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The Rev. Lillian Daniel, who is so often wise and measured, kicked up a duststorm on the internet a few years ago among people who think about spirituality, religion, and the communities that make them possible, when she published a piece on her denominational website that was neither wise or measured. It was full of dubious statements such as “There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself” and pure nastiness such as “Please stop boring me” (the latter was a headline, so it might not have been her writing).
As my colleague Jeremy Nickel responded at the time, Unitarian Universalist congregations welcome people who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR). Or we do to the extent that they aren’t put off by defensive and angry ministers.
Unfortunately because of messages like yours, instead of finding that safe space within our congregational walls, they have found them in Yoga and Meditation classes, book clubs, in small group ministry settings in friends homes, in volunteer associations and online in chat rooms and on blogs, and in countless other ways that all turn out not to be your church. And I think at this point, it is becoming pretty obvious why that is.
It is not, as you mockingly suggest, because they find themselves “uniquely fascinating,” but rather because they find us, and our congregations, predictably close-minded and judgmental.
I thought he eloquently said what I wanted to say on the subject, and pretty much hit it out of the park. But the “SBNR people are rabidly individualistic” meme is alive and well, and among people that hold the key to the problem in their hands, as I learned yesterday. I’m in a workshop on preaching and worship for the future church, by Mike Piazza of the Center for Progressive Renewal, formerly pastor of the largest LGBTQ congregation in the world, and it’s terrific, and I am inspired and aided by almost everything he says. He brought up the SBNR briefly, though, and made the same complaint about individualism. The applause made it clear that a lot of UUs agree with him.
I wasn’t clapping, because as irritating as “I can do it all by myself” religion is, I don’t think that it is the main impulse behind “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” My congregation is full of people who describe themselves the same way. Hell, I would describe myself the same way if I didn’t have a lifetime’s experience of religious community’s being a place for my spirit to flourish: a nurturer of spirituality, not its enemy. But that isn’t what many Americans think of when they hear “religion.” They hear–and this information was shared, later, by Rev. Piazza himself–
People in churches demonize everything outside the churches. (Rev. Daniel walked right into that one.)
It sets itself up as an opponent of science and intellectual thought.
Now, it’s easy enough for me to see why someone would conclude that their spiritual life was not going to be helped along by such an institution. Your average American has very good reason to think that churches are hotbeds of judgment, homophobia, and anti-scientific superstition. And the Barna Group study that yielded the above responses (it’s titled “You Lost Me”) wasn’t even of people who haven’t ever gone to church–it was a study of young people who grew up in Christian churches and left. As for Unitarian Universalism, as Rev. Piazza challenged us, we are none of these things (except sometimes boring) and very few people know we exist. Whose fault is that, and who’s responsible for turning it around?
If people don’t know that there is a religion that affirms the explorations of science; that celebrates our whole lives including our sexuality, regardless of sexual orientation; that is not concerned with defending its own dogma and doctrines; well, it’s mostly because we have hidden our own light under a bushel for all these years. Too many of us, which is why I don’t give in to the temptation to lie about my profession on airplanes, but tell those who ask that I’m a Unitarian Universalist minister. And when they start witnessing to me about their faith, which happens as often as their saying “I’m spiritual but not religious,” I tell them about us: that my congregation welcomes humanists and atheists (including me) as well as theists and Christians, that we encourage people to follow their own spiritual impulses in community, that we see the Bible as a document created by and for humans, that science and our observations of nature are one of the sources of our tradition, and of course, that we unreservedly affirm LGBTQ people (again including me). The very public fight for gay rights is helping to undermine the stereotype, I think–many of us have turned the media framing of “gays versus religion” to “look, here are religions that support gays,” and all those photos in the press of UU ministers, in collars and stoles to make it abundantly clear that they are ministers, officiating at the weddings of same-sex couples, are surely having an impact. Now we also have to let everyone–those outside and those inside our walls–know that we are a home for deep spiritual exploration.
Which is to say, we need to make sure we’re not boring. Time for me to get back to my preaching and worship class.
I’ve been following Ryan Bell’s Year Without God on and off, on Facebook and his blog. I’d heard him preach at a conference for clergy involved in PICO and been very impressed by this Seventh Day Adventist pastor and his passion for economic justice, so when I heard about his year-long experiment in “challeng[ing] his beliefs and let[ting] the world watch,” as his girlfriend Rebecca Pratt summarized it, there was no question but that I’d be among the watchers.
