Monday, December 13, 2010

Trust Thyself: Personality and Religious Orientation

Ingenuousness and Self-Trust

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1841 essay “Self Reliance” is one of the foundational documents of the American experience generally and of Unitarianism specifically. It contains a number of memorable phrases, including these words:

Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events. Great men have always done so, and confided themselves childlike to the genius of their age, betraying their perception that the absolutely trustworthy was seated at their heart, working through their hands, predominating in all their being. And we are now men, and must accept in the highest mind the same transcendent destiny; and not minors and invalids in a protected corner, not cowards fleeing before a revolution, but guides, redeemers, and benefactors, obeying the Almighty effort, and advancing on Chao and the Dark.

Emerson’s transcendentalism maintained that humankind and Deity had a shared identity—that at the very least, the spark of the Divine resided in the human soul. In “Self Reliance” Emerson clearly called for every person to accept her or his time and place, yes; but he also called for every person to obey their indwelling genius—a genius that he believed to be Divine in nature. (Ingenuousness was a transcendentalist aim: to be true to one’s own genius.)

Now, I don’t buy Emerson’s theology, because I maintain that, rather than being made in God’s image, god is made in our image—at least the image of the best of the human condition, its stirrings and strivings. But, in "Self Reliance" I think Emerson got it right on two counts.

First, he argued that we accept the external circumstance of our lives,--what Emerson called the place Divine providence has provided for each of us. I think that this notion of acceptance also includes acceptance of the unique person each of us is. Second, in telling us to “trust thyself,” he speaks to not only the rightness of self, but also adequacy of self. This is acceptance with the fullest measure of self-appreciation or self-respect.

Emerson was a philosophical idealist, much influenced by what in his day was called German Idealism, particularly the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. The term Transcendentalism was taken directly from Kant’s philosophy.

We’ve drifted away from philosophical idealism's notions of pre-existing forms realized in the great categories of truth, beauty, and goodness. More than not, today, we're thorough materialists. Nor are we likely to talk about humans being cast in the image of God, either. Today, our understandings of the human condition are rightfully drawn from advancing thought, in particular, evolutionary biology, psychology, and neuroscience. As I said, we bend toward materialism, not idealism.

Still, I find myself continually echoing Emerson: “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.” In fact, if we aren't true to our intrinsic self, our true inner nature, we have neither roots nor branches. We flounder about. We can never be satisfied living a false life. (Of being, yes, disingenuous.)

Personality and Religious Orientation

Relative to being true to self, certain traditional spiritual outlooks emphasize the role of personality in one's religious spiritual life.

I first began to think about the role of personality as realized in what we secularly call psychology when I first studied Hinduism and learned of the various yogas. A yoga is a mental or physical spiritual discipline that a devotee is naturally drawn to. By diligent practice of a yoga a person progresses toward enlightenment. All yogas intersect in the same end. There is hatha yoga--the physical discipline of controlled breathing and postures. There is raja yoga--the mental discipline of meditation. There is karma yoga--the discipline of will and action (dharma) as timelessly elaborated in the Bhagavad Gita as explicated by Krishna. There is bhakti yoga--the discipline of worship of a god such as Shiva, Vishnu, or Krishna. There is jnana yoga--the discipline of knowledge through the mind's intellect.

I've long seen these various yogas as psychologically sound with many possibilities of accommodating this personality or that personality--whatever personality--within the larger grace of leading the practitioner to the same goal.

Subsequently, I became familiar with the spirituality of the First Nations People of the Plains, as introduced in 1973 by a self-described mixed-blood raised among the Northern Cheyenne and Crow, Hyemeyohsts Storm in the book Seven Arrows. Storm wrote of the Medicine Wheel. In the beginning of this influential, groundbreaking, and now classic book he described the Medicine Wheel:

Among the People, a child's first Teaching is of the Four Great Powers of the Medicine Wheel.

To the North on the Medicine Wheel is found Wisdom. The Color of the Wisdom of the North is White, and its Medicine Animal is the Buffalo.

The South is represented by the Sign of the Mouse, and its Medicine Color is Green. The South is a place of Innocence and Trust, and is for perceiving closely our nature of heart.

In the West is the Sign of the Bear. The West is the Looks-Within Place, which speaks of the Introspective nature of man. The Color of this Place is Black.

The East is marked by the Sign of the Eagle. It is the Place of Illumination, where we can see things clearly far and wide. Its Color is the Gold of the Morning Star.

At birth, each of us given a particular Beginning Place within these Four Great Directions on the Medicine Wheel. This Starting Place gives us our first way of perceiving things, which will then be our easiest and more natural way throughout our lives.

But any person who perceives from only one of these Four Great Directions will remain just a partial man. For example, a man who possesses only the Gift of the North will be wise. But he will be a cold man, a man without feeling. And the man who lives only in the East will have the clear, far sighted vision of the Eagle, but he will never be close to things. This man will feel separated, high above life, and will never understand or believe that he can be touched by anything.

A man or woman who perceives only from the West will go over the same thought again and again in their mind, and will always be undecided. And if a person has only the Gift of the South, he will see everything with the eyes of a Mouse. He will be too close to the ground and too near sighted to see anything except whatever is right in front of him, touching his whiskers.

There are many people who have two or three of these Gifts, but these people still are not Whole. A man might be a Bear person from the East, or an Eagle person from the South. The first of these men would have the Gift of seeing Introspectively within Illumination, but he would lack the Gifts of Touching and Wisdom. The second would be able to see clearly and far, like the Eagle, within Trust and Innocence. But he would still not know of the things of the North, nor of the looks-Within Place.

In this same way, a person might also be a Golden Bear of the North, or a Black Eagle of the South. But none of these people would yet be Whole. After each of us has learned of our Beginning Gift, our First Place on the Medicine Wheel, we then must Grow by Seeking Understanding in each of the Four Great Ways. Only in this way can we become Full, capable of Balance and Decision in what we do."

The Medicine Wheel metaphor helped me realize that one's Beginning Place, a strong and original orientation or first nature, could also be a negative influence in attaining the goal of Wholeness or Balance.

Jung’s Personality Types

This resonated with the notion of the Shadow I had already learned from Carl Jung's archetypal/analytical psychology. "Own your Shadow” is a mantra of Jungian psychology.

