Being Religious

Led by Jemma Z Hazen

This has been one of the more difficult messages I have composed and I am concerned that I may not have fully formed the ideas that I am trying to express to you.

It is worth noting that I do not really care for the title of my message this week. It probably should have been entitled: “Being Religious or Having Religion? The false choice between religious feeling and religious following,” but that was too long to fit on the Order of Service and, I will admit, a little intimidating, And it’s potluck Sunday, I didn’t want to scare people away. But you’re here now and I will count on the grip of polite convention to prevent you from leaving.

I decided to talk about this topic because of three separate events in the recent past.

The first of these was my reading of Karen Armstrong’s magnificent and breathtaking exploration of the history of the God concept and the reasons we need it in The Case for God. I
borrow heavily from the book in this message, though I only explore one theme in depth and
would encourage you all to give it a read if you have not already.

The second event was a conversation I had with a friend of mine who is struggling with the narrow beliefs of his own religion and who asked me, “why do you go to church?”

And the third is my righteous anger. Yes, UUs can also have righteous anger — whenever
I encounter the phrase, “Well, I am spiritual but not religious” and how I think it prevents people from turning generally to religion and specifically to Unitarian Universalism in a time when liberal religion is desperately needed. I will try to take these three things and make them coherent for all of you, as I have been struggling to make them coherent for myself.

Firstly, yes I did say righteous anger, please don’t be offended. That is mostly tongue-in-cheek.
What I mean to say, in more leveled prose, can best be summed up by Judy Fjell’s comments two weeks ago during the reflections portion of Peg’s inspired service “ The Politics of Respect: UUs and the Religious Right. ” Judy said, to paraphrase, that she was not sure she was always spiritual but she was religious and stood behind this UU religion that she loves.
I will admit to having only a vague idea of what the word “spiritual” means and I did look
it up. I know what spirit means, it means spirare, to breathe. It is the breath that God breathed
into Adam that made him be alive and not just dust. We encounter it now in the word  “respire.” It is also tied to that concept of the Holy Spirit, that most nebulous part of the Trinity – not the Father and not the Son, but also the Father and the Son. Or, it is the Great Spirit of Native American traditions, and many other such ideas that are not as formed or fixed as God or Allah seem to be.

“Spiritual” seems ecumenical to us. When we say that we’re spiritual we are asserting that we believe something, have some conviction, but do not feel the need to adhere to any beliefs or belief system with our conviction. I understand the modern sense of “spiritual” as a concept we can leverage that says “I have a sense of wonder and transcendence but I’m not a religious nut-job trying to convert you to my of thinking so don’t try to convert me to yours,” and in this sense it is an idea that seems tailor-made for UUs. It leaves space for the beliefs of others and it doesn’t push one’s own beliefs anywhere they may not be wanted.

Except that Unitarian Universalism is a “religion” with a capital R. And when we follow it we have to come to terms with our own practiced religion and why we may have chosen it over other religions. That choice is an important one. Most of us chose Unitarian Universalism over another religion or religions. It is not a religion that most of us have been born into, and so with a few exceptions, most of us in this room made a choice to be UUs and not something else.  Why did we choose it if not be something religious?

I don’t say that to alienate anyone. Not everyone in this room has said either privately to themselves or out loud to others “I am a Unitarian Universalist” and you don’t have to ever say that to be in this room, ever. We don’t require those sorts of pronouncements and we also  don’t require creeds, which is a lot of the reason that people choose Unitarian Universalism as their religion in the first place.

Because we are not a credal religion, we do not require belief from anyone. And yet we are a Religion. That is confusing.

Recently, Asher was confronted with some good ol’ fashioned religious bigotry in school, where two girls in his class discovered that he was not Christian and said he was “against them and with Satan.” He was hurt of course, but mostly he was confused about their “belief.” What sort of religion is it that makes people “believe” things? In our religion we don’t do that, we have the free and responsible search for truth and meaning.

There should be room for all the beliefs in a religion. Asher is, of course, smarter than all of us because he is still a child. And what was hard to explain to him was that religion is not really one thing and though believing is something that some religions do require, all belief is complicated, historical and up to interpretation.

Before getting too far afield, here is some etymology, for our more logically disposed congregants: the word “religion” comes potentially from two words in Latin, relego and religo.

The first usage is classical, from Cicero, and can be understood best by recalling that “re” is
again and “lego” is choose or gather/collect. This, rather poetically means to choose again, or to
choose again and again. To constantly choose. To recommit. It is a very dynamic word.

