Drummond White - Community and Spirituality Without God: From Birth to Death and Every Time In-Between
Since ancient times, Judeo-Christian churches have been an essential backbone to our personal and communal identity.
How can we stick together as a community without the fear or solace of a God? What, if anything, is a non-christian soul?
Drummond White has been an active member of the UUCD since its inception. His career as a professional Social Worker has spanned more than 30 years. He also served as the NDP Oshawa-Whitby Member of Provincial Parliament (and as a Cabinet Minister) in the early 90s. Drummond is known for his strong commitment to social justice and his inquiring and insightful mind.
The complete sermon can be read below:
Our talk this morning will examine how Theistic religion has formed the back bone of our sense of community and whether we need to have a God to have a spiritual community. As a non-dogmatic religion, can we adopt and adapt the traditions of community and does that make us less genuine and authentic. Like religious Robin Hoods, can we steal faith’s gold, its unique terminology for some of the most mysterious human aspects? In this case, can or should we continue to sustain the communal connections that the “church” has built in the west?
When one listens to a tune like Les Trois Cloches or the Three Bells. It speaks to a warm and soft spot in our hearts, to nostalgia for a community that was and is unlikely to be again, for a folksy, somewhat corny place in all of us. But the yearning and indeed the need for connection, acceptance, social approbation, and love are universal and basic to us all.
Bells mark a connection too. Entirely dependent upon context. There is the musical carillon. The celebratory bell. The school bell. The bell of freedom. The call to worship. In the east, a bell would mark a moment of meditation. “Ring the bells that still can ring, forget your perfect offering, there is a crack, a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in”. I remember our minister emerita saying that she would have liked a little church with a little bell. I felt a little skeptical on hearing that proposal, but why not, it could be a Unitarian bell. So let’s not throw out the bell with the bath water.
Imagine how our world and our communities were structured for thousands of years. As in the song, every stage was marked and sanctified by the “church” and beyond that by some notion of God. In Europe, those immense church structures were the centre of every city, town, or village, -they dominated every community. Think about your connection to the church, if you came from a small town in 1820. The values of the church circumscribed your life and dominated your community as surely as the building dominated your town. Every day, you may have passed the graves of your parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents in the churchyard cemetery -a constant reminder of the solace of theistic religion.
When one reads Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s books, Infidel or Nomad, one is very struck with how cut off she feels from her religion, her tribe, her nation, and her family. Ali is an atheist and an apostate -someone who has rejected the teachings of Islam that once defined her sense of self and community. She speaks of the terrible loneliness and alienation of her apostasy. She is facing her own personal death –the condemnation of her former faith’s laws –and so she has a security detachment escort her to any public event where she might be vulnerable. Not only is that a rather significant personal challenge, but also she is cut off from the whole of her previous community, her family, and her personal identity.
Her story and her struggle have been replicated in our social and cultural evolution over several centuries, from the enlightenment to the iPad. She has gone from the primitive to the postmodern in a matter of months -we took centuries. Most importantly, she has had to face the alienation and then deadly enmity of her community because of her atheism. Their understandings of Allah meant that her family could not reconcile with Ayaan Hirsi Ali and she was fundamentally shunned, cut off from her family into what seemed to be an empty world away from her community. She will never have an Imam supervise bridal negotiations nor a priest say last rites.
We, in the western world, have lost a lot of our sense of community especially over the past half-century. Just yesterday, I read that the Lion’s Club in Whitby was close to folding and similarly, the Block Parents is near to extinction. Globalization, families scattering to seek employment, companies shifting out of whole countries, and many changes to the family and to how we define ourselves personally have all had an inevitable effect. Our social cohesion has gradually lessened, as has our sense of connectedness, solidarity, and love for each other. Generations have grown up afraid of their neighbours. People lock their doors and drive their kids to school although it may only be a block away.
Church used to offer a strong backbone to our sense of community, but despite millennia of success, the theistic message no longer rings true and the monotheistic churches have lost their vitality. When we listen to the song, we are reminded of how the individual’s life and the community’s life were bound together in the church –both the church as community and as a building.