Now, the year has ended, Bell is firmly humanist and atheist, and the responses from many Christians, especially Adventists, are predictable: a sense of loss (“Very sad”), concern for his well-being (“I will pray for him”), anger (“He has made a calculated and sharp deal with his Master”), dismissal (“It is apparent that Brother Bell was living a lie for much of his life“), condescension (“Send him a Bible”), and running through them all, a powerful assumption that no one can be happy without the kind of belief that they themselves have (“Sad, dark and empty life”).
It’s tempting to see these responses as evidence that his former co-religionists are a particularly smug and self-righteous lot, and that if the tables were turned–if, say, a Unitarian Universalist became a Methodist–we liberal-religionists wouldn’t respond this way. However, I’m afraid many would.
Would we be able to let them go to their new spiritual home without criticizing it–“Christianity is just a myth–I prefer reality”? Would we insist on rewriting their life story–“You must not have understood science to begin with”? Would we proclaim our superiority with statements such as “Well, some people need a crutch”?
I cited the Christians whose responses to Bell’s journey have been defensive and judgmental. Fortunately, many others seem secure enough in their own faith to wish him only the best, accepting that spiritual paths other than their own might lead to a person’s being good, happy, and fulfilled. I hope every Unitarian Universalist who ever meets an ex-UU will do likewise. “Not all those who wander are lost,” we seekers like to say. And not all who choose a different path than ours are heading in the wrong direction.
This morning I was behind a car whose bumper sticker read,
IMAM AZIZ MUHAMMAD HIGH SCHOOL
Home of the Jihadis
As I got closer and we waited at the light, I realized I’d misread it. It said,
ARCHBISHOP RIORDAN HIGH SCHOOL
Home of the Crusaders
Whew. That’s all right, then.
Renee Ruchotzke wrote about them well: services that cruelly promise inspiration but deliver a lecture and inexpert music instead. People come seeking spiritual sustenance and, after hearing an address on beekeeping, “cross this church off [their] list.” Unitarian Universalist congregations have a bad habit of giving people time in the pulpit as an act of kindness–kindness to the speaker, but not to the listeners–and letting their concerns for quality go by the wayside, especially in summer.
This summer, I was a spiritual seeker far from home and eager to go to church while on vacation, and from that experience I gained a nugget to add to Renee’s wisdom. It isn’t enough to offer a service full of inspiration; you have to make it clear, from your publicity, that that’s what it’s going to be.
I was in a city where I know nothing about the congregation, and what I saw on the website was an address by the director of a local community organization, talking about . . . the work of his organization. The title didn’t pose a question or suggest that the sermon was going to try to answer any. Now, it’s possible that his address was deeply spiritual. The blurb describing the service said something about the way we all need the arts, and that could be the heart of a heart-centered sermon, but it sounded an awful lot like a standard spiel by a passionate advocate of a good cause. We all know them. Once in a while they are terrific, which is to say, they think about the audience and address their needs. More often, they are barely disguised appeals for funds, or just general support for their cause. No matter how excellent the cause, this is not the kind of thing I want to hear at the best of times (just send me your brochure, please; I can read it in two minutes, rather than listen to the 20-minute equivalent), and certainly not in lieu of spiritual reflection and guidance for my life. There is a time and place at church for community organizations to talk about their work: Wednesday evening, in the Emerson Room. Not Sunday at 10 a.m. in the sanctuary.
If I’d been a few minutes away, I might have risked it. But to get there, I was going to have to negotiate the bus system of an unfamiliar system and travel 50 minutes each way, and I just wasn’t willing to put that kind of effort into attending a lecture. So if it wasn’t a lecture, I’m sorry. I hope whoever writes the newsletter the next time will remember that what they are about to write is all their visitors know about that Sunday’s service. Ask yourselves: is this really a worship service? If it isn’t, please reschedule it for a different time. If it is, make sure it sounds like it from the publicity. Because if it isn’t enticing, many of us are just going to stay home.
A brief prayer from The Left Hand of Darkness comes to me often. On the planet Gethen, in the book, it’s from the Handdara; here on Earth, it sounds like something from process theology. I was moved to say it by today’s photo on NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day:
“Praise Creation unfinished!”
