Popular Posts

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

It's okay to not like things

"If everybody in the world liked vanilla ice cream, it'd be a pretty dull world." --my mom

A popular Unitarian self-identifying motto is "Many beliefs, one faith." Seems like a paradox (and how we love those!) but it really isn't when you realize that the words 'belief' and 'faith' refer to very different things. The two are easily confused.

Without boring you with the etymology of the words themselves, belief might be said to refer to an opinion one holds that one cannot readily prove, but which one nevertheless takes to be an accurate representation of the truth. Faith, on the other and, refers to that which you put (or can put) your trust in. Think of 'fidelity'--loyalty, like that of a faithful dog. It's about personal commitment.

Unitarians are often asked "what is it you believe?" but since we have no denominational creed, the question doesn't really apply. The truth is that there are many beliefs alive within the denomination--liberal Christianity, paganism, theism, deism, humanism, and on and on.

A better question might be "In what do you place your faith?"

For me, it's this: we have faith that a church of diverse beliefs can work. It can work because it's a reflection of the infinite diversity of the universe we live in, and that seems to work pretty well. Hence, our core principle of tolerance, which only has meaning when you defend the right of others to believe whatever accords with their best judgement.

The problems arise when we want others to believe as we do. Why would we want that? One reason may be that we are not secure in our own beliefs, and so feel the need constantly to defend them. One hardly needs to recognize that the most heavily defended nations, for example, are often the most belligerent. (Q: Which nation has the largest defence budget, and which nation has only recently started three illegal wars? Hint: it's the same nation).

But beliefs are inherently insecure, or they wouldn't be beliefs--they'd be self-evidently true. We get easily hung up on the idea that truth means accuracy. But it can also mean, simply, honesty--a testimony of the truth as you experience it. Your experience is not mine, and never will be.

So tolerance can become easily unstuck in our human insecurities and our desire for certainty. Tolerance is a goal: we are not tolerant, but try to behave as if we were. Just as no nation is really democratic, but tries to function as if it were as best it can.

As a Unitarian, then, I am continually in the presence of beliefs I don't, myself, hold. Our faith, I claim, insists that this can work. But how?

For me, they key is civility, which is about how you carry your social self, given the fact of unconquerable, unending, universal diversity, of people and their ideas that actually offend you. Which leads me to this song I found on the wonderful inter-webs:

It's okay to not like things
It's okay...
But don't be a *jerk* about it. (*language changed to protect the innocent*)

It's okay to not like things...
Just don't be a jerk about the things you don't like.

This is such a simple, necessary concept I'm going to teach it, complete with its catchy tune, to the children during service as soon as I can.

The cultivation of civility has gone by the board in this age of anonymous trolling, in this age where bitchy, sharp-witted screenwriters make their dough by getting their characters to always say the things you wish you'd have thought of and said yourself. The kind of stuff we mutter under our breath when someone cuts us off in traffic. We live in a culture of the verbal smack-down.

You might say this is truth-as-honesty, but I wonder if it's faithful to any spirit of community. This is a world where the otherness of others is more and more a part of our everyday life--a smaller world in rapid change, with mobile populations, and a global media arena. We cannot avoid diversity of belief in the world or in a church.

But in our churches, at least, civility should be the norm, for where else will it germinate, if not there? Civility is not supported by our culture at large, so we need to think about how we can cultivate it within our congregational life.

A story on how this might work from the great spiritual teacher GI Gurdjieff:

In the spiritual community that GI Gurdjieff led in France, lived an old man who was the personification of difficulty – irritable, messy, fighting with everyone, and unwilling to clean up or help at all. No one got along with him. Finally after many frustrating months of trying to stay with the group, the old man left for Paris.

Gurdjieff followed him and tried to convince him to return, but it had been too hard, and the man said no.

At last Gurdjieff offered the man a very big monthly stipend if he returned. How could he refuse?

When he returned everyone was aghast, and on hearing that he was being paid (while they were being charged a lot to be there), the community was up in arms.

Gurdjieff called them together and after hearing their complaints laughed and explained: “This man is like yeast for bread.” He said, “Without him here you would never really learn about anger, irritability, patience and compassion. That is why you pay me and I hire him.”

In reflecting on this rather idealistic idea of social inclusion, many point to the example of Jesus, for whom no one was beyond the bounds of loving community (except hypocrites, but that's another blog). But Jesus' ministry is not like ours in one crucial way--his was mobile. He could pick up and move like a Bedouin whenever things got tricky. Churches, however, tend to be in fixed locations with bricks-and-mortar, and a duty of care to those attending. Perhaps, then, our tolerance needs to have some reasonable limits, when those with different beliefs become so strident as to ruin the party for everybody.

