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!

“Probably”… “possibly”… “perhaps”… and the power of love

i_dont_believe_in_atheistsDuring last weekend I spent some hours in a soup kitchen run by some former students of mine.

But for fully realizing how many people beyond any suspicion attend those places and how deep (even deeper than I thought) the crisis in Italy is, I was really admired by the attention, care and gentleness that those guys, a little over twenty, allotted for a huge number of elders, spending time, money and forces to help less fortunate people without receiving any subvention.

Well, I know some of those guys quite well: some of them are Catholic, with ideas being very far from mine, some of them are declared atheists, some others, actually the majority, simply can’t care less about religion.  And yet, observing their work, the only thing I could think about was that I was in front of some of the best Christians I had ever seen, people really putting into practice Jesus’command “And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me” (Matthew 18:5). I started thinking that, in the common idea of someone deserving salvation, guys like them, ready to give their time and love to perfectly unknown people in the name of a common human heritage, could possibly be in the first line of the so-called “saints”.

Could we say that they, at least the many atheists and agnostics among them, are probably Christians without knowing to be? Perhaps, but, I started asking to myself, would they ever agree with such a definition? Perhaps the point is just that they can’t care less about fitting into any definition. Or, perhaps, the thing is even more radical than this: perhaps the real problem stands in any attempt of definition of concepts like salvation, religiosity, necessity of faith…

“Possibly”, “probably”, “perhaps”… Returning home I began to think about how many times I happen to use these terms when it comes to religious matters.

Having Catholic origins and coming from Calvinism (though in its Remostrant form) it would have been impossible for me, up to some years ago, to live in such a lack of definitions and, even today, sometimes I ask to myself if so many uncertainties are permissible to a minister.

Shouldn’t I be the one leading the flock? Shouldn’t I be the one giving answers to questions? How could I proclaim the Gospel if so many “perhaps” crowd my mind? Shouldn’t I be monolithic in affirming my truths? In the end I proclaim to be Christian, I feel happy to be Christian, I love the teachings of Jesus, I try to be at least a little brick in the building of the Kingdom as much as I can: how does it happen that I can’t confine truth and salvation to Christianity, that I don’t manage to have the absolute certitudes of many other Christians that the true faith stands only in the Bible and that salvation is deserved only to the ones following my same path?

I have found three answers to these questions (and, obviously, I am not 100% sure of none of them).

The first answer stands at the real core of Unitarian Universalism and of its extremely anti-dogmatic approach to faith. Without fixed dogmas, institutional creeds and common superimposed beliefs, we are given the possibility never to absolutise our personal visions, in a total tolerance and acceptation for any faith and life-style not violating some basic principles of common living. It’s not always an easy way: on the contrary to the majority of the other Denominations, we are not given any ready-made path to follow (or, better, the path is, somehow, so large that, in many occasions, it is difficult to see its  borders) and the risk is to feel a little lost, from time to time, with so many doubts, so many possible interpretations, so many questions without a certain answer.

On the other hand, anyway, little by little I managed to understand that this is one of the most rewarding aspect of my faith, a faith asking to believers to be fully adult, fully responsible, fully self-determined in their decisions and evaluations. We are not asked to be like babies needing  a creeper to move and, at the same time, we are not elder brothers forced to hold our younger brothers on their way: we can walk together, hand in hand, reciprocally helping each other but each one using his/her own legs.

This is great to me: a real constant possibility of choice, of affirmation of responsible freewill, a daily critical acceptance of what we believe God is asking to His people, a true decisional capability in judging what is right and what is wrong, in keeping the direction we have autonomously chosen in any circumstance and in front of any person. I cook my life with my own recipe, choosing my ingredients every day, choosing my cook book every day and  never denying that any other recipe could be good as well although I prefer my own. And, folks, sometimes the dinner is not perfect but a real dinner prepared by my hands is, in any case, better to me than eating industrial homogenized baby food.

