This is my annual potpourri, my responses to topics that you wish me to address. It's always an interesting exercise. Sometimes all the topics seem related, sometimes there's an outlier or two, and sometimes they're all over the map. So may my responses be. Sometimes they are direct, but other times you may not even recognize the topic as my reflections take me places that you may never have expected - or wanted, for that matter. They always do have one thing in common. They are connected by the religious enterprise, the attempt to explain the something else to life than being born which we cannot help, reproducing, which nature seems to demand of us as it does all living things, and dying, which is the inevitable end. We tell ourselves that there must be more to it than that - more meaning, more mystery, more understanding of how we respond best to the reality of life.
I was asked to touch upon the incident that has consumed so much of all Naples' attention these past few days, the vandalism of Ruth Dorfman's house expressing hatred not only for her opinions on the equal treatment of gays and lesbians but even for her religion. I have nothing to say, of course, that hasn't already been said except to ask you to join me at the vigil this evening in support of her and of love and acceptance. I did check out what the news media were saying and was especially taken with the Fox News report which described her active membership in the Unity Church. Temple Shalom must have been surprised, as must have been that sad individual who painted the swastika on her garage.
A topic with interesting ramifications was the question about the relation of church and state with specific reference to the question of whether or not parents may be allowed to refuse treatment for their children based on their own religious opinions. In general I am a true radical on that topic, believing that the state has no business interfering in religion in any way. However, here I believe that they do have a right to interfere. The parents have every right to refuse treatment for themselves, but they have no such right on behalf of their child. They may assume that right, never taking the child to a doctor at all, but once the child has been diagnosed and treatment agreed upon in the medical community, they may not refuse it on the grounds of religion. They can refuse it for themselves for any reason, but they cannot refuse it for their child. The laws of child neglect and abuse supersede quirky religious tenets.
I believe that that is true of all our civil laws. They cannot be set aside because of religious beliefs. If they can be, then the law itself should be repealed because it cannot be important enough to bind others who don't share those beliefs. The Jews understand this very well and it is written in their own commentary on their law. Ever since the Diaspora they have had to live in communities that do not follow Jewish law. Where Jewish law and civil law conflict, it is made clear that Jews are to follow the laws of the land they inhabit.
It's too bad the Muslims don't have such a law. Where there are large communities of Muslims there is sometimes a demand that they be allowed to live under Sharia Muslim law. Such a demand was made in England and I understand that the Archbishop of Canterbury supported them in that. My own feeling is that he should be forced to retire. It is irresponsible to suggest that members of any religion should be allowed to break the laws of the country in which they live. If it is a matter of conscience, they may, of course, break them, but if they do they should be willing to take the consequences of having broken the law. It is an invitation to chaos to have one law for some and another for others. When laws are not administered equally it is an invitation to civil disorder. If we are to live together we must have laws that apply to everyone and are enforced for everyone no matter what their religious faith. Religious observances that do not conflict with any law should not be in any way subject to it.
And now gender apartheid, rather than religious. I'm not at all sure that that is really what we have. Although it is still true that the training of children is often, perhaps usually, different based on gender, there is no physical separation. In fact, there are those who argue that there should be more. Research seems to indicate that boys and girls both learn more when they are in all-girl or all-boy classes. However, is there really such a thing as separate but equal? And what is the reason for such learning differences? That men and women have still not achieved parity is obvious. There is a simple test to prove it. If a man wears a dress he is laughed at or shunned. If women wear slacks - well, what woman doesn't these days? Women are often entering professions that were once exclusively male, but when they do, once there are enough of them, men begin to avoid them and they become a pink-collar profession. The Unitarian Universalist ministry is a case in point. I can remember when I was once accused of having too much testosterone because of my choice of profession. Actually, that was the final shot in an argument that I was winning too easily by rational means, but that was the reason my opponent considered it telling.
It is hard to know, however, what differences there really are in the y chromosome that are other than physical. Or if there are any. I suspect that there are some. I don't think that people really smile less at boy babies and that therefore girl babies smile earlier. I don't really think that they talk to them less so that girls learn to talk earlier. Women need relationships more than men do as a mere matter of survival since when they are pregnant or nursing they are to some degree dependent on the support of others. That's one of those very difficult realities to get over. Is the x chromosome more ingratiating so that women can reproduce? It would be just like evolution to do that to us.
It is Father's Day, so it is probably an appropriate time to share one of the things that have been worrying me that I have not been able to reach any conclusion about. In theory I believe that parenting is parenting and a judicious amount of nurture and discipline are required. Why should the gender of the parent matter? That two are better than one seems reasonable, but what difference does the sex of each make? None, I should think, and same-sex parents turn out admirable children, and yet somehow the role of father must be filled for the best development (exceptions always noted) for girls even more than for boys. What precisely is that role? Does "father" have to be male? Has it been so just because of nurture or is nature involved? Any help on this will be well received.
The nurture/nature debate is ongoing. Just when we think we've got it resolved in one direction we start getting arguments from the other side. Now it's the power of DNA that counts, but the study of the brain is beginning to show that the physical brain itself can be altered by experience. There are only a couple of things I am absolutely sure of in the whole gender debate. The first is that whatever they discover or believe about male/female differences, they should never be allowed to re-stereotype us or stuff us into roles that are not appropriate to us or allow one to have power over the other, and the other is that the spirit has no gender. In that men and women are far more like one another than they are different, with the same longings of the soul.
