This spring I came across a book entitled, “When One Religion Isn’t Enough: The Lives of Spiritually Fluid People” by Duane R. Bidwell, a professor of practical theology, spiritual care, and counseling at Claremont School of Theology. It follows the path of the author and others who have taken up the practices of more than one tradition. He is both Buddhist and Christian. I was interested because I was thinking about Unitarian Universalism and our six sources; how we say that we draw from the wisdom of each; and I was wanting to compare what that meant juxtaposed alongside the practice of more than one religion. My thoughts wound their way around to religious or cultural appropriation and the difference between that and this concept of spiritual fluidity. This brief entrée into our sermon today is as much an invitation into how your minister’s mind meanders around a topic as it is anything else!
As I dove into the text, I found myself highlighting passages that really had little to do with the above and called to mind yet another bit of study I had engaged in over the winter. So, all of that about our sources and multiple practices and appropriation will have to wait for another time as I realized the thing I truly wanted to talk about today! Do not worry, though! I am still talking about fluidity, but more about how we respond when we encounter it in ways that are outside of our own experience or the cultural norms with which we live.
The thing that caught my eye – the pieces that were jumping off the page that I was turning bright pink with my highlighter were words like exceptional versus normal; phrases such as, “shouldn’t fit into binary categories;” the need for clear boundaries; the politics of truth claims; the tension of hiding and disclosing and the amount of energy it takes to sort that out; being and becoming over belief, behavior and belonging. The right to one’s fluidity creates a unique position to reduce intolerance and promote peace, the author writes; people engaged in spiritual fluidity, QUOTE: “solidify and celebrate aspects of identity denied or marginalized by the dominant culture.” There is this idea that what we call the fluid among us matters; that there is a need for a shared vocabulary and, I would add, that it is not up to the observer to do the naming. The book sheds light on the anxiety, cognitive dissonance, hypervigilance and shame that arise from “passing” for followers of the norms and the practice of “code-switching” where one shifts their self-expression to reflect or privilege one way of being over another depending upon context.
There is a lot here to be unpacked about spiritual fluidity, but the whole read harkened back to a webinar series I participated in over the winter offered to UU ministers and others by the Transforming Hearts Collective – a group that “supports the creation of spaces where queer and trans folks of all races, classes, abilities, and ages can access spirituality, healing, and resilience—both inside and outside organized religion.” The course was on “Transgender Inclusion in Congregations” – taught by Alex Kapitan and the Rev. Mykal Slack who some of you may have seen on the General Assembly Sunday morning worship we attended virtually. It involved a series of lectures and readings and the opportunity meet a few times with a cohort of ministers exploring the same material. What struck me was the similarity between the lived experience of the religiously fluid and that of people whose gender identity and expression don’t fit neatly into the binary definition that is the stated norm in our culture. What I was drawn to exploring was the commonality of lived experience among people whose self-understanding is outside of the very tiny box we have created in our culture for how one is to be in the world. And I wondered about us here at UUMH in Chatham, who presumably consider ourselves to be intelligent and open and welcoming – I believe that we are! And I believe that we can learn some things that move us beyond welcome to inclusion and even radical welcome which, come to find out are slightly different things.
A couple or more years ago I filled the pulpit here and talked about assumptions. I remember taking off my robe and asking you to call out things you might assume about me, based on a first glance. You were very kind! So, I prompted the conversation with some other ideas – what if I dressed well because I managed to get this nice outfit from the local thrift shop and wasn’t as affluent as I appeared? What if I identified as bisexual, I asked? You said very clearly that these things wouldn’t matter; you would love me anyway; I would be welcome. And this is lovely, but the truth is that these things do matter and to move from welcome to inclusion and beyond is to recognize the difference between us and to lift up the importance of who I am v. who you are v. what our culture dictates – to take a genuine interest in it and to talk about it. These kinds of conversations seem taboo to us and yet they are so valuable. They help to move us toward inclusion. In the time we have this morning, I will only be able to share the tip of the iceberg in terms of what I learned – an apt segue into the idea of culture that Alex and Mykal talked about because they used “The Iceberg Model of Culture” to illustrate their points!
