A Curious Ministry

Rev. Josh Pawelek

I’ve been reviewing the “literature” on curiosity. A quick Google search reveals there are quite a few recently published self-help books, new age manuals, spiritual guides, TED talks, motivational speeches, scholarly articles, cool quotes, etc. on the importance of being curious. For example, in a July, 2017 article in The Atlantic entitled “Schools Are Missing What Matters About Learning,” University of Pennsylvania psychology professor Scott Barry Kaufman says “In recent years, curiosity has been linked to happiness, creativity, satisfying intimate relationships, increased personal growth after traumatic experiences, and increased meaning in life…. Having a ‘hungry mind’ has been shown to be a core determinant of academic achievement, rivaling the prediction power of IQ.”[1]

In May, 2017, Christian minister and spiritual director Casey Tygrett published Becoming Curious: A Spiritual Practice of Asking Questions. He says, “Faith is impossible without curiosity. We don’t step out, we don’t take risks, unless we’re curious about what will happen next.” He cites research that shows young children are inherently curious, asking between three and four hundred questions a day until age four. He refers to Jesus’s admonition, “Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it,”[2] and suggests that faith is most powerful when we approach it with a child’s curiosity.[3] A recent article entitled “Nurturing a Holy Curiosity” in ByFaith, the online magazine of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A., makes a similar claim. The writer, Ann Kroeker, says “We’re all born with a God-given sense of curiosity—children exhibit it, exploring their world each moment, whether they’re batting their infant feet at a plastic spinning toy or holding a magnifying glass tight in a preschool fist to watch ants emerge from an anthill.”[4] Both Tygrett and and Kroeker point out that Jesus was curious, that throughout his brief ministry he was constantly asking questions,[5] and that with his questions he was inviting his followers to be curious as well.

By the way, that phrase, “holy curiosity,” comes from a 1955 LIFE Magazine interview with the physicist Albert Einstein. He said, “The important thing is not to stop questioning; curiosity has its own reason for existing. One cannot help but be in awe when contemplating the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of the mystery every day. The important thing is to not stop questioning; never lose a holy curiosity.”[6]

I also like a quote from the 19th-century Unitarian minister turned Transcendentalist leader, Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Curiosity is lying in wait for every secret.[7]

Then there’s the literature in quotes, the legion of self-help, new-age, pop-psychology, click-bait blog posts on curiosity. Huffpost recently published “Five Benefits of Being a Curious Person.”[8] The website Fast Company: “8 Habits of Curious People.”[9] The website Lifehack: “4 Reasons Why Curiosity is Important and How to Develop It.”[10] The Career and Life Coaching firm, Jody Michael Associates: “7 Benefits of Intellectual Curiosity.”[11] The website Experience Life published “The Power of Curiosity: Discover How Cultivating an Inquiring Mind Can Help You Lead a Happier, Healthier Life.”[12] Greater Good Magazine published “Why Curious People Have Better Relationships.”[13] It goes on and on.

Wading through all this material, we learn that curious people are more healthy, more intelligent, have more fulfilling social relationships, report greater happiness and experience a greater sense of meaning in their lives. In order to obtain these benefits we are encouraged to welcome uncertainty, seek the unfamiliar, take more risks, ask many, many questions, be more playful, channel our inner child, listen without judgement, replace our need to be right with an openness to the insights and opinions of others, never label anything as boring, read a diverse array of authors, identify and pursue our passions.

I don’t knock any of this—not even the faux-spiritual, self-help, new-age, click-bait stuff. None of it is wrong. Many of the writers reference reputable psychological studies as the basis for the claims they make. But even if they don’t, all of it—at least at a surface level—is good advice (though they don’t always explain what they mean by ‘welcoming uncertainty,’ and ‘seeking the unfamiliar’). Nevertheless, what emerges for me as I review this “literature,” is that the human quality of being curious aligns very naturally with Unitarian Universalism. Our fourth principle, “the free and responsible search for truth and meaning,”[14] implies that curiosity lives at the heart of our faith. We search because, at some level, we are curious about something we don’t know. Our emphasis on questioning conventional wisdom, questioning traditional theologies, questioning God, questioning authority, questioning the uses of power, questioning religious doctrine and dogma, questioning either/or, black/white, binary conceptions of the world—all of it implies that our liberal faith requires, even demands, a curious spirit.  

