January’s Intolerance

January’s Intolerance
1-6-08
Rev. Douglas Taylor

When I was young I remember learning the etymology of the days of the week and the months of the year.  Days of the week are mostly named after Norse Gods while the Months follow the Roman Gods.  January is named for Janus, the roman God of gates and doors, and of beginnings and endings.  The Latin word for an arched passageway is ‘janus.’  The Romans did not have January as their first month; they held March, named for Mars, the Roman God of war, to be the New Year.  January, however, with the symbolism of the God Janus, makes a perfect month for ringing out the old and ringing in the new.  The God of doors and gates stands sentinel and is depicted with two heads, one facing back and the other forward.  This is not, however, where we derive the term “two-faced,” which means, “To be hypocritical, to say one thing and do another.”  There is no story of Janus’ two faces contradicting each other, no story of this God standing in a doorway, for example, telling everyone inside the house one thing and everyone outside the house something else.  Which is really too bad!  Finding such a story was the basis for my title, January’s Intolerance.

James Wiggins, author of In Praise of Religious Diversity, claims that virtually every armed conflict occurring on the planet today is explicitly driven by religious motives or by the memory of a preexisting religious conflict.  That is a very strong claim.  Bill Moyers mentions this in the article I used for our reading this morning and goes on to list many examples such as suicide bombers, ethnic cleansing, attempts to build theocracies, the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Muslims and Jews fighting in one land, Catholics and Protestants attacking each other in another, Hindus and Muslims slaughtering each other over in another land, and the list goes on.

It is as if there is an intolerant two-faced God standing in the door way of “true” religion chanting to those inside, “How lovely and righteous are we the chosen ones.”  And at the same time the other face is looking outward shouting “death to the infidels, down with the unbeliever.”  This caricature is sadly fitting to far too many faiths in the world – not just the ones the media keeps reminding us about!  Is the doorway to your religion built on intolerance?  Is the gate of your faith guarded by narrow-mindedness?  Or is your entrance expansive?

Unitarian Universalism is a religion that features tolerance in the way we come together.  We strive to honor and accept the difference of each individual, drawing on the beauty of our differences to enhance our understanding of life, God, meaning, and truth.  Tolerance of other people’s beliefs is a central aspect of our faith.

We are not alone in having an emphasis on tolerance of other people’s beliefs; most liberal religious traditions hold this emphasis.  I remember attending an Ash Wednesday service in a Lutheran church and was surprised to hear the pastor use a contemporary Taoist author during the homily to expand on the themes of Lent and Ash Wednesday.  We are not alone in recognizing the wisdom in other people’s scriptures.

But we do stand out.  In our UUA statement of Principles and Purposes when we claim that the Living Tradition we share draws from many sources.  We’ve codified it in our central statement of identity.  That part is unusual.  I have often stood up here with a message that tolerance is not at our center; that tolerance is a valuable tool to help us reach our core identity, but should never be construed to be the center of our faith.  We are not a tradition based around the idea that everyone’s beliefs are A-OK and we can believe anything we want.  Tolerance has limits: this I have said and said again.  Now, I begin to worry that I’ve been knocking tolerance too much.  Several times I have told you tolerance is not enough.  I have repeatedly warned against the danger in leaving everything up to tolerance.  Yet for all I fuss at tolerance, it surely beats being intolerant!

I am proud to see our recognition of the importance of being open to new religious ideas and expressions, of having fresh understanding and perspectives.  Tolerance keeps us from stagnation.  Tolerance is what keeps us open to see new light.  Tolerance holds our door open.

One UU colleague wrote a statement of our core beliefs several years back that includes the following stanza:

            We believe in the freedom of religious expression.

            We believe in the toleration of religious ideas.

            We believe in the authority of reason and conscience.

            We believe in the never ending search for truth.

This was not meant as a creed or as dogma, simply as a statement describing some of the ideas that hold us together.  We are open, tolerant, highly individualistic, and still trying to figure it all out.  These are some of the key features that identify us as Unitarian Universalists.

In contrast, most religions are manifestly intolerant.  They unabashedly declare themselves to be so. It is not a criticism; it is a statement of fact based on their own scripture and practice: A fact which these faithful and observant people would not refute.  Indeed many religions would say they are very tolerant toward other people and all, but not at all tolerant of other people’s religious beliefs.  One colleague draws the comparison quite closely.  He writes:

            “Why sold they believe in the freedom of religious expression,

                        when the answers are already provided?

            Why should they believe in the toleration of religious ideas,

                        when the faith has been clearly stated?

            Why should they believe in the authority of reason and conscience,

                        when the institution is all powerful?

            Why should they believe in the never ending search for truth,

                        when it is obviously established forever?

