Fundamentalism, identity and the Word of God

avec12 As you enter the home, give it your greeting. 13 If the home is deserving, let your peace rest on it; if it is not, let your peace return to you. 14 If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet.” (Matthew 10:12-14)

Dear Brethren,

I must say I am always astonished by the way the Gospel gives us messages able to fit any occasion even 2000 years after it has been written.

I confess these verses, the ones of Matthew chapter 10,  are constantly coming to my mind in these days in relation to very different elements and in particular to two big problems of nowadays society: identity and fundamentalism.

I’d like to start briefly commenting the incredible period we are living, a period filled with violence, hatred, death due to the recrudescence of the self-defined Islamic terrorism (self-defined as I hope we all know that the real  Islam is very far from the Wahabi fundamentalism inspiring the deviated, desperate minds and souls of a minority of the Muslim believers).

When the carnage at the offices of “Charlie Hebdo” took place I, as many others, didn’t  hesitate to publish the “Je suis Charlie” banner on my page as a sign of solidarity with the victims of an inhuman, vile and also politically absolutely stupid attempt to apply the most extreme censorship of the most extreme and ignorant interpretation of the Shari’a to the freedom of press. I absolutely don’t regret it as I deeply believe we must all stand up for our rights against any attempt of imposition of ideas with fear and violence, with menaces and terror. Jesus Himself asks to us not to be afraid when He says: “You will be hated by everyone because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved” and, sometimes, also a symbol like a banner could be a way to “stand firm” .

However, a few hours later something  made me feel a little dizzy about that banner I had published. That something was the claim, coming from many parts, that the dead of “Charlie Hebdo” were “heroes of the Western civilization”, “martyrs of freedom”, “models for the whole world” (I am quoting randomly from different international newspapers), that the Muslim groups changing the banner in “Je suis AVEC Charlie Hebdo” were, in a way, siding the attack or, at least, not condemning it enough and that, as The Guardian published in an editorial, “satire has to shock. Being shocking is going to involve offending someone. If there is a right to free speech, implicit within it there has to be a right to offend“.

As often I am probably going upstream and I will surely be blamed by many for saying this but I deeply feel I must say it: I totally don’t agree with these ideas. To me Charlie Hebdo was and remains total rubbish, its drawings were and are in majority vulgar and just insulting and its cartoonists were not heroes, models or martyrs but just victims of the madness of the most misleading interpretation of a religion possible! That’s the way it is for me and I won’t lie.

Which doesn’t mean, in any way (I want to be absolutely clear about this), I can even distantly agree with the ones thinking that “they deserved it” or “they brought it on themselves”! They didn’t: nobody deserves to die or brings a murder on himself for a drawing and this is very clearly stated in the verses I am commenting, where the Master affirms: “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet. He doesn’t say: “burn their homes, kill them, destroy their towns” but simply “shake the dust off your feet” and leave them. And I suppose He says this for many reasons: as Jesus always condemns the use of violence, as any murder is the destruction of the whole universe according to that Jewish culture the Master never refused, as He speaks about mercy and love for everybody and, possibly, as mentioned, as violence is always the most stupid and counterproductive way to act. An example of this last point? Well, why not a couple as they are clearly in front of us? What about, in example, that big slice of the public opinion which, in France as well as in other countries, was front-line in blaming Israel for its political behavior and now is revising its positions  in the light of the victims of the blindest anti-Semitic rage? Or, what about the new public judgment about a magazine like “Charlie Hebdo” which, in the past, had been condemned even in courts for its lack of any refrain and was practically close to fail for the constant loss of readers?

With all the due respect for the victims, I won’t join my voice to the chorus of hypocrisy of the ones now suddenly changing their mind after the carnage! I repeat: to me Charlie Hebdo was and remains rubbish, exactly like some other newspapers and magazines from all over Europe incapable to understand the perhaps subtle but anyway existing border between satire and insult.

So, which is this subtle border? To me (and, as far as I can see, also according to many of the most important religious leaders of the planet) it stands in the defense and untouchability of anyone’s deep identity.

I try to explain. Can satire touch anybody’s actions if they are wrong, ridiculous, blame deserving? Of course it can! Actually it must! To denounce mistakes and to put in the pillory anyone deserving it, with no exceptions and no obsequiousness for any power is the real role of satire. But actions are one thing and identity is something totally different. Identity, personal identity is the root of our being and it is formed by many different basic elements, many of which not even depending on the single’s will: your ethnicity, your nationality, your family, your religious values… To offend these elements means to hit the radical core bases of a human being and, therefore, to offend him/her in his/her entirety. And there are no exceptions: it is surprising how so many tend to adopt different systems of judgment and blame anybody mocking ethnicity as racist (Dieudonné’s case is quite exemplar in this sense) but consider anybody mocking religion as an intelligent secularist and free thinker. Actually I don’t think there is any difference: exactly as much a racist satire is anyway a disgusting act of racism, a blasphemic satire is a disgusting act of blasphemy. Period.

Identity matters, my brethren: identity is what shapes us as human beings and to respect any identity, in any occasion, in any situation, with no exceptions, means to respect the supreme creation of God.

I suppose there is something very important, a very deep teaching also for the Christian Unitarians in this idea. Because, you know, to respect anyone’s identity means, as first thing, to respect our own identity and to defend it.

I think in some occasions there are very deep misunderstandings about the meaning of being “liberal Christians”: to adopt a liberal view of a religion means to distinguish between a private sphere and a public sphere, not to try to impose your idea, not to blame or attack anyone for religious ideas different from yours. In no way it means to renounce to your idea, to your belief, to the claiming of the message you perceive as true in the name of a misunderstood generic, undifferentiated love for everyone (but for yourself, evidently) reducing Christianity to the lowest level of banality or in the name of a relativistic or nihilistic cowardy  masked as a sort of “mental openness” allowing anything to be said and done without objection, even “in our name”.