James Luther Adams, one of the more well-known Unitarian theologians of the twentieth century, once wrote that “revelation is continuous. Meaning has not been fully captured. Nothing is complete.”[15] There is always more to discover. No religion contains all truth. No scripture expresses all truth. No field of scientific inquiry explains all truth. No political party, no ideology, no world-view, no theory, no philosophy, no nation, no culture holds the entire truth. Revelation is not sealed for all time, it is continuous. In the words of American comedian, Gracie Allen. “Never place a period where God has placed a comma.” In a universe that is still unfolding, still evolving, still growing, still becoming, curiosity is an essential spiritual quality. If we want our lives to peer beyond the boundaries of the known into the unknown; if we want to cross thresholds, think new thoughts, welcome new insights; if we want access to truths that exist beyond what passes for truth here and now; if we want to keep growing in heart, mind and spirit; if we intend to continue searching for what is true and meaningful for us; then curiosity is an essential spiritual quality, and asking good questions is an essential spiritual discipline.

How might that quality and that discipline become real here, within these halls?

Virtually every Sunday I address you from this pulpit, I say the words, “Each of our lives tells a story worth knowing.” I believe these words. I repeat them purposefully to counter certain peculiar challenges of our age wherein, despite our seemingly boundless interconnectivity, it is remarkably easy for our stories to remain untold or, if told, to be ignored, forgotten, lost. I remind us that each of our lives tells a story worth knowing because we live in an age in which, regardless of one’s level of wealth and privilege, it is remarkably easy to become isolated, lonely, even abandoned. Have you noticed that Britain just appointed a new “Minister of Loneliness” to help battle the loneliness epidemic?[16]

I’m convinced that one of the reasons we become involved in religious communities—whether we admit it to ourselves or not—is so that others will acknowledge us, recognize us, value us, embrace us—so that others will know our story.  Even the shy ones among us, the ones who can’t imagine speaking on Sunday morning. Even the fearful ones, the ones carrying guilt, shame, regret, embarrassment, self-loathing. The ones recovering from addiction, mental illness, trauma. There is something in us—our deepest self, our truest self, our most authentic self—that yearns to be known, held and loved; not through status updates on Facebook, but known, held and loved by real flesh-blood-and-bone people. There is something in us that yearns to be known, held and loved, and deserves to be known, held and loved.

Sometimes the greatest ministry we offer to each other—the way we know, hold and love each other—is through encountering each other’s stories. And what inspires us to offer such a ministry? Curiosity. When we are curious about each other’s stories—really, truly, genuinely curious—when we listen with open hearts and minds—we offer a humanizing ministry, a ministry of recognition, acknowledgment, embrace.

Continuous revelation is not only out there in the natural world, in the expanding universe, or the universe of ideas. Our lives and our stories are sources of continuous revelation as well.

Earlier I shared with you a story from the Rev. Elea Kemler, about a young boy she visited in a psychiatric unit. When she visited, they would play checkers. The boy would sing as he spoke to her. “He began this musical conversation,” she writes, “on the second visit —humming under his breath as he moved his pieces — and then he started adding words. Mostly, the words were about what was happening on the board. ‘I am going to juuuuummmp you,’ he sang. ‘If I move like this, you cannot juuummmmp me,’ I sang back. I wondered if he was singing me another, truer song underneath, so I was listening carefully and trying to choose what to sing back.”[17] 

She says, “I wondered.”

Can we approach each other—in our hard times, yes, but even in our good times, our joyful times, our celebratory times—with that same sense of wonder?

I’m interested. Can you tell me…?

I’m fascinated. How did you…?

I’m intrigued. How old were you when you decided…?

May I ask you about…?

Can you tell me more?

Where are you from?

Who are your people?

Which is your child?

As a colleague, the Rev. Marta Valentin asks, “How is your heart?”

Were you scared?

How did you get through it?

What have you learned?

You had this same operation. What can you tell me about it?

‘One day at a time’—what does that really mean to you?

Do you miss her?

Do you miss him?

What’s next for you?

 I’m curious. Tell me about yourself.

I’m curious. Tell me what you’re passionate about.

I’m curious. Tell me your story.

Obviously, a person has to want to share, has to feel safe enough to share, must be willing to risk being vulnerable in that moment—our stories are so precious, our hurts so tender, our fears so raw. It may not be the right time to share. But I ask you to contemplate the difference in experience between a person who is invited to share some piece of their story and a person who never receives such an invitation. The former knows their story matters to someone, even if they can’t share. The latter cannot be sure, and may suspect they don’t matter.

Our curiosity about each other’s stories is a sign of our willingness to know, to hold, to love. Our curiosity about each other’s stories is the foundation of a caring congregation. It is also the foundation for our social and environmental justice work.

