CELEBRATION AND HARMONY
– The Sixth Source –
a sermon by the Reverend Paul Oakley
11:00 AM, Sunday, April 14, 2019
When I was in graduate school the first time, back in the mid-1980s, one of my professors in the English Department at Eastern Illinois University humorously expressed his real frustration with the students in his seminar on the poetry of William Blake and Walt Whitman by calling us “postmodern pagans.” The postmodern part we all got. It was an accurate description of the difference between our approach to meaning and interpretation and his structuralist, modernist approach.
A couple of my fellow students had written conference papers that depended heavily on the deconstructionism of the French philosopher Jacques Derrida. The rest of us were, in varying degrees, testing the waters, feeling our way, perhaps. But we knew that we weren’t doing the interpretative analyse du texte of recent past generations of literary critics. We were still figuring out what it meant. But we knew our professor was right to call us postmodern.
What did he mean, though, when he called us pagan? First of all, we were a group of atheists, secularists, philosophical and symbolic pantheists, non-practicing Catholics, a nominal Unitarian Universalist, a Presbyterian, a Free Methodist, and the spouse of a Nazarene minister. Not one of us practiced paganism in any form. But my cohorts and I accepted the description of ourselves as “postmodern pagans.” It felt transgressive. Like a little rebellion against what must change.
But more than that, we looked to the natural world, the universe, the human body, the multiplicity of experience, cultural placement, and the subjectivity of analysis and understanding. And we frequently called “BS” when our professor’s tendency was to lead us to complex, yes, but unified, rather than fragmented understandings. We shared a lack of reverence for modernist objectivity, a sense that it had failed us.
What else could we think, born just a generation after World War II, the Holocaust, and the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. What could we think born into the Cold War and the Arms Race that threatened all humanity with obliteration.
The objective, logical, progressive model of reality, the model of the Enlightenment project embodied in the late-Nineteenth-Century Unitarian ideal of the Rev. James Freeman Clarke looked to “…the continuity of human development in all worlds, or the progress of mankind onward and upward forever.” It was the model for optimistic, liberal religion that counted on moral, as well as scientific, progress constantly progressing forever. It was a position given the lie by the War to End All Wars, World War II, the Cold War, and all the wars that came since.
No, my grad school cohorts and I were non-practicing postmodern pagans. There could be no doubt. We had no choice because all the ideals of progress in which our society, our parents, our schools, and our religious leaders and institutions had tried, in good conscience, to enculturate us had failed. Miserably. Failed.
The era that brought the greatest relative global prosperity ever was riddled with massive destruction, with racism and sexism and nationalism and homophobia and transphobia and ablism and all manner of bias and, indeed, hatred. The world I was born into, the world we live in, is a world that always knows that, no matter how much progress we make, it could well simply increase the efficiency of humanity’s self-destructive streak. Only eternal vigilance prevents or mitigates this. …Or a new old way of interacting with reality…
So when I started planning for today’s sermon on the sixth source of the living tradition of Unitarian Universalism, my mind went back to grad school in the 1980s. It is no accident that this was pretty close in time to the beginnings of earth-centered spirituality, paganism, neo-paganism, and women’s spirituality as significant forces within the development of Unitarian Universalism.
In 1962, the year after the consolidation of the Unitarian and Universalist denominations, Rachel Carson’s New York Times bestseller Silent Spring was published. In 1970, the modern environmental movement was born at the apex of the counterculture. And simultaneously, our association voted to adopt resolutions promoting a wide range of egalitarian goals – to do with race and gender and sexual orientation. By the mid-1980s when I was in grad school, Earth Day was engrained in the culture of college life and finding solid footing in America; women’s spirituality and its overlap with paganism in its honoring of the feminine, the divine feminine, the human body, and the rejection of the patriarchy was engrained within Unitarian Universalism.
We are and cannot help being creatures of our time and place. We are postmodern pagan Americans. No matter how much we would wish to be otherwise. No matter how much we idealize other histories and other goals. No matter what else we are. So, looking back, it should not surprise us that the statement of principles and sources, our denominational covenant of congregations that grew out of that mid-late Twentieth-Century ferment culminates, in the principles, in the statement of interdependence of all and, in the sources, in the statement of the importance we place on earth-centered spirituality.
The statement of our sixth and final stated source says:
The living tradition which we share draws from… spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.
