In his wonderful novel, The Chosen, Chaim Potok has a Hasidic Rabbi, Reb Saunders, talk about his very intelligent son, Reuven, expressing his concern and his worry, like all parents worry. At one point he has the rabbi look up and talk directly to God, saying,
“Master of the Universe, what have you done to me? A mind like this I need for a son? A heart I need for a son, a soul I need for a son, compassion I want from my son, righteousness, mercy, strength to suffer and carry pain, that I want from my son, not a mind without a soul.”
In my early twenties I was a big fan of the writer Ayn Rand, who has regained popularity in this time of political polarization. I read everything she had written – and she is an extremely talented writer. Then one night I went to the Ford Hall Forum in Boston to see and hear her and I wanted to look up to ‘the Master of the Universe and say, ‘what have you done to me? A mind like this I need for a role model? A heart I need…a soul I need; compassion, righteousness, mercy strength to suffer and carry pain, that I need from a role model, not a mind without a soul.”
I left the Ford Hall Forum feeling like I had lost a friend – she was a woman ruled by her intellect, a brilliant mind…but my sense was that she was completely lacking in a sense of compassion – there was no hint of the soul behind those well-crafted words in her many books.
In a way, this expresses some of the same concern we share for our beloved faith.
In the not-so-distant past we Unitarian Universalists sometimes referred to ourselves as ‘the thinking man’s religion,’ which, of course emphasized the rational-male model.
There’s a famous line from Emerson in which he was speaking for the Transcendentalists and referred to the ‘corpse cold Unitarianism of Brattle Street and Harvard College.’
This corpse cold approach is suggested by the job description that Harvard issued for the new Professor of Natural Religion, Moral Philosophy and Civil Polity. The professor’s duties were to:
“… demonstrate the existence of a Deity or first cause, to prove and illustrate his essential attributes, both natural and moral; to evince and explain his providence and government, together with the doctrine of a future state of rewards and punishments; also to deduce and enforce the obligations which man is under to his Maker … together with the most important duties of social life, resulting from the several relations which men mutually bear to each other; …. interspersing the whole with remarks, showing the coincidence between the doctrines of revelation and the dictates of reason in these important points; and lastly, notwithstanding this coincidence, to state the absolute necessity and vast utility of a divine revelation.”
The stress on the value of the rational mind as the path to divine wisdom, was in large part, a response to the excessive emotionalism of the evangelical revivals of the day – a religious feeling, they said, which would ‘soon dissipate.’
Historian Ian Finseth says, “Unitarians placed a premium on stability, harmony, rational thought, progressive morality, classical learning, and other hallmarks of Enlightenment.” (See, American Transcendentalism By Ian Frederick Finseth, Ph.D.)
For nearly forty years I’ve been a member of a Unitarian Universalist ministers’ study group: The Greenfield Group. My immediate predecessors in Westport, Bob Swain and Ed Lane, were members during my early years in the group.
When I joined the group in the spring of 1973 there were no women – there were 30 men and there was a lot of cigar smoking, whiskey drinking, loud talking…and a general atmosphere of criticism and competitiveness.
Those were the days of affirmative action and we as a group decided to do our best to bring women into the group – within the next twenty years or so we not only had women members, but at some point the balance tipped to a female majority.
The women changed the group.
For example, rather than begin with the hour and a half reading of the first paper, we began the session with a check-in, providing three minutes for each member to tell us how life was going for them, and how their work as parish ministers was going for them.
We laugh together, and there’s no shortage of tears as we moved around the circle from person to person, each of whom tells us about ‘wars going on down there where the spirit meets the bone,’ or the deep sense of appreciation for things that touch the soul.
Something had changed. Competitiveness and criticism was minimized or made with such sensitivity that it felt like a gift; carefully crafted with compassion and a general sense of mutual respect emerged.
During the early years of my ministry, starting in 1970, there were very few women in our ministry. That changed…so that today women ministers are in the majority.
Mary Oliver is poet most quoted from Unitarian pulpits. She helps us to get at ‘the heart of our faith,’ the feeling level. She says, for example
“I tell you this
to break your heart,
by which I mean only
that it break open and never close again
to the rest of the world.”
“When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it is over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.”
I went through a similar personal transformation. For example, when I was young, in my first year of college, I asked my older brother Chet, who was and is an artist, to draw Rodin’s The Thinker for me…he did a rendition in charcoal, which I still have.
Years later I asked him to draw a portrait of Whitman, the poet who had the most significant influence on me in my 30’s. Chet used a portrait of Whitman with his broad-brimmed hat, and in the hat Chet carefully drew landscapes with the fine point of a pen – to make the point about Whitman’s poetry about Nature.
I wonder what I’d ask him to draw now. I’m more likely to be feel connected to Michelangelo’s masterpiece, the Pieta, the only piece Michelangelo ever signed. Mary is holding her adult son on her lap after the crucifixion –she might have said, “Master of the Universe, what have you done to me? My heart broken open … my son personifies compassion…my son personifies righteousness, mercy, strength to suffer and carry pain and touched the soul.” But she is quiet, simply holding her son.
Of course I value the rational aspect of our faith — that goes without saying. But the older I get the more I value what I see as ‘the heart of our faith,’ the warmth, the caring, concern and compassion…the heart.
In some ways I see the Hebrew Scriptures as representing the rational part of our faith while the Christian Scriptures tend to focus on the heart…like the letter of the law balanced by the spirit of the law … the rational balanced by the spiritual.
Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart.” What’s your take on that assertion? I take the phrase ‘pure in heart’ to mean persons whose motives are clear and clean – without personal gain. I would say that ‘pure in heart’ means ‘a nice person.’ A good person. It’s not complicated. ‘Keep it simple.’
Jesus, as I understand it, had no intention of leaving his Judaism; he wanted to balance the letter of the law of the Torah with the spirit, asking, ‘Is the Sabbath made for man or is man made for the Sabbath?’ He wanted to promote the human aspect of religion. The heart!
The names of the Biblical collections are a bit unfortunate – we call the early Hebrew Scripture ‘the old testament,’ and it has a connotation like an old shoe, or the old ways, replaced by a more up to date New Testament.
But there’s really nothing new in the so-called New Testament, it’s a re-telling of the old, emphasizing the balance between the letter and the spirit, the literal and the … it’s a theological interpretation of the old.
This comes through in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians where he talks about love…the spirit…I Cor 13: “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends; as for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect; but when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood. So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”
The heart of our faith is what motivates us to work for social justice, to respond to other’s needs – it’s about compassion. There’s a limit to compassion, of course – one can easily get ‘compassion fatigue.’ So you have to step back, pull in, and take care of yourself.
Put your own oxygen mask on first!
The heart of our faith motivates our shawl ministry program; and a Small Group Ministry program; and the Circles of Care.
Our Sunday morning candle lighting touches the heart of our faith. Poetry, music and silent meditation touch the heart of our faith.
The heart of our faith is whatever gets us more in touch with their own heart and to have a pure heart, increasing the capacity to love.
It’s not complicated, but it is demanding.