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Ecstasy and Liberal Religion

Here’s a link to an excellent essay on Huffington Post by Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, President of the Union for Reform Judaism. Here is the gist of the piece:

Americans are disenchanted with liberal religion because they crave religious passion, because they yearn for moments of religious ecstasy, and because they are disenchanted with religious institutions and leaders who spend too much time talking and who seem genuinely afraid of religious feeling.

It is understandable that UUs and other religious liberals have an aversion to enthusiastic – much less ecstatic – religion. Many of us grew up in religions where emotion was valued and reason was viewed with suspicion. I’ve seen good people have an ecstatic religious experience and then get themselves and others into all kinds of difficulties because they attempted to interpret it literally – either because they had been taught it should be viewed literally or because they knew no other way.

But just as the New Atheists are wrong to throw the baby of religion out with the dirty bathwater of fundamentalism, so are religious liberals wrong to shun emotional, passionate religious experience just because some people have gotten it wrong.

As a UU and a Pagan I have a foot in both worlds. As an engineer and a Druid, I have a foot in both worlds. I experience both worlds and I teach and speak from both worlds… or at least I try. Even when I lead rituals designed to make people really feel something, I tend to rely too much on the spoken word. Changing this requires conscious effort.

A good, rousing sermon or a beautiful ritual can make people feel – it can lead people to have a religious experience. Listening to music works better, and listening to drumming better still. Singing and dancing yourself is best of all – it engages the whole body, which makes engaging the spirit that much easier.

But… you have to be willing to let go. You have to be willing to relinquish control and let the Spirit take you where she will, even if only for a few minutes. If you are afraid of looking foolish, if you’re afraid of being judged, you aren’t likely to feel safe enough to loosen the reins. For this reason, the Denton CUUPS group saves our most ecstatic rituals for closed circles, when we know the only people there will be people who share our outlook on religious experience. But bit by bit we introduce a bit more experience into our CUUPS circles and into our Sunday UU services.

For me, reason is meat and potatoes. Ecstasy is fruit and vegetables. You can live on just meat and potatoes, or you can live on just fruit and vegetables. The question is why you would want to? You’re healthier with a wider variety of foods, and besides, variety is a lot more fun!

Some people will always be too skeptical to participate in ecstatic religion. That’s OK – there’s a place in liberal religion for them too. But we need to provide the opportunity for genuine religious experience to the increasing number of people who are seeking them.

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About John Beckett

I’m a Druid in the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids. I’m an ordained priest in the Universal Gnostic Fellowship. I’m the Coordinating Officer of the Denton, Texas Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans. This year I’m also serving as a member of the Board of Trustees of CUUPS National. I’m a member of the Denton Unitarian Universalist Fellowship.

I write as a spiritual practice. It helps me organize my thoughts and work through ideas and concepts. It helps me evaluate my beliefs and practices against my core values and against what I know (or at least, what I think I know) to be true. It helps me interpret my experiences (religious and otherwise) in ways that are both meaningful and honest.

  • Lonespark

    Yes! I agree.
    I very much enjoy and respect my UU community for the interconnection and support, the social justice actions and the tasty potlucks and the talented choir. But no church experience has ever fed my soul the way rituals to honor the gods and wights and ancestors do.


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