all of us." He handed the coin to Joseph, who took it, his lower lip trembling.

Miriam leaned over and whispered to me, "Gold."

"And Frank's incense," I said.

"And fur," she added, pointing to the mittens on the babe's legs.

There we were -- ten of us -- Mary, Joseph, the two doctors Shepard, Billy DiAngelo, Barry, Sam, Frank, and Miriam and me -- gathered around a shining babe sleeping in a shiny muscle car. Nobody said a word. A tremendous peace descended over us.

Outside the storm howled on. But there inside that garage we were safe -- and saved. We came together to help each other when there was need. That connection of care: that's our salvation. We were there for each other -- and we brought a new life into this world. It was amazing -- a wonder to behold.

Right in the middle of the worst storm I've ever seen came the best experience I've ever had.


Newsletter Column 2014 Jan

Thank You, Earth

At Community Unitarian Church, next month's theme will be “Creation.” In January, the invitation will be to explore the spiritual basis for environmental care and activism.

The spiritual basis of anything begins with gratitude, that most fundamental of all spiritual virtues and the ground from which all the others grow.

So let me express my gratitude for Creation:

Thank you, Earth. Thank you for air. The sunshine: morning rising beauty of hope; evening setting grace of gratitude. My brain processes the light that comes from the sky as blue – I’m not clear on why or how a bunch of neurons does that. I have a slightly better grasp on why snow is white, and no clue at all why chlorophyll is green. I don’t know why blood is red, either -- that vivid aliveness motion inside me, and us -- nor why flower blossoms are so variously, brightly colored. I just know the blue sky, winter’s white snow, and spring and summer’s green grass and trees are home.

Thank you, Earth, for ants, worms, beetles, spiders, jellyfish, squid. Thank you for fish: shiny, darting. Thank you for reptiles: tortoises, bright little lizards, and the alligators I left behind in Florida. Thank you for birds, and the unignorability of the fact of flying. Because they are, and I am they, I, too, fly. Thank you for other mammals, the things with hair and milk-making bodies: foxes and alpacas and orcas and rabbits.

I imagine living on a space station: the view, so deep; the black, and vast starfields, filling me with infinity every day. But it takes ground to be grounded. I was made to be among your colors and life and limited horizons, Earth. Even when it is dangerous, too hot, too cold, too rainy, too dry, I was made for you, Earth. All the 7.7 millions of animal species, all the three hundreds of thousand plant species, all the fungi, protozoa, and chromista, they were made for you, too, and by you, out of dirt and water and sunlight.

Did you make snakes able to be thankful? Have blue jays gratitude? Lobsters? Maybe they are always grateful – and what they aren’t able to be is not thankful. This is a wonder to me, who am sometimes ungrateful and who other times, like today, am sky-blue thank you and leaf-green thank you and blood-red thank you and snow-white thank you and mud-brown thank you.

Grateful feels good, Dear Earth, and you offer so much for which. Sometimes I forget. Then I remember again.



"Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them:" (Exodus 20:3-5, KJV)
What’s the big deal about graven images? you may wonder.

Historically, it seems to have been a tribal thing: the neighboring tribes made statues that represented their deities, so the Hebrew people, to be distinctive, insisted on having no deity statuary. Nor, for that matter, any angel statuary, nor thing-in-the-earth statuary, nor thing-in-the-water-under-the-earth statuary. No figurines of elephants or parrots or fish: none of that. For the ancient Hebrew people, this was part of how one affirmed one’s loyalty to the tribe. “We’re the people who don’t do that – so don’t do that,” they said.

It may have started that way, but the sanction against idolatry ended up pointing the Hebrew people toward something important. As a statue is fixed and static and unchanging, a person might also have certain ideas, beliefs, concepts that become fixed and static. The commandment against idols isn’t just about statues and figurines. It’s about any concept or thought-pattern that has become fixed and rigid. By abjuring graven images, the Hebrew people were subtly reoriented toward a conception of God as dynamic, unfolding, and always beyond whatever you can imagine, always other than anything you think.

