God gets revised

The Thinker by Rodin

Yes, it’s pretty cheeky of man thinking we can revise God. It’s cheeky unless you think that God is largely a creation of man anyhow. I happen to be in that boat. So seeing the book God Revised: How Religion Must Evolve in a Scientific Age by one of my favorite Unitarian Universalist luminaries for sale had me plunking down twenty bucks or so for the hardcover version.

Its author is Galen Guengerich, the senior minister at the All Souls Unitarian Church in Manhattan. What made this book particularly interesting to me is that I got a preview of it four years ago, when I first attended the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association. I got introduced to Rev. Guengerich in a large conference room over two days. Yes, there was so much meat in his seminar that one-day would not do it. Clearly that occasion was on his mind. He even alluded to it this year, during another seminar that he gave. You might say I was there in the beginning of this book. This book is the result of four years of thought.

Guengerich himself is something of a contradiction, but that makes his story all the more interesting. He grew up in a Mennonite community near Lancaster, Pennsylvania. As a Mennonite community, it was considered moderate, but Mennonites are very much a cloistered religion where you generally entered the faith with birth, married someone in the faith, lived your life in a Mennonite community and died therein. Guengerich eventually left the faith, but not the ministry. It is in the family blood as his father was a minister. His rambling search for a faith consistent with his rational mind and his calling toward ministry eventually lead him into my Unitarian Universalist denomination and to the very prestigious church in Manhattan as its senior minister.

In Unitarian Universalist (UU) circles, he comes close to being a rock star. UUs are uncomfortable with this designation, but he is clearly one of our leading theologians and luminaries. In this book, Guengerich ponders what God is in the scientific age and if so what it means to be religious. His conclusions will seem radical to those enmeshed in a traditional faith, but not so much to Unitarian Universalists. I was not surprised that he still sees the need for religion. However, religion is clearly in decline, at least in the secular areas of the world. More and more people have ditched religion and prefer to be labeled “spiritual”, a bland word that really describes nothing. As a minister that caters to people who are more spiritual than religious, Guengerich sees this type of person all the time. Mostly they consist of people too rational to believe in most of the clearly wacky and antiquated notions of God, and who often have been spiritually wounded by the faith of their youth. However, try as they might this “spirituality” thing isn’t working for them. There is nothing much to lash onto. Many feel disconnected and flighty, carried by currents they don’t understand.

This book was really written for these people, not people “of the book” who find their revelations in the Bible, the Torah or the Quran. Those in the latter group, if they read the book at all, are going to feel offended. It’s not that Guengerich dismisses them or their beliefs. One of the curious things about this book is how respectfully he writes about all people of faith, and how he qualifies his own faith (such as it is) with uncertainty.

One can accept the mystery of holy books full of contradictions, as billions are glad to do, even though it leads to cognitive dissonance. Or one can look at these holy books, put a yellow highlighter to them and see that much of the advice or beliefs are just wrong, or simply don’t work in our modern age. Guengerich does the latter, and systematically but respectfully goes through many of these beliefs and shows why they not only should not be believed, but also are dangerous to believe. He goes through the consequences of people believing in some of these ideas, the wreckage of which is all around us. The Taliban are an overly extreme but not unique example. They would keep women ignorant, cloistered in their houses and covered in all public spaces (well, at least while they have periods).

His conclusion, unsurprisingly similar to mine, is that there is no personal God, but that our universe is worthy of reverence. He pretty much agrees with my independent thesis some years back that God is not a noun, but a verb. He also believes that religion is necessary. It connects us with a higher purpose and gives us the courage we need in an impersonal world to change it, but also to feel real community. The practice of worship, he argues, connects emotion with reason, for we need both to find the courage to make our dispiriting world a better place. To the extent that God exists, he argues, it is through us. As I mentioned some posts back (and I confess I stole this idea from his lecture), we are very much the hands of God. (He says we are the fulcrum, the change agent that makes change possible.) The world can be made a better, more civilized and loving place only through our actions. In congregation and through the practice of worship, we find the stamina and the courage to turn abstract hopes into concrete actions. We become the change agents for the better world that we need.

