Is it OK to pick and choose religious beliefs and practices?
with Viv Allen.
Also, here is today’s ‘Time for all ages’.
© 2019 Vivienne Allen
I start with a Unitarian joke – apologies if you’ve heard it before.
At a great international interfaith gathering at a major convention hotel, five delegates found themselves waiting and waiting for the elevator following one of the sessions. To break the monotony and silence, one of delegates suggested they play a little game: “Let’s see if we can explain our faith in the time it takes the elevator to go from here to the first floor!” Although they would have to travel up and down several times, the delegates agreed.
On the trip down from the tenth to the first floor, the Roman Catholic delegate volunteered to go first. He recited the Apostles’ Creed, and finished just as the doors opened on the lobby.
Next, it was the Hindu delegate’s turn. Pressing the button, she began, “We Hindus believe in the great wheel of life. All is a cycle, and what has been will be again. It is for us to understand our place in this turning, to do what falls to us to do, and to celebrate our place in the scheme of existence.” Like the Roman Catholic she was finished long before the elevator reached its destination.
Now it fell to the Zen Buddhist delegate to push the button for the tenth floor. All waited eagerly for him to begin, but there was only silence as the car traveled the ten floors. When the doors opened, they asked the Zen Buddhist: “Why did you not say anything to us about your belief?” He replied: “In saying nothing, I said all that there is to say.”
The interfaith conference delegates scratched their heads, then looked to the Unitarian delegate, the last to take a turn. The elevator doors closed, and she reached out to push the button. All were surprised when she pushed “2.”
Why did you not push the button for the lobby?” they asked.
“Because,” the Unitarian delegate replied, “there’s a great little coffee shop on the second floor where we can kick back and really discuss this!”
I really like this joke as it describes what I like about us – and I imagine that they all went to the coffee shop to discuss all the ways in which they could describe what their faith means to them. I’m sure they had a wonderful debate.
The title of my talk is pick’n’mix religion but I’d like to use the word religion and spirituality interchangeably. To many people religion has become a dirty word, associated with what they imagine to be oppressive, conservative and dead or dying institutions whereas “spirituality” is often equated with a highly individualistic “pick-n-mix” attitude to the full treasury of global religious philosophy and practice. My definition of religion or spirituality is that it is an individual’s hunger for truth and her willingness to step forward in faith”. This personal quest can be informed by a variety of things but principally by (1) the individual’s conscience, (2) our response to the natural world and (3) the wisdom from all religious/spiritual traditions.
In Steve Bruce’s book, ‘Religion in modern Britain; from cathedral to cult’, he wrote about how the British were not becoming any less ‘religious’ but were instead moving to a place where they picked and chose (chose or choosed) the parts of religion that appealed to them most. Dubbed the pick’n’mix approach to religiosity, it was seen to herald a move away from institutional forms of religion to those that were more diversified. That sounds very Unitarian to me.
Jeremy Hardy in The Guardian offered a more cynical reading;
He said…People who have generally humane and just ideas frequently select the better of their chosen creed while being somewhat embarrassed about the bits that involve minor offenders being stoned to death and women forced to menstruate outdoors.
OK – this meaning of pick’n’mix religion seems to imply that you can remain a member, say, of the Roman Catholic church and enjoy the ritual and just ignore the stuff you don’t like. I can’t agree with this as that is exactly the reason that I became a Unitarian in the first place – I was brought up an Anglican and was sent to an Anglican boarding school where I just couldn’t agree with a lot of what I was told to believe in. A lot of the teachings were not logical and didn’t make sense to me.
It got me thinking about the term pick’n’mix in relation to Unitarianism. Are we a ‘pick and mix’ religion and, if so, is it a good or bad thing?
Most Unitarians are comfortable borrowing bits and pieces from many different religious traditions. Our hymnal, Singing the Living Tradition, combines readings from Buddhism, Sikhism, Taoism, Native American spirituality, Islam, Hinduism, the Old and New Testaments, and secular humanism.
It’s hardly surprising that there’s an old joke about how Unitarians begin their prayers: “To whom it may concern.”
But from this theological stew has arisen a highly rational and elastic philosophy that is rooted in Christianity, yet rejects the trinitarian nature and divinity of Jesus; which is fanatical about individual rights but stresses the good and welfare of the collective; a questioning faith that vigorously eschews dogma, statements of belief and hidebound traditions in favour of seeking truth from the human experience with nothing more than the free use of reason, and maybe a sense of adventure.
