Monday, June 11, 2018

Love where you live: this is how it starts...

(Published in The Inquirer, 2 June 2018)



It is Sunday morning and I am not in church. This is still a new experience for me. And a strange experience. Instead of being in church I am in the streets, with a litter-picker in one hand and a bin bag in the other. I have joined a local litter-picking group supported by Keep Wales Tidy and I am meeting other people who don't go to church, but who gladly give up their Sunday mornings to make where they live a better place.

My job as a pioneer minister is to be with these people. My job is to build relationships with the "unchurched" populations of this city, to be a citizen where I live, demonstrating my faith by committing to love where I live.

But what is the point of it? Am I trying to grow our church in Cardiff? Am I inviting people to come along to our afternoon service? Well, no. I am not trying to grow our church. I am not trying to fill up pews. I am not trying to get people to come to services. I am not trying to get people to come to events, to coffee mornings, meditation or discussion groups.

I'm not trying to grow the church. Why not? Because in not trying to grow a church I am forced to get to the naked, vulnerable heart of the matter. I am forced to be out in the world spiritually naked, without any of the usual clothings of ministry.

In not trying to grow the church I have to discover what my faith is, what our faith is, what our good news is, because that is all I have. All I have is faith. And I have to start with faith, rather than starting with church.

For the next two or three years we are running an experiment in evangelism: what happens when all you have is faith? When all you have is good news? What happens when you take that faith, that good news into the mystery, mess, wonder, and chaos of a large modern city?

What is that faith? What is it that I actually think I'm trying to do? As a pioneer minister I do need to be able to answer that question. All I have is faith, and if I don't have that, I can't do my job. I have found that as a pioneer minister my first priority has to be prayer. I need to be deeply rooted in a rhythm of prayer that roots my life and work. For me, being a pioneer minister is an act of complete trust in God. I find the job before me too big. I know I can't do it by myself. I can only do it trusting in the power of God. I can only do it if I believe that faith is in fact what the world needs most urgently. And I do.

As Paul Rasor at the Annual Meetings told us, we live in a neoliberal society. This means a society that believes that competition is the defining characteristic of human relationships; that society is a market, not a community; that we are consumers, not citizens, and not children of God. It is a society based on the values of extreme individualism, greed, and competitiveness.

This ideology, that has come to dominate us since the 1980s, is killing us. It ultimately makes us dissatisfied, miserable, and isolated from each other. It asks us to put more and more trust in our possessions and less and less in each other. And it creates an epidemic of loneliness and bad mental health.

Not only that, it is destroying our natural environment as constant consumption drives the wheels of a system that spews out carbon dioxide and is leading us into a climate catastrophe.

The global problem of the twenty-first century is climate change: an urgent and massive problem that nevertheless develops slowly enough for us to be able to ignore it. But if we ignore it until it's really noticeable in an everyday sense, it will be too late. Human activity, pushed on by the ideology of neoliberalism, is creating massive shifts in the climate that will cause untold misery and death to billions of people and millions of other species on earth. Right now we are living through a mass extinction event equivalent to the one that killed the dinosaurs.

Scientists keep telling us about this, but there's only so much scientists can do. Gus Speth, environmental lawyer, has said, "I used to think the top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that with 30 years of good science we could address those problems. But I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy... and to deal with those we need a spiritual and cultural transformation - and we scientists don't know how to do that."

Scientists don't know how to do that. But guess who does know how to do that? Religion does. Faith does.

This idea has been taken up by American Unitarian Universalist minister Ian White Maher. He has argued convincingly that the climate crisis is ultimately a spiritual crisis. It's not a problem that can be solved by more and better technology - that is the kind of thinking that caused the problem in the first place. Rather it is a problem that must be addressed by a kind of a Twelve Step approach.