The second sense, religo, is from after the advent of early Christianity and comes from “re”
again and “ligo,” which is “to bind.” So in this case it means to bind again. Suggesting adherence and also some other source to which one is bound. I find this early division of the word to be of the utmost interest. The word means either a continual choosing or it means an allegiance or an obligation, well, actually it gets to mean both of these things. In English, the actual usage of the word is somewhat narrower, which I find unfortunate, and tends to conflate the concept with other words like faith, belief or (G)od, that are not unrelated to either the concept of continual choice or the commitment to be bound to something, but also are not wholly related to them either.

Other than my love of words and research for the sake of themselves, why go there in the first place? Because I feel the need to understand as much as is possible about the words I choose to use to describe myself. In those same reflections two weeks ago, I said I had been “outing” myself as Unitarian Universalist lately, and since then I have realized that this “outing” of myself has to go a further step: It is not just that I am a Unitarian Universalist, though I am also this, but it is first and foremost that I am a DEEPLY RELIGIOUS person. Making the choice to identify myself in this way is effectively putting on the mantle of religion and all the trappings and meanings of it, and saying, “I wish to put my lot in with those who also self-identify as RELIGIOUS.”

It turns out that the vast majority of those who will ally themselves with the “religious” or those who spring into our minds as “religious,” at least in our country, are of the “right wing nutjob”
variety. Those very people from whom we are distancing ourselves when we say “I’m spiritual but not religious.” I would argue that we’re all religious, and though I would wish to distance myself from the closed- minded fundamentalist “religion” of those who would say that I am “against them and with Satan,” I also know that it is not that straightforward. Religion is not, in and of itself, an evil thing. Religion and religiosity are, in fact, inseparable from what it means to be a human.

Stop for a second and remember what it is like to be human. Remember that you are a meaning-seeking animal. Remember how easily you can collapse into despair when meaning falls away. Remember how it is that you put the meaning back into being alive. The process of putting the meaning back in involves a “stepping outside” of the norm or an ekstasis in Greek, “ecstasy” in English. Ecstasy, it turns out, is a human need. It is both a way to more fully inhabit  our humanity and also a way to transcend ourselves.

Karen Armstrong asserts that this is what religion is for, not for providing us with answers to believe, but for reminding us of what is greater than ourselves, a sacred reality that can be called God or Brahman or Nirvana, Allah, Dao many things.

The way we access this sacred reality is through the ritualization of ekstasis . Ritualization is like a door to to the sacred reality, a way to get to it whenever you need it, rather than just waiting for it to happen to you. Historically, rituals are practices that have a right way to be done. Maybe your ritualization is running, hiking, meditating, yoga, chanting, singing, dancing chances
are good that from your point of view there is a right way for these to be done, even if the “right way” is only something that you share with yourself.

If this ekstasis is what ritual and religion is for, then it makes sense that religion is a practice, something that you do, rather than something that you believe. If religion is something you choose again and again or are bound to, this makes even more sense to think of religion as a practice rather than something that you believe.

I say it this way because “believing,” that very concept that was so hard for Asher to understand about his classmates’ religions, is new to religion. If the practice of a religion and its rituals did not serve their purposes they were abandoned for others that did. This is why religions are living things that grow, evolve and go extinct. There was no believing in ritual, or thinking of it as literally true, it was a means to an end, or a means to ekstasis . Even “faith” in its early meanings did not mean what our modern “belief” means now, where belief is “thinking that something is the case with or without empirical proof or evidence.” In fact, there could be no sense of empiricism or proof without the modern concept of rational thinking and science. Before the idea of proof there was no idea of taking a leap of faith. All religion was just what was done.

Here is a direct quote from The Case for God: “In most premodern cultures, there were two recognized ways of thinking, speaking, and acquiring knowledge. The Greeks called them mythos and logos . Both were essential and neither was considered superior to the other? they were not in conflict but complementary. Each had its own sphere of competence, and it was considered unwise to mix the two. Logos (“reason”) was the pragmatic mode of thought that enabled people to function effectively in the world. It had, therefore, to correspond accurately to external reality. People have always needed logos to make efficient weapons, organize their societies, or plan an expedition. Logos was forward-looking, continually on the lookout for the  new ways of controlling the environment, improving old insights, or inventing something fresh.

Logos was essential to the survival of our species. But it had its limitations: it could not assuage human grief or find ultimate meaning in life’s struggles. For that people turned to mythos or ‘myth.’”

“Today we live in a society of scientific logos , and myth has fallen into disrepute. In popular parlance, a ‘myth’ is something that is not true. But in the past, myth was not a self-indulgent
fantasy? rather, like logos , it helped people to live effectively in our confusing world, though in a different way. Myths may have told stories about the gods, but they were really focused on the more elusive, puzzling, and tragic aspects of the human predicament that lay outside the remit of logos .

