Dr. Arvind Vasavada, my guru and friend, my gentle, generous mentor from my seminary days, used to advise me and his analysands (counseling clients), “Be…
Why add another religion to the world’s crowded supply? What would be different about God’s Goods? How would it help? Why participate and contribute?
I don’t expect that you have to believe in God or the Bible to benefit from reconsidering what the Bible’s opening pages say. Or you can believe in both, in which case, what those opening pages say is even more pertinent. How they’re seen and what is said about them is vitally important to our entire world. Even bible-resenting atheists can appreciate the pertinence of this perspective.
All three of the great theistic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) use these opening pages as the basis of their scriptures. For them and much of the world beyond religions, these common mythic foundations form a kind of worldview. Myths do that. They aren’t exact truth or lies, but rather story-like explanations for how we came to be, who we are, and what we’re to do. Whether you’re a believer or not, these underlying assumptions affect our individual psyches and our entire culture’s functioning.
Back in the 1960’s, even before reading Matthew Fox’s Original Blessing, I was drawn to the two creation stories described in the opening pages of the Bible. The “Six Days of Creation” of Genesis One was short and sweet: a vague God generates all of natural creation in six “days” or stages. It is largely parallel to the scientific explanation of an evolutionary creation, from light, through water, land, plant, animals, and humans (both males and females). The second creation story of Genesis Two and Three starts the process again, only in a desert where from the mud God creates Adam and from his rib, Eve. This is the Garden of Eden story that has the “forbidden fruit,” their eating it, their expulsion into lives of toil and troubles.
These two stories keep speaking to me, saying, “Look at the wonderful answer this provides.” I suspect most people read these two stories as one creation myth, as if the natural evolved creation story of Genesis One was implied in the Garden of Eden story of Genesis Two and Three. That’s OK. In fact, Genesis One solves the alienation described in the second story.
Perhaps you are familiar with the supposed interpretation of that second story, the Garden of Eden one. We’re told their sin was disobedience and willfulness, even sexuality, and that because of them we inherit “Original Sin” that can only be fixed by believing Jesus was God incarnate. Then we’re redeemed and maybe can get into heaven.
To me, this stands the message of that story on its head and confuses us as to its message. It’s as if the serpent’s “subtle confusion” was perpetuated by the church itself, fooling us from what is really good by offering another version of “good and evil.” To me, the obvious point of the two stories is simple: God creates a natural creation and, importantly, calls it “good.” (Seen on the sixth day, God calls it all, including the male and female humans evolved of it, “very good.”) By eating of the so-called Tree of Knowledge in the second story, they lose sight of what was good all along and get lost in their own supposedly god-like judgments of “good and evil.” They are estranged from the original goods by believing in a new set of goods and evils. For instance, they were “naked and not ashamed” before, and then suddenly ashamed. They had access to the entire Garden before, and then they are expelled. Shame, blame, and pain are their lot instead of the Garden they came from and would return to.
My scriptural observation doesn’t assume the Bible is the “Word of God.” Nor does it require others to assume that or not. Rather, I agree with the obvious message of those opening chapters: This natural world is in fact “good” and we can lose that goodness by getting confused as to its value and our place in it. Conversely, we can reclaim our rightful place and function in this good world by dropping the confused goods and evils others have misled us with. In this sense, one might be a believer, or a non-believer, and either way affirm and fulfill our human place in a good, natural creation.
Since my initial revelation, it has only grown more telling and more helpful. It seems to solve the estrangement from life and each other (even from God for those who care about that.) We are not fallen, sin-ridden creatures ashamed of our bodies and afraid to use our minds. Rather, we are Creation’s highest incarnation so far. Living up to our selves is our opportunity and responsibility. We can live together very well here on earth if we value it and treat it properly. We can live, not just sustainably, but wonderfully, with all the things that bring joy and meaning to our human lives. Doing so would be “religious” because it affirms nature and us in it as good, protects it as such, and promotes it.
By “religion” I don’t mean you have to believe in God and behave according to God’s supposed texts and spokespersons. Rather, the word religion comes from an etymological origin meaning, “to bind back to the root and become whole again.” The root we’re estranged from is reality, the grand fact of life as it really is, us as we are and could be, life in its amazing diversity and inter-relatedness, and the natural laws that make us up and offer us ability. Yes, we are fallible, but no, we’re not fallen. Fallibility and ability make up the two sides of our existential coin. Accepting that coin and investing it wisely is religious. (But if you’re sick of religion or uninterested, we still have the world as it is and we as we are to deal with, which I believe this approach will help.)