This conclusion should not be surprising but is not something we routinely think about. You look at how great positive change occurs in the world, and it arrives by practicing faith that typically gets set in houses of worship. It’s how slaves won freedom and found safe passage north. It’s how Gandhi won independence for his country and how Martin Luther King reoriented our moral compass. It’s how suffrage happened and Catholic abuses of indulgences were ended. Without worship space for like minds to come together as people of faith, positive change is much less likely to happen.

Guengerich writes eloquently but sparsely, packing ideas into short sentences that connect well with his larger themes. His one largest theme is gratitude as the basis of faith. Having the gift of life, in spite of its complexities, is still an amazing experience. We exist only because of our utter dependence on each other. Breaking our bonds of connection is suicidal. He says that we need a reverence for our relationships with one another and the natural world. A positive religion for the 21st century will help get us there.

His book is a great read for open minds but is also straightforward, easily readable, and just the right length to keep you turning the pages and to never feel bored. Put it on your Kindle for just $10.67.

What Spirituality Means to Me

The Thinker by Rodin

This was the topic of my covenant group meeting last night. It seemed an odd topic to spend ninety minutes or so discussing in a church basement.

Being Unitarian Universalists we all had different ideas of what spirituality meant. Many UUs are spiritually vacant. This is after all a denomination that attracts the unchurched and the left-brain dominant types. A typical UU congregation might be a quarter to half full of atheists, agnostics or people with no particular belief in God. So asking a UU what is spirituality might be like asking someone blind from birth to describe colors.

Nonetheless many UUs are spiritual in their own way. Upon reflection I realized I probably was a spiritual creature, just not in the traditional sense of the world. For me spirituality has almost nothing to do with religion. But for most Americans I suspect it is impossible to not talk about spirituality without mentioning religion.

When I am spiritual I generally feel a sense of utter peace, an absence of worry and contentment. I am intimately plugged in to a larger reality that I can neither name nor describe but which is still absolutely real. The cares of the physical world seem to leave me. I feel not just at peace, but I often feel a subtle or even overt joy. I often feel a sense of wonder, and sometimes I sense the fantastic. I hesitate to call this God. To me it is simply that which is normally not perceived.

I have occasionally had spiritual feelings in churches. But it hasn’t happened in any service that I have ever attended. Yet I have felt moments of it inside cathedrals. Some years ago when I took a group of religious education students to the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception here in Washington DC I felt spiritual. Cathedrals are radically altered spaces designed to skew reality and suggest the supernatural. Their gothic arches, their spires, their stained glass, their darkness, their votive candles, their people whispering their prayers, their polished floors and their intricate statues had the effect of making me feel spiritual. I am sure they are designed that way. There is a certain majesty to a cathedral that is difficult to match elsewhere. It is hard for me to feel the real world when in every direction the effect is surreal, ornate and majestic.

As marvelous as cathedrals are they are not nearly as spiritual to me as nature in her finest. Once or twice a year I arrive home to see a spectacular sunset displayed in all its finery with my house as the foreground. It awes me that such exquisite beauty can be a result of such complete randomness. In my travels the beauty of Hawaii is so far unsurpassed. But I have felt similar feelings in other places I’ve visited. Some examples: the Canyon de Chelley in Arizona and watching a plethora of stars arranged against an obsidian background from the back of a cruise ship far out in the Atlantic. But I have also felt spiritual at certain moments during a long and sustained bike ride, with the wind whistling in my ears and coursing through my nostrils. I feel almost attached to the nature around me.

The most spiritual moment of my life so far came from witnessing my daughter’s birth. She was delivered Caesarian section in a cold operating room and pulled out feet first from my wife’s steaming womb. I was humbled. I was awed. I was scared. I was joyful. I was crying. And I loved her with an intensity I have never felt before or since and we didn’t even know each other.

But was this spiritual or just a wash of emotions? For me her birth brought home to me the miracle of life and reproduction. I hesitate to say I experienced God, but I can say it was brought home to me what an amazing place our universe it.

I find spirituality in strange places sometimes. I find it in my cat, who sits now contentedly on my lap and purrs. He too is a miracle. Through him I realize that other species see and react to the world in their own unique ways. When I pet him I realize that not only does it feel good, but also that we truly love each other. We have a mutually supportive relationship.