The Jungian notion of the life-long psychic journey through the archetypes to the true or whole Self, what he called the process of Individuation, gives good insight into the religious journey. It gives incredible depth to the aphorism "Trust Thyself."

What has persuaded me about the practical value of the Jungian scheme is an uncanny Personality Inventory, the Myers Briggs Type Indicator that uses Jung's psychological types to hone in on an individual's distinct personality type.

The Myers-Briggs Type Inventory (MBTI) uses four categories of paired attributes to come up with 16 different personality types. First used in 1942, the MBTI is now well established, extensively field tested and tweaked, and usually uncanny in describing personality traits and in predicting behavior, even religious behavior.

The four categories of the MBTI relate to·

  • how a person faces the world either as an Extrovert or an Introvert;
  • how a person’s perceives the world either through the Senses or iNtuition;
  • how a person processes those perceptions by Thinking or Feeling;
  • and how a person acts on the world either by Judging (convergent conclusions) or Feeling (divergent conclusions.)

Here's a chart showing the sixteen personality types and the percentages of those types in the general population: [see illustration at head of sermon]

Now, the MBTI is valuable in generally navigating the world. It gives very helpful information regarding relationships--personal, work, social, and so on. And thanks to the insight and research of a UU ministerial colleague, Peter Tufts Richardson, it is an essential resource for anyone who is intent about her or his religious orientation and life journey through the ages and stages. Richardson's 1996 book Four Spiritualities has taken the two cognitive (mental) categories of the MBTI to describe four basic spiritual orientations. The cognitive functions relate to how we perceive the world either through the senses or though intuition and how we process information through thinking or feeling.

Peter Tufts Richardson talks about these four spiritualities he identifies in terms of a journey, to impart a sense that these are not hard and fast determiners, but more fluid influences, themselves shaped by the journey. The four spiritual journeys are

  • the NT's journey of unity, 12% of the population
  • the SF's journey of devotion,38% of the population
  • the ST's journey of works, 38% of the population
  • and the NF's journey of harmony, 12% of the population

1FrFrom Jungian psychology, the Myers Briggs Type Indicator, and especially Richardson's Four Spiritualities I find a persuasive argument:

First, we each have a native—inborn—way of relating to the world, perceiving it and acting upon it. That way has implications for our spiritual nature relative to our religious experiences and their ongoing effects. We cannot help but be less or more true to our native spiritual way, however, awareness and intentionality can magnify this dimension of our being.

Second, there is not a one size fits all spirituality. Indeed, spiritual orientation is varied and significantly different. There is not one right way. Each way is appropriate.

Third, we can all learn from one another and even experiment with the practices of other personality types. I think that this speaks to a certain malleability that is the mark of a wise quester. (In Native American spirituality, this involves travelling around the Medicine Wheel. In Jungian psychology it is the process of Individuation.)

Fourth, and generally regarding your religious journey: Know your spiritual type. Be true to it. But don’t cling too tightly. All else will fall into place as your journey carries you forward.

An Opportunity to Know Thyself

Thanks to Norah Blackaller, who is trained in giving and interpreting the MBTI, you have the opportunity to discover (or for those who've taken it before, to reevaluate) your personality type in a special three week UCH seminar. The first week the inventory will be administered and Jungian personality type theory generally explained. The second week your results will be illuminated relative to the sixteen categories--how your specific type relates you to the world and how you interact with other types and they with you. This second part is usually full of ahas--startling little moments of self-realization. The third week, when you have knowledge of your personality type, I'll explore with you Richardson's scheme of Four Spiritualities. You'll learn how your personality type bends you to a certain spiritual journey and what the aspects of that journey are. (There is a small fee of $20 for the MBTI test materials. And there's a signup sheet with a handout regarding the MBTI at the visitors' table in the Living Room.)

If you are a quester, and who among us isn't? I maintain you must know and trust thyself. This January you have the means to know thyself, and you’ll be given the encouragement to follow thy particular path—thy spiritual journey. I hope you'll take advantage of the opportunity. What a good way to begin a new year!

Monday, December 6, 2010

Natural Religion: True to Nature and Human Nature

A UU Odyssey

I came to Unitarian Universalism in the autumn of 1969 in Burlington, while a graduate student in history at the University of Vermont. The UUA, representing the coming together of the historic Universalist Church of America and the historic American Unitarian Association, was a mere eight years old. It was still seeking to give substance to its merged identity. The Unitarian way/style prevailed over Universalism, a once thriving denomination that surely had pushed Protestantism toward the notion of a loving God, but which had experienced both an identity crisis and decline in the first half of the 20th century, as mainstream Protestantism generally accepted its theological centering principle that “God is Love.”

Fortunate for me, I did my internship in 1976-77 at one of the more historically important Universalist churches, First Universalist Society in Syracuse, New York. (It was in Syracuse in 1960, at a meeting known within the friendly confines of UUism as the Battle of Syracuse, that merger was hammered out and agreed upon). Interestingly, the venerable minister of First Universalist Society Syracuse had opposed merger.) When I arrived in 1976, First Universalist Society had a liberal Christian bent, with a controversy roiling a little beneath the surface about serving communion in the worship service; it had only recently been cut back from a bylaws mandated eight times a year to once a year, and not on a Sunday, but on Maundy Thursday. When I finished that yearlong internship, I had a good sense, through firsthand experience, of the Universalist tradition.

My first church was First Unitarian in Youngstown, Ohio, a congregation once noted for training ministers before they left for larger congregations and livelier cities. A minister from the early 1950s, then president of the UUA, Paul Carnes returned to Youngstown to preach my ordination sermon in 1977. Though Youngstown had become a remnant congregation in the wake of the unrest of the 1960s, the downturn of the steel industry, and a tragic murder/suicide of the most recent minister and his wife, it had three distinct layers (though thin) of members drawn by the appeal of different ministers from Carnes era of the 1950s and after—a rational/humanist, a vaguely theistic/Christian, and a poetic/mystical strata.

In 1983, I came here to the Unitarian Church of Hinsdale, a congregation established in 1886 that had an ethical-basis, world religion, and humanist history, consistent with the radical Unitarian legacy of the Western Unitarian Conference, specifically Chicago. The Western Unitarian Conference had initiated the World Parliament of Religion and became the center of Religious Humanism. Since the 1920s, UCH’s identity has been definitely and at times defiantly humanist.