I say this because just last weekend we hosted a training in faith-based community organizing for thirty-five people from congregations across the Greater Hartford region, including six of us from UUS:E. If there is one central learning we took away from the training, it is that successful community organizing emerges out of our relationships. We’re proposing to build a powerful faith-based community organization for greater Hartford. Naturally, people ask: what are we going to do? What issues are we going to work on? What injustices are we going to confront and transform? What truth are we going to speak to power? But the trainers kept asking us a different question. “How well do you know each other?” And even before we get to know people in other congregations, they asked: “How well do you know the people in your own congregation?” “What is the quality of the relationships in your own congregation?” “Do you know each other’s stories?” “Do you know what keeps people in your congregation awake at night?”

They began training us in a very simple, but very profound tool, the one-on-one meeting—two people sitting down together, telling each other their stories, building a relationship. All throughout the training they made us practice meeting each other one-on-one. You can’t fake it. You have to be genuinely curious about a person in order to begin building a relationship with them. Without solid relationships, we’ll never build sufficient power to bring lasting social and environmental justice. With solid relationships, with a relational culture within and among congregations, we’ll be able to build the power to do virtually anything we can imagine. Our curiosity about each other matters immensely.

There’s a quote from the 20th-century Trappist monk, writer, mystic and activist, Thomas Merton, which our trainers referenced during our time together. In his autobiographical novel, My Argument with the Gestapo, Merton says, “If you want to identify me, ask me not where I live, or what I like to eat, or how I comb my hair, but ask me what I think I am living for, in detail, and ask me what I think is keeping me from living fully for the thing I want to live for. Between these two answers you can determine the identity of any person.”[18]

Do you consider yourself a curious person? I hope so. Ours is a faith for curious people. Our principles assume we are curious people. Those who believe revelation is not sealed but continuous must be curious people. I urge you to be curious about the person sitting next to you. Be curious about the person you encounter here who you’ve never met before. Be curious about people you’ve known for years—for surely you don’t know all there is to know. Be curious about their stories. Trust there is a truer song underneath. And trust that your curiosity manifests your care, builds important relationships, builds a relational culture, and creates the power necessary to fashion a more just and loving community.

 Amen and blessed be.

 

[1] Kaufman, Scott Barry, “Schools Are Missing What Matters About Learning” The Atlantic, July 24, 2017. See: https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2017/07/the-underrated-gift-of-curiosity/534573/.

[2] Luke 18:17.

[3] Tygrett, Casey, Becoming Curious: A Spiritual Practice of Asking Questions (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2017). Promotional Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IjalXouMwYo.

[4] http://byfaithonline.com/nurturing-a-holy-curiosity/.

[5] For example, consider this compilation of 135 questions Jesus asked in the Christian New Testament: https://mondaymorningreview.wordpress.com/2010/05/14/137questionsjesusasked/.

[6] Einstein, Albert, statement to William Miller, as quoted in LIFE Magazine, May 2nd, 1955.

[7] The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson: Letters and Social Aims [Vol. 8] (Boston, New York: Houghton, Mifflin, 1904) p. 226. See: https://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/emerson/4957107.0008.001/1:13?rgn=div1;view=fulltext.

[8] https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/11/09/benefits-of-being-a-curious-person_n_6109060.html.

[9] https://www.fastcompany.com/3045148/8-habits-of-curious-people.

[10] https://www.lifehack.org/articles/productivity/4-reasons-why-curiosity-is-important-and-how-to-develop-it.html.

[11] https://www.jodymichael.com/blog/7-benefits-intellectual-curiosity/.

[12] https://experiencelife.com/article/the-power-of-curiosity/.

[13] https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/why_curious_people_have_better_relationships.

[14] For a listing of the Unitarian Universalist Association principles, see: https://www.uua.org/beliefs/what-we-believe/principles.

[15] Adams, James Luther, in Stackhouse, Max L., ed., On Being Human Religiously (Boston: Beacon Press, 1977) p. 12.

[16] http://www.businessinsider.com/britain-appoints-loneliness-minister-to-combat-epidemic-2018-1.

[17] Kemler, Elea, “Another, Truer Song, published in Braver/Wiser at the Unitarian Universalist Association. See: https://www.uua.org/braverwiser/another-truer-song.

[18] Merton, Thomas, My Argument with the Gestapo: A Macaronic Journal (New York: New Direction Books, 1969) pp. 160-161.

I Can Believe

Rev. Josh Pawelek

This past summer I read Neil Gaiman’s 2001 novel American Gods. Jenn Richard recommended it back in June. It sounded like good summer reading for me, and it was. In this story all the gods are still alive. That is, any god any group of people ever brought with them to America—whether as explorers, immigrants or slaves—as well as the gods of the Native American nations, many of whom arrived in more ancient times travelling with immigrants across the Bering Strait between what are now Russia and Alaska—any god any person ever worshipped in America is still alive. Except … no one worships them anymore. Nobody remembers them. So, they lack power. They’re weak. That’s the premise: gods and goddesses are powerful when people worship them. As people forget them they fade. They don’t die, but they become shadows of their former selves. They’re immortal, but they struggle to survive. They live in dingy tenement buildings in forgotten towns. They make their livings through odd jobs, petty crime, prostitution. They aren’t particularly admirable beings.