I often feel like we are seeing at most .001% of reality. We have senses but they are extremely limiting. We cannot see infrared or ultraviolet rays but they are real enough. Most of us are only dully aware of the other life around us, or how utterly pervasive life is on all levels. My backyard is in many ways a botanical wonder, not because I have a huge and diverse garden but because it is such a complex system of its own. On one level it is just a lawn. But on another level there a thousands of species, plants, insects and animals living back there, all mutually dependent on each other for survival. Occasionally I may roll in the grass. But what a different perspective the universe must be to a centipede crawling through my lawn. I wonder what the grub experiences pushing its way through my soil. I wonder what it must be like to be the blacktop on my driveway when the rain falls on it. To get through life we generally tune out such thoughts and think them nonsensical or pointless.

To some extent I think even the rocks in my soil are alive. I just see them living on vast cosmic timescales. Over millennium they too move. I wonder what it is to be a rock under the ground, and to feel the moisture of the soil and the rain permeate it or move around it. I wonder just what life is anyhow. I think it exists on so many different levels but it is only the prison of our own existence that makes it hard to see.

I feel this connectedness of all things. I think on some level we all do. I feel a universe that is alive and multidimensional across space and time. When this connectedness permeates me as a presence, when I feel in touch with its harmony and vibration that’s when I feel spiritual.

That’s what spirituality means to me.

Selling Immortality

The Thinker by Rodin

Back in February, in an experimental mood, I accepted an invitation from my good friend Renee to attend a Wellness Seminar. I knew going in that this was going to be very New Age-ish. So I went into it feeling both open and cautious at the same time.

Renee is a friend I made in graduate school back in 1999. She is a couple years younger than me. We are both working through our midlife crises in our own unique ways. Her way is to find a new career in the Foreign Service arena. She wants a new career where she can apply her twin passions: information technology and helping the less fortunate. She’s still working on realizing her ambition and is now working on a graduate certificate in Public Policy. Meanwhile she still makes a decent living working for a defense contractor.

The wellness seminar was held at the Cedar Lane Unitarian Church in Bethesda, Maryland. Her friend Paul Fogarty put the seminar together. Paul is deeply involved in the Mankind Project. The seminar depended mostly on word of mouth and drew perhaps fifty people. There were times when the number of practitioners seemed to exceed the number of attendees. But for a first attempt to do something like this I think it went pretty well.

One of the first events that piqued my interest a lecture about antioxidant levels in the human body. Most of us know that by eating certain vegetables and fruits high in antioxidants we can reduce the risk of developing cancers. Antioxidants have a number of other healthy effects on the body. The lecturer demonstrated the first FDA approved machine that measured antioxidant levels in the body. We were invited to have our antioxidant levels measured free of charge. We put our hands up to a machine for a couple minutes. It projected what seemed to be a strong red light into our hands. Eventually it gave you your antioxidant score. Both Renee and I took the test. Not surprisingly the machine rated our antioxidant levels as “poor”. Clearly the three to five servings of vegetables I was getting a day weren’t helping me enough. But, as you might expect the man giving the test also had specialized diets and supplements for sale. These supplements he claimed were rich in antioxidants. He said if we ate them long enough we could move our antioxidant levels into the good area. Presumably we would then live very long lives and reduce our likelihood of contracting cancer and other maladies.

As tempting as this was I declined the offer. Meanwhile, out in the hallway was a man riling about the bad things in public and bottled drinking water. Don’t rely on bottled water or water filters he warned us. They wouldn’t remove all the impurities including some vile form of chlorine in the water that he assured us could cause cancer. It just so happened that he sold a water filtration machine (the only one of its kind on the market) that could remove these particular impurities. He assured us that he only drinks water from his own filtration machine now, and that he is healthier because his water is more “natural”. When he asked me where I got my water I drink I shocked with my reply “The Fairfax County Water Authority”. “You mean you drink tap water?” he asked, raising an eyebrow. Alas, despite his sound reasoning and the article from a medical journal that he showed me I didn’t feel inclined to buy his machine either.

