Re-enchanting the World, Part 3

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by Rev. Clay Nelson


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Clay continues his focus on re-enchanting ourselves and the world.

Clay Nelson © 21 September 2014

As I began preparing this third and last sermon on how Unitarian Universalism can play a role in re-enchanting the world I wondered what that world would look like in post-election New Zealand this morning. Would the forces of unrestrained capitalism continue their firm hold on us after the election or would the voices of compassion calling for equality and respect for each New Zealander prevail against the odds?

Well, now we know. While I hope all of us participated in that event I’m not sure the excruciating campaign that preceded it has led many of us to moments of self-transcendence. Finding the sacred in the smears of dirty politics would be an amazing feat. And yet, the world we live in is exactly where the sacred hides.

It hides in the mundane, such as the burning bush Moses stood before or in the bread and wine at a Christian Eucharist or in the flowers we brought to celebrate Spring a few weeks ago at our Flower Communion. Traditionally when the sacred appears “in, with and under” the concrete realities of the every day world we call it a sacrament. The Christian definition of a sacrament is “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” Unitarian Universalists often look askance at the idea of sacraments but if we were able to think of them as “a visible sign of the invisible sacred,” they might be more palatable.

While Catholics and Anglicans see physical and concrete elements like water, bread, wine, oil, and the laying on of hands as sacraments, Unitarian Universalism’s view of a sacrament would be finding the sacred in face-to-face interaction with other human beings who practise diverse spiritualities.

That UUs can even consider the possibility of being sacramental is somewhat ironic considering where we started. Historically, Unitarians in America were rebellious
Congregationalists who were immersed in the theology of John Calvin. Calvin was highly suspicious of sacraments, accepting only two of the traditional seven, baptism and communion. He considered them biblical. The rest were idolatry. And even those two were not sacred, but signs that pointed to God alone. In spite of the fact that John Calvin burned at the stake our Unitarian forbear, Michael Servetus, for his rejection of the Trinity, American Unitarians took many Congregationalist views and practices with them. They liked simple undecorated places of worship, long sermons, and had a suspicion of the sacramental principle.

But faith perspectives and religious insights evolve and today UUs have become firmly committed to the idea that the sacred shows itself in the most concrete of fashions, and most especially in the flesh and blood of human beings with whom we cross paths in the spiritual quest. This idea has gained prevalence since Ralph Waldo Emerson’s famous and controversial “Divinity School Address” at Harvard in 1838. In it he argued that the unity of God with humankind and nature makes humankind and nature a means to accessing God directly. No mediator is required.

UUs, however, do not restrict their sources for the sacred to only the Christian list. Each of the spiritual foci we discussed last week, humanism, nature, social justice, the arts, the source of Creation, have physical elements that are sacramental. But the real key to how the sacred reveals itself within Unitarian Universalism is in the community itself, the gathering of liberal religious questers, each of whom, while on her own individual journey, affirms the paths chosen by her neighbours. Insofar as the sacred is made tangibly present in our interaction with fellow travellers within this community we can say we are a sacrament.

Our caution as UUs is that we must affirm a paradox: that which cannot be seen shows itself. The physical world is not to be confused with the sacred it reveals. The concrete UU community made up of flesh and blood human beings is not the sacred; it is the enabling mechanism, the source through which the sacred is made manifest through our participation, whether in nature, in the arts, in acts of social justice, worship or somewhere else. As a community we are a sacrament midwifing the rebirth of the sacred. In other words, we are a sacrament that can re-enchant the world.

The chalice is not only an empty bowl in which we can pour our spiritual path. It is not only the circle rim that is a symbol of our many-sided polygon of different paths seeking to achieve infinite perfection. It also has a stem, which is an axis mundi. An axis mundi, sometimes called a cosmic axis, a world pillar, or centre of the world, is a concept that can be represented by a pillar, a tall mountain, a tree, the upright of a cross, a steeple, a tower, rising smoke from a fire or incense burner, a totem pole, a minaret, a ladder or anything that can represent a connection between earth and sky or heaven and earth and where the four compass points meet. It is holy ground yet its image is found in both secular and religious contexts. In this sanctuary our axis mundi, our centre of the world, is the stem of the chalice manifesting the sacred, the Mysterious Depth. That connection is what we seek when we come here for our hour each week. The hope is that when we do we will find our selves re-enchanted by the sacred.

But is that solely our task? Aren’t we here for a greater purpose? I would argue that we are called to re-enchant the world. If so, the question is how?

To formulate an answer I would first like to explain four basic patterns of religion in society. While some of the four will be more descriptive of times long past than of the present, each will, in its own way, help us to see the particular pattern that Unitarian Universalism confronts in contemporary society.

The first pattern is called Christendom. It is the scenario in which one religious tradition permeates a whole society, making the society spiritually monolithic rather than pluralistic. Something like it could be found in primitive tribal and pre-literate cultures, but the best known would be the Catholic Church’s dominance of every aspect of society in the Middle Ages. Yes, there were Jews but they were an integral part of Christendom. Since the Church forbade usury, Jews provided the important economic role of lending capital for interest. They also provided the role of scapegoat during times of plague, famine, and war. It was a pope who created the first ghetto to delineate their place in Christendom: essential but apart. Clearly this pattern does not tolerate pluralism.