The divine creative movement of the universe is dynamic, changing. Human understanding is ever unfolding. Idolatry means clinging to a fixed, static conception; closing ourselves to new learning.

Thus we see that it actually is quite apt for this mention of idolatry to be included in our humanist source. The guidance of reason and the results of science continually overturn our idols, challenge what we think we know.

Moreover, this is really the point that I think John Scotus Eriugena was on about. Any time someone says God exists, she has some idea of what this God is that exists. This is problematic because any concept at all, if you’re stuck on it, is an idol. As soon as you have an idea of God – any idea – smash that idol and return to a stance of total openness to whatever the world might present to you without forcing it into one or another of your preconceived conceptual categories.

If you were to sincerely practice living this way, you would find yourself saying a lot of things that contradict other things you’ve said. Congratulations. That means you’re not making idols of your past statements. It means you have opened up to contain multitudes. As Walt Whitman said:
“Do I contradict myself?
Very well, I contradict myself.
I am large, I contain multitudes.”
In an earlier post, I suggested some things that God might mean:
  • Community-forming power;
  • love;
  • the greatest source of beauty, mystery, or creativity;
  • the widest or deepest inspiration to gratitude, humility, wonder, and awe;
  • origin;
  • any ultimate context and basis for meaning, value, ethics, or commitment;
  • the widest reality to which our loyalty is owed;
  • the cosmos.
Those, too, are concepts that could become idols. By saying “God” we are also saying more than all of these definitions.

Or rather, maybe, less.

We’re saying THAT – while at the same time whispering “but remember, also not THAT.” By saying “God,” we are invoking a tradition which, for all its abuses and its nonsense, also includes the reminder that all our ideas are inadequate, a tradition which calls us to smash our idols, a tradition that says there is more there than our words can say – so much more that even our truest words are also false to the fullness of the mystery within which we live and breathe and have our being.

There is no God – that is, there is no possible concept that can encapsulate all of the wonder and the paradox that is this dear life – the wonder and the paradox that is directly staring us in the face every moment, saying, “hey you, knock over the idols of what you think you know and wake up.”

Whatever you think you know, this moment has something new and fresh to teach you. Are you listening? Are you looking? Always. For there is no God, and she is always with you -- whispering: “Pay attention.”

* * *
This is part 3 of 3 of "There Is No God and She Is Always with You"
See also:
Part 1: Religious Humanism
Part 2: The New New Atheism


The New New Atheism

In recent years we have seen a real renaissance in religious humanism – only, without that label. The label, “humanist” seems to have fallen out of favor, but the idea of religion and spirituality without God is booming. Try typing “Spiritual Atheism” into your favorite search engine. You'll find there's a LOT out there -- and this Spiritual Atheism is a growing phenomenon.

A book came out last year by Chris Stedman called, Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious. Another book, also out last year, by Alain de Botton is called, Religion for Atheists: A Non-believers Guide to the Uses of Religion. De Botton argues that atheists, instead of deriding religion should steal from it because
“the world’s religions are packed with good ideas on how we might live and arrange our societies.”
A few years ago we saw a spate of books grouped together as “The New Atheism”:

Sam Harris, The End of Faith (2004).
Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (2006).
Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell (2006).
Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great (2007).

These books derided belief in God and also despised faith, spirituality, religion, and religious institutions. What we’re now seeing is a New New Atheism that doesn’t want to deride anything. While still disbelieving in God, this New New Atheism values faith, spirituality, and religion.

“Faith,” as Karen Armstrong points out, in the New Testament, is the Greek word psistis, which means trust, loyalty, engagement, commitment. When Jesus calls for greater faith, he’s not calling for people to cling harder to a set of propositional beliefs. He’s calling for engagement and commitment.

“Spirituality,” as growing numbers of spiritual atheists are saying, isn’t about spirit-stuff as opposed to material stuff. It’s about claiming the depths of awe and wonder, serenity and compassion, abundance and acceptance, indissoluble union with the great All, and of belonging to the universal.