One could write a book (and I’m sure many have) on Emily Dickinson’s complex attitude toward prayer. I’m reading all of her poems in order, and the one I read today, #576, is more straightforward than many in its treatment of prayer:
I prayed, at first, a little Girl,
Because they told me to —
But stopped, when qualified to guess
How prayer would feel — to me —
If I believed God looked around,Each time my Childish eye
Fixed full, and steady, on his own
In Childish honesty —
And told him what I’d like, today,And parts of his far plan
That baffled me —
The mingled side
Of his Divinity —
And often since, in Danger,
I count the force ‘twould be
To have a God so strong as that
To hold my life for me
Till I could take the Balance
That tips so frequent, now,
It takes me all the while to poise —
And then — it doesn’t stay —
She no longer believes in the God of her childhood, but she feels the lack. It’s interesting that the way it feels to live without that strong God isn’t expressed as pain, fear, sorrow, loss, or even uncertainty, but lack of balance. Maybe this poem isn’t as straightforward as I thought at first. Dickinson has a way of doing that. Whatever poise a reader possesses, she disturbs it, almost as if she set out on purpose to do it.
Inspired by an exchange on the UU Growth Lab
We Unitarian Universalists sometimes assume that people in other religions are “more comfortable with hypocrisy” or “comfortable pretending to believe things they don’t believe.” That must be true of some people, but I don’t think that it is a fair or true way to explain why many people remain in religious communities where they don’t believe in the whole package. I stayed involved in Judaism for years after developing serious doubts, and I can articulate several reasons why.
The rituals were beautiful and still meaningful to me in many ways. Some of the meanings were about a vision of God or human destiny that I didn’t believe anymore, but many others were still consonant with my beliefs. Also, the rituals and practices were very wrapped up in family life. I hadn’t lighted the Shabbas candles with my family for all those years only because I believed that God commanded us to rest; I had done it as part of a treasured family gathering, a time of togetherness and mutual blessing. Absenting myself from that would have been removing myself from a special meal at week’s end lit by the glow of candlelight, the beginning of a day we committed to spend together and with gathered friends, instead of scattered all over town on various errands and activities. Dropping the practices that had lost much of their meaning was not as simple as “don’t go to services anymore” or “eat whatever you like.”
The things that I still did believe in, and the values that my religion helped me to practice, were so important to me that I was not willing to give them up just because there were also elements of the religion that appalled me. I knew of no other community that would support these values and beliefs–not yet. I certainly knew of no other community that would support these values and beliefs in the context of a culture that I had known from birth, that is shared by my ancestors, and that goes back thousands of years, and I still don’t. (I finally decided that I would have to do without that. It was a sad, painful choice.)
So there I was, going to synagogue, participating in many aspects of Jewish life. I was not pretending. All the people closest to me knew about my struggles with my faith. Some knew sooner than others, and of course the people sitting in the next row at shul might not have known at all, and might have assumed that because I was singing along with the service, I believed what they believed. That bothered me, but it’s not as if every person in a synagogue believes exactly the same thing even at the best of times. I’m sure some of them had similar internal struggles to mine.
I eventually left, but I don’t think that I am truer to myself than others who shared my doubts but chose to remain. People may stay for a lifetime in a religion that is not a perfect fit, because it’s the best fit. We don’t get to create religions from scratch, not if we want things like 5,000-year-old roots; we choose from a limited list of options. I’m really no different today than anyone who chooses an imperfect religion (or job or place to live or marriage or . . . ). Unitarian Universalism suits me very well, but not perfectly. Just the same, I’m staying here. Does that make me insincere? Of course not.
There are good reasons for people to stay in a religion with which they have profound disagreements. If that’s strange to us, perhaps instead of assuming that they are faking it, we could approach them with curiosity and compassion and inquire about what they seek and what they have found.
In a great addition to our Sunday services, our Associate Minister of Religious Education, Dan Harper, is going to be doing something special in the 9:30 service three Sundays a month. This past Sunday morning he led a chant, a quasi-call-and-response called “Have You Got the Spirit?”
Have you got the spirit? / Oh yeah!
Let me see it in your head!
