The other day I attended a zoom based meeting of a clergy group I’ve long belonged to. Its origins are as a Universalist clergy Lenten retreat, but wildly evolved since. Mostly its a small group of people invited into an annual gathering with an implied commitment to that annual gathering for as close to a life time as possible.
At that meeting we discussed next steps for a small group having, frankly, a historic purpose with dwindling interest. The lens through which several offered us to examine the issue was white supremacy. There is no doubt this old organization could be honestly engaged that way.
And, I felt more than a little hesitancy. A bit of a personal red flag when I am hesitant around a challenge to the way things have been in something I care about. There’s a general rule of thumb. One needs to be careful when one has such visceral responses to things that involve challenges to the social group one belongs to. Mighty easy to slip away from the true but unpleasant. Our defenses are near endless when we don’t want to be challenged. And I can fall into several of the pits on offer. Have in the past. Will in the future. No doubt.
And, it touched on a rising concern for me in my own life.
I’ve long since put my finger on the fact that much of what religion is about is social cohesion. I’ve actually used the phrase “crowd control.” With all the judgement that entails. And, at its “worse,” and there is a lot of that worse, it is crowd control. It brings the weight of myth reenforced with various purity codes to mark out the group, to define who is in, and, of course, who is out. By the nature of purity, the list of people being excluded can range from those who are left handed or have the wrong color hair to feeling physical attractions outside of established norms or are unable or unwilling to assent to an assertion about what is true. Lots of ways to sort goats and sheep.
This is a powerful thing. So powerful that as we live within it, it can be nearly impossible to even see it happening. It is just “the way things are.” Like fish in water. We sheep. Those goats. Unless we want to be the goats. And then, well, they are the sheep. “We” and “they” being the important words.
How we notice, how we can notice these things about being part of a culture is a worthy subject. But actually beyond this moment. I just assert we can, and on occasion we do. What I would add is that seeing this a little, we often think we see it clearly. I suspect we never see very clearly. It is always through that famous glass, darkly.
Generally I’ve posited this crowd control thing in opposition to the mystical impulse, that other really important part of religions. The drive to find the true, in Abrahamic traditions to know God, in Hinduism to discover atman, in my Zen tradition to find my face from before my parents were born. I am most concerned with this quest. It has always been the principal driver of my life. And as I age this has only grown stronger.
But, the bigger work of religion is about social cohesion. What I find unsavory is that crowd control, especially when it ends up oppressing people. At the same time this part of religion is where we find the calls for social and individual liberation. One of those many ironies we run into in life. The ancient Hebrew prophets railing against excesses of the rich, the wondrous teacher Jesus telling people to sell what they have and to give it to the poor. Hints of this upsetting the social order as a part of the social cohesion work of religion are found littered throughout the world’s religions. With greater or lesser emphasis.
This is a good thing. This is a powerful thing. This is what might help humanity make it through this astonishing thing we are now falling fully into, the Anthropocene. If anything will get us through, it almost certainly will come from this part of human society. It will have to have the power of religious fervor.
I feel fortunate that a significant part of my spiritual life arose because I knew I needed to honor the social component of a religious life. Even if it wasn’t the driver for my inner life. And with that even though I had a serious Zen practice I decided to join a Unitarian Universalist church. My small joke was that Zen had a strong practice but at that time and place little social expression, while UUs were all about community, but had little discernible spirituality. Together a wonderful whole. For me. For much of a life.
So, there we were at this meeting. And there was the offer of a way to look at the problem we’re facing. And there was my hesitance. What this, and a number of similar encounters has pushed me toward is noticing how the sands are slipping through the glass marking my life, and needing to focus more on some things and letting go of others. Where do I put my energy?
I’ve told friends over the many years that if they want to do the work of justice they need a spiritual discipline, they need an anchor and the gift of a North Star. Otherwise, as the Japanese expression tells us vision without action is a dream, but action without vision is a nightmare. Some have listened. I’ve attempted to do this. And, I’m proud of how in my professional life I actually have been a part of some work that has been of genuine use. For a moment. In a place and time. A glad place to spend that small gift of energy.
And there’s more. And there are those sand slipping through the glass…
My problem is articulating the deep call of my heart to the fundamental matter. I think it fair always to challenge my feelings when they lead to specific decisions. Or, away from things. The poor, as the good rabbi told us, will always be with us. And I cannot turn away from that. Or racism. Or homophobia and the related. Or sexism. Or, the looming ecological catastrophe.
And. Near as I can tell the deepest calling of our humanity is to open up into the mystery. It certainly is the driver of my life. The call to return home that was planted in our hearts when we birthed into this world. Increasingly I find it is all about turning toward witnessing and letting go, witnessing and letting go, doing something, then witnessing and letting go.
And then there’s that letting go. Noticing white supremacy is important. It’s a very important part of my personal commitment to seeing as clearly as possible. It’s important for me to notice. And, of course, to let go. Letting go is as important as noticing. Right and wrong are important things. But there is also a place where our judgments no longer matter.
The heart of the ancient disciplines is learning how to let go in ways that are healthy, and not in ways that simply contribute to more suffering.
A lot of letting go in my life. So many ways to be wrong. And only a handful of ways to be right. To be useful. To be part of healing.
What is the most important thing for our little group to attend to, is another question with many ways to be wrong, and not so many to be right. We were founded in an affinity for a spiritual perspective called Universalism. A peculiar, most American religious perspective. It is also, I believe, a peculiarly American expression of the ancient insight into our true nature. There is a secret within the Universalist impulse, the secret is who we really are. And how we really are connected.
Universalism can be examined through any number of lenses, many totally appropriate. And I think as painful as it can be, looking at white supremacy within Universalism and our little gathering of Universalists is worthy. We should do this.
And. Another worthy thing is how we can find ways to examine the many ills of the world and our particular culture through the lens of Universalism. This may even be more important. To take the ancient wisdoms that are constantly on offer, and hopefully have touched our hearts, and to see how they can inform our choices in life, our choices in society. Looking. Witnessing. Letting go.
I hope our little band continues in its promise to gather over and over again so long as we live. Or, as close to that, as possible. I hope we continue to draw others into this band. Ideally people bringing fresh perspectives on that ancient intuition.
To be present. To each other. To the world.
Finding the clear space of our hearts.
Who knows where that might lead? To what kinds of healing?