These forgotten gods also believe they’re facing a new threat to their meager existence. Make no mistake, Americans still practice worship—but not in churches, synagogues and mosques. Neil Gaiman has something else in mind: Americans worship technology and entertainment. If our ancestors couldn’t live without their Gods, we post-moderns can’t live without our computers, televisions and cell phones. As we humans spend more and more time enmeshed with our electronic devices, turning to them not only for information, but also for comfort, companionship, guidance, and even community, our relationship to them begins to look more and more like worship. These devices—and the industries that produce and deploy them—become the new gods—our solace and our salvation.  Thus the old gods feel threatened. The book’s plot unfolds around preparations for a final battle between the old and the new.

Along the way we meet the character Sam, a student at the University of Wisconsin studying art history and women’s studies, an aspiring sculptor, a barista at a local coffee shop. She apparently has some divine qualities, though she’s a minor character and we don’t learn much about her. When I first read her monologue about her beliefs, beginning with “I can believe things that are true and I can believe things that aren’t true and I can believe things where nobody knows if they’re true or not,”[1] I became very excited. I could write a sermon about this!  I love her brazen embrace of contradictions, the way she runs warring theological ideas together as if they have always co-existed peacefully. She says, “I believe in a personal god who cares about me and worries and oversees everything I do. I believe in an impersonal god who set the universe in motion and went off to hang with her girlfriends and doesn’t even know that I’m alive. I believe in an empty and godless universe of causal chaos, background noise, and sheer blind luck.”[2] I read her monologue over and over again, wondering: is she describing a deeply examined, mature faith, a faith strong and nuanced enough to embrace these contradictions and yet still guide her and sustain her through all life’s challenges? Could this really work? Or is she just showing off her liberal arts education, sophomorically spouting some version of whatever conspiracy theory occurs to her, and expressing nothing more than a rebellious, youthful exuberance that won’t offer sufficient spiritual sustenance as she grows older? Is she describing an authentic, generous spirituality, or is she just too lazy to make a serious theological choice?

I ask these questions because, even though she’s fictional, I want Sam’s widespread believing to be real. I want this kind of believing to be useful for our spiritual lives. Frankly, I’m even a bit envious of Sam’s beliefs. I have an experience of feeling caught between two contradictory beliefs and recognizing that ministry would flow so much more smoothly if I could just believe both and not worry about having to choose one over the other. Some of you will remember I raise the question from time to time in my sermons about whether we live in the midst of one truth or many truths. To make the case for there being only one, ultimate truth, I might refer to the ancient South Asian story of the blind men and the elephant where each man touches a part of the elephant and describes the elephant based on the part he touches. The man who touches the leg says the elephant is like a pillar. The man who touches the tail says the elephant is like a rope, and so on. The elephant is a metaphor for the existence of one truth. The whole elephant may be beyond our reach; we may each, at best, have access to only a small piece of it, but no matter what we believe, we’re all touching the same elephant—we all touch a piece of the one truth. [3] But then, to make the case for there being many distinct truths, even contradictory truths, I might just ask how it is possible for me, as one who ministers to a congregation that includes atheists, theists, agnostics, Buddhists, Jews, Pagans and Christians, to say there is only one truth. If there is only one, then some of us—most of us, in fact—are wrong. That doesn’t sit well with me. I’m not convinced atheists and theists are somehow touching the same elephant. I’m not convinced Buddhists and Christians are somehow touching the same elephant. I’m not convinced all religions, at their core, are ultimately the same.[4] So which is it, one truth or many?

I inevitably feel some pressure to answer this question definitively. But I can’t. I’m persuaded by both arguments—I love the idea that there is one truth beyond our knowing; I love the idea that there are many distinct truths in one room. I can’t give up on either of these claims and I’ve never known quite how to resolve what feels to me like a deep contradiction. There’s a part of me that’s always felt like a bit of a fraud for not being able to offer a definitive answer. But when I reflect more deeply, I realize the problem is not the presence of a contradiction: the problem is the pressure to choose one side in this or any other theological debate and be done with it. The problem is the pressure to choose one spiritual identity and be done with it. Do you believe in God or are you an atheist? Define yourself. Are you a UU Christian, a UU Buddhist, a UU Pagan, a UU Theist, a UU Humanist? Define yourself. In your spiritual practice are you contemplative? Are you community-oriented? Are you ritualistic? Are you a social justice activist? Define yourself.