About Religious Humanism: there was a Great Disillusion following the War of 1914-1918, including disillusion with traditional religion. Religious humanism had its beginning in the post WWI era, summarized in the famous “A Humanist Manifesto” of 1933 that spoke of a new natural religion that denied the authority of all supernatural religions and looked to human meaning for its values. Several Unitarian and Universalist ministers were among the prominent 34 endorsers, including Walter Mondale’s half brother Lester, who was at the time minister of the Evanston Unitarian Church. The most famous endorser was the philosopher/educator John Dewey.

Religious humanism gained a stronghold in 20th century Unitarianism. And by mid-century, during a post-war period of vigor and growth Unitarianism had a predominant humanist identity, including this congregation. In 1983, before I arrived, I was advised that Hinsdale Unitarians do not sing hymns with God in them,

I had found a great deal of inspiration in Unitarian humanism while I prepared for the ministry in the early 1970s. I was especially fond of poetic-like writings of a host of ministers, but in particular Ken Patton a mystical naturalist humanist. (In the late 1940s, he had helped inveigle Frank Lloyd Wright, a quasi-member of the Madison WI congregation Patton led, to design the famous prow front Madison church. Patton left Madison in 1949 for the Charles Street Meeting House in Boston to create a church and program for a syncretic “Religion for One World.” Patton later headed up the commission that prepared the UUA’s first hymnal in 1964, Hymns for the Celebration of Life. Some of his hymns and readings have survived in our current hymnal Singing the Living Tradition, published in 1993, though rewritten to conform to a gender-neutral standard. (For example, "Man is the Earth Upright and Proud" became "We Are the Earth Upright and Proud.")

One of the handiest ways to measure the course of contemporary Unitarian Universalism is to compare the content of the two hymnals. The 1964 Hymns for the Celebration of Life represents the high tide of humanism, while the 1993 Singing the Living Tradition reflects the influences of feminism (note the degenderizing of 1964 hymns), a return toward theism, and a new spirituality. The signature hymn in the more recent collection is a paean to the new spirituality, aptly titled, "Spirit of Life."

So, in the course of my forty-one years of involvement with UUism, thirty-three as a UU minister, I’ve lived through an era when religious humanism peaked and began a gradual decline within UU’ism. Humanists have even begun to feel marginalized.

A Decline of Religious Humanism

The most recent edition of the UU World has a lead article about the generational shifts taking place in UUism that speaks humanism’s decline in our midst:

The generation that is now in young adulthood has grown up with an expectation—or maybe just a hope—that would have been foreign to me as a boy: Somewhere, someone ought to have a wisdom worth passing on, a legacy worth living up to.

As that generation shows up on the doorsteps of UU churches (with their toddlers in tow) what kind of Unitarian Universalism will they be looking for?

Nowhere in the Unitarian Universalist movement is the generational issue more serious and central than among the Humanists. The generation that remembers the Humanist Manifesto of 1933 and founded institutions like the American Humanist Association is dying off. They started or led many congregations during an era when Unitarianism (and then Unitarian Universalism) was almost synonymous with Humanism. But they lived long enough to see the Unitarian Universalist Association’s energy (first the energy of young ministers and later of UUA leadership) focused elsewhere—promoting spirituality and reclaiming a language of reverence that many Humanists found meaningless or perhaps even sinister. Now UU Humanists of all ages worry that Humanist history is not taught in our churches and the Humanist legacy is in danger. (Doug Muder, “Reclaiming Krypton”)

I have been a religious humanist throughout my ministry, often employing the phrase “The Church of the Human Spirit.” But religious humanism is no longer a primary identity. A larger understanding has subsumed it. As I’ve cobbled together my own religious/spiritual outlook, I’ve increasingly placed myself in the larger context of Natural Religion and use the phrase The Religion of Nature and Human Nature in describing my orientation.

Humanistic Religious Naturalism

William Murray, a well-seasoned, humanist colleague who also served as a recent president of one of our two UU seminaries shares my mature point of view. A few years ago, he wrote, “A new humanism is emerging among Unitarian Universalists, a religious humanism informed by cultural developments and recent discoveries in the natural and human sciences and grounded in the larger context of religious naturalism, a religious humanism that offers depth, meaning, and purpose without sacrificing intellectual honesty or the spiritual dimension.”

I’m going to continue with Bill Murray’s seasoned and evolved sense of what he calls a new humanism. It coincides with my own sense of religious naturalism and my notion of a Religion True to Nature and Human Nature. Murray has written, in a UU World article "Reason and Reverence:"

I believe a viable religion of the twenty-first century, [a religious humanism…grounded in the larger context of religious naturalism] must include the following five characteristics:

First is the affirmation that human beings are an integral part of nature. We are not separate and distinct from the rest of the natural world; we are part and parcel of it. We are related to every living creature, both plant and animal. The elements of which we are composed—carbon, calcium, iron—are the same elements of which the rest of the universe is made.

The second characteristic follows from the first: We are not dominant over nature, as we once believed; we are its stewards and trustees. A religion of the future will affirm humankind’s responsibility to preserve and sustain the natural world. The future of life on this planet and indeed of the planet itself depends on it.

Third, any viable future religion must take seriously the implications for religion of the remarkable discoveries of the modern natural and human sciences. The world of modern science is a different world from that of our ordinary perceptions and that of the ancient peoples who gave birth to Western religions. The religion of the future should be a religion that learns from science and adapts its teachings accordingly. And since every religion needs a story, the story of the religion of the future will be a scientific story with mythic significance.

Fourth, such a religion will recognize the importance of both reason and reverence. The human ability to think critically and constructively has made possible our many artistic achievements and medical and technological advances, but it is only reverence, understood as feelings of respect and awe, that can save us from the hubris that would destroy all the good we have accomplished. …

[Fifth and] finally, the religion of the future must affirm those values that help to make our lives more fully human. … Becoming more fully human involves the transformation of the mind and heart from self-centeredness to a sense of one’s self as part of a larger sacred whole and to a deep commitment to the human and natural worlds. It is about the transformation from a shallow life of fear, greed, hedonism, and materialism to a meaningful life of love and caring, gratitude and generosity, fairness and equity, joy and hope, and a profound respect for others.

Humanistic religious naturalism promotes an ethical life in which one thinks and acts from a larger perspective than one’s own egoistic interests, a life that affirms the worth and dignity of each person, a life filled with wonder and reverence for the extraordinary magnificence of the natural world and human creations. It includes gratitude for the gift of life itself and the capacity to enjoy it.