Certainly New Zealand had its own form of Christendom once the first missionaries arrived. Maori welcomed them and many were converted. At the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, which did guarantee religious freedom including Maori spiritual traditions, pluralism was reduced to what would become the three dominant Christian denominations: Anglican, Catholic and Methodist representing the colonists. They didn’t particularly get along. The Anglicans refused to follow the Catholics in the procession to sign the treaty because they didn’t want it to look like they were following the pope. When the settlers arrived they were predominantly Anglican, giving that tradition a distinctive edge that suppressed pre-European spirituality. The only reason New Zealand has never had a state religion is that the first Anglican bishop refused to let Parliament push him into making it the Church of England. Occasionally a bishop has done the right thing. However, even so, New Zealand has historically not been a pluralistic religious society for most of our history and that fact
runs through many aspects of our culture such as Christian prayer in Parliament and the Bible in Schools programme in state schools.

The second pattern seems the other extreme from Christendom, but in truth presents a similarly monolithic situation, namely unchallenged secularism. While I am not sure there is any culture that is monolithically secular, there are places like Scandinavia and present day New Zealand that are increasingly so.

As I have mentioned before, in such a culture the truly secular man or woman is not particularly anti-religious, they just don’t think about religion or spirituality at all. It
never enters their mind. If that person never thinks about or has questions about Mystery, spirituality and transcendence, what path does he or she take? It may be the path of least resistance, to allow her wants and values to be formed by the dictates of multinational capitalism. I am what I desire to own, wear or drive. Capitalism has reduced her to being a commodity.

What sociologists mean by a secular society is a society in which religion no longer plays the central, unifying role that it once did but is replaced by the economy. It is the economy that holds the society together and provides its rules. The problem is that capitalist economic rules are not values, they are simply dicta of economic efficiency. The election campaign we have just endured has starkly pointed this out. Income inequality and children living in poverty are simply the natural consequences of living in a society with economic rules, not values. The irony is that in a predominantly secular society, most New Zealanders polled said that income inequality is the number one issue but if other polls are right the majority voted for economic rules yesterday. This dissonance is why the world needs to be re-enchanted. The place of UUs in a secular society is to oppose the commodification of human beings and the world. We are called to hold high the banner of human dignity in the face of one of the most powerful dehumanising dynamics that the world has ever seen.

The third ideal type between religion and society is what is called inclusive pluralism. We have to go back to the ancient Greeks to find the clearest example of this. Greek religion operated on multiple levels and a single individual could participate at each. For example, there were rites performed at a family altar. There were sacrifices and rituals that were the provenance of an entire city. There were rituals on behalf of Greeks as a whole, like the Olympic games centred on sacrifice to a god. In addition to this that same Greek could also choose to join one of many “mystery religions” such as Dionysus, or Demeter, or Mithras. This is inclusive pluralism. Many religious sites and practices constitute it, but a person can participate happily in any number of them without experiencing cognitive or spiritual dissonance.

In our modern day, we see it in some Asian cultures. For instance, in Japan someone can have a Shinto wedding and a Buddhist funeral. There is no sense of religions being wholly discrete institutional entities whose boundaries prevent participation in more than one religion at a time. Inclusive pluralism does not require a religion to be true or false. What ultimately matters to inclusive pluralism is how a religion or spiritual tradition assists a person to live ethically, morally and meaningfully.

Sometimes inclusive pluralism is equated with polytheism. But in the world we now live in we don’t see our choosing between individual gods that have been anthropomorphised into individual mischievous divine beings interfering in our lives, where worshipping one will cause us problems with another. Someone who is living with inclusive pluralism is drawing from multiple sources or objects of devotion, making him or her spiritually more dexterous and able to take advantage of a much wider array of spiritual resources.

The person who practices inclusive pluralism does not deny an underlying unity. The Mysterious Depth is visible from many spiritual vantage points. But it is the same sacred; the same Mysterious Depth. An example from world religions is Hinduism. Hindus juxtapose the idea of the Brahman, the all-encompassing Godhead, with their devotion to a plethora of gods and goddesses from Krishna to Kali.

The fourth and last model of religion in society best represents the reality today, especially in New Zealand and other first world countries and that is exclusive pluralism. While that sounds like an oxymoron, it isn’t if you remember that in Western culture we conceive of religions as distinct entities with nearly impenetrable institutional boundaries. We are expected to choose one. If I was married in a Baptist Church and cremated as a Buddhist, people would think that I “converted.” Some one cannot be part of more than one religious group at a time in this ideal model.

We have already come upon one significant response to the question, “Why are we here?” We are here to champion the dignity of the human person over against the dehumanising forces of commodification. We are here to celebrate the human being’s ability to discern the sacred and to stand, awestruck, before Mystery. But now we can add another answer to the question of why UUs are here and how we might re-enchant the world. It is our unique contribution to present to our society the possibility of inclusive pluralism. We are ourselves inclusively pluralistic as a community. Wouldn’t it be possible and desirable for us to model that inclusive pluralism in such an attractive and compelling way that it becomes an option not simply within our community but without. I would suggest that it would be the healthiest and richest of all possible spiritual worlds if our society as a whole were inclusively pluralistic as opposed to exclusively pluralistic.

I am not suggesting that all traditions should become Unitarian Universalism. No, not at all. I am suggesting that we model a way that a Conservative Jew could also be a Buddhist. Each maintains its own integrity but it would no longer strike others as strange or impossible if someone were to claim to be both a Conservative Jew and a Buddhist.

I know it may be overly optimistic that we as Unitarian Universalists can instigate such a large cultural shift from exclusive pluralism to inclusive pluralism, but if not us, who?