This idea of connecting with the religious impulse rather than denying it is just what the Humanist Manifesto called for 80 years ago.

The idea that there is no God is actually a staple of Christian Theology going back centuries. The 9th-century Christian theologian John Scotus Eriugena, for example, wrote:
“We do not know what God is. God himself doesn’t know what he is because he is not anything. Literally, God is not, because he transcends being.”
Got that? This is a Christian theologian saying that God does not exist. Eriugena also says God isn't nonexistent in the way that, say, unicorns or Manti Te'o's girlfriend are nonexistent. Rather God transcends the categories of existence and nonexistence, being and nonbeing.

To understand this, let’s go back to that fifth source of the living tradition we Unitarian Universalists share:
“Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit.”
This language of our six sources emerged from a couple General Assemblies in the mid-1980s.

It might seem a little strange that they would have put this reference to idolatry into our acknowledgement that humanism is a significant source of the living tradition we share. When you think of the repudiation of idolatry, your first thought probably wouldn't be humanism. Your first thought would more likely be the first of the Ten Commandment (or the first two Commandments, depending on which tradition is doing the counting):
"Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them:" (Exodus 20:3-5, KJV)
What’s the big deal about graven images? you may wonder.

Next: Idolatry and the transcendence of being and nonbeing.

* * *
This is part 2 of 3 of "There Is No God and She Is Always with You"
See also:
Part 1: Religious Humanism
Part 3: Idolatry


Religious Humanism

The living tradition we Unitarian Universalists share draws on many sources. We officially list six. Our fifth source is:
“Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit.”
The Liberal Pulpilt's previous series, "Respond to Whose Love?" reflected on the fourth source:
“Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbor as ourselves.”
Now The Liberal Pulpit explores the issue of God from a humanist angle. Some background about that:

We are celebrating this year the 80th anniversary of the 1933 Humanist Manifesto. (I know many of us have been making the circuit of celebratory '33 Manifesto anniversary parties!)

The Manifesto was very much a product of developing Unitarian thought. Unitarian ministers such as Rev. John Dietrich and Rev. Curtis Reese began thinking about a religion without God in early years of the 20th century. Dietrich and Reese met each other 1918. Dietrich was then serving the First Unitarian Society in Minneapolis and Reese was serving a Unitarian congregation in Iowa. They and others collaborated in further developing Unitarian Humanism.

The Humanist Manifesto of 1933 had 33 original signatories, 15 of whom were Unitarian ministers, including Dietrich, Reese, and one Rev. R. Lester Mondale (a relative of former vice-president Mondale), who, late in his career, served Community Unitarian Church at White Plains for a stint in 1962 and a second stint in 1965. One Universalist minister was a signatory, as were 17 other prominent public intellectuals who had been brought on board with the project.

The entire manifesto is just 11-hundred words – a couple pages. Please CLICK HERE and give it a read, or re-read. Here are some excerpts which will give you some of the flavor of the document (including the male-dominated language of the time). This is about one-third of the entirety:
"The time has come for widespread recognition of the radical changes in religious beliefs throughout the modern world.... In every field of human activity, the vital movement is now in the direction of a candid and explicit humanism.... Today man's larger understanding of the universe, his scientific achievements, and deeper appreciation of brotherhood, have created a situation which requires a new statement of the means and purposes of religion.... We therefore affirm the following:
Religious humanists regard the universe as self-existing and not created. Humanism believes that man is a part of nature and that he has emerged as a result of a continuous process....
Humanism asserts that the nature of the universe depicted by modern science makes unacceptable any supernatural or cosmic guarantees of human values….
Religion must formulate its hopes and plans in the light of the scientific spirit and method.... We are convinced that the time has passed for theism, [or] deism,...
Religion consists of those actions, purposes, and experiences which are humanly significant. Nothing human is alien to the religious. The distinction between the sacred and the secular can no longer be maintained....
In the place of the old attitudes involved in worship and prayer the humanist finds his religious emotions expressed in a heightened sense of personal life and in a cooperative effort to promote social well-being....
We assert that humanism will: (a) affirm life rather than deny it; (b) seek to elicit the possibilities of life, not flee from them; and (c) endeavor to establish the conditions of a satisfactory life for all, not merely for the few.... Man is at last becoming aware that he alone is responsible for the realization of the world of his dreams, that he has within himself the power for its achievement.”
I am stirred and moved by the boldness of these Humanists 80 years ago – by their vision and their hope.