To be fully human is to develop and use our minds but not neglect our emotions and intuitions. … A fully human person has both an open mind and a warm heart as well as a social conscience. …

The grounding of religious humanism in religious naturalism makes it possible to affirm a perspective that includes these five characteristics and thus qualifies as a religion for the twenty-first century. As the late Carl Sagan wrote, “A religion that stressed the magnificence of the universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths. Sooner or later, such a religion will emerge.” Humanistic religious naturalism is just such a religion. I believe it is emerging among us today.

A Religion True to Nature and Human Nature

My own point of view coincides with the point of view of colleague Bill Murray, what he calls humanistic natural religion, though I find that phrasing a little awkward. These days I’m content with the descriptive Natural Religion; and if, I’m pressed I add "A Religion True to Nature and Human Nature.”

We’re at a threshold regarding the future of religion thanks to relatively new sciences, especially Neuroscience and Evolutionary Biology/Psychology. The religious humanists proclaimed it in the 1933 “A Humanist Manifesto,” that there is one reality: Nature. We human beings are one with Nature. We have a religious and ethical instinct, a desire to discover meaning and a drive to fulfill purpose, one, significant descriptive of Human Nature—timeless and universal.

I believe the great task of a relevant religion in these days is to create compelling, coherent new, scientifically sound stories that tease out meaning and purpose—stories that appeal to our reason and evoke our emotions, true to ever and rapidly advancing science and redolent with what we have come to call religious experience. Human Nature thrives with the meaning and purpose Religion provides.

I agree wholeheartedly with Bill Murray: the story of the religion of the future will be a scientific story with mythic significance.

That future is now!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Do We Need Nature More Than Ever?

Nature and Transcendentalism--Our Nature Gene

On our Facebook site a new member recently wondered about the rationale/origin of the custom of “taking the summer off.” Let me offer a novel justification that I mused about this summer: we Unitarians carry the “transcendentalist gene” that leads us to derive much meaning from and inspiration in Nature. Summer is the season when we suspend services that we might go out into Nature and enjoy it--first hand and often as our human nature desires.

That’s a little facetious, but it’s also a recognition how much Nature marbles our outlook and attitudes. When it comes to Nature and Religion, our forebears infused it into an abiding religious naturalism. Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1836 anonymously published an extended essay later called a book, simply titled Nature. Though Nature was as much about philosophical Idealism (soon to be called Transcendentalism) as it was about the natural world, the book had scant success at first but after a decade or so acquired considerable influence. Among those influenced by it was Harvard College student Henry David Thoreau, who would write the greatest American Nature book Walden. It was on a tract of land owned by Emerson near his Concord home that Thoreau tried out his two year experiment in living that has continued to influence Americans to seek Nature’s ministrations.

Allow me a Unitarian heresy. Emerson’s Nature is not an easy read. It’s a text well-suited to alleviate insomnia, a few paragraphs invariably leads me into a sleepy state as I try to keep Emerson’s argument in my consciousness.But there are a few memorable passages I can’t forget. I like the opening of Chapter I:

To go into solitude, a man needs to retire as much from his chamber as from society. I am not solitary whilst I read and write, though nobody is with me. But if a man would be alone, let him look at the stars. The rays that come from those heavenly worlds, will separate between him and what he touches. One might think the atmosphere was made transparent with this design, to give man, in the heavenly bodies, the perpetual presence of the sublime. Seen in the streets of cities, how great they are! If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown!

I also like a passage in which Emerson strived mightily to describe Nature’s affect on him.

The greatest delight which the fields and woods minister, is the suggestion of an occult relation between man and the vegetable. I am not alone and unacknowledged. They nod to me, and I to them. The waving of the boughs in the storm, is new to me and old. It takes me by surprise, and yet is not unknown. Its effect is like that of a higher thought or a better emotion coming over me, when I deemed I was thinking justly or doing right.

My favorite passage led a fellow Transcendentalist, Christopher Cranch to draw one of the most famous cartoons of American history.

In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life, — no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God. The name of the nearest friend sounds then foreign and accidental: to be brothers, to be acquaintances, — master or servant, is then a trifle and a disturbance. I am the lover of uncontained and immortal beauty. In the wilderness, I find something more dear and connate than in streets or villages.

One of the noteworthy aspects of our Unitarian forebears relates to their intuitive insight later verified by a more scientific understanding. For example, modern science has verified Theodore Parker’s poetic phrase c. 1850 that “we are enchanted stardust.” Indeed, the stuff of our bodies was birthed in the explosion of ancient stars. And the Transcendentalists of the antebellum era were fundamentally right in extolling the role of Nature generally regarding spiritual healthfulness.

What Emerson, Thoreau and generations of Nature-loving generations of Unitarians intuited about Nature’s many human benefits now has a growing body of scientifically guided evidence.

[Here I showed a powerpoint “Girls and Greenery:”]

Nature-Deficit Disorder

A few years ago author/activist Richard Louv published a book of considerable influence: Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. While not a clinical term, at least not yet the author frequently relates, the descriptive Nature-Deficit Disorder is on target for many children specifically and society generally. Drawing on studies such as the one we’ve reviewed at the notorious Robert Taylor Homes, Louv has argued that many of the inflictions of contemporary children, such as hyperactivity disorder, stress, depression anxiety disorders, and of course childhood obesity, result from an alienation of nature.

Louv wrote of his boyhood spent in close relation with Nature. (He recalls pulling out hundreds of developer’s stakes planted to guide the bulldozers that would ravage the woods where he played.) Two generations later he describes children deprived of free roaming in relatively wild spaces.

