Thursday, November 30, 2023

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, December 10, 2022 - This Minister

When someone decides to become a member of a church where I serve as its Minister, there’s a crucial discussion to be had: Getting to know one another.  

I need to know them. I need to understand what they each believe as individuals with their own minds and ways of perceiving the Ultimate Reality. For I hold that the individual faith perspectives of those who attend on Sunday mornings should be the sole determining factor of what occurs during services. So I need to know them. But they, by contrast, have a right to know me. 

The two sister congregations I serve each have a right to know who is directing the spiritual makeup of their church. They have a right to know what my personal beliefs are, what my worldview is. They have given me keys to centuries-old institutions that are not guaranteed to see the end of the 21st century. 

Even though you’re not entrusting me with an institution or a piece of historic architecture, you also are entitled to know who I am theologically. You are reading this column. For that reason, I felt I was overdue in spelling it out here.

Religiously, I identify as a Christo-Pago-Buddho-Dharmist who believes in reincarnation, is most fascinated by the places where all religions tend to agree, and believes that God exists in a form and purpose which is incomprehensible to us, but 100% benevolent. 

That would be my spiritual and religious identity in a nutshell. I grew up in the United Church of Christ, but I am most comfortable in the Unitarian Universalist tradition because while I hold Jesus of Nazareth to be my principal spiritual guide, I can neither affirm nor deny the divinity that’s ascribed to him. 

That doesn’t mean Jesus’ divinity didn’t exist. Those who believe in it are not necessarily wrong. But I am agnostic about it. I leave room for it to either be true or not. Or different than we imagine. His reported divinity is not what makes his teachings effective anyway. Forgiveness, compassion, hospitality, non-resistance, empowerment, and gratitude are ideas that function independently of a belief in a deity. Good advice is good advice with or without a divine provenance. Though we are all free to perceive God’s hand in it as best suits us.

I have a sincere feeling that we aren’t getting the divinity thing quite right, however. I think that’s what the caution against “making a false idol” really means. Concretizing God into a specific idea that is unchangeable. Old calcified views of the divine are holding us back.

I feel that Buddhism adds a seamless layer of dimension to the things Christ taught about how to be in good relationship with ourselves, with others, with the earth, and with a higher power. When comparing their teachings, each becomes more comprehensible and functional to our lives.

Additionally, I feel that our connection with the earth is indivisible. There is no line where the earth ends and we begin. We are literally made of it. We resonate electromagnetically the same, we get sick together, we heal together. That’s the only way it works, and it’s the only way it ever will work. So, if we want to feel better, we have to improve the quality of our relationship with the part of us extending beneath our feet. That is the dharma of Paganism, but it overlaps seamlessly with the Christian idea of our stewardship of Creation.

Each of these, Christianity, Buddhism, and Paganism, is not a religion, though religions have been founded in their name. They are all actually dharmas. Not dogmas. They are life practices for good living. They are relational practices. Perhaps divinely given, I don’t know. As a human being, I cannot perceive it accurately enough to present anything as evidence sufficient to compel someone else to believe it. But that these guidelines exist in print, and by tradition, is not debatable. Nor that when practiced consistently, they tend to yield good results. Those parts are objectively true. The divinity part is subjective. But all faith systems have dharmas within them meant to empower our ethics rather than compel our morals. These are merely the ones I have subscribed to.

I believe in the existence of God as “That Which Connects Us All” and that there is love and benevolence behind all things. I believe the reason suffering exists is because, in the larger sense, humanity has made it for itself. I don’t think God interferes in our suffering so much as It accompanies us on our journey through the lesson of it. Whispering in our ear how much It believes in us to keep going, and keep loving, even through the grief, even through unimaginable sorrow. To act in spite of our fears and choose love when seeking a way through our challenges. I also don’t gender God. I use the pronoun ‘It’ with a capital I. Male and female pronouns are fraught with stereotypes that are unhelpful in our considerations of the divine. 

So this is who you’re reading on Saturday mornings. When looking at these words of encouragement and hopeful optimism, now you know the spiritual and religious lenses through which they have been filtered. Perhaps they are not a surprise to you, for I have indirectly discussed these things many times. Still, I make myself slightly vulnerable here in this process of describing them so directly. But if you are reading me now, you are definitely entitled to it.

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