I understand why we crave definition. Having a clear self-definition, spiritual or otherwise, helps us communicate to the rest of the world: this is me! This is who I am. See me. Hear me. Distinguish me. Validate me. Value me. But sometimes succumbing to the pressure to define does more harm than good. What happens if you have a hunch that both sides of an argument are somehow true? What happens if you have a feeling that both sides of a contradiction are somehow true? What if two religions express radically different cosmologies, but your intuition tells you both are somehow true? Or what if you sense something is true even though it doesn’t make any sense, even though everything you’ve ever been taught tells you it can’t be true. I think it’s so important for us in situations like this, as liberal religious people, as spiritual seekers, as Unitarian Universalists to learn to follow our hunches, our feelings, our intuitions. If we’re forced to define our position, if we have to choose a side, if we have to reject an idea because we’ve been taught it can’t be true, then we risk missing something. We cut ourselves off from a range of possibilities.

Think of what we know about light. Sam reminds us in her monologue that light is both a wave and a particle—a contradiction. One of the first lessons aspiring physicists learn in the study of quantum mechanics is that as soon as we measure light—as soon as we try to define it—the wave collapses into the particle. We can observe the particle, but we miss the wave. The range of possibilities vanishes in that moment.

 

Sam also mentions “a cat in a box somewhere who’s alive and dead at the same time.” This is a reference to Shrödinger’s Cat, a famous
thought experiment put forth in 1935 by the Austrian physicist Erwin Shrödinger as a way to talk about problems in quantum mechanics. The cat inside the box is both alive and dead—a contradiction—and only when we open the box does it become one or the other. The quantum world—the sub-atomic world—is like this. There are actually infinite possibilities at any given time.  When we measure—when we open the box—when we touch the elephant—we collapse these infinite possibilities into one definite state. But this doesn’t mean the other possibilities weren’t real. The fact that we can only observe the particle doesn’t mean the wave was a fiction.

I’m making a similar claim about our spiritual lives, about our beliefs. When we define ourselves spiritually or theologically by saying “I believe X” or “I don’t believe Y,” we risk shutting out a wider range of possibilities. Sometimes that’s fine. Sometimes we need to do it. Sometimes we are very comfortable with a clearly defined identity: humanist, atheist, theist, Christian, Buddhist, etc. But there’s always a risk. We risk missing something. What appeals to me about Sam’s expression of belief is her unwillingness to miss anything. She says, essentially, I will not collapse the wave; I will not open the box; I will not resolve my contradictions; I will accept and embrace them, I will live with them, and in so doing I will inhabit a universe of possibility.

I confess that, despite feeling drawn to Sam’s way of believing, I’m not exactly sure how to do it. My intellect doesn’t want to go there. It’s hard for me to say with a straight face, “I believe in a personal god and I believe in an impersonal god and I believe in a godless universe.” It’s hard for me to say it with the conviction that Sam brings to it which, again, is why I wonder whether it’s a truly tenable spirituality. She is, after all, a work of fiction. But in the very least, were Sam or anyone to put such live-with-the-contradictions believing into practice, they would have access to a wide range of spiritual resources to meet life’s challenges. I think back to the time when my son’s heart condition was diagnosed in utero and we realized it was going to be a difficult medical path for a few years and possibly for his entire life; or the time when my brother’s daughter was still-born, or when my father was at the peak of his struggle with alcoholism—hard, painful times in my life. I’ve learned that people progress spiritually through such times, that there’s an arc to the spiritual experience of struggle and difficulty, and sometimes it includes a period of such despair, confusion and loneliness that all one can do is let go and trust. It strikes me that in such times belief in a personal god who cares about me and worries and oversees everything I do makes sense. Such belief, which includes longing for an end to pain, becomes a spiritual resource. Such belief can reduce anxiety, bring calm, bring a sense of being held, bring a sense of resilience. It can carry a person through hardship at the moment when they feel they can’t take another step.

Then there are those moments—those mystical moments—when people report an experience of profound unity, a oneness with everything there is, a connection to all life. Unitarian Universalists who have such experiences typically report having them outdoors, when surrounded by the natural world—the mountain top view, crashing waves, leaves in autumn, the rebirth of spring, sunrise and sunset. Of course, communion with nature is only one source of these mystical moments. They come in worship, in community, through working to achieve a vision, through creative endeavor, through activism. Wherever and whenever it comes, people report experiencing the world as sacred, experiencing life as sacred, experiencing everything as holy now. It stikes me that in such moments a belief in an impersonal god who set the universe in motion and went off to hang with her girlfriends and doesn’t even know that I’m alive makes sense. A belief in some divine essence at the heart of creation makes sense. And such belief becomes a spiritual resource. It inspires reverence for life. It inspires us to care for the earth and for each other. It inspires us to renew our commitments and to live by our principles. It inspires us to be hopeful, loving people.

