There was a book that we were required to read for a theology course in seminary called The Idea of the Holy. The author was Rudolf Otto. It was a long time ago and I remember very little about it, except that I didn't care for it much. I do remember why, however, and that was because Otto's idea of the holy included a certain level of fear. He said that it was inevitable that the experience of worship must include that sense of a fearful awe. I accepted the awe, but not the fear. It seemed to me that he was stuck with a definition of the holy that automatically implied a being, or perhaps even merely a force, of willful, omnipresent power. Given the reality of natural disasters and unmerited suffering such a being would naturally inspire fear. Perhaps it is that perceived understanding of the word that makes it a bit unpleasant to many a Unitarian Universalist ear. Or maybe it's just because it has religious overtones.
A few years ago I was a speaker on a panel for the Unitarian Universalist humanists and my name was published in the General Assembly program. One day I found a note on the message center bulletin board asking me to meet with someone at the Unitarian Universalist Infidels' booth in the display area. I went, of course, and asked the person staffing the booth what I could do for them. The answer was that they wanted my support. Although I had heard the name once or twice before I had no idea what they stood for, so I asked. "Well," he said, "first of all, we don't believe that Unitarian Universalism is a religion." "Then I can't support you," I responded. He was shocked at such an immediate negative response, and actually I was a little bit surprised myself at how quickly I had rejected them from a single sentence. Usually I try to probe more deeply before making a judgment. However, I was right. It was a difference between us so complete that there could be no bridging of the gap. I did talk to him a little longer, but we parted with his saying that he didn't think he'd want to attend any Sunday morning service that I led, and my not saying that I would be grateful for his absence. I would though. For him any reference to the transcendent, the sacred, the holy, any word that smacked of religion at all was equivalent to belief in the supernatural, and he would have to protest.
It is too reductionist - I suspect, too unpoetic for me. Years ago when I moved from Orlando to St. Louis someone in the church advised me that if I couldn't find a church there to suit me I could always try the Ethical Culture Society. I hadn't heard of it before, and having a strong bump of curiosity, I looked it up and decided that it was not for me. I wanted hymn singing and poetry and perhaps a reference or two to the life of the spirit. I understand, by the way, that they have gone somewhat in that direction themselves and at least one of their groups is seeking to become a member of the Unitarian Universalist Association. (They sing hymns using our hymnal.) No wonder my Infidel acquaintance was seeking support. Even the Ethical Culture Society has failed him.
Although I couldn't support him or his ideas (his preferred Sunday morning service was sitting in a circle sharing personal ideas and experiences) I do feel sympathy for him. It is painful to feel marginalized in your only possible religious home. And yet, if you can't even bring yourself to call it a religion it's hard to know how I can help. It is my contention that religion is what I'm doing here, and that includes many concepts for which the dictionary definitions, even what I am assured are the "generally accepted meanings" are inadequate.
I suspect that that is a big part of the problem. Confusion or differences about the meanings of words keeps us from coming together, and yet there are no other words to use. A lexicographer has neither the space nor the expertise to examine all the implications of the words that are included, and I suspect that "generally accepted meanings" cover a much wider range than we generally suppose. My favorite book about words, the one I turn to when I want to get the last word on the difference between affect and effect, for instance, is H. G. Fowler's Modern English Usage. He specifically excludes any discussion of the meanings of religious words. He considers them outside his area of expertise. They are also outside the area of expertise of the lexicographer and even, I suspect, the theologian - or at least Rudolf Otto. What is the holy? Otto wrote a whole book about it, and at least as far as I was concerned, got it wrong. Yet his was the essence of the teaching of early Protestant theologians, "The fear of God is the beginning of the road to salvation." So they got it wrong first.
One of the most interesting things to me in Dawkins' book, The God Delusion was in the very first chapter when I realized that by his definition I am more of an atheist than he is. Yet he wears the label proudly, and I don't consider myself an atheist at all - a non-theist, one who has no belief in a personal god, but not an atheist. It is a matter of definition and perhaps his is more in the line of the generally accepted meaning, but what am I to do, then, with my sense of the holy, the sacred, the life of the spirit? What am I to do with my commitment to an institution which some would deny is religious and which nevertheless supports my search for and practice of meaning and purpose for my life? That, after all, is what religion is for.
