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Selected Presentations

John Buttars (November 11, 2012)

Unitarian Universalist Principles #3 and #4 (Part 1)

Principle 3:

A free and responsible search for truth and meaning

Principle 4:

The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process

Four years ago I was here on the second Sunday of November and Barak Obama had just been elected President of the United States. As a white man with a son in law of colour I was absolutely delighted. And here again on the second Sunday of November, 2012, I am still delighted. In addition, I don’t know how you are finding it but this project of examining the Unitarian principles is turning into a little adventure for me but I am a Christian looking at these principles from the outside. I am hoping that you as Unitarians will have a fuller opportunity to talk about them or maybe when this series is finally over return to them with some Unitarian voices speaking. After being here the last time dealing as we were with the second principle Charles approached me and suggested that the Unitarian principles were consecutive, building on each other and I found that comment very helpful as well as the discussion afterwards. I also find the principles inter-related so today I would like to lift up two parts of the third and fourth, ‘encouragement to spiritual growth’ and ‘a free and responsible search’ and maybe two words even more narrowed down, ‘growth’ and ‘search.’ 

I need also to say that last time I said that I might be rewriting something that I presented to Harcourt United Church last March as I felt that it fitted with these two principles. Well, it does but it is way too Christian. If you asked me to talk about being a Christian today it would work but otherwise it doesn’t. What I propose is examining these two principles in two parts, today having a personal edge to it and in January a communal, two sides of a coin.

Let’s start with the year you turned 12. For me, it was 1955. I entered grade 7, an awful year really in a new village and a new school after my family moved that August. In the February 2012 United Church Observer, there was an article, “A house of dark mirrors,” and in it a quote from the book Before I Fall: “Something ruptures when you hit 12 or 13, or whatever the age is when you’re no longer a kid but a ‘young adult,’ and after that you’re a totally different person.” So let’s take a two minute break and talk to our neighbours. Where were you when you were 12 and what year was it? Who were you back then? Two minutes, not nearly enough time but journey back to when you were 12 and just say in a sentence or two how it was with you.

(Congregational conversation and any responses for all to hear)

So let’s go back to those words ‘growth’ and ‘search’ of the third and fourth principles looking from an individual’s point of view. Three questions have arisen for me: Do you think in the same way as when you were 12? Do you have a sense that there is an essential question that life is addressing to you? What methods do you personally have to process your life experiences?

First question, “No,” when I was 12 my school was trying to teach me how to critique, how to take things apart and see them in their individual characteristics, how to think logically, 2+2=4, it is either this or that, the earth is either flat or round, the earth circles the sun or the sun circles the earth. The fruits of that kind of linear critical thinking are stupendous from evidence based medicine to scientific discoveries and technological innovations that are truly incredible. The computer, one of those amazing technological innovations, an absolutely amazing machine, works on the basis of something so simple, as I understand it, yes/no.

I am a failure as one of those critical logical thinkers although I tried to learn how to do it back when I was 12. Mathematics and science were huge challenges for me even if my teachers assured me they were just based on observation. In addition, I tried to apply my school taught form of linear logic to Christianity. I understood faith as beliefs; they needed to be verifiable and if they weren’t they were not to be taken seriously so I struggled with everything from Jesus’ miracles to the Genesis creation stories. Gradually I came to realize that there is a place for critical linear thinking and there is also a place for paradox and ambiguity. It was my sister’s death that began to break the logjam. In her death in my third year of theology, I grappled with the perplexing disturbing gift of paradox. I had to live with the painful paradox that I grieved deeply her death and her death broke our family’s heart making me, do I dare admit it, a better man, a better human being, a better minister.

Thanks to Fa. John Veltri, a Jesuit priest who lived for many years here in Guelph, I learned a simple three step process: What do I notice both internally and externally, what do I learn, what’s the next little step. My linear training taught me to critique, to take apart, to analyze, all important things to do but not necessarily applicable in every situation. Sometimes, many times, it is enough to simply notice non-judgmentally. A friend of mine gave me this example of the difference between critiquing and being, as she said, simply descriptive. You could say of a couple just after they learned that he had terminal cancer, you could say, “They were so upset.” Or, “She cried quietly and one tear rolled gently down his cheek as they held each other.”