Fortunately, I found myself studying for and then working in the ministry. I say “fortunately” because though I’m interested in religion, I’m also critical of it and skeptical about it. However, the Unitarian Universalist approach to religion is liberal – that is, open-minded, intelligent, and caring. I’ve had the latitude to think for myself and then honestly say so. Most of the entries on this web site are sermons delivered in UU congregations. To their credit, they allowed it and considered it without burdening me with “the way you’re supposed to act as a minister.” I’m more open-minded, plain-spoken, and libertine than most ministers. I go to the bar, dance, and like women. I refuse to feign a more “approved” persona, and in fact believe such personas are misleading imbalances that divide us from our whole selves. We’re subject to an archetypal vulnerability to follow assertive leaders. Be wary and sovereign. Prissy preachers and pious power-mongers want to put you in their box.
I can think outside the box. From that vantage, the box many religions promote is a trap. The box isn’t evil, just confused, confining, and counterproductive. Those who want to be good might better consider my simple thesis. What is really good is all around us, structures us, and is in us. Don’t let snakes wearing clerical collars, tall hats, military garb, or slick Madison Avenue smiles trick you out of your innate goodness and replace it with their meager and alienating so-called goods and evils. This thesis might seem audacious, even offensive, but it is sincere, hopeful, and helpful. What is audacious is not praising, protecting, and promoting the promise and practicality of our natural good creation. I hope many will agree and will help promote this approach.
Considering our recent cultural religious habits and then all the varied forms humans use to gather and celebrate their shared religious perspective, we realize the form we could use is ours to create. New ways can emerge even in the midst of familiar practices. What fits the world we have now and the one we want? This isn’t a rhetorical question; I really don’t exactly know, but I’m interested in getting something useful, satisfying, and successful in place.
Do we really need to congregate on Sundays to do this religious work? Not necessarily. Keeping holy the Sabbath is a good idea. We need a break from the habits and demands of our usual lives. It is good to take time to consider, to congregate, to rest. But doing that on Sundays at 10 harks back to another era. Going to church in the 19th Century must have been a relief from isolation and boredom. We could see neighbors, hear some music and a message, take time to go within. Now we’re over-stimulated. Music is a private affair, heard through ear pods. Maybe we need time to shop, clean, golf, etc. We don’t need religion in that same way. The largest category of religion in Oregon is “none.” I respect that choice. Curmudgeonly skeptical “nones” are as worthy in their quests as any zealot believers.
But humans are meaning-seeking creatures. We’re also communal. We may need some space and time for aloneness, but we also are enmeshed in community. Our families have become separated, far-flung across the continents. We have hopes, hurts, and values, ideas and ideals to be considered and shared. We care about our own lives and our families, community, and world. We like finding fellow travelers of similar mind and heart. How can we address these human needs in a highly mobile and somewhat fragmented world?
The workplace, dance hall, and bar all provide some human interaction, but not in the same way that church, temple, mosque, or center does, or I should say, could. Can there be a place and a schedule that facilitates our interrelatedness and promotes our values? I think so, but in a newer form and following a wider schedule. Church doesn’t have to be only what we’re familiar with. What would fit who we really are and what we really want to do now?
I think some gatherings are suitable and beneficial. I enjoy and am aided by congregational and ceremonial activities. But for this work, I’m also interested in using the Internet and other means of publishing to promote these core ideas and then implement them in practical ways. Religious work need not be confined to church buildings and Sabbath meetings.
The Internet allows connections. The tract of the missionaries of the days of yore can more easily be offered in this non-pushy but easily-acquired form. The ideals and values of a religious community can be shared and expanded in ways new to our human community. The goods of life don’t have lobbyists and marketers. Useful information that serves the existing goods of life and humanity can be refined, organized, and offered. The misleading, exploitative, and destructive aspects of commerce, politics, and religion can be countered with mechanisms that serve the good.