The implicit critique of traditional religion – which, for them, pretty much meant Christianity – is valid. The West's religious tradition has often not harmonized well with the understandings emerging through the work of scientists. The West's religious tradition has sometimes obstructed rather than aided progress in addressing modern social problems. It has often separated people rather than bringing them together. So the Humanists said, “Let’s do religion. Religions have always been means for realizing the highest values of life, and we need that. But let’s have religion without God."

Today we still live in a world where people plant bombs – on themselves, in cars, in buildings – and fly jet airliners into buildings – and are led to do so in a way that is enmeshed with their understanding about something they call God.

Today we still live in a world where, only somewhat less violently, people want to take away women’s reproductive freedom, and punitively stigmatize gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people, and their thinking makes heavy and frequent reference to something they call God.

Today we still live in a world where our children are liable to be told by their classmates that they are going to hell.

Today we still live in a world where a few people make it their life's mission to devise elaborate refutations of evolution, and where more than a few people work to change the public school science curricula to present as science their views about something they call God.

Today we still live in a world where our own experience of many religious institutions is that their devotion to something they call God goes hand in hand with authoritarianism: they don’t allow questioning; they don’t allow critical thinking; they demand uncritical acceptance of authority. They say that the authority is a book, but the perceptive quickly see the authority really is a community of human leaders who have settled on one interpretation of that book, when the book itself equally well – or better -- supports very different readings.

Today we still live in a world where we see that “faith” so often means “believe what the authority figure tells you to believe and pray what the authority figure tells you to pray.”

Today we still live in a world where countries that measure higher on religiosity, venerating something they call God, also measure higher on violence, drug and alcohol addictions, teen pregnancies, imprisonment rates, and high school drop-out rates.

No wonder it would seem important to Humanists three generations ago as well as today to call for a religion that doesn’t have this thing called God in it.

* * *
This is Part 1 of 3 of "There Is No God and She Is Always with You"
See also:
Part 2: The New New Atheism
Part 3: Idolatry


Respond to God's Love

Respond to Whose Love? part 4
"And, has thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!'
He chortled in his joy.
Tribal – or class – loyalty might make us balk at some language, but we noticed (in parts 1-3) that when loyalty isn’t at play, as when reading Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky, it’s relatively easy to practice the gentle arts of flexibility and charity. I’ve come to understand that whether or not I want to insist that “God” necessarily must imply an entity with awareness and intentions is mostly about my tribal loyalty, just as my grammar pet peeves are.

Can we Unitarian Universalists engage in a process we identify as discerning what God is calling us to do? Can we have conversations about the question, "How do we serve God?" Yes, we can. In talking about serving God, we would be talking about serving life, and good, and the flourishing of all beings, while also reminding ourselves of the finitude and corrigibility of our own conceptions of life, good, and flourishing – which is just what I think Jews, Christians, Moslems, and Hindus are talking about when they speak of serving God.

When we say, as we do in the fourth source of the living tradition we share, that we are called "to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbor as our selves," we are saying that the moments when we have felt the greatest belonging and connection inspire us to want to help our neighbors also feel connected and know they belong – which is what I think it truly means to respond to God’s love, whether or not God is conceived of as a person-like entity, and regardless of how metaphorical that conception is.

If I have a chance to connect with you, whoever you are, then connecting with you is usually more important than separating myself from you. If you and I have each felt mystery, wonder, and beauty come together with peace, compassion, and the softening of ego defenses -- if we have opened our hearts to love -- then we have a shared commonality that transcends both your dogmatic opinions about God and my dogmatic opinions about how wrong your dogmatic opinions are. That shared commonality in the moment matters more than my urge to insist on asserting my tribal identity.