Then there are those moments when we take stock of what we know about life and the world and how it all fits together. We take stock of the myths people have told throughout the ages, the supernatural explanations for things that at one time were unexplainable but which now even children comprehend. We bear witness to the enormous power of the human mind to understand the universe. We watched just this week as NASA’s Mars rover, Curiosity, discovered what appears to be an ancient streambed on the surface of the red planet. We watched this past July as scientists at the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, Switzerland discovered the Higgs boson, the sub-atomic particle that accounts, at least in theory, for the existence of mass in the universe. Like the theory of evolution, this so-called “god particle” offers a compelling, non-supernatural alternative to the creation story in the Book of Genesis. We take stock of the findings of science and human achievement and in response, belief in an empty and godless universe of causal chaos, background noise, and sheer blind luck makes sense. And such belief becomes a spiritual resource, calling on us to trust ourselves—to trust our instincts and our intellect, to trust our feelings and our intuitions, to trust in our own creativity and our capacity for innovation, to trust, ultimately, in the human spirit.

There. Three contradictory theologies that when taken together offer a rich set of spiritual resources. I’m still wondering: is this an authentic, generous spirituality, or simply a failure to make a serious theological choice? For now I’m going with the former. Light is both a particle and a wave, and while we can only observe the particle, we know the wave is there. We know the wave is real. And so it is with our spiritual lives. While we have to define ourselves from time to time, my instincts tell me we inhabit a universe of possibility—and I don’t want to miss anything if I can help it. Are there pantheons full of ancient deities still longing for the life and power human worship gives them? Are there new gods of technology and entertainment vying for our dedication? Who knows? But either way it seems to me, if such a universe of possibility awaits, then it is good and right to say “I can believe.”

Amen and blessed be.

 

 


[1] Gaiman, Neil,  American Gods (New York: Harpertorch, 2001) p. 394.

[2] Ibid., pps. 394-395.

[3] Pawelek, Josh, “One Truth, Many Truths . . . Any Truths?” Unitarian Universalist Society: East, Manchester, CT, May 8, 2011. See: http://uuse.org/one-truth-many-truths-any-truths/

[4] Ibid.

No Greater Love (or Not Your Kind of People)

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Watch video here.

Last month the rock band Garbage released its most recent album entitled “Not Your Kind of People.”[1] The lyrics to the title track seem so relevant to what I want to say this morning that I’ve decided to share them with you as a starting place:

We are not your kind of people / You seem kind of phoney / everything’s a lie  / We are not your kind of people  / Something in your makeup / don’t see eye to eye / We are not your kind of people / Don’t want to be like you ever in our lives. . . . We are not your kind of people / Speak a different language / We see through your lies  / We are not your kind of people / Won’t be cast as demons / creatures you despise.[2]

I don’t know if the band intends to convey a specific meaning with these lyrics or if they are describing a specific situation. It isn’t clear. I assume at some level they want listeners to find their own meaning and apply it to their own situation. Although the music is gentle (especially for Garbage) the lyrics convey a strong—even harsh—sentiment. We are not your kind of people conveys a feeling of disconnection, separation, alienation—a feeling, even, of brokenness in the human family. It’s akin to the feeling—a mixed feeling to be sure—that arose in me when I watched the film, “No Greater Love,” a 2009 Lionsgate and Thomas Nelson film. (Thomas Nelson is the world’s largest Christian book publisher and is Lionsgate’s exclusive distributor to the Christian entertainment markets.)[3] I don’t normally watch films like this. Alan and Kathy Ayers suggested it to me as background for this sermon which they purchased at last year’s goods and services auction. Alan and Kathy wouldn’t normally watch a film like this either. They watched it thinking it was something else.

Here’s the story-line: in a haze of alcohol and drug-use a young woman, Heather, walks out on her marriage and new-born baby due to her depression and disappears.  Ten years later her “ex” husband, Jeff (who she’d known since childhood), accidentally runs into her again when he sends his son to a summer Bible camp where she is working. They start to get to know each other again.  In turns out that during those ten years of separation Heather has become an evangelical Christian. She’s been saved in the traditional sense. Jeff, who is not religious in any sense, realizes he is still in love with Heather and calls off his engagement to another woman. But Heather’s minister, Chris, tells Jeff they can’t be together because he is a non-believer. (That’s when the not your kind of people feeling started rising in me.) This upsets Jeff; but then he reveals that he never actually executed divorce papers—he and Heather are still legally married. Now Pastor Chris tells them they have to stay together based on their church’s interpretation of Biblical law: under any circumstances marriage is better than divorce.  (We can assume they wouldn’t apply this standard to same-sex marriage, or in the event one of the partners underwent sexual reassignment surgery—that would be a very different movie entirely!) Heather is concerned that her unbelieving husband won’t allow her to practice her Christian faith. Jeff is concerned that Heather is now only staying in the marriage because the Bible and her pastor demand it.