Next up was a whole food salesman. This man warned us that the food most of us eat would end up killing us. We have to get back to as natural a food as possible, he said. It needs to be free of pesticides and other contaminants. In particular it must not be processed and must be as close to the raw state as possible. He had for sale a number of bags of really unappetizing compressed whole foods that I guess you were supposed to eat like a snack food. He recommended eating nothing but this for several weeks. He assured us as impurities were removed from our bodies we would feel so much better. I wasn’t brave enough to eat samples of the gray lumpy whole foodstuff he was peddling but Renee tried a bite. From the look on her face she wasn’t anxious to purchase any of it, and she is a vegetarian.

We put our names down for a massage. Renee went on the table first and I followed her in an adjoining table. We both got a free zero balance massage from a licensed massage therapist. My masseuse said it was a deep bone massage and he did stuff while lying on my back that was relaxing and a bit unnerving at the same time. But the price was right, even if afterward I felt like I might fall flat on my face for a few minutes. Those bones weren’t quite where I had left them!

Next up was aromatherapy with Juanita Ruth One. Or rather, she is a practitioner of kinesiology, which as I understand it tries to tune into your “body’s innate wisdom”. Basically she had a couple dozen vials of essences. Each essence was suspended in a solution of water and vinegar. She put one drop of each essence under my tongue and then measured how my body reacted by seeing how I held or did not hold a card between my fingers. If I held the piece of paper it was (according to her) my body saying I needed more of it. If I needed more of an essence she found a complementary essence and tried that test. I must have been a difficult case because I seemed to need most of the essences she had, whereas Renee needed about half as many. It seemed a little loopy but she seemed sober and sincere enough. Reading her biography I discovered that some forty years ago she had a near death experience. As a result of it she is convinced there is an afterlife. It was a strange session. At the end she told me that the sexual force was a natural force that I should respect. She gave me a hug too and a list of the essences my body craved.

Renee and I spent much of the afternoon in a wellness coaching exercise with a lady named Natalie Matushenko. Unfortunately I have had many opportunities to get to know psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers in my 47 years but this “coaching” thing was new to me. This young, vibrant (and very good looking) coach put the group of us into teams of two. I spent most of my time with my partner Renee. Some of the exercises were really fun. She’d draw circles on the floor and put names on each circle and have us move to the circle that described us best. We worked on things like strengths and fears and then developed some concrete steps we could try to improve our lives. We were paired up with someone else and asked to get their phone number and email address. We did this because we were supposed to check back with them in a week to see if they had followed through on their plan. I neglected to do this, as did my partner, but I actually did try some of the suggestions on improved marital communications that I wrote down. It’s unlikely to dramatically improve my marriage but it certainly didn’t hurt.

Overall it was a mixed experience but I am glad that I went. I can see some value in having a personal coach. The massage felt great and the aromatherapy seemed a bit weird, but there might have been something to it. The other seminars seemed more like sales pitches around a common theme: extend life through changes in environment.

And I’m certainly all for having a long and productive life. I don’t want to meet my maker any sooner than I have to. And yet for me there are limits to this life extension business. I cannot or will not change my habits so much that I deprive myself of so many of the pleasures that make life worthwhile. While I will avoid most of the obvious vices I don’t think I will wholly give up meat laden with antibiotics, or totally avoid those yummy but calorie intensive processed foods. I will do my best to watch my weight but I won’t always be perfect. I’ll eat sensibly and exercise regularly and take my chances. Life at its best should be like smelling a rose in bloom. But for at least some of these wellness people, life is simply about prolonging living, not about garnering meaning from life. I guess when it gets right down to it I’d rather live a life well lived than live a prolonged life and not revel now and then in the joy of a dish of ice cream or the pleasure of a well marinated and tender steak. To do so suggests to me an almost unnatural and unhealthy obsession with avoiding death. Yet all of us will eventually end up dead in a box. To live a long life but to have not really lived it seems an obscenity of a sort. So yes to those New Age practices that help me participate in life more fully. But nix to those New Agers pandering to our own very natural fears of mortality. In that sense they are like a preacher hunting for more souls to come to Jesus.