It turns out that I can still oppose mandatory school prayer, support mandatory inclusion of evolution, favor reproductive rights, legal recognition of same-sex marriage, abolition of the death penalty, and public programs to take care of all our people -- and talk about God. I can talk about the impetus of the universe as God’s call for us to improve our understanding, respect our differences, serve life and freedom, and share God’s “preferential option for the poor.”

Willing to employ "God talk" judiciously, I can be more effective than I ever could by a fastidious refusal to invoke the one word that, more clearly than any other, conveys a sense of spacious mystery tugging us toward the better angels of our nature.

Moreover, I find my wholeness and healing growing the more I perform the imaginative exercise of pretending that the world might be whispering to me, calling, inviting me to love if I but listen.

Listen: it is God’s love calling me to respond by loving myself and my neighbor as my self. It is God’s love lifting me up -- as levity lifts a child's balloon. May it be so for all of us.

* * *
This is part 4 of 4 of "Respond to Whose Love?"
See also
Part 1: The Force of Levity
Part 2: The Ontological, The Semantic, The Tribal
Part 3: Separation or Connection?


Separation or Connection?

Respond to Whose Love? part 3

Where there are no tribal loyalties at play, we humans are generally pretty flexible about adjusting our understandings of words.

For example, one of my former in-laws referred to her refrigerator as "the Frigidaire." She would say, for example, “There’s cake in the Frigidaire.” A glance at the manufacturer’s label revealed that her refrigerator was actually made by Amana. But even at my most churlish, teen-aged self, I was not inclined to say, “No, it’s not in the Frigidaire, it’s in the refrigerator, which happens to be an Amana.” Would you say that? Me neither. We simply adjust to different ways of using words.

Longfellow's famous poem begins, “By the shores of Gitche Gumee.” A footnote, or a teacher, informs us that 'Gitche Gumee' is a name for Lake Superior. Most of us can go with that, without the annoyed feeling, "If he meant Lake Superior he should have said 'Lake Superior.'"

Or consider Lewis Carroll's poem, “Jabberwocky.”
"‘Twas brillig and the slithy toves
did gyre and gimble in the wabe,
all mimsy were the borogoves,
and ye mome raths outgrabe.”
Many of the words are made-up. You can call the poem “nonsense,” but it isn't meaningless. The sound and rhythm and context they create for each other invite us into a world of imagination, and most of us can go with that.

Tribalism, however, makes it difficult to extend the same flexibility and charity to language about God.

To see how this works, consider the ways that some of us find our genial adaptability beginning to stiffen dogmatically when it comes to grammar. Attitudes about grammar illustrate how attitudes about "God" work. I, for example, occasionally find myself wrestling with my own grammar dogmatism. I am sensitive to the differences between “lie” and “lay” and between "disinterested" and "uninterested," and I am capable of wishing that other people were, too.

I have my pet list of words not to be used as verbs. "Loan" is not a verb, I say. Nor are "impact," "mandate," or "critique." These words are nouns! The perfectly good verbs are lend, affect, require, and criticize. Even more hideous: "transition. “Transition" is not a verb!
We Grammar Nazis like to make protestations about preserving the language, facilitating clarity of thought, and guarding against language so decaying that it becomes an impediment to understanding. Speaking as one who has Grammar Nazi tendencies, I have to confess, those protestations are hollow. What it's really about is loyalty: tribal -- and class -- loyalty. It would seem a betrayal of our grandmothers or parents or beloved English teachers if we were to allow ourselves to relax the guard against the barbarians at the gate saying “got” when they should say “have,” or "infer" when they mean "imply."

Those adults we admire were the upholders of our class identity. The adults who sought to instill in me good grammar were teaching me to be faithful to my socio-economic class. The hidden message of prescriptive grammar instruction is: Don’t sound like those people – the lower classes.

