Trinity - a UU Prototype?

UUs may not know it, but there is a renaissance going on when it comes to Universalist theology. It is happening outside the seminary and has a refreshing Contemplative and Eastern Orthodox slant. Richard Rohr, Cynthia Bourgeault, Robin Parry, Brad Jersak, Rob Bell, etc. - these are all authors/thinkers/leaders in the resurgence of Universalist thought. Of course, the resurgence of Universalist theology is Christian-based with a notable absence of UUs. As has been noted in UU circles, UU's theological voice has been significantly diminished and absent in the realm of not only Universalist theology but liberal theology in general. The public theologians mentioned above are taking up the slack.

UUs might take issue with the Trinitarian focus of the burgeoning Universalist conversation. Just the first word in UU - Unitarian - makes Trinitarian Universalism difficult to contemplate (though there is a Unitarianism in is the Trinity, depending on how you look at it).

Interestingly, UU rejection of Trinitarians and Trinitarianism is not universal (in the small "u" sense). There are a number of Trinitarian Universalists walking among General Assembly this very minute. There are also Trinitarian churches within the UUA, most notably First Church Providence.

That said, I declare here that I am a Trinitarian Universalist. To be honest, this makes it a bit difficult to say I am a Unitarian-Universalist. At least, I like Lucy am left with "a lot of explaining to do."

Hopefully, the inclusion of Trinitarian-Universalists and Trinitarian-Universalist based churches in the UUA makes the following more receivable. 



So, here is my main idea. It is put forth in the title. Trinitarian-Universalism presents a prototype of modern UUism and its core identity as a pluralistic religious community.

The Trinity basically teaches that God is the primary example of e pluribus unum, out of more – a closer translation of pluribus is “more” or plural – one. Out of more than one, out a plural, One. We see this idea in Christianity for sure, but also in Buddhism as well as Second Temple Judaism and Greek Philosophy.

Modern UU is an experiment in e pluribus unum. Modern UU is an experiment in pluralistic religious community. A typical UU church is made of humanists, earth-based traditionists, theists, Jesus-followers, Buddhists, etc. This plurality is united in community. Different persons of different faiths join in common unity and common purpose - that is at basis of the UU tradition today.

If UU equals pluralistic religious community, then Trinity is the original example of UUism. If UU equals pluralistic religious community, then Trinity from the beginning presents a paradigm for UUism. The Trinity is the UU prototype. 

It doesn't end there. The Trinity's elements offer UU a uniting of our various sources. In God, Christ, and Holy Spirit we have three avenues to the Holy.

1.) God would include our strict-monotheistic traditions of Judaism, Islam, and traditional Unitarianism, as well as the prophets and mystics (Kaballah, Sufism, Transcendentalism) deriving from those traditions.

2.) In Christ, we of course have the Christian and Jesus-based traditions without which there'd be no UU. We could also include in this element of the Trinity the influential teaching known as the Cosmic Christ and the Christian mystic tradition from which it sprang .

3.) In the Holy Spirit we have a wellspring of representatives outside the Western and monotheistic traditions. The more humanistic World Religions (Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Confucianism, etc.) and the Earth-based traditions have a home in the Holy Spirit. And with the word "spirit" having an alternative translation in the biblical languages of "breath," humanism has a home here too. Humans breathe, and the breath we breathe is the Spirit of Life. The Spirit of Life is the humanist equivalent of the Holy Spirit.

As for Universalism, because of the work of grace and compassion - the work of the Holy Spirit - manifested in myriad forms, we are all included in the expansive Beloved Community. Or in the words of Fred Rogers (yes, that Mr. Rogers): "I believe that at the center of the universe there dwells a loving spirit who longs for all that’s best in all of creation, a spirit who knows the great potential of each planet as well as each person, and little by little will love us into being more than we ever dreamed possible. That loving spirit would rather die than give up on any one of us.”

What's more, Trinity not only offers us a foundation for pluralistic religious community, it also offers us a spiritual practice. The Trinity for centuries has been the basis of contemplative practice. Through contemplative practice and meditation we enter the intra-relationship of the Trinity, the realm of God.

