Monday, December 23, 2013

Religious and Spiritual Humility

Earlier this year I read this article on When White People Don't Know They're Being White.  The author is a white Christian and she talks about the importance of cultural humility rather than cultural competency. It is a place where people can make mistakes and keep learning.  As I was reflecting on the article, I thought about the need for humility in so many areas of life, but in particular I wanted to talk about Religious and Spiritual humility.

As I read the news, particularly the latest about the Duck Dynasty star's racist and homophobic comments, that seem to boil down to a lack of humility about one's faith and belief.  There seems to be this understanding that in order for my faith, my beliefs to be right, everyone's faith and belief must be like mine. For if I were to allow for the possibility that other faiths, other religions, other cultures, have wisdom, beauty and truth, then mine might be wrong, I might be wrong.  We seem to need to be right, more than we need to be in relationship with one another.

And this is not just a fault of the conservative right, they just seem to have a very noisy voice in our public square.  Yet I have found this same arrogance, this same lack of humility in the liberal religious, spiritual circles that I inhabit.  I have heard and cringed at the comments that express how much more enlightened, welcoming, justice seeking we are than our conservative counterpoints.  Some atheists have claimed reason as their own, dismissing all people of faith and their belief in a force beyond ourselves as unreasonable and bound to believing in six impossible things before breakfast.  I have read articles like this one, that no part of science is based on any kind of faith and that to be a person of science and faith is an anathema.

Some express this arrogance as a desire to reduce all the religion and spirituality down to some simple truths like the Golden Rule.  Yet part of the beauty of the diversity of the world's religions and spiritualities is that they are in fact different. I do think that finding commonalities is an important piece of building tolerance and understanding, yet it is only a first step. This distilling down of diversity to a few simple universal truths, allows me to stay comfortably where I am and not be deeply challenged.  While it may produce a certain level of tolerance on my part, it will never generate deep respect, nor understanding and it is far from love. Spiritual humility calls upon us to accept that we may not have all the answers, that we might be wrong.

In Unitarian Universalist circles, I see two ways this religious arrogance operates.  The first is in the how much more enlightened we are then those in other religions, particularly Christianity. There is still far too much "anything but Christian" among us even as acceptance of theism, the language of reverence and an embrace of ritual has become common in our communities.  Secondly, it is this notion that because in our six sources we embrace the truth of the world's religions, that somehow we are uniquely and best suited to lead interfaith/multi-faith work.  Again, it is not enough to just assume all religions boil down to the same universal truth and just because we embrace all these perspectives does not mean that we are fluent in them all.  Also affirming that there is wisdom and truth to be found in the world's religions does not give us the right to decide to appropriate rituals and holidays of particular religions for our own uses, or that somehow we can bring a reasoned faith to lead multi-faith efforts.

Now this is not to say that UUs cannot do multi-faith work - many UUs do such work every day.  The work they do is grounded and powerful.  Yet anyone who has ever engaged in multi-faith work knows it requires deep humility.  It requires that first I understand myself and my own faith. I have to first know deeply who I am and who I belong to as a person of faith and then I have to listen deeply.  It is humble work. We have to acknowledge that despite our embrace of the world's religions, there is no way we can be deeply competent in the faith, beliefs, practices and customs of all those religions.  We must begin with "we don't know."  From this unknowing, can be the beginning of deep wisdom, deep respect and deep love. When I can accept that openness to other traditions does not equal knowledge or experience of that tradition, then I can begin to walk with another in the work of discovering our unique journeys and traditions ... that requires humility.

Being humble doesn't mean that I have to minimize or reject my own faith, my own sense of the holy, what I know or who I am or that I lack conviction.  Rather humility means that I say "I don't know it all" and that my experience is not everyone's experience. It is really letting go of the need to be right. It is being able to allow for the possibility that another perspective, another faith, another person might also have access to the holy, to beauty, to truth. In the multi-faith work that I continue to do, I am always struck by how much deeper my own faith becomes when I really listen to another's experience of their own faith without trying to translate it into my own experience or immediately dismiss their experience. It is certainly important to acknowledge where our faith leads us to different conclusions, different values but if we do so with humility then perhaps we can stop becoming such threats to each other and find the holy between us.

Spiritual and religious humility, one might say any humility, is sadly lacking. In our need to have good and bad, right and wrong, we seem not be able to hold paradox, to hold that there may be more than one way, more than one good, more than one truth.  Maybe at this point, nature has something to show us, just as we turn the corner to the return of the sun, of more light and the promise of spring and summer, winter begins here in the northern hemisphere.  A deep paradox holds, just as the days begin ever so slowly to get longer, we will experience the cold of winter (well theoretically anyway as I sit writing this in 70+ degree weather). Spring and summer will still feel a long way off as we deal with rain and snow, layers of clothing to stay warm - coats, scarves and gloves.  Yet nature tells us that slowly but surely spring is making its way here. Slowly the sun will come to warm the air.  As we embrace the practice of spiritual humility, let's embrace the paradox of knowing and holding to our own sense of faith, our own experience of the holy while making room for others to hold different beliefs, different experiences.  May we open ourselves to seeking not to know but to understand, respect and love those differences.  May we embrace our unknowingness and learn to live easily with it.

May you and those you hold dear experience blessing during this rich season of holidays!  Blessed Be!

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