2012-06-18

Reverence, Primal and Tribal

In the latest issue of our denominational magazine, the UUWorld, our great Humanist minister, Reverend Kendyl Gibbons, writes about “Primal Reverence" (see here).

First, reverence comes from the ga-ga experiences of nature – for Gibbons, it’s waterfalls. A waterfall:
“makes me want to weep, want to dance, want to fall on my knees and be one with whatever that is, in everlasting praise.”
Second, reverence comes from the inspiration of heroically compassionate people. Gibbons mentions
"Paul Russesabagina, the Rwandan hotelkeeper who risked his life to shelter his countrymen from genocide at the hands of their neighbors."
She mentions Harriet Tubman, Gandhi, Aung San Suu Kyi, Nelson Mandela, Michael Servetus, Jesus, and "every mother who has ever gone hungry so that her children might eat," and "every soldier who has ever died so that his comrades might live," and "every rescue worker who ran up the stairs of the World Trade Center on that awful day." She says:
"Somewhere, there is a hero -- living or dead, close or distant, historical or mythologized -- a hero of conscience or mercy, of generosity or duty, whose story whispers to your secret heart."
Third, there is just the opening up that doesn’t come from any particular source, natural or human. Gibbons describes spirituality as many spiritual atheists do:
"The realization of the open secret, that there is no goal, no test to take, no one keeping score; that that which is not broken is always present, whether we have a name for it, whether we are paying attention; and the final recognition you are -- that each of us is, that unshakable truth -- and that you have been here all along, waiting for the exiled self's return."
With this realization comes:
"that sense of tender, compassionate self-awareness and rock-bottom peace; that return to a wholeness that cannot be achieved, but is there all along, no matter what."
Spiritual health, then, is the growing ability to access and process these three areas of "primal reverence."
"Just as we grow and mature physically, and keep ourselves healthy with regular exercise; just as we grow and mature mentally, and develop our minds through learning; just as we grow and mature emotionally, and deepen our relationships by sharing ourselves with other; just as we grown and mature ethically, and build moral character from the values to which we are loyal; so I am persuaded that we also grow and mature spiritually."
I have also written about spiritual fitness as something we can develop just as we can develop physical fitness, intellectual fitness, and social-emotional fitness: see here.

Among these descriptions of spiritual sources and development, Gibbons sprinkles repeated references to skepticism. She is at pains to let us know that we don't have to become dupes of authoritarian religion in order to have and develop our spirituality. On the one hand, this feels a bit odd to me -- somewhat like the English professor who, while lecturing on a poem, keeps reiterating an insistence that each metaphor "is just a metaphor; please don't take it literally," and, "this is a poem, remember; we don't evaluate it the way we would a work of science, history, or news reporting."

On the other hand -- as I indicated in the June 15 Lake Chalice ("Spirituality, Please, Hold the Religion") -- I understand that a lot of horrible things occur under the name "religion," so I can see why Gibbons would feel the need to reassure her readers that primal reverence does not commit one to ugly religion.

The language in which religions are taught and transmitted has three functions. It has a poetic function, an ethical function, and a tribal-marker function. You'll notice that none of them have much intrinsic connection to believing -- in the normal sense in which I might believe that OJ Simpson did (or did not) commit murder, that the chances are high (or low) that there is intelligent life on other planets, or that the quickest route home at 5:00pm is to take (or avoid) the Expressway.

The poetic function isn't about whether you believe it in the normal sense. When T.S. Eliot writes: "I should have been a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas," the question isn't whether to believe this or not. (Can you imagine the silliness of a debate between one side, upholding the proposition, "Resolved: That T.S. Eliot should have been a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas," and another side opposing the resolution?) As with a beautiful painting, our task is not to "believe" it, but to open ourselves to take in the beauty of what is presented. That beauty helps us, somehow, to understand that life makes sense. The Psalms are the most obvious poetry. The startling grace of Jesus' parables, and of the gospel stories about him also function poetically, as does the narrative of the Deuteronomic history (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings). All of the Bible can be read as poetry in the broadest sense.

Choosing to devote one's primary poetic studies to William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and John Keats does not preclude also appreciating Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Robert Frost. So, too, choosing to devote one's primary poetic studies to the 66 books, Genesis through Revelations, does not preclude also appreciating the Bhagavad Gita, the Dao De Jing, and the Dhammapada.

Some religious language, in addition to its poetry, has a more direct ethical or guiding function. It says, "Here's something to try that might make your life better." Be still and know that I am the lord; do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God; be mindful each moment; everything in Proverbs. These are not matters of believing either, in the normal sense. Rather, they are invitations to aspire to live by the guidance offered. You don't have to "be" Christian to learn from the wisdom teachings in the Christian canon, or "be" Muslim to learn from the teachings in Islamic texts.

Religious language also functions as a tribal marker. "I believe in the Bible," has almost no meaning except as a marker of tribal identification. It demarcates who is "us" (in this case, the tribe that asserts belief in the Bible) and who is "them."

Tribal markers aren't a bad thing. We are a tribal species, after all. The chalice symbol is a marker of my tribe, and I'm proud of it. If you really love the poetry of Mary Oliver, or the ethical guidance of John Stuart Mill, or the approach to psychological understanding of Carl Jung, there's nothing wrong with joining the Society for the Advancement of Mary Oliver's Poetry, the Millian League, or the Jung Club, and making that membership a central part of your self-identity. Community is a good thing.

However, when the tribal function of religious expression is prominent, folks who aren't sure they want to identify with the tribe find it hard to relax into the poetry and the wisdom of a religious tradition.

Personally, I yearn for the day when the national Unitarian Universalist publication talks about reverence without feeling a need to sprinkle in the distracting paeans to skepticism -- the day when it simply goes without saying that reverence, spiritual experience, and spiritual maturity imply none of the crazy beliefs, practices, or actions that have sometimes, over the last couple millennia, gone by the name of one or another religion. But I understand that not all Unitarian Universalists are there yet. Gibbons' readers needed reassurance that spiritual growth need neither imply loyalty to odious tribes or doctrines nor threaten their own tribal identity as Skeptics.

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This is part 4 of 6 of "Atheist Spirituality"
Next: Part 5: "What's Missing from Atheist Spirituality"
Previous: Part 3: "Spirituality, Please, Hold the Religion"
Beginning: Part 1: "Back in MY Day"