He drafted our music director to stand beside him and lead the congregational part, and we all shook our heads and waved our arms as called upon. As in education, there are theories that worship should engage the whole person–you want elements that use different modes and appeal to different aspects of ourselves. This one had laughter, using our bodies, music (rhythm), camaraderie, and definitely lots of spirit.
Return engagement is this Sunday, 9:30 a.m. Oh yeah!
Several years ago, several months B.B. (Before Blog), I addressed our Humanist Group, sometimes known as the Humanist Roots Group, which has a potluck one Saturday evening a month followed by a discussion of an interesting topic. The description I sent out to the Humanist Roots Group was:
Science and Religion: What’s the Problem? What’s the Solution?
When we talk about the conflict between science and religion, what do we mean by religion? Both those who see them as hopelessly conflicting AND those who try to show they’re compatible often get it wrong, in our presenter’s opinion. Their trouble is that they don’t know about Unitarian Universalism!
I’m moved to post my presentation now because I just read a quote from Sam Harris, who is emphatically not my favorite “new atheist”; I think he is arrogant, illogical, and Islamophobic (he of course says there is no such thing as Islamophobia). Others can take him on about his views of Islam (as Glenn Greenwald has done), and arrogance is I suppose a matter of taste. However, I have a lot to say about the logic.
“Your problem is with fundamentalist witchcraft. It’s much more nuanced than that. There’s no conflict between witchcraft and science.”
Now, replace witchcraft with religion, and you have the kind of criticisms I receive. (Source: “Sam Harris Makes an Excellent Analogy for Religion,” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TPuS9-IhpPs)
I do not agree that “witchcraft” is an excellent analogy for religion, and while I was fuming about the shame that one of atheism’s most prominent representatives is this irrational and impermeable to evidence, I realized I’d written out my thoughts on the subject way back when I had my lovely evening with the Humanist Group, on February 7, 2009. The presentation itself was not given from a word-for-word text. What follows is the text I used. I wish I had a record of the Q & A and discussion that followed, but alas, I do not.
It’s Evolution Weekend, at least here at UUCPA. Most of the 900 congregations that are involved are celebrating it next week, but among other considerations, I wanted to make my Feb. 8 sermon match up with the Humanist potluck. Besides, this way we’ll all have done our profound thinking about Darwin and Lincoln BEFORE their bicentennial this coming Thursday.
I have long been interested in the supposed conflict between science and religion. I say supposed not because it isn’t real, because it obviously is. Look how many people don’t accept the basic truth of evolution by natural selection—and it’s not because the idea is so difficult to grasp, or that there isn’t plenty of evidence, or that the rival ideas that first challenged it are fighting for prominence (such as that changes in species come mostly from creatures’ passing along acquired characteristics). It’s that they feel that they need to choose between accepting evolution and accepting the teachings of their religious traditions—and with good reason, because there are a lot of religious voices out there telling them exactly that. The reason I say the supposed conflict is that while some religion is implacably opposed to science, or some of the findings of science, it is a grave mistake to assume that religion per se is in conflict with the scientific method per se. And yet you hear that from both fundamentalists and scientists.
Exhibit A: any creationist you care to name. Religion is about faith; it shouldn’t try to follow the scientific method; and when it comes to discerning reality, it trumps science.
Exhibit B: Richard Dawkins, who routinely says things like “Any belief in miracles is flat contradictory not just to the facts of science but to the spirit of science” by way of dismissing all religion. He really seems not to know that there might be religions that are as skeptical about miracles as he is. I know he is partly posturing when he makes assertions like “What makes anyone think that ‘theology’ is a subject at all?” (“The Emptiness of Theology,” Free Inquiry, Volume 18, Number 2) but despite his assertions, I don’t think he knows what happens in a theology class.
Or, to a lesser extent, Daniel Dennett, who despite working at a Universalist university doesn’t seem to know about liberal religion. He touches on its potential briefly at the end of Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, which is an improvement, but the book is 500 pages long and he gives it a few dismissive paragraphs at the end.
My solution lies right here, at this church, and at any Unitarian Universalist church. I think we are living proof that religion and science are compatible because they use fundamentally the same approach to knowledge and have fundamentally the same aims. And because where this is not true—where they diverge in their aims—those aims are in separate spheres that are not contradictory or incompatible.
