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.

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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

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