Identity matters and the Master Himself expresses this concept very clearly. What should you do if they don’t accept the message you take with you?  We read that you must “shake the dust off your feet” and we said that it means not to use any violence, coercion, intimidation to impose what you believe in. We must, anyway, understand that “to shake dust from your feet” is not, in the biblical culture, a neutral act, an act meaning: “ok, do what you want as it’s anyway the same”.  Dust is symbolic of a number of things in Scripture. Man was created from the dust (Genesis 2:7) and to dust he will return upon death (Genesis 3:19). The Serpent in Eden was punished by being sentenced to a dust diet (Genesis 3:14). People would often cover themselves in dust as a sign of mourning or repentance (e.g., Joshua 7:6; 2 Samuel 1:2; 15:32; Job 2:12; Nehemiah 9:1). Dust was also associated with poverty (Psalms 113:7). Indeed, God calls Israel, through the prophet Isaiah, to “shake off your dust” and to “rise up”. In this case of Matthew 10, as one can, in example, read in “Robertson’s Word Studies”, “shake off the dust (ektinaxate ton koniorton)” is a rather violent gesture of disfavor. In the Middle East travellers would often arrive with their feet caked in dust and hence foot washing was quite traditional. The Jews made this a theological and sacred issue though. Jewish customs and traditional teaching believed that any land outside of Israel was defiling, or at least its dirt was. This presumably caused some questions of conscience and consternation for those Diaspora Jews living outside of first century Palestine. Jews were to “shake off” any dust or dirt from outside lands when returning to Israel, or even off any imported fruit and food. The dust of a gentile land was equivalent to the defiling brought about by coming into contact with a corpse.

According to the philologist Edersheim, the very dust of a heathen country was considered unclean, and it defiled by contact. It was regarded like a grave, or like the putrescence of death. If a spot of heathen dust had touched an offering, it had at once to be burnt. More than that, if by mischance any heathen dust had been brought into Palestine, it did not and could not mingle with that of “the land” but remained to the end what it had been, unclean, defiled, and defiling everything to which it adhered. This, I suppose, casts light upon the meaning conveyed by the symbolical directions of our Master to His disciples in the moment He sent them forth to mark out the boundary lines of the true Israel, “the kingdom of heaven” that was at hand: they were not only to leave a city or household not receiving them, but it was to be considered and treated as if it were heathen. Even considering the fact that the Master was often quite extreme in His words and that surely we don’t need to take the passage literally excluding any “non-Christian” from our lives, it is quite clear that, given the prevalent attitudes to gentile grit and grime one could think that Jesus was suggesting to his disciples that if their Jewish hearers rejected the gospel then they should treat them as gentiles, shaking them off, and move on to more fruitful ground.  There is no neutrality in this, no indifferentism, no relativism.

There is identity, on the other hand, identity, the identity of a message to spread and witness with no imposition but also with no fear, the identity of a faith we have, we are proud of, we live and we must peacefully defend against anything: against the violence of any fundamentalism as well as against the more subtle (but, in the end, not less pernicious) violence of any blasphemic, vulgar insult to the elements shaping our souls, of any relativism diluting our beliefs.

Adonai echad, amen.

To defend the rights of our soul

CUSo … new year … new post, after a long silence due to the need to think back about some religious bases of my life …

And this new post is just to start this new year with an admission.

For a long time I have thought and claimed that isolation was highly unproductive for Christian Unitarians, that it was just a way to close ourselves into a self made ghetto, to cut ourselves off from any form of growth coming from exchanging perspectives with other Unitarians from different backgrounds, that, in a way, it was a sort of insult to the idea of tolerance which should lead any liberal Christian oriented mind.

Well … I was wrong and I must honestly admit it! To get apart from the rest of the worldwide Unitarian movement is, for a Christian Unitarian, not a form of self-imposed seclusion but the only legitimate form of self defense left to us in this historical moment.

What do I mean with this? I mean that I don’t think that what I used to claim was wrong in itself: I do believe in the necessity for any Christian to be open to any discussion, to have a faith able to face other opinions and to grow also thanks to them, not to be a monolith in front of other visions. I really do believe in all this.

But not now, not in the frame of a nowadays Unitarian Universalism led by a winning humanist/atheist vision no more representing the spiritual needs and the religious convictions of those who find their denominational roots in the teachings of theologians like Servetus, David, Channing or Parker and, mainly, in the immense human vision of our relation with God pointed out by our Master Jesus Christ.

Why does it happen? Why is atheism the winning position in a Denomination born from the union of two Christian movements like the Unitarian and the Universalist ones? Personally I don’t think the answer is so difficult to find and that it can be articulated at three levels:

1) simply, a humanist position is, so to say,  less engaging. It could involve the presence of an ethic level (and nobody denies Humanists can be as ethic as Christians, sometimes even more) but, not needing the passage from an ethic to a morality or, in other words, from a pure horizontal way of “acting well” to a horizontal way which involves a source and a goal that transcends that plan to find its final perspective in a vertical level, it doesn’t imply a pure, total, all-encompassing trust which leads us towards that direction. We could say that ethic is a choice, compared to religious morality which is, on the contrary, a law, an inner law for all the believers. And that’s the point: we want to be free from any law, even from the laws of God, we prefer to choose (also because to choose to be good makes us feel much better than to have the inner obligation to be good) and to have the possibility not to choose, we want to get engaged if we feel like doing it not as it is our must as human beings. That’s the trend worldwide and U*U world is just a mirror of that trend;

2) it’s not so surprising that humanists lead the majority of congregations in the world. Given that the social element is the absolute priority for them, while it is a priority a Christian must share with a second priority of “vertical” path (the relation with God), it is quite obvious that the political engagement of the humanists is superior (being their unique level of interaction) to the one of the Christians who tend to be more interested in a real “religious” relation within a Church. Consequently, what’s strange if they manage to emerge in community leadership, national leadership, international leadership?

3) Moreover, at community level, their emersion is consolidated by the fact that community is not a mean for them, but a goal, “the Goal”, while the opposite happens if we speak about the Christians. I have often asked to myself the reason for which an atheist should join a church, which, to me, looks like being just an absurd oxymoron. Well, the only answer I can get is just the need to share a sort of spiritual level to avoid the desperation of a totally mechanistic life, hijacking the sense of the community from being, as said, a mean to walk a path towards God to being a sort of spiritual association having an end in itself.