I suspect most people can watch this film and, no matter what spiritual or religious beliefs they profess, get caught up in its romantic plot, and really root for Jeff and Heather to be in love and to be together. I certainly wanted a happy ending. What Alan and Kathy are reacting to, at least on the surface, if I understand what they’ve said, is the role of the pastor and church law and what appears to be Heather’s inability to think for herself beyond trying to fit herself into the framework her church and the Bible demand. And right there is the border between conservative religious people and liberal religious people. There are many ways to describe this border, but in this case the conservative religious person looks to some external authority—the Bible, the Ten Commandments, church law, the minister, a transcendent God—and the liberal religious person looks to some internal authority—conscience, reason, personal experience, “the still small voice in me”[4] as we just sang, “that place inside where we know our truth,” an imminent God, an inner sense of the divine. In this case the conservative religious person assumes the situation is black and white, that a definitive, correct answer exists, and can be found through a careful reading of scripture and church law—and the minister is the expert in these matters, or at least should be. The liberal religious person encounters a whole lot of gray and will search through that gray looking not for the “right” answer but for what is hopefully the “best” answer given all the nuances of the situation. The liberal minister’s job is to help the individual discern their best answer.

While the differences are more complex than I’ve just described them—some liberal religious people would identify more with what I’ve described as conservative; some conservative religious people would identify more with what I’ve described as liberal—they are very real.  Because of them, liberal religious people typically experience conservative religious people as unthinking and irrational. Conservative religious people typically experience liberal religious people as not actually religious, as non-believers, postmodern, relativistic, rudderless, etc. There’s a border here. (Remember: borders is our ministry theme for June.) It cuts through countries, states, cities, towns, neighborhoods, workplaces, schools and families. From the perspective on either side of that border it is quite possible to feel we are not your kind of people.

Kathy and Alan asked me to preach on how, as Unitarian Universalists, as liberal religious people, we can best relate to people like Heather and her minister when we encounter them.  How can we relate to people who live on the other side of this border from us? How can we respect beliefs that at times seem illogical or irrational to us?  How do we accept people who hold those beliefs? How can we resist the temptation to judge?  Even in suggesting these kinds of questions, Kathy said she felt she was coming across as arrogant—but said it seemed like the same kind of arrogance she feels conservative religious people direct at her liberal religious identity.  So that’s the question: how do we relate across the religious border?

I’m pretty sure the capacity to relate across religious borders—and across many of the borders that divide people from people—doesn’t come to us naturally. It takes practice. It requires patience. We need to work at it. And I think we acquire it through a developmental process. That is, we develop the capacity to relate well across religious borders as we move beyond an initial sense of excitement about our own faith, an initial sense of pride in our own faith, an initial sense of feeling special because of our own faith to a deeper place of humility, a recognition that our faith is one of many, that there is room within a family, a neighborhood, a workplace, a school, a town, a city, a state, a nation, a planet for many faiths. None is set above. None is set below. None is set apart as special. It’s a movement from pride to humility.

The film “No Greater Love” does not reach that humble place and that’s not why it was made. The proof is in the title. There’s the romantic meaning, which has to do with how Jeff and Heather feel about each other. And then there’s the Biblical meaning. I read to you the Bible verse that contains this phrase, John 15:13, “there is no greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” In the film nobody lays down their life for their friends, not even remotely.  So, it seems like a bad title. But if you read the next few verses it becomes clear why this title might make sense. Jesus says: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name.”[5] In my experience this is one of those Bible passages often used to justify an attitude of Christian exceptionalism. Not always, but often. Jesus says: “I chose you.” I didn’t choose everyone. I chose you. This is not universalism. This is exceptionalism.  And all through the film, although the characters don’t use the language of chosen-ness, they say it in many ways: We’re different. We’re special. There’s something about us that sets us apart from other people. Can’t you see? And Jeff, the unbeliever, who wants to be with the believing Heather, begins to see this difference; he sees that Heather’s faith has helped her resolve the problems that led her to leave him in the first place, and he admires it. He says, essentially, “I want what you have.”

There’s nothing wrong with a movie studio making a movie like this. There’s nothing wrong with people being excited about their faith, proud of their faith, even feeling special because of their faith. But let’s be clear: humility is a sign of a mature faith, and this is not humility. This film sets Christians—and a certain kind of Christian at that—apart and above other people. Despite its pleasant, romantic vibe, it contributes to a strengthening of the religious border by proclaiming we are not your kind of people. And that’s why liberal religious people, including liberal Christians, might react negatively.

