Just Do What?

The starting point that I keep returning to in this blog is the articulation of our faith that sounded so right at the 2011 General Assembly: “Faith finds expression in acts of compassion. Acts of compassion lead to holy encounters. All religions are accountable to a higher power: compassion. Or, God is love.” There was a tone behind this argument when it was delivered there, which could be summarized as “Just Do It.”

Two items in this week’s news got me reflecting on that tone. One is a recent article in The Huffington Post: “The Religious Counterculture: An Open Letter to Religious Liberals” by the Rev. Ana Levy-Lyons of the United Church of Christ, who writes:

“Do we religious liberals similarly experience a tension between our religious values and the values of the secular world? If not, why not? It seems to me there should be enormous tension. … Until our theological ideals are realized on this earth, until we live in societies of boundless compassion where no one is excluded from the tables of abundance, until we lovingly care for all the creatures of the earth, until violence and hunger are relics of the past, religious liberals should not feel at ease in this world. If we do, there’s a problem. … What if we could restore the radical edge and dynamic energy of religious liberalism? What would the world look like if, instead of advertising religion lite, religious liberals became the most observant people around? What if those of us who consider ourselves theologically liberal began joining liberal religious communities in droves? What if we began tithing to those institutions? What if we observed a Sabbath together and radically disengaged from social and economic structures every week? What if we engaged in serious study of our spiritual texts and heritage and applied their lessons to the issues of today? What if we began lobbying on religious grounds for environmental stewardship?”

“What if we engaged in serious study of our spiritual texts and heritage and applied their lessons to the issues of today?” Do you mean, like this?

Ukrainian Orthodox

This is the other item in the news that turned my mind to that “Just Do It” tone. Here are Ukrainian Orthodox clergy standing between police and protesters, praying for peace and bearing symbols of their faith tradition – the cross and also the clerical attire. They are making of themselves a living symbol, taking the prayer for peace – and the religious commitment and tone of that prayer – out of the church and into the street.

Unitarian Universalist clergy do sometimes appear in the streets bearing the symbols of our faith tradition. But not like this.

Why not like this? The message in that 2011 General Assembly went something like this:

“Unitarian Universalism doesn’t really care whether you’re an atheist, a theist, a pagan, a Buddhist, a Christian, or a Barnes and Noble-ite. Our question for you is whether your atheism, theism, paganism, Buddhism, or Barnes and Noble-ism leads you to connection. Leads you to listen to your deepest voice, be open to life’s gifts and serve needs greater than your own. In other words, do your beliefs help you connect to yourself and others and life? If your beliefs serve that higher purpose of connection, they’re in. If they don’t—and we really mean this—they’re out.”  (Kaaren Anderson, “Just Connect”)

Suppose a group of Unitarian Universalists took to the streets between police and protesters, half a dozen people dressed somehow recognizably as atheist, theist, pagan, Buddhist, Christian, and Barnes-and-Noble-ite. Would it look like a tradition, or like Mardi Gras? And what one reverent thing would they unite in doing together to bring the tone of our faith out of the church and into the street?

Whenever we borrow spiritual practices from other faith traditions, we may either weaken or strengthen our own tradition. Individuals who borrow a spiritual practice from another tradition necessarily adapt it. So do congregations and movements that borrow. Borrowing without conscious adaptation and intentional differentiation is called appropriation. With conscious adaptation – including intentional reflection that differentiates the meaning of the adapted practice from that of the original practice in its source tradition – borrowing is a way of developing a new tradition. A little study of the origins of Christianity or Buddhism yields countless examples.

We have a couple of distinctive rituals whose names bear witness to our borrowing from our Christian roots: Water Communion and Flower Communion. Some want to (and do) substitute the word “Ceremony” for “Communion” in naming these, but no one observing them would confuse them with the Eucharist. Suppose some Unitarian Universalists wearing emblems of the flaming chalice were to place themselves between police and protesters, distributing flowers from baskets and inviting them to come peacefully to a common table, placing their flower in a single arrangement?

“What if we engaged in serious study of our spiritual texts and heritage and applied their lessons to the issues of today?” What are our spiritual texts? Not others from the world’s religions, but ours? What is distinctly our heritage? What teachings can we draw out of (rather than read into) the faith of our 16th-century forebears in Eastern Europe (for example)?

Is “Just Do It” the right tone for every occasion? Or can we expand our repertoire?