Fear reigns—a pedophile lurking outside every front door, the media has led us to imagine. So parents send children out the back door to free-play, at best. Instead, great chunks of outdoor time for children are regulated by formally supervised sports activities in very carefully managed landscapes. Carefully managed landscapes in large part have been sanitized by civic entities to avoid lawsuits for unsafe conditions. Louv points out that a child is statistically more likely to be hit by a car than to encounter a child predator. He also maintains that children are drawn to the edges of carefully landscapes, the craggy areas leading into trees, where rocks and tree limbs and such “dangerous” debris. He suggests that a kid’s nature draws her or him into the more adventuresome unknown, which includes a hypersensitive wariness and a sense of independence.
In a Salon interview he said:
[I]t's true that not only nature can give the feeling of autonomy. But then when you think about where could kids be getting that instinctual self-confidence and independence -- where could they go -- it's hard to think of a lot of positive places. Nature often provides an atmosphere you can't get anywhere else, a sensation of being solitary. And again, I think there are mysterious things that happen, a lot of which have to do with the full use of our senses. I can't think of many places, other than maybe the New York subways, in which we have our senses going full cylinder. And I make the case in the book -- though I am very careful to say that I am speculating about this -- that letting your kids have some independence in nature, where they can use all their senses, in the long run makes them safer.
Usually hyper-vigilance -- behavior manifested by always being on guard and ready to fight or flee -- is associated with trauma in childhood. But the hyper-awareness gained from early experience in nature may be the flip side of hyper-vigilance a positive way to pay attention, and, when it's appropriate, to be on guard. We're familiar with the term "street smart." Perhaps another, wider, adaptive intelligence is available to the young? Call it "nature smart." One father I spoke to said he believes that a child in nature is required to make decisions not often encountered in a more constricted, planned environment -- ones that not only present danger, but opportunity. Organized sports, with its finite set of rules, is said to build character. If that is true, and of course it can be, nature experience must do the same, in ways we do not fully understand. A natural environment is far more complex than any playing field. Nature does offer rules and risk, and subtly informs all the senses.
And certainly, [other aspects] give a child self-confidence, independence and the sense that they can exist in the world and are somewhere bigger than their parents and their problems -- are all a part of the healing possibilities of nature that I hope people will explore.
Parents, I’ve come to believe, have a moral obligation ensure that their children grow up nurtured by Nature. And though an intellectual understanding, such as acquired in school, or via natural history museums, or books and videos has value in this regard, yet none not approach what’s acquired by getting down and dirty and maybe holding an earthworm, grasshopper, snake, or even a lifeless bird. (Anecdotally, contemporary parents loathe their children being “contaminated” by direct contact with Nature.)
One of the greatest biologists of our age, Edward O. Wilson, the so-called father of socio-biology, authority on ants, and recent novelist--he has a new novel Anthill with plenty of ant lore in it, spoke of humankind’s relationship with Nature in the broadest evolutionary understanding. In 1984 he published a series of essays somewhat memoirish, while introducing and furthering a notion he called biophilia, also the name of the book.Wilson posited, that as a result of evolution, human beings have a deep affiliation with living things and the systems that maintain life. Simply put Wilson argued that we have an innate love of Nature in all aspects. While scientifically controversial, biophilia has a cachet similar to nature deficit disorder. I like it, even more than the trendier notion of “nature deficit disorder.” (Remember that evolutionary psychologists and biologists have determined than one of the five instinctive moral colors relates to an innate respect for life, that we recognize as similar, less or more, to our own.)
The old Transcendentalist emphasis on the influence and effect of Nature were essentially right. My counsel nine years ago, following 9/11 had much wisdom—to go out into Nature and experience, in the Midwest’s great harvest season, the regions of permanence that center and sustain us, especially when we need such ministrations the most. And I think I got it figuratively right in proposing that we UUs have a Nature-gene passed on by our forebears who intuited what we’re now scientifically proving.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Wabi Sabi: As Mindset and by Design

Wabi Sabi: Mindset

I’m often asked. How do I do it? How do I come up with a different sermon topic? Week after week. Year after year.

I usually reply that the world is my oyster. There’s no topic that isn’t adaptable to a UU sermon. And I have a cornucopia of interests along with a lifetime of disciplined freedom--no end of applicable stuff in my head. I have a passion for the human condition; it’s spiritual and moral aspects. And as a pilgrim on a life journey I have practical insights and interests intimate to my own self and of value for fellow pilgrims.

Regarding specific themes, sermon topics often find me. Today’s sermon is an example.

I was searching photo files on a computer for a different Facebook profile portrait. I came across this image taken a couple of years ago. The setting: an aging building in downtown Quincy, IL, one of many empty storefronts. Quincy is a relatively old river city. (In this photo I’m looking toward the Mississippi less than a quarter of a mile away.) It is late afternoon and the brightness of the setting sun’s slanting light is revealing in a beguiling golden way. The photographer, my wife of four decades, is the photographer. In this image I’m in the last years of the fifth decade of my life.

I have a fondness for Quincy. It has history. It was a refuge for Mormons driven out of Nauvoo, a stop on the Underground Railroad for slaves seeking freedom, and one of the sites of the celebrated Lincoln Douglass Debates. It has a garden district of handsome and varied Victorian homes, testifying to 19th century fortunes, luxuriously spaced along red-brick streets rendered uneven by years of use. In the spring great, spreading, pink dogwoods bloom everywhere, so it seems. The Mississippi still flows relentlessly and the Burlington Northern tracks guide the Amtrak train into town. But to my sensibilities it's obvious that Quincy’s fortunes have long bottomed out. Images of yesterday prevail made more vivid by Midwestern, post-industrial poverty. I feel an aching melancholy, a sweet sadness that suits my essential nature.

Speaking of my essential nature I have a fondness for the person in the image-- me-- sitting on the crumbling steps in front of a once grand, now empty building. It’s late afternoon and I’m in my late afternoon. The light is strong and golden. As I look upon that person sitting on the steps, I see nearly six decades of SELF and I realize all that’s transpired to take me to this place and this time.

When I recently looked on this image, I literally labeled it with what’s become a defining way of seeing and living for me: wabi sabi. Hence, Wab Sabi Searl!

So, responding/reflecting on this image, that’s how I came to today’s sermon theme of wabi sabi, a long prevailing Japanese aesthetic, recently popular in the West. I’ve long been drawn to this aesthetic, though only in the last ten years or so have I known it through the lens of Japanese culture. I’ll struggle some to explain what wabi sabi is, because it’s a matter of perception and intuition, not of explanation. I speak to wabi sabi because I suspect you’ll find it useful and inspiring, if not now then one day. It's something of an antidote to what ails us relative to American culture/society.

The Japanese aesthetic of wabi sabi is not so much a matter of philosophy or reasoned thinking about the meaning and value of beauty and how to create art; rather it is a way of perceiving and living that has been handed down through generations. It’s a matter of taste that contrasts with our Western, specifically American taste shaped by modern technology and consumerism.

