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

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