Secondly, has life presented a question to you for you to live with and ponder? Over the years I have taken many mostly 8-day silent retreats. There is something about being stripped of relationships, newspapers, TV, radio and so many of the trappings of civilization. If you want one form of such a retreat then read Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed. One of the most challenging silent retreats I took was in 1995, 8 days in the hermitage on the property of the Ignatius Jesuit Centre here in Guelph. I was so profoundly lonely but gradually through writing and drawing and dreams and active imagination and prayer and meditation a question began to surface, a question that I came to see had been with me from my very beginning, “Is there a place for me?” A whole bunch of my decisions, my fears, my hopes, came into focus, “Is there a place for me?” So, do you know whether you have a question that life has presented you? It may do so because of your family of origin, the decisions you have made, the relationships that you have navigated, even the era in which you were born. Or maybe there is more than one question but if you could raise that question to consciousness you might begin to see a bit more clearly what drives you, what influences you, what causes you to have the hopes and fears that you carry within your mind and heart.

Finally, what methods do you have for processing your life? This question will lead us into the presentation in January but I have already named for you one of the methods I have for processing my life, that of going on silent retreats. One of my mentors taught me the following, “I know what I know only when I say it.” As long as it is stuck inside of me, a thought, a feeling, a memory, I have not really gotten to know it truly until I am able to bring it outside of myself. Journalling is one of the ways that I say it and here is my journal for the last day or two, not that I am going to give you the opportunity to read it but you will notice that it may look a bit peculiar. That is because I journal with both hands. Twenty-five years ago now I attended a workshop by Lucia Capacchione here in Guelph who has authored a number of books on non-dominant hand writing and drawing. It was a revelation and I have found the method has brought me to some amazing discoveries and ‘ahha’ moments, Wow! The theory is that using one’s non-dominant hand accesses the other side of your brain. I certainly notice that my dominant hand is well educated and knows how to punctuate and spell correctly. My non-dominant hand cannot write, only prints, and is somewhat dyslexic. And it invariably accesses memories that I seem to suppress and feelings I seem to suppress and what I find most remarkable is that I more readily suppress joyful happy contented feelings and memories.

So in conclusion I leave you with three questions: Do you think in the same way as when you were 12? Do you have a sense that there is an essential question that life is addressing? What methods do you personally have to process your life experiences?

John Buttars (January 20, 2013)

Unitarian Universalist Principles #3 and #4 (Part 2)

Welcome to part two of our examination of the third and fourth principles: “We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations; A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” Last time on the 11th of November I picked up particularly on the word ‘growth’ and this time I want to pick up on ‘responsible’ and ‘free.’

I understand from a conversation I had with Eleanor last time that when these principles were debated and formed into their final wording the chief alternative to ‘responsible’ was ‘disciplined.’ A free and disciplined search: Now that has a distinctly different feel to it, doesn’t it? However, responsible won so I am wondering if you might take a couple of moments with your neighbours and just have a conversation about what responsible and free mean to you, that this congregation is called to encourage a responsible and free search for truth and meaning based in acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth. (Congregational conversation)

I don’t know how many of you have heard of this book, The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why by Phyllis Tickle. Phyllis Tickle is a 78 year old woman from the southern States, an absolute delight, mother of 7 children, former religion editor of Publisher’s Weekly who, at retirement, began the life of a writer and since retirement has produced a veritable stream of books including this one that I got out from the Guelph Library and which I am returning today to the Library. .

In her first chapter, she quotes an American Anglican bishop by the name of Mark Dyer who observes that about every 500 years the Christian church feels compelled to hold a giant rummage sale and that this is exactly what is happening at the moment. And as a Christian minister I fully endorse that sense; like every rummage sale or garage sale everything is out there on the street for everyone to see and lots of people are picking it all over. Here in Guelph, for instance, the number of United Church congregations has gone from 5 congregations when I came in 1976 to 6, 7, 8 and probably by April of this year we will be 4. About three years ago, I heard in a lecture at Queen’s School of Religion that there were just over 50 cathedral sized Roman Catholic Churches in the Montreal area that were for sale.