The aesthetic of wabi sabi parallels Zen Buddhism’s influences on Japanese culture. Wabi sabi’s origins are traced to the well known Japanese Tea Ceremony. Tea’s popularity in Japan is associated with a 12th century Zen monk. Tea had arrived via China a couple of centuries earlier. Zen monks had offered it as a stimulant to help fellow monks undergo excruciating meditation sessions, and developed their own rituals around drinking tea. By the 14th century tea drinking had spread through the secular culture and resulted in elaborate status rituals for the upper classes. Large tea rooms evolved that were rich with hanging Chinese scrolls. These rooms had formally arranged tables with expensive flower vases and incense burners, and ostentatious displays of expensive Chinese tea services. These displays, especially by warlords, marked wealth and power in a roiling era of civil strife.

In response and even in protest, tea masters who were also Zen monks or trained in Zen began to use deliberately common utensils when they practiced tea. Two generations later, in the 16th century, Sen no Rikyu, a tea master who’d studied Zen, established the basics of a quiet and simple tea ceremony that made it possible for everyone, not just the wealthy, to practice tea. Rikyu’s simple tea ceremony offered an oasis of quietude and grace amid the prevailing rancor and gaudiness. He served tea in humble bowls fashioned by anonymous Korean potters and local Japanese craftsmen. He made his own utensils from unlacquered bamboo. Simple and natural arrangements of flowers were displayed in bamboo vases and baskets. The room was small; guests had to bow themselves in beneath a low entryway, a neat psychological trick to engender humility. Riyku’s version of a tea house resembled a farmer’s modest wooden framed hut with rough mud walls and thatched roof, the external wood aging to the weather. This deliberately populist ceremony touched a nerve, transforming a cultural mind set regarding beauty.

Rikyu’s tea ceremony became a standard and continues today; and it focused and normalized the Japanese aesthetic of wabi sabi. The phrase insinuates that which is “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.” Here’s an able attempt by Japanese architect Tadao Ando to get at the meaning of the two words, wabi and sabi.

Wabi stems from the root wa, which refers to harmony, peace, tranquility, and balance. Generally speaking, wabi had the original meaning of sad, desolate, and lonely, but poetically it has come to mean simple, unmaterialistic, humble by choice, and in tune with nature. Someone who is perfectly herself and never craves to be anything else would be described as wabi. …A wabi person epitomizes Zen, which is to say, he or she is content with very little; free from greed, indolence, and anger; and understands the wisdom of rocks and grasshoppers.

[U]ndertones of desolation and abandonment cling to the word [wabi], sometimes used to describe the helpless feeling you have when waiting for your lover. It also carries a hint of dissatisfaction in its underhanded criticism of gaud and ostentation-the defining mark of the ruling classes when wabisuki (a taste for all things wabi) exploded in the sixteenth century. In a country ruled by warlords who were expected to be conspicuous consumers, wabi became known as "the aesthetic of the people"-the lifestyle of the everday samurai, who had little in the way of material comforts.

Sabi by itself means "the bloom of time." It connotes natural progression-tarnish, hoariness, rust--the extinguished gloss of that which once sparkled. It's the understanding that beauty is fleeting. The word's meaning has changed over time, from its ancient definition, "to be desolate," to the more neutral "to grow old." By the thirteenth century, sabi's meaning had evolved into taking pleasure in things that were old and faded. A proverb emerged: "Time is kind to things, but unkind to man."

Sabi things carry the burden of their years with dignity and grace: the chilly mottled surface of an oxidized silver bowl, the yielding gray of weathered wood, the elegant withering of a bereft autumn bough. An old car left in a field to rust, as it transforms from an eyesore into a part of the landscape, could be considered America's contribution to the evolution of sabi. An abandoned barn, as it collapses in on itself, holds this mystique.

There's an aching poetry in things that carry this patina….

Wabi-sabi is flea markets, not warehouse stores; aged wood, not Pergo; rice paper, not glass. It celebrates cracks and crevices and all the other marks that time, weather, and loving use leave behind. It reminds us that we are all but transient beings on this planet-that our bodies as well as the material world around us are in the process of returning to the dust from which we came. Through wabi-sabi, we learn to embrace liver spots, rust, and frayed edges, and the march of time they represent.

Leonard Koren helped introduce the aesthetic of wabi sabi to the West in his very influential 1994 book Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers. He wrote

"Wabi-sabi is not found in nature at moments of bloom and lushness, but at moments of inception or subsiding. Wabi-sabi is not about gorgeous flowers, majestic trees, or bold landscapes. Wabi-sabi is about the minor and the hidden, the tentative and the ephemeral things so subtle and evanescent they are invisible to the vulgar eyes....

“Wabi-sabi images force us to contemplate our own mortality, and they evoke an existential loneliness and tender sadness. They also stir mingled bittersweet comfort, since we know all existence shares the same fate."

Wabi evokes the ordinary beauty of nature— simplicity and grace creating a harmonious whole. Sabi evokes the signatures of time and tide—aging and mortality. Wabi sabi: beautiful rust.

When culture seems too much—too raucous, too contentious, too gaudy, too vexing, too whatever—simplify through nature and grace. See wabi sabi where it exists all around you in the ordinary and natural. Lead a life that embodies wabi sabi in your home, your work, your relationships, your recreation. Cultivate beauty flowing from and into graceful living.

Especially, especially, look for wabi sabi in others and in self. If I intone the notion of graceful aging, you know what I mean. Graceful aging is something that we can all gift one another with as well as gift our own self. I’m invoking wabi sabi as being arguably the most positive aesthetic for my generation, Baby Boomers now entering the retirement/elder years. I’m making my mantra from here on “Beautiful Rust.”

Wabi Sabi: Living

Wabi sabi following Leonard Koren's 1994 book had significant impact on home design. Feng-shui (remember the necromancy of directions and how a room is arranged?) and shabby chic (faux old and purposefully distressed) had prepared the ground for wabi sabi's Zen Buddhist, be content with small things, ways.

In home design it was clearly a reaction to the waning days of the days of Greed is Good/Conspicuous Consumption/McMansion Living/Uber Technology that dominated the turn of the 20th into the 21st century. Today, in the midst of the Great Recession, it allows a kind of genteel or spiritual poverty to be accepted. Actually one of the root meanings of wabi sabi is poverty, in the sense of "just enough" or "not too much." It's a letting go of negative desire.