The other day I was asked to define the term covenant. This is a term we've been using pretty freely in various venues in our religious movement in the last few years. It is how a free people must gather in religious community, but it does need to be understood. We often use it simply to mean agreed-upon rules of behavior. It is much more than that. It is a sacred promise to walk together in the ways of goodness (some might well call it God, and sometimes even I do) as they have been or are to be revealed to us. I left out that last part because I wasn't ready for a discussion of how we decide what goodness is - I could preach a whole sermon on that - but then I was asked to define sacred. I can't now remember what I said, and I'm pretty sure it was sufficient, but it, too, did not begin to plumb the depths of meaning of that word. What is the difference between sacred and holy? They are different, although sometimes we may use them interchangeably, but other times we know that only one of them will do.
We had an interesting discussion on the Unitarian Universalist ministers' email list. One of my colleagues, in response to another's concern that we treat what is sacred to other faiths with too little respect, asked if there were anything that Unitarian Universalists hold sacred. And please, she said, no stale jokes about the coffee pot. I was, I think, the only one to answer directly, though other comments obliquely supported me. What is sacred to us, what is so important and so true that it must not be interfered with or ever held in disrespect, is our commitment to freedom of thought, belief and conscience. It is sacred, but I'm not sure that it is holy.
I love words, their meanings and especially their nuances. Religious words, however, are more than nuanced. They are layered deep in meaning, and those meanings often differ from one person to another. They are poetry, metaphor, not to be defined in a dictionary, a sermon, or perhaps even a book. I don't believe, however, that we should not, therefore use them. Even if our understanding of them is significantly different from the person with whom we are speaking, the ideas are still expressed and on some level understood. I think we find it most difficult to accept that another person might think that we mean something different from what we know we are saying, but I suspect that often it doesn't really matter. If I say the word God, and you think I mean a being who is interesting itself in the well-being of humankind and the direction of history, if that's the god you believe in that's okay. If it isn't, then perhaps the problem is that your definition of god is too limited because all it can be is something that you don't believe in. What we need to do is not argue that other people shouldn't use a useful word but rather find out what the word might mean to us and hear it with that meaning in mind. If we understand it as metaphor rather than objective meaning it often opens up new understanding. That can't and shouldn't be always the case. If someone says to me that god chose to save me from a violent death while allowing others to die, I'm going to argue vigorously. If they say, on the other hand, that god calls me to justice and compassion, I don't really care how they define god, though I may have some interest in how they define justice and compassion.
Religious words I think can be used meaningfully even when they can't be wholly defined. Perhaps more meaningfully because they can't be wholly defined, as good poetry seeks us out at our deepest level in ways that we can never fully articulate. One of those words is holy. If freedom - the freedom that requires us to take responsibility for our own ideas and our own lives - is sacred to us, but not holy, what might we call holy? I can tell you, of course, only what I might consider holy. There's justice and compassion. Once, talking to a colleague, I said that since there was no natural justice in the universe, therefore we are called to justice. He said no, that therefore we were called to compassion. Those ideas are now inseparably linked for me. I think truth is holy, and love. And there is more: the joy of gazing into the heart of a rose or seeing a dew-diamoned spider web or a spectacular gulf sunset. There is being ravished by glorious music. There is the quiet hour of reflection. Beauty, its appreciation and creation, is holy. Those things to which we are called that make us understand that there is more than the getting and spending of our daily lives, more to living than just living, more to being than just being are holy.
You may argue, and I would be the last to say that you are mistaken, that all of that is merely the outcome of evolutionary survival qualities. That may well be true, though it seems to me that without such an understanding of what is holy our survival would hardly be worth our own commitment to it. It may be that the purpose and meaning that we find in our lives when we serve these ideals is meaning that we ourselves have created rather than a transcendent purpose. Victor Frankl, in his creation of a new psychotherapy, used his experience of those who survived the Nazi concentration camps - he being one of them. He said that those who survived were those who instead of asking things of life, responded to what life asked of them. He called it man's search for meaning, the name he gave his book. Even if we have decided intellectually that life has no inherent meaning, we somehow as religious people respond to life's demands, to those things that are holy, and serve them. It is there that meaning somehow finds us.
Whether the holy exists objectively or not, it is the idea of the holy that makes its demands. We respond to it not from fear as Otto argued but from love, and its reward is joy. The life of the spirit is the dimension that celebrates the holy without concern for the words we use (unless words also give us joy) but concerned only with how kind or just or loving we are and how open we are to the admonitions of truth and the splendors of beauty. Thus we covenant together to walk in the ways of the holy as we understand it or will understand it.