Still the messages at those times were too much about the church and too little about the important event in the life of a family. I attended a funeral service last summer where the pastor led the service for his own mother-in-law. He offered a long sermon during which he looked down at his text and occasionally up to Heaven but never to the family who were gathered there. Despite his long knowledge of the deceased, his only personal reference was that he was her favourite son-in-law (this was a rather lame joke as she only had one daughter). There was no celebration of all that this woman had achieved and what struggles she had undergone in coming to a new country and devoting herself so completely to her family and children. If this had been a Unitarian service, it could have offered much more to the family.
In all of those seminal events, the church has superimposed itself upon the lives of its congregants. It shaped the nature of the community in which we live and shaped it to confine and limit the community it describes. The church community celebrates the union of woman and man. These are joyous and sacred occasions. The institutional, theistic church has long been locking unsuccessful marriages into a death lock rather than allowing a fitting and supported transition for a troubled family. In our community, these former spouses are accepted, unlike in most theistic churches. Still, there is much more that we could do. We went through a process to become a welcoming community for the lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgendered, and questioning. As a welcoming community, we reached out to the LGBT. So similarly, we should be able to reach out to those amongst who are experiencing troubling transitions.
Former spouses have difficult and bitter feelings of loss, shame, and failure. It may help to know that they have friends who accept and esteem them in hard times. A friend amongst us went through a truly difficult time after his separation. To celebrate his resilience in coming through it all, he had a “festival of friends”. What a great idea! There was food and drink, a few speeches, and some really great music. I failed to think of it at the time, but I think that he might have appreciated a greeting from the church. Further, the celebration that he devised could be suggested to others.
Some amicable separations could be celebrated conjointly and with the children taking part. In my practice as a mediator, there are actually many occasions with many couples where that extra ceremony might be very supportive and helpful. The timing would have to be fitting and agreed upon –it would probably be unique and different for every separating couple.
Religions can offer consolation, community, and communion, particularly in the loss of loved ones. Mourning takes its own natural time and religious rituals seem to follow the rhythms of loss and mourning. We don’t need the hope of eternal life for ourselves –once we die there is nothing and while we are alive death does not exist. Atheists can accept our mortality –it is what is. But the loss of others is profound, it taxes our resilience and hope, even false hope can be tempting. Christian churches offer either a funeral or a memorial service. In Judaism, different stages of mourning are respected and the mourning process is mimicked in their rituals.
Perhaps, Unitarians should look at how we might better assist families through their mourning process.
There may be ultimate questions: Is there a God?, What is the meaning of Life? How real is real? These questions are unanswerable, huge questions. By contrast, religions are human constructions and churches are built by architects and builders, not by divine breath. As human constructs, religions are open to human examination. Social Workers, anthropologists, and psychologists should be able to measure how effective these social institutions are and were. Religions are a part of this world and in it, have achieved a great things and they are accessible to our exploration, knowledge, and understanding. In contrast, religious faiths, religions, and churches with their diverse practises are all human. We can measure, examine, assess, and analyze religions including our own.
Within different faiths, the adherents are seen as special or chosen. For example, the religious are “the people” in Islam (the Umma), the chosen people in Judaism, and the Christian church is the deliverer of salvation –but only to those who believe. Common belief is a strong source of communion, identity, and community binding. Theistic religions also offers great consolations; however, they no longer have the all-encompassing powers of yesteryear. Reason may only have chipped a little from dogmas, but gradually, the breakup of the extended and now the nuclear family, the lack of social cohesion, and the social and economic changes of the past couple of centuries mean that the huge achievements that the churches offered for millennia may no longer prevail. The participation rate in theistic religions has been dismal over the past few decades. Many great churches have become shells of their former selves.
Personally, I have felt the need for connectedness and at one point joined a church as it offered a feeling of community. That was after the Unitarian Fellowship in Oshawa had folded. Unfortunately, not believing in a deity and finding so many spiritual differences, the dogma and the restrictions left me dissatisfied and feeling that I was untrue to myself. With the return of a Unitarian opportunity, I then had a community of like-minded people who support each other in some common and some unique spiritual, philosophical, and personal journeys. Those principles are so fundamentally freeing and not limiting. Our principles sponsor and uphold rather than limiting and repressing lives.