Lest anyone think invoking the Trinity amounts to invoking traditional Christianity, there is this: The UU Trinity would place a greater and more expansive significance on the Holy Spirit than traditional Christianity in any of its forms. Unlike Christianity as its traditionally understood, the Holy Spirit offers, and will in the end give to all, entry into the realm of God. In this expansive Trinitarian-Universalism, Judeo-Christian traditions and non-Judeo-Christian traditions find union.

This union of the Trinity offers a profound example of  a"More-Than-Christian" tradition. In addition, it has deep roots and a long lineage, Christian and not (see Neo-Platonism and "Rabbi" Philo of Alexandria).

I end with how this connects to us as a religious community. I recall a verse that we often overlook. In Matthew 18, Jesus says, “For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there among them.” Here we have the embodiment of the second person of the Trinity saying that where there is a community of 2 or 3 invoking my name, I am there with them, amid them. There is no such thing as a church or a community of one. 

Just as the diversity and unity of Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit makes God, God, the diversity and unity of 2 or 3 people makes church, church. The diversity and the unity that defines the Trinity mirrors the diversity and unity of the religious community we know as a church. Let me say it another way. The goal of a religious community should be to mirror the diversity and unity of God.

Gathering together, seeking the diversity and unity of God and seeking to make it real in our lives, both our individual lives and our collective, this is what makes the Beloved Community, the Beloved Community.

Danger: The Path from Ideals to Ideology

READING: Matthew 26:6-

Now while Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment, and she poured it on his head as he sat at the table. But when the disciples saw it, they were angry and said, “Why this waste? For this ointment could have been sold for a large sum, and the money given to the poor.” But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why do you trouble the woman? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. By pouring this ointment on my body she has prepared me for burial. 13 Truly I tell you, wherever this good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”

REFLECTION: “Danger: From Ideals to Ideology”

Jesus in our scripture is being extravagantly cared for. He is a man who is facing death, death on a cross. He knows this. His disciples have been told but don’t believe it. The woman in the narrative seems to know. She is preparing him. Jesus sees her compassion and accepts her compassionate act.

Jesus’ disciples do not see her compassion. They are blind to her act of compassion. They instead see misplaced intent and undue extravagance. One speaks for them. “Why are you allowing her to come in here with her expensive perfume she paid thousands of dollars for, thousands that could have been used to help the poor, but instead she is using it on you?” Using this expensive ointment simply to comfort those who are comfortable enough, that is wrong, unjust, sinful. The Gospel of John has Judas offering up this complaint.

They do not believe Jesus is facing imminent death. They do not see the compassion behind the act. They do not see the internal state of the woman. They only presume this woman is robbing the poor with her extravagance. The disciples get it wrong. Jesus lets them know this with a penetrating statement. The poor will always be here. I will not.

What I hear Jesus saying on a deeper level is this: don’t let your ideals become ideology. Don’t let your understanding of God as the absolute become dogmatic absolutism. Don’t let your compassion for the poor become hate for the un-poor. Don't be attached to only one mode of compassion. Don’t let your care for one person become animosity toward a different person.

Not much at all in this life is black and white or always obviously right or wrong. There is nuance. There is gray. There are at least two sides to every story. There are varying views of things and often one view isn’t absolutely right and the other absolutely evil.

Compassion means desiring to help the poor. There is no doubt about that. But compassion takes many other shapes and forms, doesn’t it? And what we see as lacking compassion, sometimes may wholly include it.

The woman anointing Jesus’ feet with oil was exhibiting compassion, even though the disciples did not see it. Yes, it is compassionate to help the poor. But it’s also compassionate to tend to the needs of someone confronting death, be they rich or poor.

The common denominator is compassion. And compassion should be what grounds us and all we do.

There should be no doubt that Jesus cared for the poor. His explanation of why he came, what his ministry was all about, was this after all: "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free.” His ministry made it clear he meant what he said.