It is naïve for anyone to expect otherwise!  The stance of orthodox religions is perfectly understandable.  They have closed the doors of toleration because they possess the Holy Grail.  Others are wrong or ignorant.  It is a valid and logical position if you accept their basic premise.” (Rev. John Papandrew)

It is all wrapped up in group dynamics; we need our groups.  We define ourselves by whether we are in or out of the group.  From earliest times, religion has served the function of binding people together in groups, giving people a common bond of care and concern.  The legendary sociologist, Emile Durkheim, wrote that religion’s original purpose was to “strengthen the bonds attaching the individual to the society of which he [or she] is a member.”  We need our groups.   Any group, any group, for it even be a group must establish a base of trust, the quickest and most powerful way to establish that trust is to gather the group around a shared identity.  When you can define what it means to be a part of the group you are establishing a definition of the individuals in the group.  For example, if we say we are God’s chosen people, and I am a part of the group, then I can define myself – I’m one of God’s chosen people.  And I get to define myself this way because of the group I am in.

Now, it will often happen that the definition of who is in the group will include something about how you are better than those who are not in your group – otherwise, why bother being in that group?  It is almost a required level of exclusivist thought for the group to hold together.  We even have a touch of this.  I think at times we’ve shied away from it and tried to be a group that refuted this edge of exclusivity. “We’re no better than any other group.  All religions are the same,” we would say.  And then we would wonder why so few of our youth stay with the faith.

We need a certain amount of exclusive thought in the mix if we’re going to survive as a group.  Why bother being a part of our group unless our group is better in some important way?  We get around this by saying this is the best group for me.  I don’t know if this is the best group for you, I hope it is and from what I may know about you I can suggest you look into it.  But only you can know whether or not Unitarian Universalism is the best religious group for you.  You see, we never claim to be the best group.  We only claim to be the best group for some.

We say that every person experiences and interacts with that which is holy, with the sacred, with God, in the way that fits for that person.  Each person is different, like a fingerprint.  What fits you will not fit me.  That is how we are designed and we honor that and find it so easy to tolerate others when we are not threatened by the differences!  This allows us to have that slight exclusive factor at our entrance without it dishonoring the reality of what is inside.  We strive to have the two-faced God in our doorway offering the same message to those on the outside that is offered to those of us on inside.

There is a Taoist meditation book with a story about using donkey’s to reach high places in the world.  Donkeys, so sure footed and sturdy, are excellent beasts for carrying you up the mountain.  When we reach the top, everyone stands in the same place, sees the same view, and the donkeys are not used anymore.  The meditation is called “Dismount your Donkey at the Summit.”  Of course it is a metaphor.  The donkey’s are the various religions and doctrines and beliefs we embrace as we journey up the mountain.  “What does it matter,” the meditation asks, “which donkey we embrace as long as it leads us to the summit?  Your donkey might be the Zen donkey, mine the Tao donkey.  There are Christian, Islamic, Jewish, and even Agnostic donkeys.”  I love that, the meditation singles out agnostic donkeys.  It goes on to say, “All lead to the same place. Why poke fun at others over the name of their donkey?  Aren’t you riding one yourself?”  (From Tao- daily Meditations by Deng Ming-Dao)  And then the point of the meditation is that once you reach the top, you no longer need your donkey, we will one day come to a place where we no longer need names to describe what we experience.  “All religions have different names for the ways of getting to the holy summit.”  Yet we must get off our donkeys when we finally get there.

And there are many religious groups that work hard to combat the intolerant and exclusive element of group dynamics.  I’ll same again; we are not alone in recognizing the value of the soft sell!  Take a peak back at the antiphonal reading on the back of the order of service.  Many religions have scriptures that rail against negative and dehumanizing perceptions of people who are different or people who are not members of the group.  They say, in essence: they are not us, but they are like us.

Tolerance allows us to remain open to new light.  Tolerance allows us to hear another person’s perspective without being threatened by it.  When we don’t claim to have the absolute truth we can hear another person’s deep conviction without it needing to be an either/or struggle to be right. Tolerance allows conversation.  In the article I used for the reading this morning, Bill Moyers ends up with this same line of thought.  Listening and being in conversation with others is powerful action that can change people.  Moyers says, “Talking with people who agree with you is like jogging in a cul-de-sac.”

Moyers talks in that article about the PBS series they did on Genesis.  It was a simple format, get a bunch of different people in the circle of conversation and record it.  The topic was dangerous my many standards.

“For the series we sought out people from varied backgrounds, faiths, professional fields, ages and genders.  We wanted to see if they could be candid about their different beliefs without politicizing religion or polarizing the community.  We hoped to show that you can disagree passionately about things that matter without surrendering your own principled beliefs or without going for your neighbor’s throat; that Americans can engage with others in serious conversations about the most deeply felt subjects – our religious beliefs, the nature of faith, our relationship with each other – and truly challenge each other, teach each other, and learn from each other.  It worked; all over the country people organized into groups so they could watch the programs together and then talk about them afterward.”

How many of you remember that Genesis series with Bill Moyers?  That kind of tolerance and subsequent conversation is what we strive to have here on a regular basis.  It is begins when you let go of being the sole proprietor of Truth and take a step toward really listening to another person.  It involves the kind interaction of ideas and basic beliefs that may change you – probably not to change your beliefs but to deepen them, broaden them, keep them more firmly rooted in the reality of life as we live it.  Unitarian Universalism is an open and accepting faith, recognizing the power available to us when we set Tolerance as the guard of our gate and invite each other on a shared journey of discovery.

In a world without end

May it be so.