our Feet on the Ground
Fred Anderson, October 29, 2006
At the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, New Bern, NC
"You're grounded!" How that expression has evolved over the years, from a basis for a belief, action, or argument, to a basic metaphysical cause, to a grounded pilot, and finally to the child being grounded by a parent and sent to his room to suffer in the middle of his flat screen TV, cell phone, computer, ipod, XBox, ad infinitum. How our use of "grounded" has changed!
I have a favorite image. It's from The Phantom Toll Booth by Norton Juster. I'm sure many of you are familiar with this book. It's the story of a boy, Milo, who is transported to a magic land where the rules of the universe are presented and parodied in an animated and wonderful way. At one point in the story Milo meets a boy his age who is literally floating in the air. The boy explains, "Well, in my family everyone is born in the air, with the head at exactly the height it's going to be when he's an adult; and then we all grow towards the ground. When we're fully grown up -- or as you can see, grown down -- our feet finally touch. Of course, there are a few of us whose feet never touch the ground no matter how old they get, but I suppose it's the same in every family."
Imagine being born at eye level with adults, being the intellectual equal of adults, but not equal in terms of maturity or a sense of reality. And so, one's purpose in life is to become grounded -- to get one's feet on the ground.
I tell this story because this is how I see the task of our religion. This is the saving reality we have to offer to the world -- the art of being grounded -- the art of having our feet on the ground -- in the real world. Ours is a practical religion.
Let's take some time to define the parameters of our religion. They are three in number and Unitarian Universalism's only trinity: 1) Religious Humanism, which claims that we can make a radical commitment to life and progress without the idea of god; 2) Universal Theism, which is the quest for the god behind all the masks of god, using all the religious traditions available to us; and 3) Liberal (Progressive) Christianity, which is dedicated to pursuing western religious insights and the Jesus story in a new and free way.
While acknowledging that ours is a religion based on diversity and freedom of belief, I want to point out that historically, these are the root movements that our religion has grown from. Though they are different, the one characteristic common to them all is being radically committed to life -- to living it and to making it better -- to working in the here and now for a better tomorrow.
Today I'm going to suggest that it has been this radical and real -- this practical -- commitment to life that has maintained these movements within one tradition -- ours. Our religion has always been defined by practical theology. Regardless of what form it takes, UU theology is practical. Regardless of how high the head is, UU theology seeks to get its feet on the ground.
Today what I want to do is to trace and articulate this groundedness that holds this religion and its movements together.
Let's go into the realm of religious history and look at dualism, where we have good/bad, black/white, and so on. At the beginning of the Renaissance a very special kind of dualism developed: the dualism between mind and spirit. Though this split had been around a long time, we can see it truly emerge in the Renaissance Era: the mind was the realm of the philosophers, and the spirit was the realm of the priests.
In a way this split was inevitable, for there are two major issues we've always had to deal with in life -- being and non being. We know these two things -- that I am (being) and that I will die (non being). "I am" evokes the realm of the mind. "I will die" evokes the realm of the spirit. Religion developed out of "I will die," and philosophy, with all of its attendant areas such as science, politics, ethics, psychology, sociology, etc., developed out of "I am." The quintessential mind statement is Decartes'. "I think, therefore I am." The spirit statements are theologies, prayers, and assertions about divinity.
But we can read the history of western civilization in relation to this split. The Renaissance is over here, and the Church is over there. The Enlightenment is over here; the Church is over there. Even today we have basically the same split -- with hard core humanists saying that spirit is an illusion, and hard core mystics and religionists saying that everything is spirit.
In varying degrees and varying forms, we have these two traditions which pervade our lives.
Our task as Unitarian Universalists today is what it has always been. It is to be the middle way. It is to find a place to stand from which these two traditions can be integrated. This is the classic UU stance. It is the role of our church in history -- to make the rational more religious and the religious more rational. Whether humanist, theist, or liberal Christian, this has been the task of the Unitarian Universalists. We are to heal the rift between mind and spirit -- both in ourselves and in the world. We have always claimed that here, with our feet on the ground, integrating the mind and the spirit -- in action -- here is where true spiritual growth happens.
We have held up eternal verities to the light of reason and thereby claimed them and were able to put them into practice in the real world. This has saved our souls and made our hearts grow. For example, Channing could take the gospel of Jesus and translate that not only to the hereafter but the here and now. Ergo, we are to witness to love in this world. The great Unitarian abolitionist Theodore Parker did the same thing. He asked himself, "Does love tolerate slavery! No!" These early UU giants were the first to take eternity and put it into time. "Yes," they said, "there is eternity; but it exists in time and this is where we must deal with it. Yes, there is divine love and justice, but we need to pull it out of eternity and act it out now -- in time" (Dear God! Let it be in time!) This has been our task -- that of integrating mind and spirit within ourselves, and thereby being enabled to embody eternal verities -- to be eternity in time -- to be love in time -- to seek God with our feet on the ground.