To emphasize this last point, let me be clear: I am not suggesting that religious exceptionalism is somehow unique to religious conservatives. We religious liberals have our own version of it. It’s perhaps more subtle than the religious conservative version, because the language we typically use to describe our liberal faith expresses an openness to other religions, an embrace of religious pluralism. Our Unitarian and Universalist roots inform us all are chosen, all are welcome, all matter, all possess inherent worth and dignity regardless of who they are, what they believe, who they love, how they live. This is beautiful. It’s exciting. It fills me with pride. It makes me feel special. But I am also aware the line between humility is thin. If I’m not vigilant I can very easily fall into that place of assuming my faith is the more enlightened faith. My faith sets me apart. My faith is forged in the crucible of my life experience, my intuition, my reasoning mind, not a set of ancient books that tell an exaggerated if not false history of the ancient Near East and promote a patriarchal culture whose values run completely counter to modern, democratic principles. My faith emerges from the story of my life, from the place inside of me where my truth resides, where I discern and connect to the Sacred, not from a church doctrine designed to control the people, to wage a war on women, to make sexual minorities invisible by preventing them from achieving full legal status, or to inspire holy war against perceived infidels. Can you hear it? I believe the sentences I’ve just uttered are true; they express who I am; they express my social, political and spiritual commitments. But let’s be honest: they can also be heard as an expression of liberal religious exceptionalism.

This is primarily because of the words I chose to use. I emphasized who I am not as much as who I am. I said “not in a set of ancient books” and then spoke about those ancient books in a condescending way. I said “not from a church doctrine,” and then implied that church doctrine is responsible for a whole host of social evils. I built my faith up while tearing the faith of others down. It’s divisive language, it’s fighting language, it’s us vs. them language, its exceptionalist language. It’s not empty rhetoric, but it is rhetoric all the same. It’s easy. I’m pretty good at it. There’s something satisfying about it. But it’s not humble. And it’s not effective if the goal is to relate well across the border.

Meeting the challenge of relating well across the religious border does not require us to change our liberal religious values. It does not require us to moderate our excitement about our liberal faith tradition, or our pride in it, or the way it might make us feel special and grounded and whole. The first step towards spiritual humility at the border is speaking our truth without denigrating others. My faith emerges from the crucible of my life experience, my intuition, my reasoning mind. It is consistent with modern democratic principles: freedom, liberty, human rights. My faith emerges from the story of my life, from the place inside of me where my truth resides, where I discern and connect to the Sacred. It leads me to support reproductive rights for women and families, equal pay for equal work, civil rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. It leads me to reject war and other forms of violence as methods for resolving conflict. It’s the same statement, but it doesn’t intentionally create an us and a them. It says who I am without criticizing who I am not.

But even more important than this is our capacity to bring curiosity to the border; to bring a genuine desire to learn about people who live across the border and to become well-versed in the religious ways of the world. Curiosity does not necessarily change who we are, but it does challenge us to clarify and deepen who we are. How different it would have been—and how much more authentic—if the character of Jeff has said, “Wow, Heather really believes the Bible is true. She strives to conduct her life in response to it. Well, what is true for me? Where do my truths come from? To what truth does my life respond?” Learning another’s faith enables us to become more of who we are, not less. Learning another’s faith challenges us to clarify and deepen our own faith; it challenges us to become more mature in our faith; and it calls us to humility as we approach the borders of our lives.

I suspect it is true there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends or one’s family. But in an age when we are so prone to exceptionalism, often without even realizing it; in an age when we are so divided, especially by religion; in an age when our borders are places of tension and conflict, cheap rhetoric, and deep feelings of  “not your kind of people,” I say it is also a sign of our desire to be more loving, more compassionate, more connected, more related, more peaceful when we approach the borders of our lives with humility, as curious searchers, and as people with strong opinions who may nevertheless be able to find common ground with those who believe differently. It may not be the greatest love, but it is an essential love for our time.

Amen and Blessed be.



[1] For more information on Garbage and “Not Your Kind of People, “ explore:  http://garbage.com/ and  http://www.amazon.com/Not-Your-Kind-People-Deluxe/dp/B007H9B8FS.

[2] Check out the song, “Not Your Kind of People” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zEClCAFjYHg.

[4] Denham, Shelly Jackson, “Blessed Spirit of My Life,” Singing the Living Tradition, (Boston: Beacon Press and the Unitarian Universalist Association, 1993 # 86.

[5] John 15: 13-16.