And so they have led (and go on leading more and more) U*Uism so far from its premises, so far from its deep meaning that it is not only unrecognizable to any other Christian Denomination (in fact not recognizing U*Uism as Christian anymore) but also to its Christian adherents, who feel betrayed, feel like being victims of a theft. But in case they complain… well, they are not only the underdeveloped ones, the fall guys (which is what stands behind 90% of the humanist claims although not openly expressed for a matter of political correctness): they … we become the intolerants, the ones betraying the real spirit of openness, the disturbing ones to push aside … That’s the unbearable part of the story: to add insult to injury!

It’s high time to clearly state, on the contrary, that the only insult is the presence of atheists into a Church, an insult to logic, to faith, to intelligence!

Why?

I’ll try to explain my point.

Let’s start from definitions.

What is a religion? It’s the combination of beliefs and manifestations thanks to which the human being tries to relate to the supernatural, to the divinity, to the ierophany.

What is atheism? It is the doctrine denying the existence of God.

Pardon me if I ask but … how can these two positions even lightly match?

Let’s be clear: atheism is something completely different from agnosticism. The second is the position of those who, though being in constant quest, humbly declare their impossibility to clearly claim the existence or inexistence of God, of a transcendent level which remains, anyway, a mystery. The first one is the position of the ones superbly declaring their total, clear certitude of the lack of any transcendent level, finally contradicting themselves in the moment in which in so doing, they end up creating a faith in the “non-faith”, a dogmatic certitude closing any possibility to the free, constant, never-ending quest for a meaning in life. Therefore atheism, as religion, becomes a way of life, an optic to know the world but, in a sort of opposite mirroring of religion, it is an optic denying the possibility to find a meaning for our existence, to find any hope. Is it possible to live without hope? Probably yes, though I can’t even imagine the abyss of sadness coming from such a vision, but, as far as I am concerned, I dare to say that this process of denial of any transcendence never historically succeeded, ending up with the creation of “alternative cults”: the cult of science and progress in Positivism, the cult of social justice in Marxism, the cult of a sort of unexpressed entity called love in humanistic U*Uism…

It even hurts me to list U*Uism together with Positivism and Marxism also because this kind of vision of U*Uism is, historically speaking, just an aberration! I really hope it is clear to everybody that both Unitarianism and Universalism were born as something totally opposed to Atheism: Unitarianism roots in the quest for a pure, uncontaminated cult of the Only God, far from any idolatry while Universalism in the search for an element of hope for any human being. How distant are both these ideas from the desperate lack of transcendence characterizing atheism!

Anyway, a U*U atheism has come to light and, as said, is diffusing more and more. I will not indulge to the idea that it is just a devastating fruit of modern relativism making any line of thought equivalent or of the egocentrism of the contemporary human being, denying, in his total myopia and in his arrogance, anything he can’t manage to understand. Simply, I affirm that it is totally nonsense to define atheism a natural evolution of the Unitarian Universalism as, very clearly, it is something spurious in respect to Unitarian Universalism and logically and semantically we can’t speak about an evolution in front of something which is clearly not a result of the source it should supposedly come from, being opposed to it. Period!

So, what should this “Humanist U*Uism” be? What should it be based on? As previously outlined its core belief, its meaning should be a sort of “cult of mutual love”: a wonderful concept is correctly framed, a silly romantic-hippy molasses if seen as a target in itself.

Is the “act of love” the object of cult of this “evolution”? Ok but any act of love must have a subject and an object. I suppose this “act of love” should be, if I well understand, a sort of reflexive act of the humans on themselves, in a endless net of reciprocity whose goal should be just to live better here and now. Cool! Actually I am not, according to empiric experience,  so sure that a generalized and undetermined love towards any other could make one live so much better here and now (which is the only level for an atheist), but, even given that this wonderful dream could be true, should this love be a sort of inner natural instinct, part of the human nature?  Obviously it must be so in the moment in which we deny any transcendence: it makes no sense to think about an act that should need a trans-human effort if we accept only the materialistic level of life and so we are forced to think that such an act must forcibly be a natural instinct. Is it a natural instinct? Well, even not mentioning the fact that naturally speaking the basic law is the one of selfishness and of the alimentary chain, could anyone affirm that to reach the point to sacrifice your life for the others is a natural act and not an act totally opposed to the natural law of self-preservation? I don’t think so!

Therefore, this “love” can’t be transcendent as transcendence doesn’t exist and is not natural not being part of this chemical melt we call human being: is it a product of the union of all human being? Well, is it possible that these ultra-logic atheists forget that summing up an even infinite series of 0 you can never obtain a 1?

Is, therefore, this “love” an “ingenerated miracle”? Come on! Not even this primitive believer in God can accept the idea of miracles and, well, though I’d like not to mention the Aquinas, if these atheist and humanist U*Us believe that the “ex nihilo nihil” law is wrong they must be really too intelligent to know things nobody else knows!

Let’s close this logical-theological parenthesis and let’s go back to semantics.

If a Church is based on the common, communitarian cult of a manifestation of the Transcendence, I just ask to myself what are these deniers of any transcendence doing in a Church, what do they give cult to. To their rationality? To this presumed “love” whose source they deny to define? To the friendship of a nice chat or to a philosophical discussion? Can’t they see that their presence in a Christian function is equivalent to a blasphemy in the moment in which we believe in the presence of God during the cult and they deny Him (what would they think if they introduced their father to me and I said I don’t think he exists)? How do they consider a Church? A cultural circle, a humanitarian association, a collective analytic session, a club of friends? Words have a meaning and Church means something different from all these things! That’s it!

I could go on for hours and hours, but I know it would be useless! I am the primitive fall guy, they are the ones leading the liberal Church to the future and who cares if their liberalism becomes only anarchic unengaged libertinism melting any instance to a zero level degree …

Is this the church I want? Definitely no! But that’s the way it works, that’s the way it looks, that’s the way it is going to be.