But our civility can be as boundless as the love Jesus incarnates. Because it really is okay for us mere mortals to not like things--we can't help that. But we CAN help being jerks about the things we don't like.

Best of all--civility costs us nothing at all.

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Book of Louis

"Bless me father, for I have sinned...I have conducted church services without reference to the Bible."

"This is a most grievous sin, young man. It's going to cost you 5 'Hail Marys' and a recitation of Dante's Paradiso."

Church services may serve multiple purposes--community-building, moral compass-pointing, personal reflection, and many others you could name.

But at the most fundamental level, if I don't have an experience (however brief) of the numinous, I feel I would have done better to stay home and read a good book. The numinous is not to be confused with the supernatural, for the numinous is as natural as breathing and as close as your jugular vein. You don't need to be in church to experience it, but church creates a space to do so, and to do it with others.

As in a play, when the entire audience experiences the collective lurch in the gut when fate clicks forcefully into place, or a truth of human character is bravely revealed, or a line is uttered that just makes you aware that you're actually here now in the moment, to experience this collectively amplifies the effect. Actors know this when playing to a small, spread-out house, when the very same line or event that elicited a gasp from an audience of critical mass, lands like a dead carp. The emotion has been described, but not lived.

A feeling of the numinous can't be managed, prescribed, engineered, or otherwise willed into being. Creating them is art, not science. Different people manage to achieve it by totally different means, and fail to by identical means. As a practitioner, one gets the hang of it after a while, but it is not your poodle. There's more going one than just the words you've decided to say and how you've decided to say them, more than just 'all about you'.

In this the year of the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, much is rightly being said about the impact that the poetic sensibilities of the translators had upon the ears, hearts, and minds of those who either read or (more commonly at the time) heard it read in church. Some of the free-verse and blank verse poetry in it is unmatched in its power to create a sense of transcendent truth, as with this from Ecclesiastes Chapter 3 (to cite but one well-known example):

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.

Cadence, parallelism, repetition, and a sense that it's gathering momentum as it moves--lots of tools from the poetry toolkit, used to wonderful effect. Even if we don't like the content, that doesn't mean it isn't any good.

In the beginning was the word...indeed.
Use of the Bible in church services brings with an easy authority, some of which is to do with its provenance and reputation and status in the Western canon, but much of it too is to do with the effortlessly convincing feel of the poetry. Poetic language is its own form of discourse, a discourse that engages acceptance of the listener through the beautiful arrangement of sounds, like music.
This very naturalness of authority is also a very reason not to use the Bible so much.

I tend to use a lot more secular poetry in church services. In it, Beauty is still a means of creating a sense of transcendent Truth, but it's freer of the baggage of millenia. One poet I use from time to time is Louis MacNeice, a very secular man, (though the son of an Anglican bishop), classical scholar, academic, radio producer, father, husband, lover and betrayer, an extraordinary talent wrapped in a familiar, flawed form--more like us than Ecclesiastes. Take this for example:


If we could get the hang of it entirely
It would take too long;
All we know is the splash of words in passing
And falling twigs of song,
And when we try to eavesdrop on the great
Presences it is rarely
That by a stroke of luck we can appropriate
Even a phrase entirely.

If we could find our happiness entirely
In somebody else’s arms
We should not fear the spears of the spring nor the city’s
Yammering fire alarms
But, as it is, the spears each year go through
Our flesh and almost hourly
Bell or siren banishes the blue
Eyes of Love entirely.

And if the world were black or white entirely
And all the charts were plain
Instead of a mad weir of tigerish waters,
A prism of delight and pain,
We might be surer where we wished to go
Or again we might be merely
Bored but in brute reality there is no
Road that is right entirely.

I've recently added this to a clutch of his work that I'm calling the Book of Louis. It compares favourably with more well-known poems on the same theme like Frost's "The Road Not Taken". But more to the point, you get the sense that this is a man who has lived speaking to us (as we are) from the heart. There is always in his work and abiding sense of acceptance that the world is not perfect and cannot be made so, that our lives are heavily compromised affairs, and anyone that tries to sell you another view is on the grift. But beyond this world-weariness, there is the voice that speaks in the poetry, that finds the deeper harmonies in a complex world.

Finding the deeper harmonies in the secular, through the discourse of poetry...this I like, and I feel is fitting for church services in an increasingly post-Christian world.

For I feel somehow that if a 9 to 5 man like Louis can find this mature poise, reconciling life as we live it with the deeper realities, so can I.

I recommend him to you.

Here's himself reading the lovely love poem "Meeting Point"