A Humanist Perspective: Unitarian Universalism’s Six Sources
By Jerry Lusa, Sunday Services Committee
This summer’s UUS:E ministry theme is the six sources from which the UU tradition draws its principles. When I consider the sources, what stands out for me, grammar aside, is how much they are seated in our imagination and the imaginations of others. Let’s have a look…
1. Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life;
Direct experience by itself is actually not from our imagination. In fact, experience is the opposite of imagination. Imagination is defined as “the act or power of forming a mental image of something not present in the senses or never wholly perceived in reality.”
When the first source talks of direct experience, it refers to specific kinds of experience: that of mystery and wonder. We’re walking a fine line here. We can feel mystery and wonder without forming mental images – this is unadulterated emotion, but how often do we leave it at that and bask in primal awe? Or we can feel mystery and wonder and then conjure up imagery in the form of metaphors, analogies, nostalgia, and the like. And the resulting imagery can lead to other mysteries and wonder, like a mysterious dog chasing its own wonderful tail.
2. Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love;
When we hear or read of the words and deeds of prophetic women and men, we rely on our imagination to construct meaning. Our imaginations are like a computer’s memory in which we build ideas as we try to understand them. We can decide if we want to let our imaginations wander wide of the prophetic message, or to focus on the prophesy and understand its original intent. Either way we are experiencing our own imaginings.
3. Wisdom from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life;
In past decades I would have said “ditto” here, but the term has lost its luster of late. Like with the words and deeds of prophetic women and men, wisdom from the world’s religions first passes through our imaginations before we take inspiration from them.
4. Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves;
By itself, loving our neighbors as ourselves is pure emotion and doesn’t require imagination. Then again, there are some neighbors… (be nice Jerry). Once we start reading or hearing those teachings, our imaginations come alive and where it will lead us is anyone’s guess.
5. Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit;
Do science and reason reside in our imaginations? They are nothing if not imagination! It takes a great deal of imagination to understand mathematics, electromagnetic fields, chemical reactions, or the dance of DNA that makes life. To understand them well, we amend our own imaginings and learn to understand the imaginations of others who have built up human knowledge. When we ignore the science and reason that others have discovered, we run the risk of idolizing our own imaginations.
6. Spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.
The sacred circle of life and the rhythms of nature: some feel them, some imagine them, and for many there’s some of each. In his early book titled Biophilia, Edward O. Wilson, the “Darwin” of our times, makes the case that we instinctively connect with nature. Wilson defined ‘biophilia’ as “the innate tendency [in human beings] to focus on life and lifelike process. To an extent still undervalued in philosophy and religion, our existence depends on this propensity, our spirit is woven from it, hopes rise on its currents.”
A Buddhist Perspective: Direct Experience
By Nancy Thompson,
UUS:E Buddhist Group
One of Unitarian Universalism’s Six Sources is “direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, that moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces that create and uphold life.” Buddhism says direct, personal experience of the Buddha’s teachings is essential in walking the path to liberation from suffering.
The Buddha often ended his talks by saying, “Don’t believe anything just because I tell you it is like this. Investigate it for yourself and see if you find truth in it. Only then should you believe in it.” (That’s a paraphrase.)
It’s said that studying the dharma, the Buddha’s teachings, without putting them into practice is like reading a recipe but not preparing it. Reading the recipe doesn’t alleviate hunger – if anything, it may intensify it. To satisfy hunger, you have to follow the recipe. And once you’ve made it and tasted it, you may decide it would taste better if you tweak it a bit, adding more of something to increase the nutritional value or throwing in a complementary ingredient. Then it has value to you.
That’s what UUs do when they undertake “a free and responsible search for meaning.” Study it, contemplate it, try it out, and see if it holds true. And if not, what are the aspects that seem wrong or uncomfortable? Is it an old resistance or habit of thought, or is something there that’s not right?
Buddhism offers tools to facilitate this direct experience, specifically many methods of meditation. It’s said that the Buddha taught 84,000 ways to meditate in order to reach as many people as possible.
The first step, though, is always to make contact with the moment, which means dropping your stories about what is happening in the moment or what should happen in the moment, what happened before this moment began, and what will happen 20 moments from now. Finding the breath – which takes place in this moment and no other – is a handy way to do that. More broadly, being in your body (without judgments or comparisons) anchors you to the present moment and its transcendent mysteries. You can let your thoughts settle, like mud in water, to reveal the natural clarity of your being.
To find a moment, start by becoming still in whatever posture you want (sitting, standing, lying down). Feel the parts of your body, the parts that are in contact with the earth or things on the earth, the parts that are held up by your skeleton, the parts that touch clothing and the parts that touch air. Just notice. Then find your breath – see if you can locate a point where you’re most aware of it – and observe it. What is the quality of it – long, short, deep, shallow? How does the air feel in your lungs? What is it like to be a body breathing, just breathing, with no particular effort?
Maybe you can feel the transcendent wonder of the fact that all of the very complex internal systems in your body are working right now, without your effort. That your life, and all life, goes on within and without us. Maybe you want to open your eyes and look at your surroundings – you can connect with the wonder of nature without praise or blame (you can add those later when you analyze; now you’re investigating). Even in an office, the computer becomes a marvel of science, not “this outdated piece of garbage.” Your coworkers become marvels of transcendence in their own right, breathing the same air and using the same light but coming to different conclusions than you because of the causes and conditions that brought them here.
You’ll find what you find, not what I or the Buddha tell you to. It’s your experience, after all. And that’s what you should believe.