It is for this reason that I was wrong: there is no possibility to work from within the existing international U*U leading organizations to defend the Christian identity of our Church, our Christian identities they are stealing from us!

For a Christian Unitarian to get apart is, therefore, the only possible remaining defense, not of the rights of God, as God doesn’t need us to defend His rights, but of the rights of our soul, the rights which is our must to defend!

Absence is the essence

offcenteredDid it ever happen to you to ask to yourself: “Why am I a Unitarian Universalist?”. Honestly, it happened to me to ask questions to myself about my engagement in the U*U community several times (would I, by the way, be a Unitarian Universalist not asking questions to myself every second minute?)

The first answer that every time I’ve come up with has always been: “because I believe in that system of thought that we define Unitarian Universalist and I think it is fair to give everything you can for what you really believe in!”

End of story? No!

No, because a response of this kind might be fine for our Catholic brothers and sisters, our brothers and sisters of the classical Reform, for our Muslim brothers and sisters, in short, for all those who identify with a set of ideas, of more or less consolidated and more or less fell from above formulas, with a belief in a dogmatic construction. Well, we all know that this is not the case for U*Us so that for me, for us all, in the end, the next step is to ask what this fluid matter, this faith in perpetual progress, sometimes this chaos we call Unitarian Universalist is. You know, I often even wonder if it is right to use the singular and talk about “Unitarian Universalist” or it would be more correct to speak of “Unitarians” and “Universalists”…

Why are we taking part to a U*U function? Is it because a commandment written 4000 years ago commands us to “keep the Sabbath holy”? Maybe for some of us it is so, and this kind of Unitarian Universalist focuses in a Deuteronomy invocation that our Jewish brothers repeat several times a day. And I ask to myself why to attend a U*U congregation and not a Reformed synagogue or a Christian Messianic temple if, in the end, it is just to add a “prophet more” to a long “official” list.

Or maybe it’s because we like to remember a teacher who lived 2000 years ago and who said things that no one else was saying, things about love, human dignity and the interpretation of the Law which can’t but be in perfect consonance with our ethical and social position although we believe they were not asserted directly by God but only by a great man so close to God to be a sort of spokesman of God? Ok, it’s more or less what our Transylvanian brothers have been stating for nearly 500 years, and certainly it is not a position that, personally, I could ever define wrong. But how many other teachers have before and after Jesus explored similar paths, spoken of that same love, of the same human dignity, of the same capability of the individual to interpret the divine will? Why, then, to have only one Master when you can enter into dialogue with the entire wisdom of mankind? Why to choose him and not another?

Maybe, for some, being in a U*U community is something ethical or moral, social, and even political. I defy anyone to prove to me that the Seven Principles are not the pinnacle of open-mindedness towards the others and the enrichment of ourselves in the context in which we live, I defy anyone to say that they are wrong principles, that they are immoral. But, I wonder, without a push towards transcendence, could we speak about a church or a religious group and not about a debating social club, a humanist party or a philanthropic ecumenical center? And if the thrust to transcendence, which can easily be considered inherent in the convergence of ethics and morality, if that extra push exists, isn’t it true that, finally, those same Seven Principles are the heart of almost every religion, or at least of the religious understanding of the most open and liberal wings of all religions?

Finally, for some people Unitarian Universalism can be a sort of “last resort” for those who cannot fit in so-called “official faiths”, for those who are too critical to accept impositions and hetero-imposed dogmas, for those who cannot find a suitable location to their creed and decide to build their own “personal religion”, sometimes modeled on sections of other faiths, sometimes developed in the singular meditation, in the worst cases centered on some sort of supermarket of faith from which to take elements “on demand” for their own needs and in the best cases born from the deep, even painful digging of the meanders of their soul and on the assumption of a personal morality that necessarily derives as a logical path from any “pursuit of happiness”. But, in this case, which is the meaning of a church or, even more, the sense of a community? What does a community become if not a place of exchange of pre-formed views, a ploy to consciously or unconsciously avoid solipsism or, perhaps, even loneliness? Isn’t in this case any community open to discussion equivalent to any other community with the same characteristics?

Have you recognized yourself into any of these categories? Or maybe even in more than one? Well, I recognize myself more or less in a couple of these instances.

But one question remains, heavy as a stone: if each of us could be “other tan U*U” why are we Unitarian Universalists? Why do we go Unitarian Universalist functions and not other functions? Why do we live into a U*U community and not into any other liberal community? Or, putting the question in another way, what is our deepest identity, what is the essence of our faith?

I do not hide that this question has troubled me for a long time, creeping up like a worm inside of me and making me constantly ask to myself questions about the meaning of my work and of my being within the Church.

And an answer to this question has became even more urgent attending the “ICUU European Leadership School” in Kolozsvar just a few days ago. There, I heard some of the best minds of the European and extra-European Unitarian Universalism talking of “mission”, shared dreams, common goals and listening skills and motivation: “How can we speak of mission for a religious community without a common basis in transcendence?”, I wondered, “and how can we dream together and walk together towards a goal, if there isn’t a large common path, if the spiritual goals can be so divergent that it is impossible to find an ultimate essence that unites all of us uniquely? ”

Then, suddenly, the answer was clear to me, in one of those incredible epiphanic moments that sometimes happen to all and that become so fundamental for us though born from completely random observations.

I was returning from Romania, slightly dazed by an alarm clock at 6 o’clock and by the pressurization of the aircraft but strictly in clergyman as I think befits a minister coming from an official visit to a Sunday service in the Unitarian Cathedral where Ferenc David served (I know many wouldn’t agree about the use of a collar but it’s something like an habit for us here in Italy). By chance, I started to observe my pastoral medallion with the Unitarian Universalist chalice and do you know what I happened to think? I happened to think that, within the two circles that surround the Unitarian Universalist symbol, the chalice was not in the center but displaced to one side, so to leave a blank space. I do not know why this provision, which I had seen so many times, has hit me so much and has made my mind go to another symbol that I had worn for a long time when I was still a seminarian, apparently without ever really analyzing its deep significance: the so-called “off-centered cross”. Even in that case, I realized, of course there was the Christian cross, but the cross was not the center of the circle in which it was inscribed: there was a cross on one side but the other side was empty…

Two symbols, so different yet so similar, united by that empty space, that would have existed also if there would have been a Star of David or a Crescent or a Buddhist samsara impressed on the other side.