In the nineteenth century the interpretative tools that were used by our religion to integrate the mind/spirit split were reason, philosophy, and science on the one hand and the Judeo-Christian and the Transcendentalist traditions on the other. And here I mean the Judeo-Christian religion of reasonable Christians and Jews. I don't mean religious fanaticism or silliness.
Both reason and Judeo-Christianity fed into the groundedness of our religion, and out of that groundedness came practical, down to earth community projects and concerns through which UUs experienced spiritual growth by reaching out to help someone who was different and who was afflicted. This was the era of the great reformers -- of Dorothea Dix, Clara Barton, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Horace Mann, John Dewey, Samuel Gridley Howe, and so on. It was out of this period of history that such UU axioms as "Deeds not Creeds" became popular.
Time marched on. Liberal Christianity was left behind in the 60's and 70's. God was pretty much a verboten concept altogether, and the Judeo-Christian tradition was basically something to be made fun of. Where was the important integrative tool? There was no place to go, no real sites to set our eyes on, and no way even to talk about lofty vistas. In those decades it was hard to keep our feet on the ground -- challenged by a new age -- yet guided by spiritual verities.
The activist part of our religion that came down to us from the older tradition was now called -- not social concern -- but social action. And in the 60's a word was invented that almost killed those socially concerned, practical, community projects that nurtured spiritual growth in our churches and kept us grounded. That word was "bandaid." To reach out to the afflicted in a concrete way was simply to use bandaids -- to go for the symptom and not the cure. Social action in our churches often came to mean political action, and social action committees all across the country came to be associated solely with political activism.
That this would happen was somewhat inevitable, for we lost the cognitive structures necessary to deal with the world of the spirit and integrate that into our lives. The mind was overshadowing the spirit. We just said, "Believe what you want," but didn't give people the means to do that -- the structure to do that with. We didn't come up with anything to take the place of the Judeo-Christian -- or even the Trancendentalist -- heritage. So in the absence of the accessibility of the world of the spirit, the idea of helping others to save your own soul was silly. No, helping others only made sense as part of the mind agenda and thus it only made sense that change would be most ably accomplished on the political level.
On one hand, in the last 50 years this denomination did incredible things for justice, for freedom, for peace, for integration; but on the other hand, we got out of touch with our own spitirual traditions.
We institutionally abandoned the forms -- the words -- the structures of the spirit in many of our churches, and like so many good liberal institutions of which I am a part, we have managed to shoot ourselves in the foot. Without the structures -- the religious and spiritual language and concepts necessary for the integration of the spirit into our lives, we have been responsive to fads. In turning to fads so quickly, I believe we have turned all of our potent religious symbols over to the religious right. We just gave it to them. We gave them "God." We said, "Hey, we don't need it anymore. You take it." We gave them the Bible with all of its wisdom. Sure, it's got problems, but nobody said we had to take those. No, we gave the whole thing away. We gave them "the family." "Family" wasn't where people were at anymore in 1972. Can't fool us with that "Leave it to Beaver" stuff. Let's give the family to the religious right.
Community Projects? Direct aid to the poor and the hungry? No, we're not interested in Bandaids.
We even gave the flag away. George Bush and George W. and the Moral Majority didn't steal the flag from us. We gave it to them. We, who stand in the tradition of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, we gave it away.
We let go of these symbols because we weren't able to see them as being connected to larger spiritual realities.
You see, traditionally, a Unitarian could posit the symbol of the American flag as an integration of both mind and spirit. A fundamentalist can't do this because to the fundamentalist, the spirit takes the place of the mind. The flag is divine. America is God. The UU says, "No, the flag is not divine -- that's idolatry." However, the flag as a symbol is included in the ongoing exchange between mind and spirit. Thus the flag, out of this process, is infused with eternal values.
Well, what has happened is that when we progressively let go of the ways to talk about ultimate meaning in life, we didn't put anything new in their place. So we couldn't integrate the divine into our symbols because we had nothing to integrate with. Thus we come to see the flag as only belonging to the mental realm. It's just a symbol, lacking in spirit. So we let it go.
Now don't get me wrong. We didn't let go of the spirit itself. We just didn't keep the structures necessary to integrate it meaningfully into our lives and thus maintain our spiritual growth and our reasons for being in church and out marching and setting up soup kitchens.
In a sense, today Unitarian Universalism is beginning again (as should every good religion to be always beginning again). We have our dream, but the split we were historically gathered to heal is very much with us.
For example, the forces affecting this church and this denomination today are -- on the mind side -- people like Robert Ingersol, Isaac Asimov, William Sinkford, John Buehrens, Forrest Church, and so on. On the spirit side, we have movements like Religious Science, Unity, Humanistic Psychology, Twelve Step movements, Eastern religions, New Age spirituality, Course in Miracles, etc. All of these forces can be within the realm of our religion -- but only if our feet are on the ground, only if we are grounded. Yes, you can get lost in a Course in Miracles -- but not if your feet are on the ground. Yes, you can drown in secular humanism and monthly onslaughts of "Free Inquiry" -- but not if your feet are on the ground -- not if you are integrating mind and spirit and creating the middle way for yourself.