So, to delve into the conflict, let me give an imaginary dialogue to illustrate what happens. You can take notes about which principles of scientific method are being trampled along the way.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
A creationist [I don’t like their dodge terms, such as “creation science” or “intelligent design”]—a creationist makes the following argument.
The world and all its creatures were created several thousand years ago, in six days, by divine fiat. Evolution of humankind by natural selection is simply impossible; it would have taken millions of years. [As an aside: I know there are “old earth” creationists. Their arguments are just as invalid, but this one is the quickest to refute.]
Scientist says: But what about fossils?
Creationist says: Fossils could easily have been placed there by God. God can do anything, you know.
Scientist: Why on earth would God do such a thing?
Creationist: The Lord works in mysterious ways. Who are we to fathom the mind of the Creator?
The scientist, now on the verge of tearing out what hair he has left—everyone knows scientists are men with more bald spot than hair—says, then that’s not a falsifiable theory. You could always say God changed the evidence and covered his tracks—it explains everything and therefore nothing.
The creationist says, Look, friend, “We do not know how the Creator created, what processes He used, for he used processes which are not now operating anywhere in the natural universe. This is why we refer to creation as Special Creation. We cannot discover by scientific investigation anything about the creative processes used by the Creator.” (Evolution — The Fossils Say No! 40)
Aha, says the scientist. You see, you’re not doing science at all. You’re just looking for the “facts” that fit your beliefs, and when you’re presented with facts that seem to contradict them, you say, right, we can’t do this via science. So are you a scientist or aren’t you?
The creationist counters, We are both searching for truth. You find it in your carbon dating and your paleontological digs; I find it in the holy word of the Lord God of heaven and earth. You lose.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
Around this time the scientist is ready to throw the creationist out a stained glass window, and the whole church, every church, every religion ever, out after him. Which is where I’d like to step in and say a word for a different kind of religion. But first, a little analysis of what just happened here.
Science clashes with creationism (and other wrong, religion-based ideas) on several points:
-In science, hypotheses have to be falsifiable. (This is, by the way, a place where we do science education quite badly. I bet not one-quarter of the high school graduates in this country could tell you what falsifiability is or why it’s a positive, not a negative, term. But I digress.)
-Repeatability (I actually think this may be a tricky one for our religion but I think I’m not going to go there tonight. It is a minor point.)
-They have to follow reason.
-They have to gather evidence without being biased by their hypothesis, and discard a hypothesis when evidence contradicts it.
(All of these are ideals in science, too; there is actually documentation of a disturbing level of faked data. But I think the point remains, in that all scientists would agree that faked data is a violation of science.)
The type of religion our fictional scientist is grappling with doesn’t give a fig leaf for falsifiability, reason, etc. Just look at the dialogue.
Falsifiability: that business with fake fossils. They’re to test our faith, or something. Keep us guessing. Whatever. It’s certainly possible that there is an omnipotent being out there messing with our heads, but it’s completely unfalsifiable. God as Q, if you’re a Star Trek: The Next Generation fan. The Flying Spaghetti Monster.
Reason: “God can do anything,” so there’s no need to worry about whether an assertion makes sense.
Evidence: Evidence is ignored when it contradicts the conclusion they’ve already reached. (This is a tempting one for scientists too, but at least we have the ideal that they’re WRONG when they give in to it. Instead of that “faith in things unseen” is what science is ABOUT.)
What (my) religion and science have in common.
My fictional creationist was right—religion and science are both ways to truth. But his religion doesn’t lead there, in my view and I’m sure all of yours.
But religion is about discovering truth, and that’s a major reason I go to church, and furthermore, I apply the scientific method to all of the ideas I consider.
Is it reasonable?
Is it falsifiable?
For example, I am very interested in the question of whether God exists, or rather, what kind of God could exist and be compatible with reason and the evidence of my senses. And so I have long ago concluded that there cannot be a God who is Creator of all that is, omnipotent, and good. They are mutually exclusive. IMO.
What truths does religion give us that science doesn’t?
(1) Metaphorical and mythological truths—what I would classify with poetry and literature.
Fundamentalists deny this because they think it’s an insult to their source of revelation to suggest that it is “just a story,” or just a record of human history; they’re even more insulted when it’s given equal space on the shelf with the Buddhist Sutras, The Lord of the Rings, the collected works of Emily Dickinson, the Norse myths, etc. All of which I value highly as sources of spiritual insight.