How we live--our surrounds and environs--usually reflects our particular mind set. And that's one of the aspects of wabi sabi by those who seem to understand it from Japanese culture. The wabi sabi home, with its simplicity, natural materials, minimal furnishings, artful decorations, and subdued colors, has the quality of sanctuary. It's a place to retreat to from the toxic distresses and hazards of post modernism. It offers solitude, quiet, and most of all beauty that soothes the spirit and leads to a deeper, though marbled meaning.

Much of my 1998 book A Place of Your Own, which talks about home altars and creating sacred space in one’s home, resonate to the wabi sabi aesthetic. One of the 52 devotions in my book speaks directly to wabi sabi relative to the custom of October tea, October ensconced in autumn's season of considerable wabi sabi. (Though now out of print you can acquire copies online.

I suggest that you introduce wabi sabi into your surrounds as a means and an end to developing a wabi sabi mindset, an antidote to what ails us all, a path to what we need the most.

The wabi sabi aesthetic always reminds me of our own heritage here at UCH. This American Craftsman building with much interior wood and rusticated stone exterior reflects an aesthetic that was reactive to the Industrial Age that prevailed at the of the 19th century. Most of you know that now and again I refer to the influence of our founding minister William Channing Gannett. He designed this home-like church. He also wrote a very famous essay "The House Beautiful” that inspired the design/shelter magazine (1896) that has been published for more than a century under that name.

In his essay Mr. Gannett described the simple things that make a house a home, guided by taste, grace, and refinement.

Here's an excerpt from "The House Beautiful" (1895) that resonates to the wabi sabi aesthetic:

"The ideals of beauty are found in simple, restful things far oftener than in ornate things. Of two given forms for the same article — a chair, a table, a dress — the form that is least ornate is commonly the more useful, and this more useful form will commonly by artist eyes be found the handsomer. A man in his working clothes is usually more picturesque than that same man in his Sunday clothes; the living-room more picturesque than the parlor. "Avoid the superfluous," is a recipe that of itself would clear our rooms of much unhandsome handsomeness. Scratch out the verys from your talk, from your writing, from your house-furnishing. A certain sentence, only eight words long, did me great good as a young man. I met it in Grimm's Life of Michael Angelo: “The ideal of beauty is simplicity and repose." The ideal of beauty is simplicity and repose: it applies to everything,— to wall-papers and curtains and carpets and tablecloths, to dress, to manners, to talk, to sermons, to style in writing, to faces, to character. The ideal of beauty is simplicity and repose,— not flash, not sensation, not show, not exaggeration, not bustle."

Blessings of simplicity and repose--a life beautiful, in living and in design, to you and to yours.

Friday, May 14, 2010

The Common Good

Commonwealth: The People’s Well-Being

I’ve had a lifelong fascination with the word commonwealth. I was born in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and it was next door to where I grew up, since my parents’ property sat literally on the state line separating Delaware from Pennsylvania.

There are three other states that call themselves Commonwealths first: Massachusetts, Virginia, and Kentucky.

The use of the word commonwealth to designate a particular sort of political entity dates to fifteenth century England. The word has two obvious parts common and wealth (the latter originally weal). Wealth (or weal) connoted a sense of “well-being.” So think of the origins of the word commonwealth in terms of a common well being, what might also be called the public welfare. In the seventeenth century the word came to mean “a state in which the supreme power is vested in the people or a republic or democratic state.”

Words have power. Commonwealth, suggesting “the people” and their “well being” is a power laden word. It has echoes in the famous words that begin our national founding document: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Abraham Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address spoke of this nation in terms of it being “of the people, by the people, for the people.” Lincoln borrowed these words from a famous ante-bellum Unitarian minister Theodore Parker, who had borrowed them from John Wycliffe’s fourteenth century preface to his translation of the Bible, indicating Wycliffe’s belief that Scripture was a sort of commonwealth and should be readily accessible to all. Thus he presented the Bible to the people in the vernacular—their English language. (Here I point out the radical nature of both the Protestant Reformation and of the American Republic relative to “power to the people.”)

This begins to suggest that there is a pervasive ethic that relates to the people’s well being; that ethic, at least in the American experience, is a national ethic. This ethic makes the state and the state serves the ethic’s purpose. It is an ethic of the people, by the people, for the people: the ethic of the common good.

Our historic congregation has its variation of this ethic, written by the founding minister William Channing Gannett, and sung at our building’s dedication hymn in 1889: “Here be no one a stranger, no holy cause be banned. No good for one not counted a good for all the land.” I appreciate Gannett’s intention in saying, “No good for one not counted, a good for all the land,” as a different way of expressing what is connoted by the notion of commonwealth.

The Common Good: Moral and Political Aspects

In relatively recent years the phrase “common good” has gained traction. For example there’s a Chicago-based organization, Protestants for the Common Good, originally conceived as a balance to a newly aggressive Religious Right.

They self-describe: “We are a voice of progressive Protestant Christianity. Founded in 1996, PCG brings an informed and progressive Protestant voice to public life. In keeping with its mission, PCG offers educational programs and advocacy opportunities to people of faith on matters of public policy and community life.

“We bring a biblical and theological perspective to critical public issues. Our approach to public life emerges from an understanding of God’s inclusive love and the recognition of justice as mutuality and interdependence. We respond to God’s love by working for the common good and by creating a community of mutuality in which each person is given maximum opportunity to flourish and contribute to the whole.”

Strip away religious terms and you’ll find in this statement of the Protestants for the Common Good characteristics of what is generally meant today by “common good.” Consider these words and terms: Progressive. Inclusive. Justice. Mutuality. Interdependence. Community. Individual opportunity and responsibility.

The popular use of the term "common good" relates to the last decades of the twentieth century, when liberals, after considerable retrenchment, reacted to the ascendency of political and social conservatism. The vision of promoting and serving a common good represents the convergence of liberal social values recast in so-called progressive language.

When I designed this sermon a month or so ago, I didn’t anticipate that I’d be so concerned with the highly politicized divisions of this day: conservatives and liberals, blue states and red states, Republicans and Democrats, and so on. I was naively thinking that the notion of a common good, my chosen theme, was somehow above the fractiousness and fray, the posturing and righteousness of contending political positions. A little research has indicated that it isn’t so. The notion of a common good clearly represents an emergent progressive outlook; and progressive is a meaningful moniker adopted by liberals who have reacted to conservative criticism but haven’t abandoned core liberal values of justice and community.

