Sunday, March 31, 2013
From time to time, I feel this desire to try to express my spiritual beliefs. I’m not sure why. Perhaps it’s because I don’t fit into any mold and it feels odd.
The holiest days for most religions sort of heighten this odd-one-out feeling for me. Bernie Zaleha, a friend I met while attending the Boise Unitarian Universalist Fellowship years ago has probably put it into words better than anyone. But I don’t want to merely reiterate him.
For most of my adult life, I have attended United Methodist churches, save for about 7 years at BUUF. This really explains nothing of my beliefs except that I was raised in a protestant church with a Methodist minister, and so that probably has felt the most comfortable. Also, my kids have loved being in the choir program at this church we’ve called home for the last 23 years, and that’s a good enough reason for me. I love music, it is one of my spiritual practices, so a church with awesome music is a no-brainer for me.
What do I actually believe? Sometimes it’s easier to say what you don’t believe. I’ll attempt to do both here.
I do believe in God, just not the God that most people mean when they say the word. I only refer to this presence as God because it seems the word understood by most people. I’ve also called this presence the Universe, Nature, Spirit, Holy, Goddess, Mother Earth, and probably some other things. Elizabeth Greene, the soon-to-be-retired minister at BUUF, has a prayer I remember well from my years there, in which she invokes the Spirit who goes by many names and yet remains untamed by human naming. That speaks it perfectly for me. Our names are wholly inadequate for the massiveness of the Holy. So sometimes I use God just because it’s easier than explaining my entire belief system. For the purposes of this reflection, I think I will use Universe, because that is usually the word I use in my own head.
What I believe about this spiritual force, the Universe, is that something created this immensely complex and amazing world—the stars, the planets, black holes, trees, water, alligators, puppies, babies, our skeletons, and all of it. I fully believe this force acted not by accident or luck, but by some order. It might be called science, physics, astronomy, evolution, but it has an order and purpose to it. The creative force, the Universe, continues to create all the time, evolving this creation more all the time.
The Universe isn't just a creator that made the world and retreated. The Universe IS the world. The spirit IS the trees, the rocks, the people, the magma, the oceans, the clouds, everything. Yes, I’m saying God is not a being or spirit separate from us, in heaven somewhere else. God is right here, in everything around us, in us, part of us and connecting all of us and all of creation.
Music, literature, art, human creations of all kinds can be seen as our attempts to connect to this holiness, our way to express what we feel. The best of our creative endeavors come close. I often say music is my religion. Music has the power to make me truly feel the presence of the Holy. So does lifting up my eyes to where the mountaintops meet the sky. Or watching a river splash over chunks of ancient granite.
I think another way we search for the Holy is to join together in community—hence religion. As I understand it, most societies of people manage to form some sort of religious community. Yes, religion has also been used as a means of oppression and genocide. It’s a human construct, therefore subject to human failings. I have studied the beliefs of several major world religions, and one thing I see that they all have in common is some form of the golden rule: treat others as you would like to be treated. Love your neighbor as yourself. In fact, I find religions have more things in common than differences.
So. . . what do I believe about Christianity? I believe in Jesus. He was a historical person. He lived. I’m not sure I believe the virgin birth story. It doesn’t really matter to me. Jesus was divine because we are all divine. The Holy lives in us. One of my favorite affirmations of faith in the UMC hymnbook describes how God works in us and others by the spirit. That spirit lives in us.
I think Jesus had some important messages for us. One was that we need to live radically, refusing to accept oppression, but seeking to right injustice and taking care of the poor, sick, elderly, disenfranchised. He defied the religion of his youth to a large degree. He felt it had become corrupted by greed and posturing and laws. He preached about loving our enemies. He told us the kingdom of God is at hand. I don’t believe he meant heaven, as in an afterlife where those who believe get to go. I believe he meant it was at hand, as in right here, right now, as in all around us in all of creation. We are already in the kingdom of God. We should bloody well start acting like it.