“Earth-centered traditions” is a term with porous edges. It is not identical with paganism or neo-paganism. Groups that self-define using these terms do not agree with what approaches are pagan and which are not pagan but earth-centered. They do not agree whether earth-centered is unique or an umbrella term. And while we should always listen to the ways people understand their own values and spirituality, this overlap and ambiguity is appropriate and useful for Unitarian Universalism, which is broad enough for the formation in many congregations of chapters of the Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans (CUUPS) and, throughout the movement, the flourishing of women’s spirituality without recourse to paganism per se.
About twenty years after the statement of sources was incorporated into the bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association, in 2006, the Rev. Jason Shelton wrote the music and the Rev. Kendyl Gibbons wrote the lyrics to “Sources: A Unitarian Universalist Cantata,” a choral composition including a song for each of the six stated sources and a concluding piece about the promise that these sources make to us. In the song on the sixth source, titled “The Sacred Circle,” the choir and instrumentals provide backup ambiance for a spoken, not sung, narrative:
Once I dreamt that I beheld a great council of all creation, called together that wisdom of the Spirit of Life might be spoken and heard.
The elders came to the sacred circle of being and said, “In all that we do, let the future be considered, unto the seventh generation, that we may leave no wound upon the Earth.”
…Perhaps it was at the dawn of the world, that great gathering; Perhaps it continues to this very day. In the wind and thunder, the voices still sound, for those who will hear:
This narrative of elders, grandparents, children gathered in a great circle calls for honoring nature, honoring our bodies, living with truth and kindness in harmony with the cycles of the natural world, with wonder, with dance. And the mountains, trees, animals, rivers and stars all respond with harmony, pointing us on our way, lifting us up.
It is a non-specific myth, not telling of the formation or emergence of a particular people in a single place, but telling the story that can be touched by and connected with all people, all peoples everywhere. And, truth be told, much as I love Kendyl Gibbons’ poetry – and I really do love her work – this is presented as a story of words not actions. Each group that speaks and each element of nature that responds. Even the children in this narrative say that their feet are made for dancing rather than breaking forth into dancing. This “Sacred Circle” tells the story of people gathered in a circle, thinking about things. Not out living life. Not performing a ritual or celebrating. The sacred circle has undercut itself.
And here I find myself back in my 1980s’ grad school experience, in a room, analyzing, dissecting words, being talked through a complicated but neat and unified picture rather than exuberantly tumbling through a flowery meadow or dragging oneself through parched desert, living in the moment, at one with the thing, with the universe. And one of my peers calls “BS!” from the other side of our conference table. Why am I feeling this disconnect from Kendyl Gibbons’ truly beautiful words? It is rather like the old, self-deprecating Unitarian joke, oft repeated but source unknown, that goes:
A Unitarian dies and, on the way to the afterlife, comes to a fork in the road. To the left a sign points “To Heaven” while to the right the sign points to “A Discussion about Heaven.” Without pausing, the Unitarian turns right.
It is in our denominational culture to talk long and hard about things. Sometimes we talk them to death. We discuss. We analyze. We take things apart to understand them without necessarily putting them back together and using them. Sometimes we wordsmith the exuberance and celebration out of our movement and turn it into bylaws language rather than celebrating, rather than living the life we call ourselves to, rather than giving life to the world.
So let’s return to our sixth source. Sometimes Unitarian Universalists hear its wording and encapsulate it into a noun, a single abstract idea: Earth-Centered Spirituality. But there is no noun that points us where this source statement points us. Our sixth source is the action, the collection of actions that Earth-Centered Spirituality entails: celebrating, living, harmonizing. Our movement:
… draws from… spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.
This is not about discussing the science of interconnected life cycles of all nature, interesting and necessary as that learning and those discussions truly are. This is about living with exuberance and freedom. Not in ways that would destroy the capacity of Earth to provide for all its creatures but in ways that value the diversity of the biome and do not exalt humanity above nature.
Yes, we have to do the learning and discussion to formulate workable plans for harmonizing humanity with natural cycles. But the plan is not for the planning but for the living. Earth-centered traditions are ultimately about a way of living, not about a way of thinking or believing. We observe a movement through nature’s cycles and we celebrate. We hear the rhythms of nature and we dance. We may say our feet were made for dancing, but it is not separate from moving them in the dance that is life.
Amen and Blessed Be.
© Copyright 2019 by Rev. Paul Oakley