Here’s an early appraisal, circa 1992, regarding the scope and intent of the common good, from the journalIssues and Ethics published by Santa Clara University, a Jesuit university in the Silicon Valley of California, “The common Good:”

“What exactly is "the common good", and why has it come to have such a critical place in current discussions of problems in our society? The common good is a notion that originated over two thousand years ago in the writings of Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero. More recently, the contemporary ethicist, John Rawls, defined the common good as ‘certain general conditions that are...equally to everyone's advantage.’ The Catholic religious tradition, which has a long history of struggling to define and promote the common good, defines it as ‘the sum of those conditions of social life which allow social groups and their individual members relatively thorough and ready access to their own fulfillment.’ The common good, then, consists primarily of having the social systems, institutions, and environments on which we all depend work in a manner that benefits all people. Examples of particular common goods or parts of the common good include an accessible and affordable public health care system, an effective system of public safety and security, peace among the nations of the world, a just legal and political system, and unpolluted natural environment, and a flourishing economic system. Because such systems, institutions, and environments have such a powerful impact on the well-being of members of a society, it is no surprise that virtually every social problem in one way or another is linked to how well these systems and institutions are functioning.

“As these examples suggest, the common good does not just happen. Establishing and maintaining the common good require the cooperative efforts of some, often of many, people. Just as keeping a park free of litter depends on each user picking up after himself, so also maintaining the social conditions from which we all benefit requires the cooperative efforts of citizens. But these efforts pay off, for the common good is a good to which all members of society have access, and from whose enjoyment no one can be easily excluded. All persons, for example, enjoy the benefits of clean air or an unpolluted environment, or any of our society's other common goods. In fact, something counts as a common good only to the extent that it is a good to which all have access.

“It might seem that since all citizens benefit from the common good, we would all willingly respond to urgings that we each cooperate to establish and maintain the common good. But numerous observers have identified a number of obstacles that hinder us, as a society, from successfully doing so.”

The article’s authors identified four obstacles standing in the way of the common good of our pluralistic society: 1) disagreement among people and groups about what constitutes the good life; 2) the “free-rider” problem, that is there are those who take without contributing in return; 3) the arch American value of individualism and personal rights get in the way; 4) and an unequal sharing of burdens, that is, sacrifices must be made by individuals or by groups, including corporations.

Let’s take these four obstacles standing in the way of the common good and apply them to one of the most contentious of contemporary issues, health care reform.

Think back just a few weeks: What were the various groups that heatedly supported reform and what groups opposed reform? (A majority of Democrats aye, and except for one resounduing Republican nay. How did physicians line up? Insurance companies? Middle Class Whites? African Americans. Latino? Women?) And for what reasons? What segments of the population were projected as potential free riders, that is, who would be taking and not returning? (Think here of class and race issues.) How would individual/personal rights be coerced by compulsory participation under penalty of law? (Frequently cited were young adults of generally good health who often risk no health insurance.) And who would have to make enormous sacrifices? (I heard a doctor declare that the system couldn’t handle a flood of 30 million new patients. And Medicare recipients groused that their services would inevitably be cut back.)

Selling the common good doesn’t seem a realistic strategy given the contemporary contentious cultural climate.

In the article the “Common Good” in the journal Issues and Ethics, after surveying obstacles to implementing such an ethic, the authors conclude, nevertheless: “All of these problems pose considerable obstacles to those who call for an ethic of the common good. Still, appeals to the common good ought not to be dismissed. For they urge us to reflect on broad questions concerning the kind of society we want to become and how we are to achieve that society. They also challenge us to view ourselves as members of the same community and, while respecting and valuing the freedom of individuals to pursue their own goals, to recognize and further those goals we share in common.”

Covenants and Covenanting

The ethic of the common good poses a dilemma for American society. In this regard, there are certain parallels between American society and Unitarian Universalism when it comes to a common good. Since we’re non-creedal and emphasize individual belief and conscience, what are the personal bonds of membership? And since each congregation is independent and self-governing what bonds congregation to denomination, specifically the Unitarian Universalist Association? (Note that it is an association, indicating the lack of authority of association over congregation.)

The answer to both the bonds of membership and the bonds of association is the notion of covenant.“"Covenant" is Latin for “come together” and means a “solemn agreement” or “promise from the heartregarding a course of action between parties.

Covenant, of course, has roots in the Old Testament where a variety of covenants were effected between God and Adam, God and Abraham, God and Noah, and so on that established right relationships with cause and effect resulting when the relationship went a kilter. Protestants picked up on the convenental process. Important in our tradition is the Mayflower Compact drawn by the Pilgrims of Plymouth as they crossed the Atlantic in 1620 agreeing “solemnly and mutually in the presence of God and one of another, [to] Covenant and Combine ourselves together into a Civil Body Politic, for our better ordering and preservation and furtherance of the ends aforesaid…” Also important is theCambridge Platform of 1648 drawn by New England Puritans that declared, “There is no greater church than a congregation which may ordinarily meet in one place.” This places authority in the local congregation, a form of governance known as congregational polity. Recognizing a need to join congregations in common effort and mutual support member congregations create the UUA, whose bylaws begin, “"We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote."

We UUs often say, though we’re not a creedal community, we are a covenantal community. As individual members we covenant together in love and purpose to create this church--truly a living tradition renewed with each new member. As a congregation we covenant with sister congregations across the continent to form the Unitarian Universalist Association. In individual freedom and in congregational freedom we choose to come together to fulfill higher purposes. We are more together than we could ever be alone.

In both instances we seek a common good of spiritual and religious dimensions. This morning we’ve considered the ethic of the common good. It is an ethic that hinges on sincere and ongoing personal commitment to what I alluded to last week (in talking about the wisdom of Joseph Campbell) as a myth. And like the covenant of marriage, when a couple commit more than to each other’s welfare, rather to a common welfare, the covenant to community is a realization of a relationship of spiritual dimension.

When it comes to the notion of common good, I like the implication of covenant, a promise of the heart for a transcendent value, whether for society or for our chosen faith of Unitarian Universalism. Think of covenant relative to the relationship you make.