Speaking of the brain and the studies of it that are being done, there was a question regarding the ideas of transcendence or spirituality within the physical brain. There was quite a little flurry not long ago that the brain was hard-wired for god, that belief was an inborn aspect of the human nervous system. I'm not really sure that this idea gives support to one side of the debate about the existence of a deity more than the other. If a product of our evolution is belief in a deity that doesn't say whether or not such a deity exists, and it could even, it seems to me, imply that it does if belief in it is a survival characteristic. If it is true, as it has since been suggested, that there is a sort of closed feedback loop with the physical brain actually able to change in response to certain learnings, it seems unlikely that we can say much of anything about it for certain except that the medulla-oblongata is still definitely responsible for such things as heartbeat and respiration. It does happen, too, that the media draw vast conclusions from tentative indications in scientific studies. I do not think that they have either proven nor tried to prove that all of our thoughts and feelings are mere reactions to electrical impulses in the brain. It certainly appears to be true that certain emotions can be evoked as well as memories, scents and other perceptions by stimulating particular areas of the brain. However, these things can also be evoked by less direct stimulus, and it does not make them automatically artificial. I cannot imagine any scientific study that would convince me that the mind is the same as the brain, though it is certainly true that the brain is the mind's vehicle.
It seems to me that the sense of the transcendent may well be as natural to us as the perception of color for those who are not color-blind, or even the feeling of love. It is not the same thing as an emotion or feeling, though it may evoke them in us, and usually does, to the degree that too many people confuse the sense of the transcendent with a kind of ecstatic emotional response to an aesthetic experience. The transcendent, the spiritual, are simply those things that take us beyond the basic material needs and wants. What is lovely is part of it, what is moral or ethical is part of it, the search for such things as truth and justice are part of it, but so, I expect, are such feelings as guilt and loneliness. We make a mystery of the spiritual when it is simply those aspects of life that give it meaning, that attempt to answer the question of why we are here.
No faith is required in the popular sense of the word as belief without evidence. This is not a definition of the word that I feel to be adequate. You may have faith in such a belief, but the faith is the loyalty you have to it and the courage you need to cling to it even when it appears to desert you. You can also have faith in beliefs that are supported by evidence, or you can have faith in life or in love or in a particular economic system. We must, it seems to me, have faith in that sense to live a life that matters. We need to put faith in what we truly believe in. Emerson says, and I think truly, that we will believe in something, and cautions us therefore to choose our beliefs wisely. Having done so we should put our faith in it, serving it with loyalty and courage.
Whether that sense of transcendence that is felt be a mere physical product of evolution, a perception of the brain with no object seems unlikely to me but I don't feel particularly qualified to pronounce upon it, but if it calls us to truth, to goodness, to justice, to beauty, whatever is worthwhile, we would do well to put our faith in it, whether we believe in it or not.
It can, if we will lead us to the enchantment of everyday life. Thomas More wrote a book, The Re-Enchantment of Everyday Life, in which he regrets the fact that our lives have become mundane, wholly practical and material, and we have lost our connection with mystery and enchantment. I suspect that human lives have always been pretty mundane, and indeed until very recently whether one believed that every rock and tree was people by a spirit or that little people might lead us astray in the marsh, or that one was consuming the real body and blood of Jesus that had somehow magically been transformed from wine, unless one were wealthy, most lives were mostly a struggle for survival and magic was more fearful than lovely. Only since the last age has there been leisure for us when belief was gone to feel the lack of enchantment. It is said that these days our rival for the commitment of the young is not other faiths or churches, but the secular world, and young people sometimes turn to us when they find it barren. Often they, and our own young people have turned to fantasy and fairy tales, finding enchantment where they can.
I think life does need enchantment and is readily endowed with it, or perhaps, and certainly from my point of view, has it as an intrinsic part of it if one looks for it. It doesn't have to be magic - most of us can't really believe in the supernatural - but neither is it mundane, material, worldly.
A good while ago now there was a survey put out by the Commission on Appraisal asking about our various beliefs and practices. About prayer the options ranged from often to never. Since they didn't have the option of always, I checked never. And yet, in a sense, that's what I always do. I seek the connection with the holy in every task, in every object, in everything that I see or touch or do. It does give life enchantment.
This dimension of the spiritual is felt as a lack in our mission statement. After all, if the job of a church is to grow souls, why doesn't our mission statement reflect that? It is just, he suggested, about relationships, about how we treat one another. I pointed out that it did mention truth and beauty, and I don't think I said, but should have, that as we gather by covenant in which it is necessary that we be in right relationship with one another, it had to be a prominent part of how we might achieve our mission. He suggested that we should add, "by) Exploring the wonders and mysteries of our existence." Or perhaps celebrating? Or...? Maybe it is time to look at our mission statement again. There may be a couple of words I'd like to change or add myself.
In the meantime have a happy summer. Let your world be enchanted and your call be to beauty, justice, peace and love.