And it is at that point that I realized what has become my answer to the quest for meaning, to the quest for our identity: the absence is the essence.

That void is the meaning of our being not Christian Unitarians, not Unitarian Universalists not U*U Humanists not Jewish or Muslims or Buddhists Unitarians, but of being also all those things and, at the same time, to belong to the same movement keeping all our differences together due to that absence, to that emptiness.

The point is that that void is not only a symbol of ethics and social tolerance, is not only a moral element of intellectual humility or availability to the other: that emptiness that can stand aside any religious symbol is a strong, meaningful, deeply theological symbol in the only way in which a theology can be given, the search for meaning in our own spirituality.

Theologically that emptiness is in itself a search for meaning, is a door to the further that does not denye the symbol that goes with it but strengthens it opening to a “sacred” which it is not a monolith, which is not engraved in stone once and forever, which is not anthropomorphism that results from human thought, which has no name and no form but has any name and any form because it is changing for every woman and man as any woman or man is different from any other woman or man. And there is no fixed essence through time and space because it is every essence of time and space and evolves with the evolution of each of us, calling us to know it knowing each other and acting in us and around us because we have known it. And this act of ours of knowing it stands precisely in our act to remain open to what is beyond us, to embark on a journey whose destination is unknown to us, knowing only that what is beyond us will always be only partially knowable and expressible but it will increasingly be perceptible only sharing and voluntary disclosing our inner spirit to ourselves, to the others, to the greatness of a mere reflection of a pale intuition, a reflection which is, however, within all of us, caressing us like a feather or scratching like a claw though always too superior to the single to be grasped entirely.

It is the intuition of that reflex of something above us, embracing us, penetrating us but, in the end, remaining elusive to any ultimate definition what unites us, what enriches us.

The name we want or do not want to give to that “beyond” will depend on our culture, our origin, our choice, our sensitivity and a thousand other variables and that will be our own way, what will be the different symbols from which each one will start his quest, that symbol that can stand next to the empty space and that can be a cross, a stylized man, a star, or even nothing.

But next to that symbol that represents us there is something more, there is a blank area that is room for more, for interaction, for communication, for the continuous discovery, for increasing the intuition, for sharing, for the other.

So, our symbol will remain, it will be our own symbol and it will support us along our own path as individuals, but it’s that void that we accept and whose existence we proclaim in our communities that will represent us all, that will not impede our singular growth in this or that way, but will identify us as a community, a congregation, a denomination or a religion, as we prefer to call us.

This is for me the Unitarian Universalism: that going also theoretically and theologically towards a possibility, a “something more”, a “something further”, together, in the only spiritual path that I know that is characterized precisely by the freedom to grow, by the respect for the human being and its evolutionary relationship with what goes beyond the human being to the point to choose not to get closed in the fullness of a unique symbol but to leave that blank space of research, growth, communication with no fear of disintegration but in the courage not to stop at one possibility.

And if a “mission” is, therefore, possible for our faith, for our Church, for our communities, this mission is to fight for a dream: nobody ever daring to fill that void for us, that void never being filled, nobody ever trying to put only one symbol in the center as the only possible way, because the paths are as numerous as the souls of men.

This is, to me, the meaning of our Unitarian Universalism: to celebrate the emptiness of an “unknown beyond” with a thousand different perspectives and to observe it together in stunned contemplation of its greatness, thanking for its existence and all the possibilities given to us. Because that void is full of life!

Tribalism

xenophobiaSome months ago a person told me a minister shouldn’t speak about politics. In a way (just a partial way ..) I could also agree with him but I suppose that in some occasions to remain in silence in front of some events means to share a part of the responsibility and this is true mainly for a minister when these events touch the core of the moral values he is meant to proclaim.

Well, this morning I had a look to the results of the European elections and an element deeply upset me: all over Europe the ultra-nationalist right is advancing and gaining positions. Somewhere this phenomenon is glaring (I’m thinking about France or Denmark, in example, not to speak about the continuous growth of the scaring “Golden Dawn” in Greece). Somewhere else, it is just a symptomatic trend (and I can think about Austria, about the resumption of a xenophobic party like Lega in Italy, partially about the success of Ukip in Uk, mainly if it’s true that before or later they will ally to the NF).

We all know the one of politics is often a world on its own, that very often what looks like being dangerous now looks like being less dangerous in the long distance, in the periodic sinusoidal curve of the electoral trends. So, why to get worried?

Well, to be honest, the fact is that I can’t but link this success of the extreme xenophobic right with the anti-Semitic regurgitation of these last days, with the terrible and absurd events of Brussels and of Créteil and with many other “smaller” events taking place all over Europe. Which is the link between the elections and these crimes? In a factual sense very probably nothing links the two elements but it’s a matter of “air du temps” as the French say: if someone thought all our mental borders about races were going to be swept away by the globalization, by the melting of ethnic groups, by what we often call tolerance … well it’s quite clear he was wrong. And this is devastating, not only for the crimes it provokes but as it tells us how hard is to fight with the ghosts of our deep heritage.

Probably I feel particularly sensitive in this field, not only for my origins but mainly as the woman I am going to marry is a Jew, proud of her heritage (and why shouldn’t she be proud of an heritage that, in the end, has shaped such a large part of Western culture?) … It is from a chat with her that I understood the depth of the problem, not only in relation to anti-Semitism but in relation to any “anti-something”. After the Brussels crime she told me: “You know, I can’t justify the ones against the Gypsies, but, as the Gypsies are so often accused to steal, I can at least understand their reasons. The same is for the immigrants: not to help them, to exploit them, to refuse them are horrible crimes but they are a real flow here and I can realize the reason for which some people get afraid. But for us, for the Jews … which pervert though could ever justify racist acts against us now?”

