March’s Ministry Theme: Inheritance

Three perspectives by:


by Marlene J. Geary, Chair, Sunday Services Committee

“There was a moment in the 1960s or 1970s when Unitarian Universalism might have become an unofficial Church of Humanism. Humanism was clearly the dominant philosophy and all forms of traditional religion were in retreat. Many UUs felt that their centuries-long evolutionary journey was done now: They had shaken off the barnacles of orthodox Christianity and had arrived at Humanism.

Many still feel that way, but the community as a whole has gone in a different direction. Particularly among the ministry, there is a trend to view traditional religion not as an encrustation to be shaken off, but as a resource to be mined. The solid shore of Humanism is largely taken for granted, but from that shore many 21st-century UUs dive back into religion, to see what can be salvaged: community- building rituals, teaching stories, techniques of personal transformation, invocations of awe and wonder, and so on.

And so, religious words that once seemed to be on their way out—worship, prayer, God, holy, sacred, salvation, divine, and many others—are on the upswing again. If you tap on those words, if you ask what UUs are trying to get at by using them, chances are you’ll hear an explanation largely compatible with an underlying Humanism. But if you view the words themselves as the carriers of a dangerous infection, you’ll find today’s UU churches to be unhygienic environments.” — Doug Muder

My religious inheritance? Primarily Roman Catholic. My mother’s family was French Roman Catholic, handed down through generations of Acadians. My father’s maternal family was Congregational- Protestant. Dad’s paternal side was Irish Catholic, straight back to County Waterford – so Catholic that my paternal great-grandmother spirited the baby away to be baptized by a priest, right under my grandmother’s nose. My brother and I were raised Catholic.

My own current belief system sits firmly in the agnostic and religious humanist camp, but I am not one to take on labels easily. I prefer to grow and change with what’s right for me, and I’m glad that  the framework of Unitarian Universalism allows me – and asks me – to do that.

But I still have the trappings of Catholicism around me. I appreciate the “Cult of Mary” that retains within it an ancient form of goddess/earthmother worship going back through to Isis and other far older archetypal female figures. I have a figurine of the Virgin of Guadalupe, because to me she’s one of the protection goddesses of the American continents. But she stands next to tiny figures of the Buddha and Kwan Yin. My Catholic confirmation name is Bridgette (for St. Brigid of Kildare) and I keep Brigid’s cross hung in my living room: not only a Christian symbol, but purportedly a prehistoric sun wheel symbol. I have something in me about wanting to keep symbols of protection around me and it works for me to use images and statues for that purpose.

I realize perhaps this behavior is sourced out of my religious inheritance: being taught to pray to the trinity (God/Jesus/Holy Spirit) and the saints for protection. I’m okay with that, but it doesn’t mean I’m praying to the iconography. Instead, it is similar to keeping a small library of books around me: books reassure me of the knowledge that is also our collective societal inheritance. I feel as if our religious inheritance and our written (not to mention oral) inheritance must stand together to carry us forward. I acknowledge that it may be theologically immature to select the bits of the Catholic religion with which I resonate – but I have long felt I could not follow the core tenets of the Catholic faith unless I was outside of that religion’s dogmatic and institutional structures.

So I would ask: how do you view the religion of your inheritance? Is it something to be shaken off and left behind? Or it is a “source” that might offer truth and meaning? What if you had no religious inheritance? What does it mean to have a Unitarian Universalist inheritance through generations, when Unitarian Universalism is mere decades old and has gone through so many changes since the merger of Unitarians and Universalists? What kind of religious inheritance will your children have? How will their behaviors differ from yours if you had a different inheritance?


A Humanist Perspective

By Jerry Lusa, Sunday Services Committee

Inheritance is a flexible word. It’s a noun created from the verb inherit by adding the suffix –ance, which indicates “the act of” or “that which is”.  The resulting noun (ehem) inherits its meaning from the verb. The term Mendelian inheritance is an example of the word being used to represent an act, in this case the passing of traits from parents to offspring according to sets of rules.  Examples of inheritance as things which are inherited include: property, biological genes, personal characteristics, and cultural heritage.  We can inherit lawnmowers, Lladro collections, eye color, temperament, regional character, styles of dress and languages.

