Salvation Not Required

Christianity is filled with beautiful metaphorical language which tells a story of sin, of salvation and redemption. The stories are powerful and continue to hold great meaning for many people. To be broken and forgiven, to be hopeless and be saved by God’s love is a message of hope. Salvation – to be saved from sin or from evil – is an essential concept for most Christians.

Unitarian Universalism has a complex relationship to the word salvation. The Universalist tradition originated out of the theology of universal salvation – that God so loved people that all people would be reunited with God in death. No one was condemned to the endless torments of hell. Many contemporary Universalists experience a sense of an all-loving God and see salvation as a path of love. It isn’t so much related to a sense of Jesus as saviour, but that people need saving from all the hells that exist on earth  – the hell of addiction, oppression, depression, and more. People aren’t saved by Jesus, but by love.

For me, even this sense of salvation simply doesn’t resonate. I see our tradition as oriented to the interdependence of life, to the awareness that we belong on this earth. We may make it hard for ourselves, we may not always feel at home here, but this is our place. Love can not, in truth, save people from addiction or oppression. Instead, we might work with people who are struggling, be witnesses, be caring and stand in solidarity with them.

Salvation just isn’t a word that helps tell the story of my Unitarian Universalism. This is part of the tension of contemporary Unitarian Universalism: as Thomas Berry says, “we are between stories.”  Christian words and stories continue to resonate for some Unitarian Universalists, but no longer work for many. We haven’t figured out what our overarching story is. I see glimpses of the meta-narrative, it involves the universe and reciprocity and choice, but it hasn’t yet come together clearly.

Photo by Ali Harrison

Photo by Ali Harrison

I don’t think there is an UU equivalent of salvation, I don’t think we need one. I know I am not a sinner. I am a messed up human being, but my brokenness is held by my wholeness. I am never not whole, even if I often lose sight of that wholeness. We are like mosaics – each minor part of us is imperfect, at times damaged or broken – but we always, always comes together into a beautiful whole.

The first principle of Unitarian Universalism is affirming “the inherent worth and dignity of every person.” This translates into the concept of original blessing: we are not born fallen sinners but as holy and whole human beings. We are born human into the world to which we belong. We struggle to see our wholeness, but in the end, no salvation is required.

This Tuesday blog was a little late! Next Tuesday I will consider “connection”,  which is part of the new vocabulary of contemporary Unitarian Universalist theology.

Jesus was just this good guy, you know?

This is the second in a series looking at UU theology and language.

cast the nets

from Inherit the Mirth by Cuyler Black

The Unitarian Universalist tradition sees Jesus as a human prophet whose life and teachings provide us with an example of how people should care for one another in this world. The Unitarian side of our tradition arises out of a rejection of the trinity – emphasizing the unity of God – and identified Jesus as a person who was touched by God, but was not of the same substance as God.

With our roots in Prostestant Christianity, Jesus was the prophet for our faith community in the beginning, but as both Unitarian and Universalism moved away from doctrines and creeds, Jesus became one of many prophets from ancient times, comparable to Mohammed and the Buddha. UUs focus on how Jesus lived his life, not on his death or the promise of salvation, considering the essential message of Jesus to be love to God and love to humankind. UUism may have more in common with early Christian attitudes about Jesus. Two former professors from Starr King, our west coast seminary, found that the first 1,000 years of Christianity focused more on creating an earthly paradise then on the promise of heaven in their book Saving Paradise.

Jesus is considered an example of how to serve others with love, generousity and compassion. Jesus demonstrated a loving spirit, a sense of justice, and a fierce desire to serve God and humanity. UUs tend to emphasize the radical, trouble-making Jesus who stood up against authority, who sided with the poor, who looked beyond categories to see people in their wholeness. Some UUs have a strong sense of Jesus as a source of spiritual strength. Our fourth source is “Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbours as ourselves”.

UUs do not believe Jesus performed miracles, and not all UUs would even agree that Jesus was a rabble rousing activist. Some see Jesus as a mythic figure, not a real person, pointing to the lack of any contemporary accounts of his life and the story of his crucifixion resembling ancient Egyptian and Babylonian tales of death and resurrection. Others believe he may have been a visionary during his life, but his story has been so refracted and amplified by the Gospels, by Paul and church doctrine and systems, that it is impossible to know the truth about Jesus.

How do you understand Jesus and Unitarian Universalism?

Spirit

At last Sunday’s service at the Unitarian Congregation in Mississauga  I spoke about religious language (Found in Translation, January 11, 2015) and the struggles we have as Unitarian Universalists sorting out the words that shape our spiritual orientation. I committed to a blog post each week to explore a word and its meaning in the hopes of helping my congregants (and myself!) to better understand UU theology and vocabulary. We hope to figure out where our common meanings lie, what the differences are; where we can be on the same page, where we might have to compromise, and where we might need a new word altogether.

These comments reflect my current understanding of a word.  Please join in the conversation by sharing your thoughts in the comments.

by Alannah Lee Clamp

by Alannah Lee Clamp

Spirit

Spirit is the vital principle which animates life but is not itself material. I like to think of it as the whole which is more than the sum of its parts, that part of each living being which expresses its essence. Spirit is linked with breath, wind, air. Like air, spirit can be felt, but not seen, it is ethereal, but also a source of connection. Spirit brings us closer to the living world when we recognize its vital presence everywhere on earth. An awareness of spirit calls us to presence, to pay attention to the here and now. I don’t understand spirit as separate from the body, but rather see spirit and body as integrated expressions of life. I don’t see spirit as a guiding authority or independent presence but as an essential part of being alive and part of the whole.