Grammar will be emotionally important to me precisely to the degree that my class identification is emotionally important to me – the degree that I desire to preserve privilege and separation between the other and me.

So there’s the question: Do you want to go for separation, or for connection?

We face linguistic choices – whether to say “ain’t,” or to call a rising balloon “levity,” or use the word “God.” As you make those choices, do you want to go for separation, or for connection?

For me, I decided that I don’t want to be a Grammar Nazi. Connection is more important than separation. If it will help me connect with others, then I will (gulp) transition to the next phase. Any noun you might could verb (whew!) go ahead. And if I don’t know what you mean, I’ll ask. It’s not like speakers of upper-class English are really, on average, any clearer.

Neither am I going to be a Nazi about the word “God.” If that word allows for connecting with other people around the shared meanings of community-forming power; love; the greatest source of beauty, mystery, or creativity; the widest or deepest inspiration to gratitude, humility, wonder, and awe; origin; any ultimate context and basis for meaning, value, ethics, or commitment; the widest reality to which our loyalty is owed; the cosmos -- then I’ve decided that connecting with others is more important than separating from them based on the fact that I conceive of God’s knowing or desiring more metaphorically than they do.

Connecting is more important than separating.

* * *
This is part 3 of 4 of "Respond to Whose Love?"
See also
Part 1: The Force of Levity
Part 2: The Ontological, The Semantic, The Tribal
Part 4: Respond to God's Love


The Ontological, The Semantic, The Tribal

Respond to Whose Love? part 2

Unitarian Universalists have different experiences of the world -- different from people in other faith traditions and different from each other. People have different stories to make sense of our world. Some stories about reality feature a creative force that is person-like in that it knows and it wants. Other stories tell of a creative force that kind of has knowledge and desires – in a rather metaphorical sense. Still other stories depict the forces of the universe creating and destroying utterly without anything that could be compared to knowledge, intentionality, or purpose, even metaphorically speaking. We have different senses of what’s out there. Of course we do. We’ve had different experiences, so how could we not? I want a world in which that is not a problem, don’t you?

Unitarian Theologian James Luther Adams (1901-1994)
saw divinity manifested in community-forming power.
Besides different opinions of what does or does not exist out there (the ontological questions), we have different viewpoints for how words may reasonably be used (the semantic questions). I was poking around on the internet for definitions of "God" and I discovered that Reverend James Ford (who preached at my service of installation at CUC on November 10) had quoted me in one of his blog posts. He wrote:
Meredith Garmon . . . once observed, “The word ‘God’ points to a source of beauty and mystery; a power inspiring gratitude, humility, wonder, and awe; an ultimate context and basis for meaning and value; the widest reality to which our loyalty is owed; a basis of ethics.”
I’d forgotten I said that, but OK, I’ll take it. And if I may build upon that a little, I would define "God" as:
  • community-forming power;
  • love;
  • the greatest source of beauty, mystery, or creativity;
  • the widest or deepest inspiration to gratitude, humility, wonder, and awe;
  • origin;
  • any ultimate context and basis for meaning, value, ethics, or commitment;
  • widest reality to which our loyalty is owed;
  • the cosmos.
My semantic argument would be that these are the most important meanings -- the essence, if you will -- to which people, regardless of their religious persuasion, have pretty-much-always been referring when they said ‘God.’ Many who speak that word would also include "person-like creator" -- but many would not. So I regard "person-like creator" as nonessential.

Such would be my semantic claim. There are others, however, who disagree with me about that. They counter-claim that the word ‘God’ unavoidably implies a person-like creator.

I believe that theology is a kind of poetry, not a kind of science or natural history. As poetry-making and poetry-hearing beings we need to use words creatively, to sometimes treat a peripheral association as a central meaning and ignore the meaning that had often previously been central. I want a world in which that, too, is not a problem -- a world in which different experiences of what’s real (different ontological positions) are honored, and in which different semantic positions and different styles of poetry and metaphor are also honored. Why is that so hard?