Dawkins, by the way, is also completely dismissive of this, distinguishing it from science this way: “At the present we think DNA really is a double helix. If ever that’s found to be false we throw it out of the window and we start again, and we don’t try to rediscover some inner symbolic meaning, which is exactly what they’re trying to do with things like the Book of Genesis. They have thrown it out as historical fact, which is what it always was thought to be, and which many of its authors presumably intended it to be — and they have now replaced it with a symbolic meaning: the true meaning of the Book of Genesis is this that or the other. You know the kind of thing I’m talking about. I think that it is a waste of time. I think it’s nonsense” (PBS interview). Well, I don’t, and if he has a tin ear when it comes to myths and symbols, fine, he doesn’t have to listen. But I think much of the richness of religious traditions is that they preserve those stories.
Clearly he thinks it’s just a dodge, and often it is; but it isn’t always.
I think he is right in saying what science would do with the double helix, and I think that that’s what science should do. But I wouldn’t want to then throw out the spiritual significance of the spiral—which also means a lot to me.
By the way, I hear this quite a bit in UU churches as well. People who are perfectly happy to hear me spin a sermon off a metaphor in a Robert Frost poem get very nervous when I do the same thing with the story of a Greek god. As if because that piece of human storytelling came out of a religious milieu, it should be struck from our lexicon, or at least confined to a museum–as if there is the remotest danger that someone there is going to start believing that some supernatural beings are actually hanging around on top of Mt. Olympus, or that I’m advocating that we believe it. I sympathize with those who are allergic to religious language, but it’s part of my job to recognize that not everyone has or should have the same sensitivity.
(2) Morality. (The biggie)
Science is not sufficient for living our lives because it is purely descriptive. Evolution, particularly natural selection, is an interesting case—people have used it to justify all sorts of human behavior. No sooner was there Darwinism than there was Social Darwinism: the attitude that because the weak fall away (on average, you understand) in the process of natural selection, in human society it is wrong for the strong to sustain the weak. This is not only pernicious and evil, it does not follow.
Hume again: “’Tis impossible that the distinction betwixt moral good and evil can be made by reason.” (Treatise of Human Nature, Book 3, Part 1) You can’t reason from is to ought, from what is a fact to what we ought to do. We need facts to make ethical decisions, but they aren’t sufficient.
We don’t NEED religion in order to make moral decisions, but it does illustrate why science is not enough. And it’s another reason I go to church—to help me sort out what I ought to do and ought not to do.
There are of course many other reasons for religion: to gather in community, to have ways to mark important life passages, to unite to work for social change, etc. I’m not really focusing on them because I don’t think they are the crux, and since I’m not trying to debate Richard Dawkins (thank the Flying Spaghetti Monster), I’m not giving a justification for religion. Another time.
Crucial note: these go under what Stephen Jay Gould called NOMA, non-overlapping magisteria. Religion deals with morality; science doesn’t.
Some things people commonly say religion entails (whether they say it as a compliment or an insult), but I disagree:
(1) Supernaturalism. (Esp., supernatural explanations.) Religion does not have to have any element of the supernatural.
(2) The “why” behind origins. Why is there life instead of no life? For what purpose were we created? Some religions try to answer this, but my own view is that those are not important questions, and I don’t come to church to try to find answers to them. Dennett thinks this is what religion is trying to do, so he starts his book with “Tell Me Why”: “Because God made the stars to shine,” etc. That is a sweet little song, but has zero to do with my religion, and is in fact really bad theology.
A Unitarian Universalist friend and I were talking about class tensions in church, and he said that he found Water Communion hard to bear because it was so much about the places people had gone on their summer vacations.
Oh yeah. I’ve been to some Water Communions that felt that way too. It is so easy for our ingathering ceremony, in which people bring water and pour it into a communal bowl, to turn into a “what I did on my summer vacation” recitation, which can make the ritual obliviously exclusive of those who don’t have summer homes, or summer vacations, or the money for airfare, or the luxury to stop working for even one week out of the year. What a shame; it’s so opposite of what the Water Communion can be.