Unfortunately, too often our religious response to these forces has been -- not integration -- but fragmentation. Suddenly we have Unitarian Universalist Christians, Unitarian Universalist Humanists, Unitarian Universalist Pagans, Unitarian Universalist Conservatives, Unitarian Universalist Buddhists, and so on.
Notice which are the nouns here and which are the modifiers. In all of these groups Unitarian Universalist is the adjective. In other words, what we are saying when we claim these things is that, for example, "The real focus of my religious life is that I am a pagan or a Buddhist. I just happen to be a Unitarian Universalist."
Why don't people even think to put it the other way? Why not say, "I am a Humanist Unitarian Universalist"? Why? Because we have not been sufficiently functioning to bring the spirit and the mind into integration. This is the middle way -- the way we are destined to follow. We have not been doing our job to define the place where you can stand with your feet on the ground where you can love God -- love the best in the human heart -- love the Goddess -- love the Great Spirit -- and work to bring sense and order to this world. Instead of re-embracing our own unique tradition of integrating mind and spirit, we have simply tried to please all people with their pet identities. We have forgotten that spirituality is not just an individual enterprise; it is a communal one. We have forgotten that Social Responsibility is not just a political enterprise. It is a communal one.
For our religion to really work, we need to commit to the horizontal dimension of the mind and the vertical dimension of the spirit -- and then to bring them together -- once again to embrace our nature as a practical religion. Not practical politics, not a practical sociology, not practical a psychology, but a practical religion.
How to do this? Good question. We start here and now, first with a realization. This church is not a spiritual shopping mall. Let me tell you that the church's job is not to satisfy you (the consumer) but is rather to try to point to and provide you with the integrative and interpretive tools you need to live in this world as a spiritually growing creature who is also an agent of change.
What are these tools of practical religion? First, knowledge. What does New Bern have to offer?
(open to congregation) courses for children and adults courses that involve discussion Most importantly courses that put us in touch with our own own prophetic heritage of ultimate concern -- GOD Talk. What religious growth are you fostering? Second, what we must have is a community of faith. To have a community of faith, we need to have a covenant. What is our living covenant? To love life so much as to be willing to sacrifice ourselves -- our egos -- to grow and to make life better? Or is our covenant to come to church and not be bothered with the life and suffering that goes on in our own hearts or outside or inside of these walls? What is our covenant? If we stand for spiritual transformation and growth through participation in a community of love and a world of need, then we need to get straight on that. Because it's then that we're ready to start saving our souls through social outreach. The first virtue of a community of love is hospitality -- making room for those who are different. Are we cliquish? racist? homophobic? sexist? Are we willing to find out? If we are these things, then by concretely reaching out to those of different color, different life styles, different sexual orientation, or simply the stranger at the door, we save our souls. Are we afraid of those who are hungry and homeless? If so, by communally, concretely, and practically reaching out to them, we save our souls. Are we afraid of AIDS? If so, then by practically reaching out to those who are afflicted, we save our souls. It is by having the courage to be hospitable that we save our souls, that our faith is transformed into reality both inside of us and in the world. No bandaid, this. These are practical, down to earth projects which nurture spiritual growth by allowing us to reach out and help someone who is different and afflicted.
What kind of community projects is New Bern working on now? (congregation)
So we come up with a program. We offer a social service to our world. We participate. Hands on, soul saving. And the more we participate, the more questions we ask and the more our consciousness is raised. Why does it have to be this way? Why is this pain here? No armchair question and answer here, but real ones. Why? Maybe we find out why. Maybe we get a chance to go from social service to social education to social witness. And after social witness, then perhaps if we really feel sure, we take corporate social action. If we take action, it is because we started from our covenant with each other and worked up from our religion to the point that corporate action becomes clear. Corporate social action -- action taken in the name of the church -- should be least and last (if at all).
It is our commitment and our action that makes our faith real. And don't get me wrong. The faith of this church and this denomination is real. If I didn't think this is the best denomination in the world, I wouldn't be here. This church has been on a mission since it started -- to get its feet on the ground. And I think we're there. With your help, we're going to stay there. The people who are here to stay have their religious feet on the ground. They are busy integrating mind and spirit and witnessing to a better tomorrow. From this vantage point, New Age Spiritualism is no threat and neither is hard core Humanism because we have our feet on the ground. We know who we are. We appropriate what we want from different movements and we remain UUs. We are not UU this or that. We are UUs. As diverse and as varied as our theology is, we do have our own theology. Eternity in time. Love in flesh. The infinite within the finite. But this theology only works when we are centering ourselves through
in reach to our own hearts and souls -- and through outreach -- both to our own church community and to the larger world.
And we do that.
We're doing our job. But we can do better. When the mind and the spirit are joined together, when our feet are on the ground, there is no end to the good we can do for ourselves -- and for the world. After all, we are a practical religion.
In a world without end. Amen.