Here is why it is so hard: tribalism. There is an awful lot of religion that is neither about a sense of what’s out there, nor is about a sense of the proper use of words. It’s just about: "Whose team are you on?" We see a lot of religion in which the texts and practices are merely talismanic -- talismans of tribal belonging.

Consider, for example, a recent report from Christianity Today:
“Americans love their Bibles. So much so that they keep them in pristine, unopened condition."
Or, as Gallup and Castelli said in a widely quoted survey finding,
“Americans revere the Bible but by and large they don’t read it.”
Time magazine observed in a 2007 cover story that only half of U.S. adults could name one of the four Gospels. Fewer than half could identify Genesis as the Bible's first book. Comedians like Jay Leno and Stephen Colbert have made sport of Americans' inability to name the Ten Commandments -- even among members of Congress who have pushed to have them posted publicly. Yet Bible sales continue at a brisk clip. For many, apparently, the Bible is a sort of talisman: an object to possess as a symbol of tribal loyalty, not a text to study and understand.

In a similar way, tribal loyalties get in the way of honoring and respecting different experiences about what is real, and different poetic inclinations for choosing words. We have a hard time simply accepting our differences when those differences symbolize what team one is on – and when team membership requires being opposed to certain other teams.

I'm not saying tribalism is always bad. It isn't. After all, another word for “tribe” is “community,” and community is, indeed, an important part of religion. We are social beings: we need community, and loyalty to our group is, by and large, a virtue.

The problem arises when one's tribal connection neither affirms and supports any ethic or value other than tribe loyalty, nor facilitates or helps integrate one's transcendent experiences of interconnection and peace. If the primary function of my community is to nurse a shared sense of who the enemy is, then my community isn’t healthy. People who want to post the ten commandments but don't know more than a couple of those commandments, are using the issue as a test to identify who their enemies are.

In the next post, we'll look at some cases where we are typically flexible about language, and some cases where some of us grow inflexible. We'll see that linguistic inflexibility correlates with tribal loyalty. We must then ask whether defending tribal identity is more important than connecting with other people where they are.

* * *
This is part 2 of 4 of "Respond to Whose Love?"
See also
Part 1: The Force of Levity
Part 3: Separation or Connection?
Part 4: Respond to God's Love


The Force of Levity

Respond to Whose Love? part 1

The living tradition we Unitarian Universalists share draws on many sources. We officially list six. Our fourth source is:
“Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God's love by loving our neighbor as ourselves.”
"God" is a difficult topic among Unitarian Universalists. Some of us resist any use of the word or concept. For others of us, God is a central part of our understanding and our life.

This disagreement between self-identified "theists" and self-identified "atheists" sometimes seems to be ontological: that is, the parties advance competing claims about the nature of reality and what reality does and does not include.

Sometimes the disagreement seems to be semantic: that is, the parties advance competing claims about what words do and don't mean.

Mostly, though, it seems to me that this issue is neither ontological nor semantic, but tribal. The parties affirm the existence or nonexistence of God in order to signal their identity and group loyalty.

So what I shall do in the next several posts is look at the ways we use language to signal tribal identity. When tribal identity is at stake we become rigid, inflexible, dogmatic about "speaking correctly" -- and this is just as true for those who call themselves "atheists" as for those who call themselves "theists." When our tribalism is not at stake, almost all of us, whether we call ourselves "atheist" or "theist," are flexible, creative, open, and charitable in the ways we use and respond to nonstandard language. The question then arises: What's more important, defending our tribal identity or connecting with other people where they are?

For instance, here's a story from my childhood. A couple Thanksgivings ago, Mom recounted to me a story from my childhood. I had no recollection of ever having heard this story before – nor do I have any recollection of the incident itself, which occurred when I was about five years old. We were back at home after my first visit to some fair or carnival where I had seen helium balloons. I had evidently been turning over the experience in my five-year-old brain, and I asked: “Mom, why do they go up?”

Mom, rational scientist that she was and is, answered, “Why wouldn’t they go up?”

“Things go down,” I said.

“Uh-huh,” said Mom. “Why do they go down?”