Still, many religions have a great deal to offer us as Unitarians and there is much that we learn from them. We should offer those values the greatest respect and build upon them. The judaeo-christian churches are our predecessors and we should respect the sources of our strengths and values. Christian values, for example, are a good base for a shared social cohesion. What we should ask when looking at these values, is a simple question. What does God have to do with it? When you listen to the Three Bells, it is the human community that supports little Jimmy Brown in his childhood, Jim and his bride in forming their own family, and themselves in mourning the loss of Jimmy Brown. God had nothing to do with it.
Sharing a meal together is key part of religious celebrations. In Judaism, there is the Seder with readings and every Friday, the Shabbat dinner. In the Christian Church, there is the repetition of the Last Supper with the Christian communion – a ritualization of a meal. Most Christians also have Xmas and Easter dinners. Just as with the family-based Jewish customs, there are certain foods that are proscribed and certain prescribed. Turkey or goose but not beef or chicken for xmas, for example.
Few things can be more communal or community-building than the sharing of meals. Sharing at suppertime has always been a sine qua non for me. In our home, we always ate together around a table with no TV. I understand that in a community such as ours that is rare. With differing shifts and schedules and taxi duties for a dozen activities that the kids are involved in, supper is often stretched out over hours and eaten sequentially. For those few times when we are all together, we should celebrate, cherish, and enjoy.
As Unitarians, we have included sacred meals in a peripheral way. We have monthly potlucks and we are starting a tradition of dinner for 6 or 8 on a monthly basis. As time goes on, perhaps we can add new aspects to these traditions. I find myself mixed in regards to saying a grace. A grace or blessing feels very Christian and artificial. On the other hand, we should honour and celebrate the work has gone into setting up a communal meal. Graces can offer us the opportunity to mark the change in tone and to cherish the gathering, made sacred by our presence and our labour. God had nothing to do with it. In saying grace we should be honouring our hosts or simply the moment of communing over fine wine and great foods. Perhaps, we could select a few options for different meals.
No society can survive without a sense of communion and connection. We need some shared values. Christianity has provided a base for those values. While some of the values of theistically-bound religion are unacceptable to us, many are very attractive. Acknowledging that a god has met his/her social demise doesn’t mean that we have to throw out the values, the culture, and the spiritual values that a religion has built. In fact, a whole great civilization has grown and the works of the past can be added on to. St. Paul invoked the three theological virtues: faith, hope, and love. The greatest, he proclaimed was love, “for I can have the gift of languages, the gift of prophecy, the ability to move mountains, without love, I am nothing”. We may not believe in the power of sideshow miracles, but love as a virtue is fully consonant with who we are as Unitarians.
We need to be faithful to values and to our community of freethinkers without having to have the limits of a creed or dogma. We can convene in solidarity, in love of one’s country, in democracy, and in fidelity. André Comte-Sponville says, “Fidelity is what remains when faith has been lost. “ Loyalty to a sense of who we are and what we have been is imperative in his analysis.
Community needs a sense of loyalty, solidarity, and love. Here in Ontario, our provincial motto is “Ut incepit fidelis, sic permanet”. Loyal she started, loyal she remains. Despite great hardship, the United Empire Loyalists formed our province and their descendents and all of us have continued the tradition. The backbreaking work, the two centuries of dedication to ideals of loyalty and solidarity, and the changing re-investments of so many new peoples deserve to be celebrated and respected for what they say about us. Human loyalty and communion with each other promoted our ascension to prosperity and multiple achievements as a province. God had nothing to do with it.
Spirituality and spiritual community are far too important to be left to fundamentalists and theists. Atheists such as André Comte-Sponville, A.C. Grayling and Richard Dawkins are rising to the occasion of investing their lives and pursuits with spirituality. Non-theists have as much spirit as anyone, why should they be less interested in a spiritual community. After they have finished with the rather easy logic and rationality necessary to dispense with theism, they have to assay the more challenging tasks ahead. We need to reinforce the alternatives. Principles such as reverence for the wonders of nature, the mysteries of humanity, and the pursuits of justice in a global environment lead us forward. Remember that God has nothing to do with it –we have to create a better world through our community building. I propose that we are obligated to build upon what we have inherited and use our UU principles to move on hopefully.
I have spoken about community, primarily our religious community, and how it can be enhanced without Theism. These are suggestions that could only be enhanced by your thoughts and positive criticisms. I look forward to what dialogue ensues and hope that you will receive and consider my offerings.
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