Oh, yes … for sure you will always find someone acting against the Jews as they want to act against the Israeli government, not understanding the equation Jew = Israeli government is everything but correct. For sure you will always find someone with Nazi nostalgias shouting against the “plutocratic Judaic lobby governing economy” (this has always been a quite mysterious element to me as I visited tens of former Jewish ghettos and I always found very poor neighborhoods and not villas!). You will always find someone even speaking about “deicide” although such a thing, if not so tragic, would just be ludicrous …

But, come on, I’m sure (or, better, I deeply hope) all these exalted idiots represent just a minimal percentage of the ones voting xenophobic parties: perhaps they could be the ones committing real crimes but what about the silent majority not supporting them but, at least, not blaming them so much?

The point, in my opinion is that all these people simply don’t need a cause to hate and this is the scaring thing! They just find justifications, one after the other, to give reason to an atavistic feeling that lurks within them: tribalism.

Let’s face it: it is something existing inside of all of us, in a way. It’s the heritage of our history or, better, of our pre-history, of the millions of years in which a tribe had to preserve its hunting area from the penetration of any other group in order to survive. It’s the little Malthusian germ implanted in the deepest part of our brain: keep your resources for yourself, possibly enlarge your hunting territory, drive away all the ones wearing different colors, speaking a different language, praying a different God. They are “the others” and they are dangerous for our existence!

“The others” is the key word, and this key word is becoming a mantra in times of crisis: a mantra often repeated by the ones interested in repeating it, even more often simply perceived at subconscious level, something totally irrational which needs to be rationalized with tens of different excuses.

Is there a cure against this thin, terrible virus? I think so!

The only cure is education to rationality, tolerance, openness. Not a mere bunch of good intentions, nice promises and rhetorical words, ma a real practical example of the capability of any idea, any culture, any faith, any position, gender and ethnicity to co-exist sharing and growing together because of this sharing and not creating primitive borders and private hunting territories.

Well, I suppose this is where our Denomination can say something to the world … and I suppose much, even too much is still to be said to go overour paleolithic tribalism!

Perspectives

speak-not-that-provokes-quarrelWe get angry, often … too often. We get angry at work, when we don’t obtain the exact result we planned to obtain. We get angry going around for those kids speaking too loud in the tube, for that too crowded bus full of immigrants who should stay in their country or for that car driver not fast enough to see the green light at the traffic light. We get angry talking to someone not getting our point or not sharing our opinion. We get angry at home, with the one we love, for a delay, a blunder, an incomprehension or the simple fact that different genders have different visions about things.

And all this anger accumulates, little by little, making our life bitter, touching the life of the people around us, spreading allover.

Could we avoid getting angry? I don’t think so: in the end we get angry as we care, as we are human, as we are alive…

But … Perhaps there is something we can try to do, at least if we don’t want love to be just an empty word on our lips, if we really believe peace is not just an abstract concept but a slow daily building starting from inside of every soul.

It is just a little thing, a sort of experiment: why don’t we try to learn to put things into the right perspective?

What does it mean? Simply that perhaps it would be enough to learn to see the big picture, to learn that little things pass by, that they should vanish in front of much more important, more global, more substantial things. It means that perhaps the little annoying troubles we consider so essential now and we will forget about tomorrow don’t deserve our deepest feelings.

Perhaps other things should deserve them, other things should move us, perhaps other things should making us angry. I could think about what just happened in Turkey, in example, or to what is happening every day in the Mediterranean Sea or in lands in which sufferance is the common experience for thousands of people, or about an economy in the hands of few people strangling all the others… but I suppose anybody can find different meaning to the adjective “important”.

On the contrary, we go on watching all these things as scenes of a bad fiction on tv, images of far things being “naturally” part of life and we get angry for little little meaningless things as they disturb our peaceful existence, as if the other global things didn’t touch us.

Well, I suppose peace, justice, respect and all the big values we proclaim will remain just meaningless words till we’ll change this vision, till we will just care about our courtyard devoting our energies to disseminate anger for meaningless stupid things we could easily tolerate.

This doesn’t mean to be ascetic, this doesn’t mean not to care: this just means to see life from a different point of view, from a higher ground, from a perspective giving the proper sense to our existence without the distorting magnifying lens of selfishness making of a grain of sand a rock while we are blind in front of a mountain.

To update the soul

iosA (real) talk with one of my students (almost 19 years old):

Student: “Teacher, have you seen the last update for the Iphone?

Teacher: “Not yet …

Student: “It’s great! I updated my Phone  yesterday and it is much faster now.

Teacher: “How often do you update your phone?

Student: “Each time a iOS update is released … Practically every second month …

Teacher: “May I ask you when you read your last book not assigned by your teachers?

Student: “Well, I don’t know … Perhaps five-six months ago …

Teacher: “Right. And when did it happened to you to take a moment to pray or to meditate about the meaning of your life?

Student: “Oh, well, you know, I don’t pray much and really I don’t have time to meditate … But I do it sometimes… let’s say a couple of times per year …

Teacher: “How long did it take to you to update your Iphone?

Student: “More or less one hour …”

I avoided telling my student that to have some meditation time would have taken even less than that hour he had spent to download and charge his iOS update: I don’t like to look like a sort of moralist (at least not more than what I really am).

Anyway, this conversation made me think a lot. Quite obviously for him (and, very probably for the vast majority of my students … and not only of my students) a iOS update was a priority, while to feed his mind and soul was not and, as I know he is not a stupid, I started asking go myself the reason of this.

The answers that came to my mind were many. I immediately discarded the ones related to a presumed “technological degeneration of our youth”: I’ve been working with teenagers for twenty years now and I really don’t think they are more stupid or “empty” today than they were in the past (including the time I was myself in their number).