This idea has been around for a long time now and maybe you have heard of it. It suggests that about ten percent of what our culture is – “how we do life” according to Anne Stewart – it is our values, beliefs and norms – standards that allow us to operate within a group – only about ten percent of that is above the surface of the water where we can see it. The other ninety percent is hidden below the water line – just like an iceberg. And we all know what happens when you crash up against the hidden part of an iceberg! The kinds of things we run into down there are values, religious beliefs, ideas about beauty, gender roles, thought processes, ways to problem solve, how we relate to time, body language. All of these, implicit in a culture, but rarely expressed openly. We just know and accept them.
In the webinar, we compared and contrasted three different icebergs – one for dominant culture, one for UU culture and one for transgender culture. The interesting thing to note is that beneath the surface of the dominant and the UU culture icebergs there was a lot of commonality – ideas about what family looks like, individualism, perfectionism, hierarchical leadership, and financial circumstances. These unspoken norms are very different in transgender culture where there is a dependence upon one another and problems are solved in community, there is a greater level of financial insecurity, family is chosen, and gender is culturally constructed. The thing about the transgender iceberg is that it could stand in for one representing most any marginalized group of people, so the learning here is much broader than just a focus on transgender inclusion. We could create a UUMH iceberg sometime – it might be fun to consider what is explicit and what is implicit here in this place that could inform our ways of welcome and inclusion.
The idea of welcome says, “Come, join our community and share our cultural values and heritage,” where inclusion says, “Help us to be diverse,” and radical welcome says, “Bring your culture, your voice, your whole self – we want to engage in truly mutual relationship.” Welcome is about assimilation and adopting a dominant identity; inclusion about incorporating, which doesn’t actually change anything about the cultural identity or practices; and radical welcome about incarnation where a community embodies and embraces the full range of voices and gifts present. The effort put forth even with inclusion, according to one of our handouts from Bread for the Journey: An Online Companion, pays less attention to systemic analysis or power structures and emphasizes individual efforts, whereas radical welcome ensures that the gifts and perspectives of those from the margins will be visible and valued and ultimately influence the congregation’s identity, ministries and structures. The results of welcoming mean that the institution and membership remain largely monocultural. Inclusion results in a revolving door because the system itself never changes. Radical welcome results in a transformed and transforming community where power is shared among different groups and the overall identity is shaped in new ways.
So – where am I going with all this? My observation over the past several months is that we here at UUMH are certainly welcoming and even borderline inclusive!
And this is pretty common among Unitarian Universalist congregations, according to a new report of the UUA Commission on Institutional Change entitled, “Widening the Circle of Concern.” It is a three-year study that analyzed structural and systemic racism and white supremacy culture in Unitarian Universalism, and it makes recommendations for long-term cultural and institutional change that are redeeming for the promise and ideals of Unitarian Universalism. They are mailing a copy off to each congregation! Maybe we can take a look at it together.
What I would love to see us move toward is greater inclusivity and beyond to this radical welcome idea. It means we might have to look at how we do things - what lies beneath the surface of our iceberg. We shouldn’t think for even a minute that when someone new comes along from a different culture that they don’t easily see and feel the stuff that is under the water and there is really no mechanism to talk about it. It’s like the Titanic – they jump ship eventually!
I am so pleased to have come upon this people and this place at a time when you are ready to explore who you are and what your meaning in the larger community might be. I hear an openness to exploring new ways of doing things; of thinking about things as I meet with the leadership and various committees. Change is scary, to be sure, but I consider it an opportunity – something I think of as sacred because of the potential it holds – to explore and deepen what is already here and to incorporate new ways of being in the world. And it is always happening whether we want to admit it or not! Can we come to a place where we are saying, “Bring your culture, your voice, your whole self – we want to truly engage in mutual relationships?” Are we ready for transformation that will enhance the life of this congregation and the lives of those who are part of it – present and future? May we be so positioned as we come through this in-between time of pandemic; energized and prepared to meet the challenges of our ever-changing world. May we be open and willing; prepared to unwrap the gifts of this golden present; attending to the dance of our unique flame.
May it be so and Amen.