Wednesday, November 24, 2010
A few years ago, I made what was, for me, a radical step: joining the Unitarian Universalist Church of Jackson. For a minute or two, I was on the board and even sang in the choir.
I expect that for most Jacksonians, joining a church isn't radical, but rather as normal as breathing. For me, however, it was a leap. Just a couple years earlier, I had vowed never to set foot in a church again.
In 1998, my father retired from teaching at 78, and my parents, lured by Mississippi's low cost of living, decided to move to Jackson. Both lapsed Catholics--stories for another day--they had raised their daughters in the Lutheran church. But the last day we attended church as a family was the day I was confirmed at age 14, nearly 30 years earlier. When papa asked me to find a church for him in Jackson, I teased him that he was hedging his bets by going back to church at the end of his life, but it wasn't long before he needed a chauffeur to Sunday services, and I happily obliged.
For a while, I attended services with him, finding solace in the familiar Bible verses, liturgy and old hymns, which, as an adult, took on new, deeper meanings, often moving me to tears. But I never felt comfortable. I made my vow never to return when I heard the preacher saying that anyone not "saved" through an exclusive belief in Jesus Christ as the only Son of God was damned and going to hell.
It's a concept I could never wrap my head around, not at 14, not at 42, and still not today. God, whoever or whatever he or she or it might be, simply couldn't be so vindictive as to condemn more than 5.5 billion people (and growing) to eternal damnation through a religion unrevealed to humanity for millions of years. It just doesn't make sense to me.
In 2006, I took an Internet test on a whim: "What religion are you?" Fully prepared for even this innocuous test to pass judgment on my lack of Christian faith, I was surprised when it revealed the answer: 74 percent Unitarian Universalist.
"Well, well," I thought, and immediately began my due diligence. I had never heard of Unitarians outside of "A Prairie Home Companion," where Garrison Keillor often makes gentle fun of the sect and its preference for sheet cakes. What I found was a Christian-based denomination, which advocates tolerance for all faith traditions and a "free and responsible search for truth and meaning."
I began spending Sunday mornings at the little church on Northside Drive, politely making my beliefs known, and politely listening to others. The church made it a point to bring in speakers of diverse faiths, from Judaism to Buddhism to atheism and humanism, and its congregation didn't refrain from taking stands on social-justice issues including a woman's right to choose and the death penalty.
For about a year, it was engaging and fun. Then, it began to feel a bit flabby. I wanted to debate theology, not to simply nod my head in polite acquiescence to viewpoints I didn't agree with. My questions felt more and more strident, and I grew frustrated with the UUs insistence on civility above all else. I felt like Barbra Streisand in "Yentl," wanting desperately to know "the truth" but prevented from a rousing debate with other believers.
About the same time, I began a yearlong yoga teacher-training course, and something had to give. What gave was my participation with the UUs.
Yoga completely engaged me from my first class, and I saw that through its diligent practice, I would not only train my body, but also my mind. Studying the ancient philosophies and Hindu-based texts, my personal theology began to take shape. Reading the Sutras of Patanjali (150 BCE) and the Bhagavad Gita (fifth to second century BCE), I heard the poetry and delicious imagery reminiscent of the poetry of Sufi Muslims Hafez (14th century) and Rumi (13th century). I also heard echoes from the Bible's Old Testament books of poetry, including the Psalms and the Song of Solomon, and Buddhism's Noble Truths.
What struck me with the most force was how these Hindu and yogic teachings, most of which pre-date Christianity, still have such relevance in the modern world. I love that in the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna says, in effect, that worshipping God in any manner is still worshipping God. Tantric yoga, the branch from which the specific form of my practice, Anusara (flowing with grace), springs, begins with the premise that all things are divine.
"Everything in this world is an embodiment of Supreme Consciousness, which at its essence pulsates with goodness and the highest bliss," Anusara founder John Friend writes. "All of creation is divinely danced into existence for the simple delight and the play of embodying the Supreme's own blissful nature."
Now this was a premise I could play with and explore, starting from a place where I personify the divine as much as you or anyone else in my sphere. We are all manifestations of the divine, made for its pleasure. The common greeting namaste embodies the premise that I recognize the divine in you, which also exists in me.
But this is not an essay designed to change your beliefs, dear reader. What I have found is that going back to the ancient texts of any religion is a journey toward common human desires and beliefs. That premise was brought home to me again this week as I read through the stories submitted for this issue.
As Old Testament scholar Sandra Richter points out in the cover story, the average person in Abraham's day was concerned with many of the same issues the average person deals with today: the next meal, the rent, whether our children will turn out well and "the eternal ache" in our souls.
Through knowledge of other religions, we can begin to see our common "eternal ache" for the spiritual aspects of life, becoming tolerant of other faith traditions. Study and understanding of those traditions may, like it did for me, offer a new, personal theology. But it may also strengthen your already closely held beliefs. Either way, it's perfect. Understanding need not threaten. As it is stated in numerous sacred texts, ignorance is a root cause of suffering. Knowledge alleviates our suffering.
I invite you to read the various pieces in this issue with an open mind and a generous spirit, regardless of your faith. You may find something that informs and surprises you.
Blessed be. Namaste. Shalom. Assalamu alaikum. Amen.
Good Column, Ronni, as usual. A very timely subject matter as we approach the holidays. I'm open-minded but I ain't gonna let y'all radicals over a the JFP cause me to miss out on going home (heaven) some day. Sure my Reverend has the vices of liking Cadilac cars, pretty women (what man doesn't?), diamonds and gold, fancy suits, and big money; but when it's time to preach he knows how to get down. He marches across the pulpit, swings, dances, sings, does the CL Franklin holler, et al. I know he's not perfect as is no man; but when you leave him you know you been to Church. So long as he doesn't start one of those Eddie Longhook Mentoring programs where he takes advantage of the young, male or female, we'll be alright I suppose. We're not knocking your religion or any of the readership's, but we're praying y'all will one day come to know Him as we know Him and we can all get together and go home together as family.