Every religion has its mythology—and by this I don’t mean myths as in untruths, but myths as in the things that get passed down and repeated. I can’t say for sure that Jesus rose and lived after death. And personally I don’t think it matters. Marcus Borg, one of the best contemporary Christian writers today in my opinion, talks about the Easter Jesus as being the beginning of our own rebirth into a new way of thinking, and more importantly, a new way of acting. A new way of seeing our world.
Because I don’t believe in a heaven and hell, nor do I believe in God as a judge who punishes those who don’t believe, it doesn’t matter to me whether Jesus experienced a physical resurrection or not. I don’t need to believe in that version of events to experience the Holy, or the Kingdom. I live in the Holy in the Kingdom every moment.
As for the Bible, I think it’s an interesting set of writings. I don’t believe it’s some infallible word of God that is every word of it true. I believe a lot of it is allegory, metaphor, poetry. I believe the original words of the Bible have been translated and changed so many times—not to mention that language itself changes over time too—that it is nearly impossible to figure out what the original texts actually said. Even then, words are always open to interpretation. And I think the Universe graced us with incredible minds not so that we could close them down and accept blindly all that is told to us, but so that we could use them to create our own understanding and interpretations.
Also, the Bible was selected by humans. We know for a fact that there were quite a few other gospels about Jesus that did not get approved by those who selected the books of the New Testament. They depict different things about Jesus. The Old Testament has been dissected for centuries by Jewish scholars. So neither is it inherently perfect as written.
I believe there are plenty of writings that evoke the Holy just as much as the Bible. Some of them are holy books in their own faith traditions and some are just really wonderful books. Things like To Kill a Mockingbird. Hardly considered by most to be a spiritual text, but the spirit comes through in that story, at least to me. Powerful literature shares universal and sacred truths.
As for other religions besides Christianity, the ones I am most familiar with are Judaism and Buddhism. What I like about the Jewish faith is the highly earth-based rituals. The observance of seasonal changes. The taking time out for one complete day of spiritual focus. I like the Sukkoth in the fall, the Passover in the spring. I like the Rosh Hashanah tradition of throwing your breadcrumbs in the river to float away, like starting the new year with a clean slate. I don’t like the legalistic aspects of some versions of Judaism, but I don’t like the legalistic aspects of fundamentalist Christianity either, so this isn’t specific to Judaism. The parts of Buddhism I find appealing are the focus on not doing harm to any living thing. It appeals to my sensibilities toward nature and my non-violent approach to other humans. I like the way Buddhist meditation turns one inward, toward the Holy that is in ourselves, for guidance and renewal and sustenance.
I am somewhat familiar with Wicca, witchcraft, the Goddess movement, as well. Some of those believers might chastise me that those are three different things. And maybe they are. I don’t pretend to be an expert. But what I can say is that I love the earth based, seasonal rituals of this belief system. I love celebrating the winter solstice, as well as the summer solstice, the equinoxes, and the movement of the moon. These are special and spiritual events through the year, and I find them highly meaningful.
My point here is to examine what I like of different religions. I find them all beautiful and useful. My goal on this journey is to focus on the pieces of religion that speak to me. Many people will say you can’t do that. My reply is, oh yes I can. So maybe I don’t fit in with your view of Christianity, but I consider myself primarily a Christian by religion. That is my background and that is the language of religion that I am familiar with. And that is probably why I identify with the Methodist church—there is no dogma. There is no judgment. There is love. Questioning is allowed, not frowned upon. I know several branches of Christianity that disapprove vehemently of anyone who dares to question the authority of the church. That’s not me. I always question authority of any kind.
Pastor Duane, my pastor, talks about the name of God from the Old Testament: Yahweh. It’s breath. Yah—breathing in. Weh—breathing out. It’s chi, the energy force in many eastern traditions. The very beginning and ending of all that we can see, hear, taste, touch, or smell. Or experience in our souls, beyond sensory input or human understanding. It is what it is. All I need to do is to remember that. Connect to that. And the kingdom of the Spirit is at hand, within me. In one of those other testaments of Jesus, I think in the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus says—If you bring forth what is within you, it will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, it will destroy you. And what is within us? Why, the Holy, of course. If we could all bring that forth, imagine what a resurrection this world would experience. That is something to which I can holler “Hallelujah!”