Gregor Johann Mendel didn’t know about the genes behind the patterns he discovered in the inheri­tance of traits, but his work helped steer future scientists to discover the genes themselves.  Genetic inheri­tance goes deep, over three billion years deep!  Virtually everything alive today shares exact copies of a few dozen core genes inherited from a vastly distant ancestor.  You, me, Archie the therapy dog, grasshoppers, worms, even bacteria in the garden soil, we all have the same DNA sequences for transcribing proteins.  Unless you were born in a mid-oceanic thermal vent, you’re one of the immediate family (and even if you were you’re still a close cousin). How’s that for being connected!

When I think of inheritance in my immediate family, an episode comes to mind in which an older generation decided to address years of unresolved sibling conflict during the dividing of their parents’ estate.  I have often wondered if the deceased might have bequeathed their estate to a more charitable group had they known the ill will that it would release.  It was not lost on me as a young man that the real inheritance wasn’t property and money but a legacy of familial rift.  Note to self: get my relationships in order and help my kids with theirs.

Family feud aside, there was at least an initial presumption of equitable inheritance among my rela­tives, which is called partible inheritance.  This is not the case in all cultures, especially in the past.  People have invented almost every conceivable permutation of inheritance scheme, including matrilineal succession where property is passed along the female line, and a plethora of patrilineal succession schemes including the current Islamic practice where female descendants (only) get half the proportion given to males. If this bla­tant sexism offends the post-Enlightenment reader, it might be some consolation that the quirk of odd frac­tions in Islamic inheritance gave Muhammad ibn M?s? al-Khw?rizm? the impetus to develop algebra.

There is also duty that comes with some forms of inheritance, and mathematics is a good example.  We have an obligation to posterity to learn, cultivate, preserve and pass on this elaborate knowledge that we have inherited and which is so essential to our way of life.  Likewise, artists are obligated by the inheritance of their craft that looms over their work, the standards of prior art by which they will be judged.

Inheritance in whatever form can be a double-edged sword.  We can get the good or the bad, or even both in the same stroke.  I inherited my great grandfather’s height, which is handy for reaching the top shelf in grocery stores, Jiffy pie mix usually.  But being tall isn’t so useful where there are low doorways, ceilings and stairwells; decades of cranial bumps and scrapes have taught me to fear colonial buildings like those at Sturbridge Village.

I’m curious to see where Rev. Josh and the lay ministry take the concept of inheritance in the upcom­ing March sermons.  Inheritance as an idea ranges far and wide.  It is deeply moving for me to meditate on how all living things have some of the same genes; it is a spiritual moment of inheritance and connectivity.

Inheritance: A Buddhist Perspective

By Nancy Thompson

What can you say about inheri­tance, the ministry theme for March, when your spiri­tual tradition says that everything is impermanent and empty?  That set of china that your great-grandmother brought over from the old country? Even as it sits in the cabinet, wrapped in bubble plastic, it becomes more fragile with time. It may survive you – and even your children – but eventually it will become pieces that make it no longer able to function as china. And really, they are just plates and cups; the meaning you ascribe to them is not an inherent  part, would not carry over if the china went out of your family. So inheritance in Buddhist terms isn’t about material things. It has more to do with view and energy. What do we get from our ancestors, and what can we give to our children? The Buddha said, in the very first lines of the Dhammapada, that we create the world with our minds. Our sense of self is created in part through our earliest interactions with our families, whether they respond to our infant needs and treat us as valued and important or ignore them or see them as a burden.

And so we shape our children and our world: What is our attitude toward others? Toward the environment? Toward wealth? How do we define suc­cess? What would we do to get it? The Buddhist teachings on karma, which essentially means that our actions have consequences, describe how that energetic inheritance works. It doesn’t mean that if you kill a fly you will be reborn as a fly. It’s more that as you act in a kind and loving way, you’ll move in that direction. If you act from fear and anger, you’ll create fear and anger.  We have individual karma, family karma, and societal karma. Whether you believe that we return for multiple lifetimes to work out our karma or that it ends with our death, it’s easy to see how our actions influence what we give our children in our bank accounts, the environment, the structure of society.  Karma is not destiny; it can be purified by recognizing the effects of our actions and changing them. Bud­dhism challenges us to both recognize that we are re­sponsible for the consequences of our actions and thoughts and to see that every moment is a fresh be­ginning, every moment is a chance to start over, to change our thoughts — which changes our actions which changes the world.