Now if you don’t mind, I want to talk about this rummage sale every 500 years as a way to get at the business of responsible and free so I am inviting you to sit in on my tradition as a way for you to think about your tradition. And you can actually start in the Judaic tradition, of something really significant happening every 5 centuries or so: The journey of Abraham and Sarah and 500 years later Moses leading the children of Israel out of Egypt followed by the establishment of the monarchy (Kings Saul, David, Solomon); the Babylonian Exile; the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in the year 70 AD (CE) from which came the emergence of two separate religions, rabbinic Judaism and Christianity; the fall of the Roman Empire and the emergence of monasticism that carried western civilization during the Dark Ages; the rise to centre stage of the papacy around the year 1000 and 500 years later the Protestant Reformation and, now, 500 years later, what some people are calling the Great Emergence. In each of these major rummage sales there were many unique issues at stake but of these various epochs I have mentioned more of us, I suspect, have at least some acquaintance with the Protestant Reformation and certainly there the argument was over by what authority shall we discern the truth and how should we act on that truth. Martin Luther declared here I stand rejecting papal authority and standing on the authority of scripture. On one side was the Pope, the direct link one pope after another back to Christ, as it was argued and to that authority all must submit. In response, the Protestant principle became sola scriptora, scriptora sola, only scripture. In Protestant Christianity, responsible searching for the truth involved dealing first of all with the Bible and for some Protestants only with the Bible where every other potential authority was ruled out.

Gradually over the last couple of centuries pressure has been building against that authoritative position of scripture. Some of the origin of that pressure has been from within the church and some has been from outside. More than two centuries ago, biblical scholars within the church began to analyze the bible like any other book, looking at the text for the text’s own sake. As one simple example there are two creation stories signifying they come from different sources that have been glued together as if they are one story but they aren’t. Thus, I was trained to analyze the Bible like any other piece of literature and I have never interpreted it literally. And then the scientific method arose and particularly the work of Charles Darwin and evolution. But other factors developed. The ending of slavery within the British Empire and the American Civil War were huge attacks on the centrality of scripture because the Bible accepts slavery and there are accounts of preachers going around the southern States declaring that the Confederacy may have lost the war but the principle of slavery was still right because of its biblical support. World War I became a huge dividing line where chaplains on each side of the war carried identical bibles, represented the same God, prayed for victory such as is described possible in the Bible but truthfully it was nothing but European colonial powers in a brawl who threw their young men into a holocaust of destruction. The rise of women has been a major attack against some of the basic social principles espoused in the Bible. And at the moment the present fight in various Christian churches over homosexuality has to do with by what authority shall we make a decision when the Bible condemns homosexuality even if the condemnation is very marginal.

Now, I suspect that a number of you were raised in a Christian church and if you were raised in a Protestant church I would hazard that at some point you rejected the church because of its position on science, women or some other factor and that factor would be rooted in a particular understanding of the Bible. And if you were raised in a Roman Catholic Church I would hazard that at some point you rejected the church because of its hierarchy rooted in the Pope or because of one of the positions taken by that hierarchy.

So that is the rummage sale going on in the church right now: Everything is out there on the street and there is this bidding war going on as to what authority will be used to decide on truth, meaning and so on. My question is, by what authority will Unitarians, will this congregation, decide what is truth. What deserves your loyalty in terms of meaning, value and significance? How do you decide? I don’t think just being responsible and free will cut it. For instance, you have a very fine hymnary with some quite traditional Christian hymns that here and there have been changed in wording. Besides being responsible and free, what values did those folk who prepared this hymnary use in their decision making?

I am not suggesting that you adopt this but in my United Church tradition we have what is called the Wesleyan quadrilateral, a kind of four legged stool to sit on. It suggests that in sorting out truth and meaning there are four sources that have to be used to test out the worthiness or value of a truth: the Bible, tradition, reason, and personal experience. When it is the Bible only, you get fundamentalism. When it is personal experience only, it is the tyranny of narcissistic individualism. When it is tradition only, nothing changes. When it is reason only, it is intellectual game playing. The four sources need to be in dialogue and in tension with each other.

So, can I call you my Unitarian friends? Responsible! Free! What content do you put into those words and would you lay claim to other values that would go into this process of seeking out truth and meaning? Maybe there is nothing else you would name but my invitation today is for you to contemplate whether, in naming truth and meaning for you, there are sources of authority that you rely on but which are not specifically named in these principles.

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