2012-06-05

Authority and Mission

Unlike the sort of central-yet-hidden authority that issues the missions in "Mission: Impossible," for us, Unitarian Universalists, the authority is: (a) each other; (b) our history, our tradition, our principles, and our sources; (c) our individual consciences.

For all our emphasis on (c) our individual consciences, we know the individual conscience needs some help. The individual conscience is subject to fooling itself, subject to all the self-deceptions of our defense mechanisms. So we come together to double- and triple-check our perceptions and opinions. We come to help individual conscience get a wider perspective, place the individual conscience in a relationship of accountability – a relation in which we give an accounting of ourselves to others and thereby become seen. And we come together because sometimes in life individual conscience is simply at its wit’s end.

Grief and loss are headed your way. If they are not with you right now, they are headed your way: the death of parents, or spouse – sometimes of a child. A Buddhist sutra says:
“All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature of change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.” (Upajjhatthana Sutta, Angutara Nikaya 5.57)
Meanwhile, my individual conscience has spent its life thinking about other things, will never see grief coming, has no idea by itself how to cope with significant loss. To learn to find peace with all of life, even the difficult and painful parts, individual conscience needs the resources of a community embodying a tradition – a tradition of practices and texts and the habits of using them to make meaning even when all meaning seems to be gone.

So yes our authority is the individual conscience. It is also each other, our Unitarian Universalist tradition, history, theology, and values – our practices and teachings and support network to temper, deepen, and expand that individual conscience.

How do we do that? On what shall we get to work in order that the tradition, teachings, and values of Unitarian Universalism can come to life, find embodiment in our doing, and thereby work their magic of nurturing spiritual maturity in us?

Good question.

It brings us back to "mission." A really clear mission is an attractive thing. Part of the appeal of the "Mission: Impossible" show is the clarity of the mission. Go in, rescue the hostage, depose the dictator, retrieve the nuclear materials, foil the assassination. It feels good to know exactly what you’re trying to do.

Clarity of mission is also part of the appeal of sports. You’re on a mission to win the game, and the rules specify exactly how to do that. The great American philosopher William James once remarked:
"The aim of a football-team is not merely to get the ball to a certain goal (if that were so, they would simply get up on some dark night and place it there)." (James, Pragmatism)
But what fun would that be? So the rules spell out the context and the boundaries, and what you have to do and may not do in order for getting the ball over the goal line to count.

A group of people gathered together as a congregation are not on some undercover espionage mission. Nor are they gathered in order to emerge victorious over other congregations at Church-league Softball (though some of them do seem to regard that as a main, if not their sole, purpose).

For what does a Unitarian Universalist congregation congregate? Articulating a clear and helpful statement of mission is no easy thing.

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This is part 2 of 6 of "Mission: Impossible"
Next: Part 3: "Scylla of Banality, Charybdis of Incomprehensibility"
Previous: Part 1: "Theology and a TV Spy Show"