Defined, Yet Porous

Welcome the Stranger, part 2

We are here to be in service to something. It need not be vertical. When we speak of a higher authority, or a deeper truth, these are vertical metaphors: up to the higher, down to the deeper. The something that we commit our lives to might be horizontal. I’m not so sure about a higher power, but I believe in a wider power. I stand on a level plane with the others of the community, the nation – the other beings of the ecosystem – of which I am a part.

This something – whatever it is that is the purpose we choose, or accept, for our life – it must have two features, and they are opposites: definition and porousness. Biological systems, ecological systems, and political and economic systems must all have both definition and porousness. They require boundaries -- this is what defines them. At the same time, those boundaries must be porous. For national political economic systems, for instance, the porousness usually includes trade: goods or currency going out and coming in.

Your body sustains your life through these two features. You are bounded and defined by your skin. But if you were sealed off, you’d first suffocate, and if somehow you didn’t suffocate, you’d starve. And if you couldn't eliminate waste, you couldn't stay alive. Things have to come in and go out.

Your skin itself is porous. The average adult has 7 million pores on their skin: 5 million hair follicle pores that secrete oils, plus 2 million sweat gland pores. Your pores secrete and also take in -- as the use of, for example, nicotine patches attests. You have to have boundaries – definition. And there has to be a flow through those boundaries.

(Aside about Hurricanes. Physical objects and phenomena are typically defined by their outer edges. A hurricane, however, is defined by its eye at the center. Hurricanes are definite objects -- we even give them names -- but their outer edge is indefinite. Bodily, the human self is defined by its outer edge: it consists of the skin and what the skin contains, with some vagueness at the orifices. Spiritually, the self is more like a hurricane: defined by its center, with indefinite outward extent.)

The something that we are in service to, whatever it is, needs to be defined, but not too defined. It has to let in the new – that which is not part of it – the strange, the stranger. Letting in the stranger is an essential part of life. In Leviticus 25:23, Yahweh explains:
“But the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me.”
The land and the trees and the water under it and flowing over it – and we ourselves -- belong to the earth, belong to all life.

Yahweh reminds his people over and over, “you were strangers in Egypt; you were strangers in Egypt; you, too, were strangers once.” And then caps it off by telling them, “and you are strangers still.”

It’s a point echoed by Thomas Long in words included in this month’s issue of On the Journey:
“We show hospitality to strangers not merely because they need it, but because we need it, too. The stranger at the door is the living symbol and memory that we are all strangers here. This is not our house, our table, our food, our lodging; this is God’s house and table and food and lodging.”
There will always be things that we call ours. I do not propose the dismantling of the system of property rights. Property rights help give us definition – a measure of security.

We can have our property rights and also recognize the spiritual truth that they aren’t real. They are fictions. They may be useful and necessary fictions, but are fictions nonetheless. The spiritual reality knows no property rights. Everything belongs to that to which we are in service, that wider context – whatever you may conceive that to be -- which gives us a reason for living.

How is your congregation living the spiritual reality that we ourselves are but strangers here, and therefore we must welcome the stranger – love the stranger as ourselves?

Through the decades, I have been with many, many groups of Unitarian Universalists – including many at CUUC – in which the question was asked, “What drew you to Unitarian Universalism?” I’ve found that two basic answers predominate.

The number one answer is some variation of: “At last, hallelujah, I found a place where people think like me.” A number us love this place because, we report, we can be ourselves here. We can be understood by people who share our assumptions, our values – and our prejudices.

The number two answer is the opposite – variations on the theme of: “I love how different people are here. I love the diversity I find – everybody’s got different ideas. It’s very stimulating.”

So we have one prominent answer that's about definition and another that's about porousness. The first answer affirms who we are, supports the definition we give ourselves. And the other prominent answer invokes change and growth into something different – strange and new ideas.

The fact is we do have a fair degree of theological diversity: we have Christians, Buddhists, humanists, pagans, Jews. Some of us are vehemently agnostic – finding it particularly important to emphasize not knowing – and most of us are at least nominally agnostic just in the sense that we’re polite enough not to claim that we’re certain we’re right (even if secretly we feel pretty sure we are). Some of us put the emphasis on what we do believe, and some put the emphasis on what we don’t. We are a diverse lot, theologically.

NEXT: Not Such a Diverse Lot Ethnically or Socio-Economically

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This is part 2 of 3 of "Welcome the Stranger"
See next Part 3: What's You're Hospitality Challenge?
See also Part 1: You Were Strangers

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