The new UUA headquarters. Not a cathedral -- a manufacturing warehouse
The Unitarian Universalist denomination, which I don’t mention in a proselytizing way but rather because that was the context in which I did most of my “religious” thinking (meaning institutional thinking about religion) has two opposing forces within it. Today I would claim that they correspond to Ray Rappaport’s ideas about survival of the group versus survival of the individual and the tension between the two. Rappaport was an anthropologist, not a theologian. He's outside the theological circle. Maybe I am, too.
In practical institutional terms, the UUA is more open to the larger culture than most other denominations, which often base their identity on standing against change, science, and forces like commodification or the sexual revolution. But because the purported basis of the UU consensus is the obligation of each individual to find his own set of values (within the principled guidelines) the persons may find themselves in opposition to their own congregation and denomination. Even in opposition to their own previous selves. So I’ll try to outline my own position in this post.
The central problem of the monotheistic religions is “theodicy,” meaning that if there is an all-powerful God he/she must be a monster to allow the evil we see in the world. Solutions to this problem include the idea that humans deserve suffering, or that it’s all an illusion, or that there’s a second “force” named the Devil and we’re merely the ground of struggle. And so on. Science, which is a worldview with the power of historical religions, deals with the problem by dispersing God. I go with that. There is no God, no matter how defined.
But then the problem of Evil becomes more pressing. If there is no authority figure to force people to be good, won’t people run rampant over each other and destroy each other and the environment? The answer is yes. Some of them in the name of God. But for those who want to find another way, what guidance is there? I say it is a kind of ultimate ecology in which each small but deeply related part of the Everything is so connected that whatever they do will affect everything else.
Time rushes through you, making you the conduit between your tiny past and future because, no matter how small they are, they are a piece of the whole. You know those stories about going into the past and accidentally making some change -- maybe stepping on a bug -- that evolves into a different world you didn’t necessarily want? That’s what’s always happening in the present: you’re making the future for yourself and all of existence. This is part of the appeal of the idea that existence is infinite in its variations so that every possible eventuality is playing out at the same “time” -- somewhere unaccountable.
While the individual is moving through time, the culture is also transforming and pressing against the “givens” of the person. What is bad behavior in one place and time might NOT be bad behavior in another place and time. This is confusing unless we give up thinking of both person and culture as something unchanging and rigid as a Pythagorean triangle. There is always an interface and it is always transforming.
Evil is part of that transforming. It is human, both in origin and execution. Therefore, we can change it. Evil feels as though it is an outside force, a malevolent oppression that comes out the sky, too powerful to resist. Sometimes it feels like a seeping, creeping, sneaking dark (hard-to-see) bile that oozes among us, waiting for a weak moment. These images make it easier to give up, to accept the evil we make, or at least claim it’s not our fault.
Others define evil, or at least sin, as an estrangement, separation from all that is meaningful, a kind of paralysis outside the home or sanctuary. There is an evil called genocide that sweeps away whole categories of people with hatred and frenzied violence, or sometimes with clinical detachment made possible by technology. It’s always incomplete or why would the young soldiers who sit in middle American operating the predator drones by satellite control develop PTSD? http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/23/us/drone-pilots-found-to-get-stress-disorders-much-as-those-in-combat-do.html?_r=0
More deadly is bureaucratic genocide, done with a pencil by cutting funding for those who starve. The banal evil of bureaucracy is easy to overlook except for those who need money to do their jobs of opposing suffering whether emergency responders or shelter providers. To separate empathy from response and reform is to leave suffering pointless, because empathy evolved to cause mercy and justice which saves the group. Lacking awareness of suffering -- and I mean sensory firsthand knowledge of the sound and smell of great numbers who need help -- or diluting it into news reports and video extravaganzas of “ain’t it awful” (another of Eric Berne’s games) that lets people stand at elegant cocktail parties or in the caverns of car dealerships, making tongue-sounds instead of looking for meaning.
Hierarchy of angels by Zombiesmile
The early versions of public self-governance were oligarchic: shared kingship for the landed gentry and ecclesiastical authorities. Then hierarchies developed: many treatises about the hierarchies of heaven: which angels are more important, who’s in charge of what, which saint to pray to for which problem -- the Great Mom, Mary, who somehow evades the Great Dad, is always the ultimate. It has not been easy nor in some cases possible to separate religious concepts based on infant versions of the world, from arranging things for the greater good even when they are new and unfamiliar. (An Internet Tzar? Isn't there one?) The United States tried hard to build in structure that would increase justice -- or at least reality.
So then we went the bureaucratic route: don’t fight, legislate. But it gets so far out of whack that the people stop voting -- deserting the core of democracy -- and start running in the streets, screaming and setting fires. At first the written rules worked pretty well, but then they were taken over by schemers who made sure all rules went their way. The USA representatives and senators have gone to law school to make sure they know how to do this -- and to make inconvenient rules impossible to enforce by not funding monitors. So now where are we?
Only as trustworthy as the humans
As I write, I hear bombers from Malmstrom practicing in the sky. I won’t go out to look for them -- it’s eleven degrees below zero and they fly too high to see. Are they evil? Who is suffering? What is justice? Safety? If they are only potential, are they still evil? I read they want to have more prairie sky territory in order to practice for war. What are they not telling us?
My philosophy (no theos, so it can’t be theology) is bleak and tough, which fits my high-prairie, thinly populated ecology where constant vigilance and planning is necessary. Whatever does not adapt either by evolution or by human provision, is doomed. We commodify everything: the soil, the wind, the depths of stony fuel reservoirs -- war. Somehow it is all owned by people far away, which is what capitalism means -- absentee landlords who only want profit. Even within our small community, some try to corner all the wealth and control.
U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Matthew Dubon, 341st Security Forces Group tactical response force sniper, poses for a photo holding a M-24 Sniper Weapon System at Malmstrom Air Force Base.
It’s well established that the relationship between institutional religion and economics is so enmeshed they nearly merge. American denominations are commonly described by the economic/educational levels of their constituents. The UUA is generally ranked as near the top by these measures. "We" are open to the general culture, which brings us trouble over issues of suffering like war or sexual predation or poverty. The first reaction is talk, then writing out guidelines, then moving to a new topic and never really implementing the old one. This gives the satisfaction of feeling that something got done without it ever really costing anything. But, as I say, “open to the culture” and that’s the pattern of the whole. It's not just us.
There is a growing but not-quite-visible number of people who speak of “spirituality” and make their modest homes and neighborhoods into gardens. The larger culture (esp. movies) looks at them in terms of dystopia, desperate but resourceful survivors of the catastrophic destruction of the Old Order. But why wait? Let Evil starve in the board rooms, sitting at their long polished tables before their portfolios of paper.