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.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Rob, when I was younger I understood belief but not faith and then by my forties I understood faith but found many beliefs very hard to take and in some ways irrelevant.

    Whilst we have people who believe different things within our communities it seems to me that it is much more difficult to get along with people whose personalities we find difficult, as in your example.

    Within a Unitarian faith community we not only commit to being inclusive of many (but not all) beliefs but I hope that we also commit to getting along with everyone. To do this meaningfully we need to engage rather than just have a surface relationship. Our communities as networks are only as strong as our weakest relationships, so we need to ensure that they are all strong and true. This I believe is the real challenge and is where we make ourselves vulnerable.

    And this is where I part company with those who have written that if people don't like change they can leave our communities. If we claim to be inclusive then that's what we should be. We encourage people to stay and work on our relationships

    Thanks for this posting and to Danny for highlighting it. Louise xx