“Because of gravity,” I said.

“Ah,” she said. “Well, the balloon goes up because of levity.”

And this satisfied me.

When Mom told me this story a couple years ago, I did NOT think, “Egad, my mother lied to me!” After all, why not call it levity? She might have tried explaining that gravitational attraction is proportional to mass, and that stuff that’s more dense has more mass for a given volume, and helium is less dense than air, so gravity pulls the air harder than it pulls the helium in the balloon, so gravity pulls the air down and under the balloon, pushing that less-dense object upward. Mom wasn’t ready to explain all that – or, rather, she knew I wasn’t ready to follow such an explanation – so she gave me this word, “levity” as a sort of placeholder. With wisdom and quick wit, she used language to connect with me where I was, rather than to leave me behind.

I delight in this new family story -- not because Mom’s answer was false, but because it is, in fact, so true. I love knowing again what apparently I was first taught at age five but forgot:there is a force called levity that makes things rise.

The world is full of wonder. At times when I might think gravity makes everything go down, I recall that some things go up.

Language is full of wonder, too. The words we select to express our experience give the experience meaning -- and sometimes delight.

The wonder of world and word comes to mind when I reflect on our text for today: the fourth source of the living tradition we share, "Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God's love by loving our neighbor as ourselves." Respond to whose love? It’s a topic that calls for both gravity and levity, isn’t it?

* * *
This is part 1 of 4 of "Respond to Whose Love?"
See also
Part 2: The Ontological, The Semantic, The Tribal
Part 3: Separation or Connection?
Part 4: Respond to God's Love


Newsletter Column 2013 Dec


The theme for December is “God.” Among Unitarian Universalists, this topic can be incendiary (appropriately enough, perhaps, given the story of how Yahweh appeared to Moses). Here’s a beginning of my thoughts on this big topic.

It’s poetry. When we talk theology, we’re not talking science. We aren’t giving testimony in a court of law. We aren’t talking history. Rather, we’re speaking poetically. When we say “blanket of snow” we probably don’t really think the snow is a blanket -- blankets are warm, and snow is cold. Poets might tell us, “I should have been a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas” (Eliot), or that they saw “angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night” (Ginsberg). When we read a poem, most of us adopt a congenial and charitable willingness to open ourselves to the possibilities of meaning and insight. We don’t fret about whether Eliot really should have been a pair of claws, or whether Ginsberg’s hipsters really burned for connection. Why wouldn’t we approach lines like, “In the beginning God created the heaven and earth,” and, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” with the same openness? Because:

It’s tribal. A lot of people are invested in a tribal identity centered in their religious language. The fans of Whitman’s or Tennyson’s poetry have not formed a powerful coalition justifying objectionable public policy with dubious interpretations of certain lines from their favorite poet. If they did, we might lose our ability to engage those lines with our former open, curious, and generous disposition. Frankly, the language of “God” is a central part of the rationale of people intent to limit women’s reproductive freedom, deny equality to LGBT folk, challenge the teaching of evolution in our schools, and generally make the world over in their own image: mean and intolerant. Many of us have had negative experiences with one or another such tribe, and that experience, understandably, makes it difficult to regard their language as helpful, or even harmless, poetry. Moreover, we Unitarian Universalists have our own tribal identity to support, and sometimes it can seem attractive to distinguish ourselves as the people who won’t use the words “those people” use. I get that.

Still, my hopes lie with the possibilities of employing overlap of meanings in order to build bridges of connection and common cause with people of good will who are Jewish, Christian, Muslim, or Hindu. I think we can use the word “God” to reference shared, poetic, and helpful meanings: community-forming power; love; the greatest source of beauty, mystery, or creativity; the widest or deepest inspiration to gratitude, humility, wonder, and awe; origin; any ultimate context and basis for meaning, value, ethics, or commitment; the widest reality to which our loyalty is owed; the cosmos – and even, possibilities for relating to the flow of coincidences as if it represented the workings of agency.

Yours faithfully,