Boxes Too Small

Martin Luther proclaimed the "priesthood of all believers." Shakyamuni Buddha admonished, "Work out with diligence your salvation." Michael Muhammad Knight declared, "You are your Allah." These calls to individual responsibility militate against the tribal tendency of religion. Emphasis on each individual's responsibility to make/find her own spiritual truth makes community-building more difficult. Nevertheless, I believe that only a community that recognizes each person's divinity and authority has a chance of lasting. As long as there are external authorities, there will be competition among them and rebellion against them.

That doesn't mean that rejecting all religious authority will end the competition and rebellion. It goes on internally. Within each psyche, impulses compete with and rebel against one another.

The divine, spiritual truth, God, the ground of healing and wholeness that we call by many names -- whatever we call reality at its most inclusive -- is too big to fit in the box of what any one authority -- person or doctrine -- decrees. External authority is one box too small. The internal authority of our own egos is another box too small. We need the authority of individual conscience, and we also need religious teachers as guides and companions on the spiritual path to help us see our own delusions and mind-traps. We need authoritative teachers and leaders that we trust -- but not so much that we shut down our own conscience. We need to trust our own conscience -- but not so much that we shut out religious and spiritual leadership that can help us see where our egos lead us astray. Lasting, healthy faith community will recognize each person's divinity and authority -- and the members will recognize the value of legitimate community leadership. The test for any authority, internal or external, is this: is it maintaining a small box for spiritual truth, or is it working to expand, or explode, the box?

Our project -- the Unitarian Universalist project in particular and the liberal religious project generally -- is the difficult and fragile task of community with diversity and taking seriously the work of spiritual development. We’re nailing, not two, but three things together: community, diversity, and genuine work of spiritual deepening.

One of the ways that some of us do that is with dual identities: we are Unitarian Universalist Christians or Unitarian Universalist Yogis, or Unitarian Universalist pagans, or, like me, Unitarian Universalist Buddhists. As a Buddhist, I have some rules. It’s not the sort of deal where any one ever chides me about what’s forbidden and what isn’t. But I’ve got a discipline: sit for half an hour, then recite the heart sutra every morning. I know it’s arbitrary. Reciting a random column from the phone book might work as well. But like my mentor the birder, it’s a relief to have a widely shared practice to participate in rather than having to explain, if only to myself, what this weird idiosyncratic odd thing is that I’m doing. I get plenty of exercise at that in the rest of my day.

The practices we choose support our primary identity as Unitarian Universalists, people of different beliefs, making community of freedom, recognizing you are your Allah, yet also standing in awe of the reality as given to us, in gratitude of the grace we receive from the universe without earning it: worshiping together as one faith of diverse beliefs and disciplines. Michael Muhammad Knight today sounds pretty much like a Unitarian Universalist Muslim, as when he says:
“Allah is arranging things beyond all our grasps. The Earth isn’t spinning because you told it to. Your intestines aren’t digesting by your command. You’re made up of a trillion cells that don’t ask your permission before offering their raka’ahs [prayers]. And we think submission is about applying a strict discipline to our worship? We think surrender is about not eating a pig? It’s not that small to me. I can’t fit my deen [faith life] in a little box because to me, everything comes from Allah. Birds sing Allah’s name. To say Allah is in this book and not that one, or he likes this and not that – do you know who you’re talking about? Allah is too big and open for my deen to be small and closed. Does that make me a kufr [apostate, nonbeliever]? I say, 'Allahu Akbar' ['God is greatest']. If that’s not good enough then %$@#! Islam. You can have it. Imam Hussein said: ‘He who has not religion, let him at least be free in his present life.’ So there you go. Now, let us pray.”
So there you go. And let us pray.


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This is part 5 of 5 of "Punk Islam"
Previous: Part 4: "The Tolerance Paradox"
Beginning: Part 1: "Nailings"

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