For instance, it disturbs me that medical information is so secret and hard to use. Doctors and insurance companies don’t own that knowledge; it is humanity’s. Paying a day’s wages for a few moments of a doctor’s attention to then pay another day’s wages for a few pills serves the doctors and pharmaceuticals more than the poor person needing the help. Many just go without. What if they could rely on a site that freely cares for them and provides info on how their bodies work and what it takes to stay healthy or get healthy? What if simple water (hot or cold), vinegar, bleach, salt, herbs, exercise, generic and over-the-counter medications, meditation, and so-forth would sometimes suffice to help such a person? What if they could rely on a site to either provide such information directly or direct the person to it? What if it were monitored by a small staff of experts who cared to provide such “goods” to a needy world? Wouldn’t this be religious work? This is a far-reaching proposal, far beyond my current capabilities. It is fraught with numerous potential objections. But is health something we leave to doctors’ associations, insurance companies, and pharmaceuticals alone as if theirs to own and control? No. Health is something good that we can serve, be it in conjunction with current mechanisms or in opposition to them. The good of health is more primary than the good of profiting off of the scarcity, ignorance, and need of health.
What about the products we buy? What if there was an organization that evaluated them according to certain principles – like environmentally produced using fair labor practices and made to last a long time. Some products are made with horrid practices and are made to break and be replaced. That might provide some jobs and profits, but at what cost to the environment, workers, and purchasers? Perhaps an organization could evaluate such products and make recommendations or point consumers to other such helpful organizations.
Of all the glut of information of the Internet, what is beneficial to a good world? Perhaps an organization could glean the glut for the gems and goodies that are there, offering them to readers. Readers could come to rely on such worthy sites and those sites would have the readership they deserve. Perhaps the worthy causes to which you could contribute could also be similarly focused.
I am in no position to mount the sort of service envisioned in these last three paragraphs. But given contributions enough, a small, skilled staff could. Like most religions, the principles, values, and ideals could be practically implemented to serve our good earth and humanity. Rather than just retreat from the world, or heal from it, we could serve it and help steer it towards what we deem good.
A typical retort to my criticisms goes, “If you don’t like how medicine is practiced (or products made, etc.) why don’t you become a doctor and provide it yourself?” I don’t have to become a doctor, manufacturer, researcher, etc. myself to call for and organize such experts who want to do good for humanity and Life. My role is to re-tell the underlying myth, to examine the unconscious assumptions that drive us to create a society that lives into being “fallen,” and offer better options. My job is to remind us of what is good in nature and ourselves and orient those who want that to find and favor that.
Back in high school studying art I thought I might become an advertiser. But they’re largely paid by industries making money off of products that might not be so good for us. Remember the ads for Salem cigarettes? They’d show a pristine waterfall and narrate, “Take a breath – it’s springtime. Salem cigarettes.” They used classical conditioning of our innate desire for ozone-rich air and beauty to direct us to buy items that ruin both. That generates the money needed for the ads, perpetuating a fallen process. (The good of the waterfall itself is ignored in order to replace it with a supposed “good,” cancer sticks.) I’d rather just advertise the waterfall. “Take a breath; it’s springtime.” Period.
No profits pay for this, but prophets can call for it. Some mechanisms to counter the vast resources of wasteful, poisonous consumerism (and racism, militarism, etc.) can be created, supported, and offered. It’s not the usual church work, but it fits the need and provides some ways for people who want to address that need to do so. Attending church isn’t the only way to be religious or integrous.
Back to churches, it bothers me that they get a tax-free status that others have to finance. The fire department doesn’t let the church burn just because it pays no taxes. Yet there they sit, privileged and often vacant. Their functions are often limited to their own, small group, and then limited to a few activities. I would rather that such facilities be useful. Exercise is one of the best medicines for body, mind, and spirit. Why not gyms and work-out centers in churches? Why not dances? Dream groups? Dating and meet-up services? Church buildings should celebrate and serve the good things of life and culture.
These intuitive plans might seem vague. I’m not interested in pushing for these ideas exactly. Rather, I’d like a small local group to form to engage in ceremony and conversation to help create a base of activity that would address and engage a world-wide audience. A creative local group can serve a much wider and more inclusive process – one that actually veers the vast momentum of culture (with its social, political, economic, technological assumptions) towards widespread goods.
My point isn’t to decide all this now so much as to acquaint you with the core ideas and let something useful evolve. We enjoy and serve what is truly good. Your participation and support is welcome, laudable, and helps.
Brad Carrier, Founder