A sense of spirit is hard to experience – it’s always just beyond my awareness, but I sense it during walks in the woods or when a group of people are caught up in a moment together.  Because of spirit’s ephemeral nature, it can be easy to not notice it. People can live well without consciously experiencing a sense of spirit.  For others, it is an invaluable experience of being connected, of belonging. Seekers are helped by an embodied spiritual discipline such as prayer or meditation or dance, part of that paradox of being present in the body opening us to the spirit.

 

Be a Great Poem

Scott Weber Creative Commons

Scott Weber Creative Commons

A few weeks ago I based a service on one of my favourite texts. This is an excerpt from the reflection. By American poet Walt Whitman, this famous poem is found in the preface of his grand work Leaves of Grass.

This is what you shall do:
Love the earth and sun and the animals,
despise riches,
give alms to every one that asks,
stand up for the stupid and crazy,
devote your income and labor to others,
hate tyrants,
argue not concerning God,
have patience and indulgence toward the people,
take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men,
go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families,
read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life,
re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book,
dismiss whatever insults your own soul;
and your very flesh shall be a great poem and
have the richest fluency not only in its words
but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and
in every motion and joint of your body.

I love this image of our bodies becoming lyrical poetry, objects of great beauty and rich fluency. Imagine a world where our elders are understood as great poetry.

Whitman’s advice from 160 years ago is still sound. Devote your income and labour to the service of others,
Fight against injustice, examine what authority tells you. Be patient with other people.

And while Whitman was suspicious of church, I think that Unitarian Universalism is precisely a place that encourages this way of principled living. Unitarian Universalist communities are intended as spaces for reflection, to examine all the endless information and opinion that is thrown at us everyday and to dismiss what insults our souls.

We need spaces like this more and more in this busy technological world. We gather on Sunday mornings for a moment of rest and reflection. This time together is time to simply be, as you are. It is for self-examination and understanding.

If we all strive to become great poems, through living our seven principles and being grounded in our six sources,
then perhaps our children will have the same ambition.
Pulitzer prize winning poems will be everywhere!

Imagine that.

Canadian Wonder

A couple of Sunday mornings past I drove down to the Unitarian Congregation in Mississauga after spending a few days with my fellow Canadian Unitarian Council board members at the Ecology Retreat Centre in Hockley Valley. We’d had gorgeous weather on Saturday, with the just beginning to colour leaves glowing in the sunshine in the woods. It was a good meeting but I was tired, and feeling a little unprepared for worship as I left the Centre in the pouring rain.

Fortunately, moments of wonder can happen in the most unexpected places.

I drove down Highway 10, passing green forests with an occasional highlight of red-orange brilliance. Shelagh Rogers was interviewing Lenard Cohen on CBC One. Then KD Lang began singing Cohen’s Hallelujah. And I had one of those moments when you simply are in the moment – the pouring rain, the thunk thunk of the windshield wipers, the flashes of autumn colour, Shelagh’s warm tones, Leonard’s raspiness and the power of KD’s voice offering a bittersweet song all combined into a moment of perfect beingness – a feeling that to simply be alive here and now in this place filled with all sorts of beauty was enough. It’s hard to describe these moments of just being, but they allow me to not be me and just be immersed in the present, in presence.

I stopped worrying about the service and had a peaceful drive through the storm.

Here is K.D. Lang’s gorgeous rendition of Hallelujah from the 2005 Junos.

September Days…

“September days have the warmth of summer in their briefer hours, but in their lengthening evenings a prophetic breath of autumn.” Rowland E. Robinson

Starting a new ministry with the Unitarian Congregation in Mississauga, I am very much looking forward to the fall with all the excitement of meeting everyone. leading worship in a new space, and learning how to be in covenant with the community. Still, it is hard not to feel a pang of sadness at the changing leaves as the transition to autumn begins, it seems to come far too soon.

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All Summer is a Temple

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It has been a quiet peaceful summer, a respite before I begin a full time ministry in Mississauga.  Spending my days at home, for all the attention I have offered this small piece of the world, I still managed to miss so much of the abounding life that surrounds my home.  Mary Oliver says it best.

Little Summer Poem Touching the Subject of Faith

Every summer
I listen and look
under the sun’s brass and even
into the moonlight, but I can’t hear

anything, I can’t see anything —
not the pale roots digging down, nor the green stalks muscling up,
nor the leaves
deepening their damp pleats,

nor the tassels making,
nor the shucks, nor the cobs.
And still,
every day,

the leafy fields
grow taller and thicker —
green gowns lofting up in the night,
showered with silk.

And so, every summer,
I fail as a witness, seeing nothing —
I am deaf too
to the tick of the leaves,

the tapping of downwardness from the banyan feet —
all of it
happening
beyond any seeable proof, or hearable hum.

And, therefore, let the immeasurable come.
Let the unknowable touch the buckle of my spine.
Let the wind turn in the trees,
and the mystery hidden in the dirt

swing through the air.
How could I look at anything in this world
and tremble, and grip my hands over my heart?
What should I fear?

One morning
in the leafy green ocean
the honeycomb of the corn’s beautiful body
is sure to be there.

Mary Oliver
From West Wind: Poems and Prose Poems.