In Alcoholics Anonymous and other Twelve Step programmes you have to admit you are powerless over the problem - that your life has become unmanageable; and you have to trust a Power greater than yourself to restore you to sanity. Similarly Ian White Maher says that in order to address the the spiritual crisis that is causing the climate crisis, we must confess our need for help from something greater:

"The first step towards a solution is to admit that we are beyond the point of avoiding calamitous climate change... The second step is admitting that we need help. Specifically... humanity needs help from the divine and creative life force that is greater than the selfish interests of our individual egos. Anything shy of this confession will leave us with the illusion that we will somehow, through our own power and ingenuity, solve the problem. But we cannot solve a spiritual problem with intellectual solutions."

We need nothing less than confession and conversion. We need religion. We need more religion, not less religion. Religion is the only thing with the proven ability to cause massive cultural and spiritual shifts, to transform human beings and their values, and we need nothing less than this. We need to change how we live, how we think, what we value. We need to find meaning and satisfaction in life in something other than earning money and buying things and expensive experiences.

It's a challenging idea, but I have become convinced of it.

I think this really challenges us as Unitarians. I think, frankly, we no longer have the luxury to be only about a wishy washy liberalism that says, "well maybe this or maybe not, we don't know." We no longer have the luxury to be about every person pursuing their individual personalised spiritual journey. Indeed I increasingly see that kind of approach as part of the problem, not the solution.

The great danger for Unitarianism is that it simply becomes the church of neoliberalism. A church that preaches individualism and makes spirituality into a "product" personalised to our own whims and tastes to be "consumed". The danger is Unitarianism becomes exactly the kind of religion that re-enforces neoliberalism and climate change, rather than fights against it.

But as Susan Frederick-Gray, the new President of the Unitarian Universalist Association in the US, has said: this is no time for casual faith.

This is no time for a faith that just copies our consumerist, individualist culture; this is no time for a faith that is casual, wishy-washy, or uncommitted. Spiritual transformation cannot happen if we are just a watered-down version of religion. We need more religion, not less. Religion that addresses the spiritual crisis that is causing the climate crisis.

That spiritual crisis is ultimately alienation. Neoliberalism makes us alienated, isolated, cut off from each other, and from the source of life. Neoliberalism makes us spiritually, psychologically, politically, economically, and ecologically alienated.

But it's a lie! The truth, the spiritual truth our tradition stands for, is that we are deeply connected within an interdependent web of existence - but we must awaken to this reality. We must restore a sacred relationship to our planet and all that is.

In 1838 Ralph Waldo Emerson addressed a class of newly qualified Unitarian ministers, and he told them that their mission was to acquaint people first-hand with Deity. That remains exactly what my pioneer ministry is about. It is my mission to help people realise and to live as if the fundamental reality of the universe is relationship, not isolation.

We are not alone, but part of a mysterious reality, a Power greater than ourselves, that holds us all together in a greater Oneness. And we can't save the world, and we can't save ourselves, by going it alone, but we have to feel and experience for ourselves this sacred relationship; to realise through worship and prayer that we are part of a mystical reality of Oneness, and that we are all held within an embrace of Love. I call that reality God. God as both the One it is possible to enter into relationship with, and the Relationship itself with all that is. But this is not something to believe, but something to experience.

My mission is not to grow Unitarianism. My mission is to help people experience Sacred Relationship, and to find fulfilment in relationship, in connection, in community; not in competing, and consuming, individualism, and isolation.

I believe religious community is one of the places where this can happen. But I'm starting with the mission, and seeing what community can grow out of that mission, rather than starting with the community and trying to get people to attend to ensure institutional survival.

I'm not concerned with the institutional survival of Unitarianism. Ultimately I'm concerned with the survival of the human race and the planet. And I'm concerned with creating communities of resistance to our earth-destroying culture. I'm concerned with making disciples committed to spiritual practices that resist neoliberalism, and alienation, and create deeper experiences of sacred relationship. I'm concerned with making disciples of Love committed to sacred activism.

One of those practices, for now, is simply picking up litter in my inner-city street. But this is how it starts. Not (as Mother Teresa said) doing great things, but doing small things with great love. That's how we build the resistance.

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