Tuesday, September 30, 2008


When I blog about anything, but esp. about religion, it’s usually because I’m accumulating and developing material for a book, sometimes two at once, which is the case here. On a broad scale I’m developing a general theory of “poetics of liturgy,” which was supposed to have been my thesis topic in 1982 but got stuck, and also I’m working on an analysis of the Blackfeet Medicine Pipe Bundle Opening ceremony in terms of those same “poetics.” Both of these “works” are meant to start from the most basic point of view, which is always hard, because religion is almost by definition what we invisibly take for granted and challenge at our peril -- our world might collapse. It’s our identity, so we defend it fiercely. People have a tough time hearing what I’m trying to say. Or, conversely, I have a tough time saying what can be heard.

I’m undertaking “zero-based reasoning,” (sort of like zero-based budgeting), not meant to convert anyone but rather to look at the familiar in a new way. Like “God.” The concept is so entangled in Personhood that one of the first things I have to do, whether I want to or not, is define God. Otherwise, all along the way in the reasoning process, someone is going to pop up and say, “Yeah, but what about GOD?”

There are several classical arguments for the existence of “God,” whether or not that is defined as having Personhood. One is that God is the source of everything. God was there before creation and possibly started creation in the first place, thus God is the Creator, the First Cause. One is that God is where we are going: not the origin but the goal of creation: eventually all will merge into a perfection. (That means it all stops changing.) One is that God is the ordering principle that makes things work together. (Not so useful when we get to thinking about disorder and its role in destruction and pain. Then you have to invent the Devil.) I’ll have to keep using the noun “God” in the following discussion because otherwise I have to choose a pronoun, which throws us back into “person.”

The classic definition of God I choose to use in this sequence of ideas is “God is that which nothing can be greater.” One of the recurring theological questions is whether if you took God away anything would be left. (Most agree that if you took creation as we know it away, God would be left.) Extremes and infinities are always impossible to REALLY grasp, but they do have implications. If God is everything, then God includes all of time: the past, the future, the present moment in the broadest dimension of all existence, and all the POSSIBLE other times when events zigged instead of zagged. (A quantum mechanics sort of view.) Certainly, anything a human can think of is included in God -- both the human and the thoughts must be part of God. We are not in relationship with God, because we are part of God and every move we make creates more God. (This is where you can argue about free will.) The highest moral principle is to do what will create the God you want: a God of compassion and generosity? Do it. NOT acting well will shunt you into another part of God you might not like. But you cannot be destroyed because even your destruction will be part of God. Everything that has ever happened is still there in God.

So salvation doesn’t depend upon relationship but rather on inclusion and you’re already there. You’re already saved, whether you act like it or not. A jokey version of this idea might be that God is the Ultimate Hard Drive. That Never Crashes. Buddhists will probably feel a lot more comfortable with this approach than the Abramic religionists who worry all the time about obedience, rules, getting into Heaven and so on. They have strong feelings about keeping their identities. (Maybe there’s a paper somewhere comparing Abramic ideas with those of Confucianism or Shinto.)

An “inclusion” religion tends to dissolve the individual person, which may be why some people can’t even consider it as a possibility. The criticism may be made that defining something as “everything” is not a definition at all. You can’t tell what something IS unless you know what it ISN’T! Exactly. You really CAN’T tell what God is. No human brain can do more than create a provisional image, often called “the masks of God” as though God were at a masquerade or onstage. (Islam forbids this attempt and urges obedience.)

Years ago, when I was part of the Humptulips Pacific Northwest UU Ministers’ Study Group, I was assigned to write a paper reconciling male-based theologies with female-based theologies. I proposed that men’s religions emphasized identity and separation, living your own honorable life. But the women’s religions were about fusion: intimacy to the point of sacrificing one’s own identity -- a necessity for growing a new human being inside one’s body and then keeping it alive until it was independent. These ministers had a mischievous way of assigning topics, but I never could discover whether they thought I wasn’t enough of a feminist or whether they thought I’d be a moderating influence on the feminists. I personally don’t prefer a fusion-based relationship with a church nor do I like Mommy Ministers. But neither do I relate to an Abramic-based theology. Unlike many women, who love “spirituality” and want fusion (what I nastily refer to as “hot-tub religion”), I panic at the possibility of submersion, drowning. But I am exalted under a starry sky or on the broad prairie. I trust nature -- I just don’t trust people. Thus, no personhood.

What I get out of this is that it’s possible to be a hybrid and that I’m well situated to look on both sides of the issue. This pleases me. It did NOT please some on my thesis advisory panel, particularly the UU minister who insisted that either I thought like him, or I was WRONG. Very Abramic of him. Very much the Patriarch. This attitude prompts many women to reactively insist on a Matriarch. I vividly recall dozens of women sitting in the pews of First Unitarian after the service, going through all the hymnals to change the genders from male to female. The generous tried to find inclusive language. The timid lightly held pencils. The ferocious gripped blood red ball points! On fire with zeal! Enjoying their terrorism. This is why I want to go to zero-based considerations.

I also wish to escape evil-denying, mushy fusion stuff people call “spirituality.” (Did I say it scares me?) I’m talking PETA here -- the idea that all the dear little animals should be cherished pets. Everyone should be like the faculty on a liberal university campus. (A view that shows no insight into university faculties.) What about the enormity of anguish and ferocity in the world, awareness that this planet can kill thousands of humans in one geological event, for no reason. Perhaps some resist the idea of evolution because they are aware it means that so many creatures die along the way, just as culling puppies creates a breed.

(to be continued)

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