Yet Jesus, amid this anointing, claims, “the poor you will always have with you.” In other words, you will not win this one completely. We will not eradicate every evil or every example of evil. Don’t be so arrogant as to think that you will. There are some people who truly choose to be poor, or at least do not have the capacity to choose otherwise. Showing-up is all you can sometimes do. Some monks and nuns take the vow of poverty. Jesus did, it seems. Whatever the case may be, it is true – we will always have poor people. We cannot save everyone. This of course doesn't mean we are not expected to give our all. However, without a humble heart that admits to our vulnerability and looks for help outside ourselves and our just our group of people, we will face a bitter battle. Those doing the good work of caring for the poor need to remember the necessity of humility and love. There is no complete victory in the work of compassion. But complete victory should not be the reason we help the poor.

I think of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 13. "If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing."

The dangerous transition of going from idealism to ideology where we compete our ideologies against another is something Jesus was attempting to guard against in his words to the disciples. It is good to believe in your heart of hearts that the needs of the vulnerable must be at the forefront of what we do. It is good to believe that the way of peace must be tantamount and the way of war must be resisted. It is good to believe that love and compassion must be the basis for all we do, including the government.

Yet when these ideals become ideology, when what I think are the answers become what all must think are the answers, when my ideas of what we need to do becomes the only correct ideas of what we need to do, when adherence to a political philosophy removes the desire for compromise, we enter the realm of ideology. And ideologies and ideologues are dangerous because there are always more than one.

When I was a Religious Studies student in college, I learned about the fancy phrases orthodoxy vs. orthopraxy. Some religions fall in line with the orthodoxy category. They focus on correct (ortho) doctrine (doxy), believing the correct way. Christianity is maybe the biggest example of orthodoxy based religion. Other religions fall in line with the orthopraxy category. Orthopraxy means correct practice, practicing the correct things – Five times a day prayer in Islam. Practicing Meditation in Buddhism. Following kosher diet in Judaism. These are examples of correct practice.

I’d like to introduce a third category. Orthospem. Correct hope. I for one believe most people of good will hope, share the hope that children be fed, clothed, sheltered, cared for. I cannot think of many people who see poverty, hunger, homelessness, neglect, exclusion as good things. Virtually all of us share the hope that these wrongs will be made right. At least we should.

This is what I mean by correct hope. We should stay centered in on the correct hope that no one goes hungry, homeless, poor, neglected, excluded. Too often we move too quickly to the solutions and stay centered together on the problem, taking it in, contemplating it as a community, and seeking common purpose. When go quickly to the solutions, disagreements on the best solutions naturally arise and soon become the focus.

Compromise and working together are so essential. But compromise and working together takes practice. It takes sitting together and contemplating the hopes we share, namely that there is as little poverty, hunger, homelessness, neglect, exclusion as possible.

If we sit with our shared hopes, if we sit and reflect on the real people being effected by poverty, hunger, homelessness, neglect, and exclusion if we also sit with those being affected by these evils, it becomes natural that we start building the strong foundation upon which we confront those evils.

More than ever, we need to a laser focus on our shared hope, our sitting together with our shared hope in mind and heart.

Focusing on our shared hope leads to humility. I am not the only one who wants less poverty, less hunger, less homelessness, less neglect, less exclusion. Conservatives, moderates, and liberals of good will all want this. And I can learn from others who want the same things. This humility allows us the space and openness and inclusiveness to look honestly at things and admit when something isn’t working, make corrections midstream, and hopefully make it work.

None of us have the market on the truth. None of us is right about everything 100% of the time. None of us in can get what we want 100% of the time. Without humility, without a flexibility that allows for compromise, without a willingness to say what I proposed doesn’t work and what you proposed might, without an open mind and an open heart, we will have more poor people, more hungry people, more homeless people, more neglected, more excluded people.

We have seen the dangers of political rigidity, absolutism, ideological litmus tests. We have seen them throughout history. We have seen them in America in the Religious Right and the extreme elements on the Right. We are seeing them increasingly on the Left as well. We are increasingly becoming two separate and isolated camps that no longer even attempt to meet each other in the middle.

We must stem this tide. And we do this best by doing what we do here. Honing in on our shared humanity and shared hopes, building community on what connects us – the love of God. This is what we need. Let us preach the gospel that without love we are nothing.


