In thinking about PeaceBang’s recent reflections on love and freedom in Unitarian Universalism, I was struck by her description of what seems to be a key element of contemporary UUism
Our obsession with free thought and “building our own theology” has encouraged UUs to participate in religious conversation from a place of debate rather than discernment. When each individual UU is obligated (or invited) to create their own religion, therefore it follows that each individual has to defend their own religion. All of which we do with great gusto, endlessly, shaping our religious identity around these debates…
as a spiritual practice:
Nor do I expect the debate lovers to stop their debating. They are devoted to it, it is their spiritual practice, and they should be encouraged to keep at it as long as it feeds them intellectually and emotionally.
This is fabulous. (Although I would add that it should feed them spiritually, as well.) An intellectually-oriented spiritual practice is often seen as a contradiction in terms. My tradition has plenty of room for intellectual debates about the faith… among professional theologians, for whom it is framed as a vocation, not a spiritual practice. There’s a distinct air of “don’t try this at home” about serious theological discussion in the RC church, which leads to the watering down of “adult ed” into either catechism class about the beliefs of the church, or a superficial guided conversation.
I’m sure there are people who find that sort of thing helpful, but I found it empty of substance and nourishment. I had to go to graduate school to get anything to chew on. How sad is that? And I’m not that unusual: I’ve talked to a number of people over the past few years who lament that they are starved for substantive discussion in their churches or congregations.
I think it’s one reason we lose people, and I think PeaceBang’s framing of vigorous theological debate as a spiritual practice is very helpful.
This leads me to a larger issue of belief versus practice. American society is largely dominated by the primarily Protestant framing that religion is a matter of belief in a particular set of truth statements. In this way it’s perceived to be very much like science in the sense that both are primarily about mental constructs that describe the world and therefore guide one’s behaviors and decision making. (Of course, science is the dominant cosmological model in our culture, so this isn’t really surprising.) The primary difference between them is perceived to be about standards for belief: science requires evidence that is universally accessible, while religion includes subjective experience and authoritative tradition as sufficient evidence, or may be perceived as not requiring evidence at all, in the “blind faith” model.
I’m a member of American society too, and I frequently get caught up by this paradigm without noticing it, until I reach a point in conversation where I can’t quite articulate why I don’t agree with something… and then I figure it out. Catholicism is not entirely about belief. Catholicism is a very holistic religion — an oddly modern word for such an ancient faith. Catholicism is about practice (praxis), about what we do, as much as it is about belief (doxis). We Catholics use our bodies when we pray: we genuflect, we bow, we cross ourselves. We use bread, wine, water, oil, incense, candles, flowers. There are some things we all do (go to Mass, receive the sacraments), some things that many of us do (fast during Lent, pray the rosary, companion with the saints), and a treasury of spiritual practices in our rich tradition that we can pick and choose from to find what nourishes us.
What we do is as important as what we believe to the practice of the Catholic faith. Obviously this is not a dichotomy: doxis and praxis are not set over against each other, but rather reinforce, express, and shape each other. It’s especially important to note that practice is not simply an expression of some facet of belief, but rather, it contributes its own insights and leads to a deepening of the faith. When I bow during the line of the creed that says “For us humans and for our salvation, he came down from heaven. By the power of the Holy Spirit, he was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became human,” I am in that moment physically humbling myself, which shows me through my body something of how God humbled Godself in becoming human. When I pray for my enemies, I find (much to my surprise, when it first started happening) that this practice both softens my heart towards those who have hurt me, and eases the pain of those hurts.
PeaceBang is arguing against a false head/heart, intellectual/emotional, dichotomy that she sees imposed over the argument she’s trying to make. I think the doxis/praxis framing might be a productive one — her essay alludes to it but never quite makes it explicit. The church has been called both a hospital for sinners, and a school for saints. It is practice, not belief alone, that heals sinners and trains saints. Her vision of the church she’d like UU to be is a beautiful one, and emerges from this understanding:
[The church] exists to question cultural norms, to help us want the right things and to hunger and thirst for justice, to make us uncomfortable with the gap between our professed ideals and our actions. It exists to claim us, to shake us, to demand of us, and to make us new people — brothers and sisters of one another, lovers of the world, workers on behalf of the Kingdom of Equals, and the kind of people that others are so drawn to that they can’t help but ask, “Wow, how did you get trained to be such an amazing human being?”
“My church is training me,” we would respond.
Replace “Kingdom of Equals” with “Reign of God” (in which, of course, all humans are equals), and this Catholic ecclesiologist can sing a hearty Amen!