I concentrated on one of the sentences of my student, the one in which he affirmed that his phone was “much faster” after the update: speed looked like being the answer! Speed what for? I suppose mainly to communicate with friends: constant communication with anybody seems like being the main issue for everybody. We need to be able to constantly exchange information with whoever we want and it’s surely not a bad thing in itself. The only problem is that we miss in exchanging information only with ourselves, with our Spirit. Why? Are we so engaged in external exchanges that we have no time to look inside of us, to ask for some fundamental info to ourselves? You know … things like which is the deep meaning of our existence and stuff like that… I’ not so sure of this: lack of time is, to me, just the excuse we give to ourselves… I’d rather say we are too afraid to take time for these questions: unsure answers don’t fit this precise, sharp, ultra-technologic age we are living in and give us a feeling of uncertainty that gets under our skin. What is dangerous is that the more we “forget” to try to investigate about these aspects, the more our answers will be unsure and the more we will be afraid to do it, in a sort of perverse spiral. So we’ll go on floating on the vast sea of life without even trying to learn how to swim towards any direction but, possibly, with our incredibly fast way to shout “I’m lost!” to our neighbors.

Perhaps, this evening, I won’t update my iOS as suggested by my student and I will try to update my soul, reading a book and trying to communicate with the Spirit inside of me: I’m not so sure my soul-update will get installed perfectly and certainly the process won’t be completed (will it ever be?), but, at least, I’m pretty sure I’ll get a little less afraid to swim in this wavy ocean of life.

Loving my “open community”…

communityIt’s almost Christmas time: a very important moment for any Christian religious community. In this period I often happen to think about my own community, here in Italy: such a mix of different opinions and positions I sometimes wonder how can we form a community… but we do, even if in a way that could appear strange to the majority of all other religious denominations.

Honestly, at the beginning of my ministry, coming from a much more “dogmatic” religious experience, I was a little shocked by so many and so different visions but, little by little, I fell in love with such an “open community”, kept together just by mutual love and respect and I’d like to tell you why.

What should, in the end, a religious community be? Should it be a hierarchical entity in which the members obey to super-imposed diktats (or dogmas), just showing their respect for “a superior authority” and sharing a feeling of common bond, probably even of common love in the end (at least till the moment members “follow the line”, more or less like in a platoon), in a sort of “military style” situation with “officers”, “sergeants” and “privates” under the presumed orders of a “general” (what a sad vision of spirituality, reducing God just to an imposing chief of staff!)?

Personally speaking, this is not for sure my vision of religion and, if we really think about it, such a kind of community can’t be even seen as bounded together by love. Of course there can be the one we can define as “vertical love” between men and God (just in case fear for God and judgment is not the final glue) but where is the horizontal love, the love among human brothers? If it exists, it is just a sort of “a posteriori” defined love, born from a common discipleship and conditioned by a common belonging and a common track.

If we are asked (or we simply wish) to love every human being indistinctly, regardless of any possible variable, this doesn’t look like being the best situation to achieve this aim: in a way, our love will remain “conditioned” by our feeling of common belonging and, even in the rare case we would love any member of our community, our love will express itself on the common ground of some shared convictions.

On the contrary, in an open community the love and respect for your neighbor, independently from his/her beliefs, ideas and spiritual track, will be the real glue creating the connection with all other members and this connection will express itself in the respectful exchange of ideas, in the search for a common action related to common aims, in the listening of the reciprocal visions and opinions for a common spiritual growth.

And, to me, this is, ultimately, the real goal of any real community: the common growth of all its members in the respect of each one’s single path.

I believe any relation with the Divine (or the Transcendence, the way we prefer to call it), is, in the end, absolutely personal: if it gets structured as a bilateral spiritual dialogue or it is just a reflection of our psychological need could be matter of endless discussions and, finally, is simply subjected to the faith of the single. So, what do we need a community for?

I would say simply to avoid the risk of a solipsistic, almost onanistic self-referentiality in the understanding of the voice of the Spirit working within our soul.

I will try to explain this concept with a metaphoric image. In a way, in our spiritual search, we are like people suddenly parachuted in a desert: nothing is explained to us in advance but we only have a sort of inner intuition that, perhaps, there could be an oasis somewhere in the distance. We find some traces on the path, here and there, and, sometimes, even road signs or small and large groomed trails but, in the end, any decision about the direction to take is just up to us. And, we all know, personal intuitions can be precious but, from time to time, they can also be misleading and prove only to be the result of our desires, of illusions and even of mirages. That’s why it is important not to travel alone: to ask for advice to the ones travelling with us, to exchange tips and suggestions with them, to know other people’s visions of the track… finally to understand that many eyes can perhaps see more than just two eyes.

But to have the whole think working you need two essential prerequisites:

a)      not to have just one “infallible” leader showing the “right way” to everybody, but just many different people coming from different tracks and able to have different points of view to share with the others;

b)      to have trust in what each one can give to all the others and this trust can only come from a shared love and from the belief that anybody has the image of God, of the immense, inside of him/herself and, therefore, is able to give something more to all the others.

About this last point there is a very nice Dervish story which, I think, can be very instructive.