The core symbolism of the Water Communion is that we all come from water: as a species on a planet where life began in the ocean, as mammals who float in amniotic fluid as we are readied for birth, as beings whose cells are mostly water. And yet we are separate from each other, and we have been apart–since there tends to be a slowing-down, a different rhythm in the summer months, even in churches that have services and religious education right on through the summer–and now we are reuniting. We are separate and together, the way water scatters into rain and streams and clouds and springs and ponds and puddles and yet flows together again and again, one great planetary ocean. Not only is no drop of water superior to any other; all water comes from the same place.
So the class issue is only a part of what’s awry with the “where I went this summer” approach to the ritual. Even if everyone in the world had a summer home in Provence, “This water comes from our summer home in Provence” would not be what I wanted this ceremony to be about. It’s so trivial, whereas “We are separate beings and yet all one” is one of the profoundest truths we try to encompass.
I’ve deliberately shaped our Water Communion at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto (UUCPA) with these concerns in mind, and that conversation with my friend made me realize that other UUs could learn from that process, so I’m going to share it here. I’d also like to learn from readers: judging by this description, or by your experience of UUCPA’s Water Communion if you’ve been there, have we succeeded? And what do you do in your congregation to keep our attention focused on the deepest meanings of the Water Communion?
Here are some dos and don’ts that have guided me.
Don’t: have an open mike where everyone describes where the water came from. Not only is this impractical for any but the smallest congregations, but it just about orders people to say “We brought this from the Mediterranean, where we went on a beautiful cruise.”
Do: provide a way for people to share the significance of the water they’ve brought, and have a leader or leaders share a precis. Doing this has allowed me to rephrase people’s descriptions in a way that honors the most important aspects, while playing down the others. So, for example, if someone writes, “This water comes from our family’s summer home on Cape Cod, where I’ve gone since I was a small child visiting my grandparents–this year I was there with my grandchildren,” I might share, “Water from the Atlantic Ocean,” or “Water from a place made sacred by five generations of one family,” or “Water from a multigenerational family gathering,” or some combination of those.
Do: frequently model modest origins for your own water. I usually bring mine from my home tap, even if I’ve been somewhere exotic. (In the spirit of full disclosure, one reason is that when I do travel, I always forget to bring back a little bottleful . . . !)
Do: make reference to the water’s many sources. At UUCPA, we have banners that artistically express the four directions and elements; sometimes we use those in this service and people pour their water into a bowl under one of the banners. They can have a time of meditation to think about where their water comes from, symbolically or literally, and choose the direction/element accordingly. Jane Altman Page wrote nice words to accompany something like that here, on the Worship Web.
Don’t: just pour the water down the drain. While keeping it in the water cycle, that doesn’t honor the sacredness of the ritual. People are bringing something of themselves when they bring that “water from a special day at the beach” or “tap water from my great-grandfather’s house,” so it’s important to let them know that it will be treated with due reverence.
Do: do something important with the water. For example, carry it out ceremoniously after the service and water a special tree. . . . Bless it and invite everyone to put it on their foreheads / hands / feet / hearts. . . . We save some of ours for dedications throughout the year, and pour some in from last year’s dedication water so that the water is now gathered from many years of rituals (does anyone else do this? I don’t even remember if I came up with that idea, or inherited it on arriving in Palo Alto). I usually pour the rest out on our grounds with some words of thanks and praise. (A comment by a church member just reminded me of another possibility: invite people to bring some of the mingled water home, the way we do with the flowers at Flower Sunday, and encourage them to mindfully use it, e.g., to water a plant.)
Do: frame the ritual in terms of its larger meanings. There are so many. Our Minister of Religious Education, Dan Harper, has done a wonderful, geeky demonstration of just how many molecules of water we’re talking about, and how big a number that is. (Remember, we’re serving in Silicon Valley. When you ask, “Are there any geeks here who can come hold this paper for me?,” many hands shoot up.) He uses that to prove our literal interdependence. The year Water Communion was preceded by Hurricane Katrina, we had to talk about the destructive power of water, and that was a chance to go into some theological depth.
And, if you’re reminding folks about Water Communion now, as summer starts, don’t emphasize that they should bring their water back from special travels. There’s no need to mention travel at all. This year, my reminder in the newsletter said “We bring water from the places of our lives.”
I’d love to hear what others do.