I deeply believe this is really Christian too! Isn’t any man a reflection of God as written in Genesis? This means nobody can take decisions for anybody else, can read and digest things for anybody else: we all have the strength and capability to judge events, readings, people on our own as we all have the sparkle of God inside of our soul and the guidance of His Spirit, whatever path we decide to follow. Moreover, this is also the way I interpret the passage of Matthew in which we read : “And he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:38). We don’t find “my cross”, or “a superimposed cross”, but “his cross”: I suppose this means each one must decide and choose the way to follow the path and example of Jesus, which, in my opinion, is the path and the will of God, the path of the perfect love. And this  even in the case the person choosing that path of love doesn’t feel like calling it the Christian path.

My second answer is a consequence of the first one. To me the real expression of the will of God is, as said, love and, in particular love for human beings, for all human beings. In any human being I see the mirror of my God and I deeply believe that to serve the human beings in any form is the highest way to serve God. This is, I suppose, the meaning of the Great Commandment and this is the best expression of the spirituality of a person to me.  As said in other posts, I think theology is absurd in itself, being a pure speculation on an unknown object, more, on an unknowable object of thought. I could agree with a vision or the other but, in the hand, what could tell me whether I’m right or wrong? I think only faith, but faith is a personal element, depending on hundreds of variables. What stands, what really matters is love, the most universal element, perhaps the only one: the love I feel for the others, for my neighbors, the love I show in any action I take, even the little ones. And love has as many forms as the human beings are. So, on which bases should I judge a person, an action, an idea, on which bases could I think about revelations, salvations, sanctities (if any sanctity could ever exist)? On the bases of human ideas varying in time, space, environments, changing from person to person or on the expression of the only universal value practically all cultures consider a divine attribution  and all people consider as a source of goodness? So love, given love, factual love is, to me, the only discriminant element to judge a human being a person of God, a real believer in the values which are, in my opinion, the deepest expression of my God. And it doesn’t matter if his/her motivations are different, if his/her ideas are different from mine, if he accepts or not a role I would tend to give him/her, actually only on the bases of my beliefs: “The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8).

Finally,  my last answer comes from a verse I have always considered a little mysterious: “And said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3). I have thought a lot about it, mainly in my seminary years. What did Jesus want to say? Was he just speaking about the purity of children? I don’t think so. Jesus was speaking about conversion, not only purity: what’s the meaning of converting to the faith of a child? Well, the answer I gave to myself derived from the memories of my childhood. At that time everything was plain and simple. In a way, God was the glue keeping the world together. He was the responsible for the creation, preservation and destruction of everything as He was the only one ever present, ever existing. Mainly, He was, in a way, a sort of synonymous of “Goodness”: if something was good, it came from God, that’s it. No other specifications were necessary, no denominational boundaries, no rules and subtle distinctions, absolutely no theological, legalistic, creedal exceptions of lawfulness.

Too simplistic? Perhaps but I wouldn’t say so. Rather, this means to me to give full room to the Spirit of discernment given to all of us and to get, I repeat this once again, full responsibility of our judgments, without external ready-made paths to follow.

Yes, I know: the risk to get lost is much higher, the engagement in the classification of any act is deeper but freedom has always a cost and, honestly, a God allowing me to be totally free in my self-directing, in the choice of my path, a God who recognizes an adult in me, who doesn’t force me to follow an handbook in the pursuit of what I consider the goals of my life is to me a God trusting in me and a God I can, in exchange, really trust in.

So, I will go on considering “saints” (in a very terrestrial meaning of the word and in the limit of what I can see of their actions, as I really can’t believe in the existence of any “total saint”) also people proclaiming their atheism, not having my same ideas, not following my same path, but acting according what I, perhaps following other directions, consider “good”, consider the strength of love.

So, I will go on having my own beliefs, following the meaning of what I understand of the words of my Master Jesus and I will go on proclaiming my vision, full of “perhaps”, “probably”, “possibly” where I don’t understand so well, full of “could be as well” where I will meet different visions (which doesn’t mean to deny my vision but to admit the possibility of different interpretations and different paths), full of possibilities to make mistakes, to get lost but also of the rewarding experience of a God always respecting the human freedom and free will.

Only on one thing I have no “perhaps”, “probably”, “possibly” but only 100% certitudes: that wherever I meet people able to give free love to any human being I will meet a soul mate, whoever he could be, because day after day I get surer and surer of one thing, that my God has no name but Love.