A boy from a remote village was very ignorant but also very intelligent and wished to become wise. So he decided to reach the oasis in which a famous master lived. Once there, he met the old wise master but this last replied to him: “I am sorry, but my school is already so crowded that I can’t accept any other student!” The boy got very sad for this answer but, while he was preparing for his way back, the wife of the master came to him and suggested him: “Dear boy, don’t be discouraged. We need a servant to keep the schoolyard clean and, if you settle for room and board and sweep the courtyard twice a day, you can anyway listen to the lessons of my husband from outside and, perhaps, one day, some student will leave and you’ll be able to take his place…” The boy, with a new hope in his heart, accepted the agreement: every day he sat out of the schoolroom and listened humbly and patiently to the discussions that were taking place among the master and his students, then he meditated about what he had heard while cleaning the schoolyard. Unfortunately, he could have no contacts with the students and the master and so, after a couple of weeks, he begun to feel very alone. Time passed, a day after the other, and, a year later, the boy felt so sad and alone that, to ease the pain he had in his soul, he began to modulate his thoughts, produced by the lessons and the discussions he could hear from outside the classroom, in songs he sang while sweeping the yard. Another year passed and another again but no students left the school and the situation of the boy didn’t change. Finally, five years later, the poor boy was so sad and discouraged that he decided to leave the school. One morning he packed his things and, without a word to anybody, he set out toward the desert. As soon as he reached the desert he met a Bedouin tribe: everybody in the tribe looked like being very sad and the boy, curious, asked to an old woman the reason for all that sadness. “You see, my boy”, she replied, “we live here, outside of the oasis, our poor and hard life but we had a great luck: every morning and every afternoon the wind brought us a far singing of a wise man who was teaching us deep and important things. That singing gave us joy, hope and knowledge but this morning the wind brought us only silence and we fear that the wise master sharing his deep thoughts with us has died…” The boy suddenly understood that the old woman was speaking about him and decided to return to the school to bag to the master to welcome him back as a servant as, finally, even his humble work was so useful to someone. As soon as he arrived back to the school, the master came out of his class and, smiling, gave him his turban saying: “Finally you are back my dear son. I have heard you singing day after day, delighting in what you were learning and saying. You arrived here impudently and you have learned humbleness, you came here ignorant and you have become wise. Only one thing was still missing to you: to understand you were already a master and the responsibility that this entails. Now you have understood it but, equally, you haven’t mounted in pride and you are ready to start back working as a servant to help other people: you are my master now!

It’s a nice story, isn’t it? And what is really great is that, in a real, loving, open community everybody can be the master, the students, the boy and the Bedouins at the same time: everybody can teach something to the others, everybody can discuss all the opinions of the others, everybody can listen and rework the concepts he gets to know, everybody can get new, fresh hope from the words of his/her neighbors!

Moreover, this story opens to a corollary element which is important to discuss (or, at least, about which I often happen to meditate): the role of a minister inside of an open community.

Perhaps the presence of a “master” in the story can be misunderstood and one could assimilate the master’s teaching with the function a pastor should have inside of a group: actually this similitude would be the most erroneous vision possible.

In my opinion, one of the most common mistakes which is committed in many religious groups is to be minister-dependent: sometimes this is something formally held (in example in those denominations considering the figure of the minister as “ontologically different” from the people composing “the flock” because of the consecration), while in some other occasions this is a sort of “natural result” of the ministerial function inside of a group, a parish or a community.

Even not taking into consideration the fact that it is difficult to understand the reason for which a person, reflection of God like any other human being on Earth, should have a sort of “ontological mutation” only following to some formulas of consecration pronounced by another human being, a vision of the minister as detached from the rest of the flock can lead to some  misunderstandings.

  • As first thing it can lead to a sort of substantial if not formal hierarchization inside of the community which naturally leads to a passive attitude of the believers. In a way, they become like sparrows waiting to be fed by a sort of loving mother, unable (or, much better, simply too lazy) to develop their own vision detached from the one of the “leader”.
  • As second thing, how can we speak about a bond of love and reciprocal growth in the difference of visions when we finish to have just one, probably monolithic, vision? This, to me, is not a matter of love and respect but just a form of enslavement of many to a specific expression of the Spirit being possibly good for one person but not universally.
  • Finally, it is the feeling itself to be a community that gets lost. A community is a place of sharing, not only of ideas and visions but also of tasks, duties and responsibilities. In a pyramidal structure simply this sharing doesn’t take place: all responsibilities, choices, organizations are delegated to the minister who is seen as “the one in charge” of the good working of a community which becomes a “religious care institution” and no more a common ground belonging to all its components.

Which is, therefore the role of the minister in the community?

The first thing to say is that a minister is not strictly necessary for a community. In the Protestant vision, every human being is a minister and a totally lay community is, consequently, nothing so terrible.

This said, a minister is, finally, a person that, in my opinion, not so much in relation to a sort of “call from heaven” but rather to a particular personal interest, has just deepened a little more his knowledge about specific religion related elements. In a way, he is something similar to a religious consultant, not so different, in the end, from a lawyer or a business advisor: his role is to give “informed opinions” in relation to historical, social, organizational issues as much as he has studied these elements more than the other members, not to try to substitute the voice of the Spirit everybody feels or to impose a determined perspective which remains just personal and not general and valid for all. In this picture he (or she, obviously) can be a “professional coordinator” of the common activities (as this is his job and he is often paid for this and his consultancy) but never a person trying to impose his will.

If this is, according to me, the only role of the minister inside of a community, there is also another role he has in a more general, social picture: to be a sort of “bookmark” of the possibility of a “spiritual vision”.

In a way this is what possibly makes of the “ministerial job” something more than just a job, up to justify the use of the term “mission”.  Going back to the similitude with the desert, many people think that to travel in a desert is more dangerous in the daylight than at night. Actually, anyone who had the experience to live in the desert for a certain period know that things work exactly the opposite way. It is true that during the day the heat of the sun is terrible but it’s also true that it is almost always possible to find some reference point, some scored runs, some caravans to join to. At night things are much different: the cold is as terrible as the day heat but, in the absolute darkness, it is much easier to get lost, to move in circles and to get discouraged. That’s way the nomads of the desert have the habit to stop travelling at sunset, to light fires and to prepare some hot tea for anyone passing by: the fires work as a “lighthouse” for the lost traveler who can warm up with tea before resuming his journey. Also in the life of a spiritual traveler there are moments of total darkness, “nights of the Spirit” in which desperation seems to have the upper hand, in which the “silence of God” becomes so stunning to make it impossible for us to believe in the existence of something transcending the phenomenal reality. Perhaps, it is just in that moment that the figure of a minister acts as a sort of “signal of a possibility”, a place to rest, to talk, to get some comfort, to remember you are not alone. A minister is just a “guardian of the fire” in the desert nights, trying to give some warm tea to the traveler passing by, not imposing a vision but reminding of an alternative. And, believe me, sometimes to be a guardian of the fire can be much more demanding in term of love and work than being the leader of an army of obeying soldiers! Yes, much more demanding, but also so rewarding …