SHARING OF JOYS, SORROWS, CONCERNS

One of God’s greatest promises to us is that God will never leave us nor forsake us. God is present with us in sickness and in health, in good times and bad times, in birth and in death, and all those in betweens. That is what helps us to hope and get through it all.

The best thing we can do when we pray is to practice godliness by being spiritually as present with those we are praying for as possible. So as we pray, I ask that you be present with those we hold in God’s light.

For those facing health issues or health procedures, we are present with you and hold you in God’s light.

For those who are grieving losses or are feeling lost and alone, we are present with you and hold you in God’s light.

For those who are impoverished, hungry, homeless, neglected, we are present with you and hold you in the Light.

For those who simply struggling with the daily grind, bored with life, and needing friendship, we are present with you and hold you in the Light.

For those who are feeling the blessing of joy and gratitude, we are present with you and hold you in the Light.

Non-Clinging, Politics, & Jesus


There is a Buddhist teaching I am thinking about a lot these days. It is called anupadana. It means non-clinging, or non-attachment. It is based on the idea that clinging or grasping onto things or ideas, holding on to them too tightly, is an obstacle to being all we can be. Upadana, clinging or grasping onto things or ideas, prevents us from individually and collectively applying the truth of love in our lives.

Buddhism lays out four forms of clinging or grasping, four kinds of unhealthy attachments.

There is senses-based attachment. Renowned Buddhist teacher Buddasa states, this means “clinging to attractive and desirable sense objects.” Our six senses – seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, and thinking – attach onto what is pleasurable. We want to see beautiful things, we want to hear beautiful sounds, we want to smell fragrant things, we want to taste delicious food, we want to touch pleasant things, we want to think good thoughts. At a certain level, these desires cannot be avoided especially for laypersons. But when these desires become ingrained and habitual and harmful, so much so that we desire nothing else but the good things we want and become averse to all else, then we have deep suffering and others around us experience it too.



The other form of unhealthy attachment is an unhealthy attachment to self. Now, I talked about this a few weeks ago, and this Buddhist view is complex. But basically, an unhealthy attachment to self means being focused on my self solely, seeing that self is disconnected and separate from other selves and not effected or influenced by other selves. One current presidential candidate is a perfect example of what the Buddha meant here.

The last two examples of unhealthy attachment are the two I want to focus a little more on as we ponder this crazy political season in our country. I think the two examples of unhealthy attachment have clear examples in our political and cultural discourse. They show the nature of unhealthiness in our clinging and grasping and unhealthily attaching ourselves to things and views.

So the first of these two unhealthy attachments is the attachment to rites and customs. Buddhasa again states, “This refers to clinging to meaningless traditional practices that have been thoughtlessly handed down, practices which people choose to regard as sacred and not to be changed under any circumstances.” Now, clinging to rites and customs doesn’t happen just with old traditions and customs. Grasping onto new practices that play more on emotion, onto ways of doing things just because it is easy and it is what we’ve always done or now 
do 
in certain situations, this can be unhealthy.

There are a couple examples of this in our current political carnival ride. First, I think of the over reliance on the protest march as the go-to form of resistance to things we don’t like. It seems to me this is a newer example of clinging to rites and customs. Now, this is not to say protest marches don’t work. They certainly were effective during the Civil Rights Movement. And when they are large enough, they can visually represent to the country and the world just how big the problem is. I engaged in a few protest marches myself, namely against the Iraq War when a seminary student in New York City. However, I would dare say the protest march is an example of a custom that is almost cliché because it is often all that is done. 

To me, the most effective way we can confront issues like gun violence and police/community conflict is to get the two sides in the same room, engage in an extended time of silent prayer and meditation, and then have a facilitated, heart to heart discussion.

Another example of clinging on to rites and customs is the rituals and traditions that surround political conventions and speeches and races. We hear the same old trite and cliché phrases and images. We experience the same old propping up of the same old tropes and oversimplifications. The same old revered sacred cows that are off-limits for discussing honestly. The lack of gray, the lack of nuance, the abundance of clichés and trite words, the lack of being real in speaking of these things is an example, I think, of unhealthy attachment to customs and rites. 