All beliefs can be questioned, examined, accepted, modified or rejected. Truth with a capital T is repudiated. The beliefs of old are traded for what probably can be boiled down to a central tenet: Think as you must, then say what you really believe.
This sounds like we really are a pick and mix religion – doesn’t it? And I’m happy with that.
However, I see two different meanings for a pick’n’mix religion. (1) where you can pick and choose the best bits and pieces from many different religious traditions – like we do here as Unitarians. The other meaning is where you may belong or attend more than one religious organisation. I know there are some in our congregation that belong to more than one spiritual organisation such as the Quakers, the humanists and even some Christian churches. This could also be called pick’n’mix religion.
A few years ago Jos and I spent a week in Japan which was so fascinating that I’d like to go back and learn more about the country and their culture.
Apparently the Japanese are really not that religious amidst the presence of several religions and beliefs. Compared to all other countries where you will see Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Jews, or Buddhists who are very devoted and passionate about their respective religions, the majority of the Japanese population could not be considered as devoted. In fact, the Japanese society and the government is not even pushing Shinto or any specific faith. In Japan, it’s common to see individuals who participate in a mixture of practices from different religions. For example; one person’s birth rituals can be done in the Shinto way, their baptismal and weddings the Christian way, and their death ceremonies through the Buddhist traditions.
Japanese experts explain that religion is no longer a significant part of daily living in the country today. Instead, the Japanese are more interested in participating or observing the rituals, ceremonies, and specific activities of religions. Certain rituals like Christian weddings, Christmas, Chinese New Year, Halloween, the Buddhist festival of the dead, etc are all celebrated in the country regardless of religion. In fact, the Yuletide Season is a big celebration even for the Shinto and Shinto priests. Experts point out that the changes have been brought about by the very dynamic and adaptive nature of Japan. As western influences on food, fashion, customs, including religion have reached the country, the Japanese people have welcomed and adapted to them.
Japan’s major and oldest religion is Shinto. The religion in itself practices belief in multiple gods and much of its teaching are intertwined with nature and the elements like the wind, water, and the sun. Children being born may undergo Shinto birth rites, but as they grow and already able to discern, they are free to choose or follow any religion or in Japan’s case, observe any ceremony, ritual, or celebration.
I like the Japanese attitude to religion because one of the most aggravating tenets of mainstream religions like Islam and Christianity is that their god and their religion is right and all the others are wrong. However, I do also like having a religious community and for me it wouldn’t be enough.
In a Sufi story, the famous Mullah Nasrudin is to judge a case between two men who are quarrelling. After listening to the first one tell his story , the Mullah is carried away by the logic of his presentation. “You are right,” he declares. The second man indignantly demands to be allowed to make his case. He, too, is so eloquent and persuasive that the Mullah declares that he is right. At this point the Mullah’s wife intervenes. “How can you say that,” she asks. “They can’t both be right.” “You’re right, too,” answers Nasrudin.
We humans have a hard time recognizing that the world can contain other realities than the one we inhabit. We don’t readily see that we can be right and they can be right, too, whoever they may be. We seem to feel that our standards should apply to everyone. These types of fixed beliefs may have helped our communities in the past but are now are just dangerous.
That is where Unitarianism and Unitarians can make a difference – we are proof that a pick’n’mix view of religion can provide a safe place to explore our beliefs. It won’t suit everyone and some people will come and then go.
Kim Turner, a fourth-generation Unitarian who has served as president of the Canadian Unitarian Council, sees her church as “a forum in which people can be religious without the trappings of religion. There are no absolutes here. We are open to the belief that people can make their own decisions.”
That explains why one of the more popular programs in Unitarian churches is called Build Your Own Theology.
Unitarianism attracts a wide range of followers, including Buddhists, pagans, agnostics, those in mixed marriages, disaffected Christians and even atheists, Turner says. They’re all looking for the same thing: Some kind of spiritual fulfilment in a communal atmosphere.
As one Unitarian minister in British Columbia has put it, “neither we nor most traditional Christian groups would look on us as a Christian group. This is a religion in which we want to be able to feel intellectually comfortable, as well as spiritually comfortable with our beliefs.”
On the other hand because we end up welcoming any form of recognizable religion, what is the unity that will hold us together? Can the net contain all that diversity?” That is a topic for some other time.