“Myth has been called a primitive form of psychology. … They were designed to help people negotiate the obscure regions of the psyche, which are difficult to access but which profoundly influence our thought and behavior. … A myth was never intended as an accurate account of a[n] historical event? it was something that had in some sense happened once but that also happens all the time .”

I burden you with this long quotation to demonstrate the point that myths like art and
music and all non-logical pursuits exist to be the lie that tells the truth, and that in our modern
world the privileging of logic over myths the relegating of myths to fantasy and delusion has certainly led to a lot of scientific advancements that are within the domain of logos but have otherwise led to a greater poverty in our ability to understand the human condition.

A lot of modern religion, specifically Biblical literalism, takes the privileging of logos over mythos to an absurd extreme, where myths that were recorded to show religious followers a truth that cannot be logically comprehended are now reduced to being literal truisms requiring blind adherence and belief. These myths are being used as weapons instead of tools.

This tendency of modern religion to be unyielding and dogmatic is of course the very reason that we often say things like “I’m spiritual but not religious,” because we want to show how we are open to transcendence, how we are ready for the revelations of truth and meaning, and how we are not closed off by narrow-minded beliefs that would seek to encapsulate the sacred reality in only half of the sphere of experienced wisdom. But the problem with this phrase is that by turning our backs on our inherent religion and religiosity what we are saying is that religion now and forever forward will only belong to those who would remove the transcendence, denounce the mythology, and use the religious impulses of all people as weapons instead of tools.

So when I out myself as a UU, what I am in effect saying is “religion belongs to me too.” Other people out in the world may look at me and be surprised when I say things like, “I am deeply religious,” or “I regularly teach Sunday school,” or “I go to church almost every Sunday,” because they thought they understood that I wasn’t a crazy person. Now they’re going back through our conversations and thinking to themselves, “did I offend you?” or “do you believe that the world was created in 7 days?” or “but you seemed like you believe in climate change and a women’s right to choose.”

I stand up and say proudly that I am religious because I feel called to remind other people that they can also be religious and still be reasonable people. That religion has done as much good in the world as it has done evil. And that all the reasons that religion has done good are not purely logical: some of them are because of that ineffable transcendence revealed through ritual and myth. And that when someone is born or someone dies or a child reaches the point of bearing the responsibilities of adulthood or two people want to come together in marriage that we ritualize it. That we situate that event in cosmic time as “something that had in some sense happened once but that also happens all the time.”

When my friend asked me “why do you go to church?” it was because when we generally talk about churchgoing. I am often very positive and talk up our fellowship and — gasp —  evangelize
about the good news of a non-creedal religion right here in Helena. But he often is expressing dismay at being trapped in a community where his ideas and doubts are not welcome. They told him he wasn’t allowed to teach Sunday school anymore and he said he didn’t know what to do because he wants the “high church” with the rituals but he can’t stand the rest of it. So I said that I go to church a lot of the time just to feel connected to the community and be reminded that there is a group of people like myself, but also so that my children can grow up in an environment where they know that their own journey is encouraged and supported, that they are able to affect that community and change it so it remains relevant.

So often I think that people are hurt by the rigidness of their religion and choose no religion at all, rather than being able to see the good parts of their religion and seek to find them in another religion. Or else they never had any official religion to begin with and have not been shown what it’s value could be.

I am dismayed by this trend of my generation to be “nones,” that is people with no religion. I  find it alienating to be without religious community, to be without a common language to express one’s own struggle to connect to the transcendent experience of the sacred. I think that many people of my generation only have one picture of religion the crazy kind and I feel as though it is incumbent upon me to show them that there is a place for them in religion as well.

Unitarian Universalism in particular has a lot to offer people who no longer practice a religion or who never have because it offers an environment to safely explore their own inner religiosity without fear of judgment or censure. If ecstasy is a human need and ritual offers a path to it then it is worth trying to be in community with others who are willing to practice alongside of you.

Religion is hard work. Sometimes it is necessary to lean on others as you try to put the meaning back into being alive. Unitarian Universalism does what a lot of other religions no longer do: it doesn’t require belief. The belief is, what I think people are really objecting to when they says “I’m spiritual but not religious.” It is because they think that when you are “religious” you’re mind is made up, there is no more wonder and transcendence. The religion that they are thinking of is no longer spiritual because it requires belief. How fortunate we are to have a religion that is still spiritual.

So I want to encourage everyone, as Peg did two weeks ago, to be engaged in a more active evangelism for Unitarian Universalism. Because people have need of liberal religion but they don’t know it exists. They have spiritual convictions but no community to give them a safe place for their free and responsible search or their spiritual growth. They feel like they need to keep their religious feelings separated from the followers of religion, but they don’t. We can offer them a place where they can be spiritual and religious. We are also followers of spiritual religion and they are welcome here.


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