Thankfully, we see in many young people a healthy questioning of, a healthy resistance to this clinging on to tradition and customs. Yes, sometimes this makes us uncomfortable. And sometimes, the manner the questioning and resistance takes is not always wise or exhibit long-term thinking. But young people do often teach us that we need to be mindful of how we older generations talk about things and how we ignore things, and that we do it often unconsciously. They help us to break our unhealthy attachment to meaningless traditions and customs and language. 

The last example of unhealthy clinging onto things and ideas is to me an even larger issue. And that is the unhealthy clinging to ideas and views. 

Ideological rigidity. Absolutism. These two things get at what the Buddha meant. 

When we pose a litmus test that decides who is in and who is out, without any knowledge of a person or their background or their story, but with a lot of preconceptions and grudges – this is harmful. When we declare unless you agree with me 100% of the time, unless you meet my definition of who a progressive or a conservative is, you are off my list – that is harmful. When we declare that this is the way it needs to be no matter that others think differently and no matter it is a democracy where others get to disagree – that is harmful. 

This is this the stuff of absolutism. Religions are not the only entities prone to absolutist thinking. Political parties, figures and supporters are also prone to absolutist thinking. We are seeing the result of it in our government as we speak. We cannot let it become the norm in us. We cannot let our differences, even our theological and political differences, become an obstacle in building the beloved community.

A few weeks ago I mentioned that indeed Jesus was an extremist. Indeed he was an absolutist. But he was an extremist, an absolutist for the only absolutism allowable – the absolutism of absolute love. Here is the paradox though, the absolutism of love is one where no one is turned away, where the last are first, the least the most cherished, the lost found and lifted up. The absolutism of love is one where the image of God we all share is what we look for first and seek to see into fruition. The absolutism of love rules out any ideological idolatry, any extremist hate, any hateful demagoguery either religious or political.

But love is a practice. It is not preaching. It is not prophesying. It is not politicking. Love means practicing. What I mean by practice is spiritual practice. It is a spiritual practice that helps us overcome unhealthy attachments and clinging to things and ideas and helps us live free and unhindered. Jesus offers us a powerful example. 

Jesus shows us what living a life of non-attachment means. In a perfect example of non-attachment in just three words, Jesus said, “Love your enemies.” What’s more, he did just that despite the horrific violence against him. What enabled this?

All through the gospels, we see Jesus getting away from all the madness and the chaos to silently sit with his loving Father. We saw a pretty typical example of this in our reading today. Jesus does the Work, being heart and hand of God here and now, but knows that breaking away from the barrage of stimuli and stress. He shut off the noise and the negativity by finding a quiet place and sitting with God.

Boy, do we need to follow Jesus’ example even more these days.

Jesus also prayed with his fellow Jews in synagogues and silently walked and dined and sat quietly with his disciples. I should say here, that, no we don’t see in the gospels any specific mention of Jesus sitting intentionally silently with his disciples. The gospels are about Jesus’ actions and teaching. But no doubt Jesus and his disciples, like with any group of friends that journey together and share a lot of time together, I am sure there were times they just sat together or walked or ate together and soaked in the calm and peace of no-words and silent camaraderie. The weariness of sojourning and travel by itself surely would lead them to simply stop and rest in the quietude of God for a little bit. That is what in essence the practice of mindfulness is – stopping and resting in the quietude of God. It is as natural of dropping down after a long day and just vegging for a little bit.  

The practice of silently sitting with God, not just individually, but as a community, a common unity, sitting silently with a God who is love and breathing the breath of compassion– we need this too in these troubling days. 

Call it prayer or mindfulness, meditation or contemplation, the point is sitting silently, with God, listening to the still small voice of the Spirit within. We need it individually, yes. But we need it even more communally. It is what church needs to begin being centrally about. It is what people need to join to create and continue in. The Beloved Community finds continuity, renewal in those quiet moments of sitting together and seeking God’s face together.

That is why we are here. Let us follow Jesus’ model. Let us practice non-attachment by finding a quiet place and practicing quiet and let us do the same together, basing the Beloved Community in the calm and simplicity of Divine Love. From this a Compassion will exude and transforming hearts one breath at a time.