September 14, 2014
There’s a story of five monkeys in a cage, based on an actual experiment with rhesus monkeys. The five monkeys are placed in a cage. A banana is hung on a string with a set of stairs placed under it. One of the monkeys begins to climb the stairs to retrieve the banana. Meanwhile, the other monkeys are sprayed with ice cold water.
After a bit, another monkey climbs toward the banana. As soon as his foot touches the stairs, the other monkeys are sprayed with ice cold water. Before long, all the monkeys prevent each other from climbing the stairs. Then the cold water is shut off, and one of the five monkeys is replaced. The new monkey sees the banana and of course tries to get it. But as soon as the monkey takes a step toward the banana, the other monkeys attack him. Surprised, he tries again and is again attacked. Then a second of the original five monkeys is replaced. The same thing happens – and even the previous newcomer joins in the attack, even though he has never been sprayed with the ice cold water. All five of the original monkeys are replaced one by one. Each time a new monkey is introduced, he tries to climb the stairs to get the banana and is attacked.
Eventually, after all five original monkeys have been replaced, none of the monkeys in the cage has ever been sprayed with the ice cold water. They have no idea why they aren’t allowed to climb the stairs and get the banana or even why they are attacking other monkeys who try.
None of the new monkeys try to get the banana.
But why don’t they go after the banana? There’s no longer any ice cold water being sprayed on any of them. The reason? Because that’s the way it’s always been around here. (www.creativitypost.com/business/its_always_done_this_way#sthash.fCG5dTfX...)
Unitarian Universalism is a religion that rejects the idea of doing things a certain way just because that’s the way they’ve always been done around here. That doesn’t mean it never happens. But we are a freedom seeking group. Emphasis is placed on seeking broadly and being open to the spirit wherever it can be found. This means remaining open to the possibility of encountering the divine in nature, at the symphony or a rock concert or even at a sports event. We look to various sources for our spirituality and for wisdom. Some of us are attracted to yoga or meditation, others to prayer or sacred chant, and still others to dance or sacred reading. We love the questions and the search. Ours is the church of the open mind, loving heart, and helping hands. Accepting and encouraging each other’s individual spiritual journeys is one of our basic principles.
Sometimes this leaves us skeptical or even hostile to the idea of tradition, especially religious tradition. This is especially true if we have ever felt pressured or marginalized by a religious tradition. I know that when rigid, outmoded ideas are too fiercely defended or when someone tries to impose their beliefs on me, I bristle. There’s genuine cause for skepticism. Following a tradition too strictly can mean spending so much time looking backward that we are hindered from living in the present or imagining the future. It can squelch creativity and free-thinking. It can be confining, even damaging. It can focus on policing and enforcing boundaries of thought and behavior and as a result cause us to lose track of the underlying intentions and reasons for it in the first place. We’ve all seen traditions that are restrictive – those that deny equal rights to women, for example, or people of color or gay and lesbian individuals. Some individuals and groups are deeply entrenched and habituated to outworn practices, behaviors and beliefs - whether religious or otherwise.
This makes me think of the story called, “It’s Turtles All the Way Down.” A scientist gives a lecture on astronomy. Afterward he is approached by a woman who says that he's got it all wrong. The world, she insists, rests on a plate that sits on the back of a giant turtle. The scientist asks her what the turtle is standing on. She answers: on the back of a second, even larger turtle. He pauses and asks her what that turtle in standing on. To that, she responds triumphantly and unwaveringly, "You're very clever, but it's no use - it's turtles all the way down!"
It may be puzzling to see individuals cling to ideas that seem unscientific or authoritarian or even irrelevant to contemporary life. But the loss of it or the threat of its loss can leave us feeling uncertain and adrift. We may no longer believe things we once believed but that doesn’t mean we don’t hold onto the rituals or miss the ones we no longer practice. We may not want to do things a certain way just because they’ve always been done that way, but it’s also possible that way still holds some meaning.
I have to admit I miss some of the religious traditions I grew up with. I loved Bible School in the summer. I miss some of the old hymns from my childhood, even though the words are troublesome, and the tunes are old-fashioned and even difficult to sing. When my mother was ill, I used to sing to her from her Methodist hymnal. It was surprising to me how quickly those old hymns came back to me after being away from the Methodist church for 30 years. And I’m not talking about the old hymn tunes we still sing with new words. I’m talking about How Great Thou Art or Blessed Assurance or In the Garden. These were songs I sang as a child sitting in the pews with my parents. I didn’t grow up with the words: "Roots hold me close; wings set me free. Spirit of life, come to me, come to me." Yet it has become for me, as it has for many of us a powerful meaningful and new tradition. Writing about the song, Kimberly French observes that:
It is our Doxology, or perhaps our “Amazing Grace.” … In six short lines “Spirit of Life” touches so much that is central to our faith—compassion, justice, community, freedom, reverence for nature, and the mystery of life. It finds the common ground held by humanists and theists, pagans and Christians, Buddhists and Jews, gay and straight among us. (UU World, Fall 2007)
That to me is what tradition offers at its finest. It can touch what is central to us. It finds common ground. This is true whether it is an old tradition that still holds meaning or a new tradition that resonates with us. The point of tradition, after all, is to ground us, to center us. It isn’t meant to be something we have to defend. Instead it enables us to move toward a deeper connection or kinship with the world, with God, with each other. Tradition provides continuity in our practices and connection from one generation to the next but it isn’t there to hold us hostage to the past or to give us easy pat answers in a complicated world.
The French Philosopher and Christian mystic Simone Weil said:
To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul. It is one of the hardest to define. A human being has roots by virtue of his [or her] real, active and natural participation in the life of a community which preserves in living shape certain particular treasures of the past and certain particular expectations for the future.
What we have is a living tradition. A living tradition is one that offers us roots and wings. A living tradition offers belonging and freedom. It preserves treasures of the past and certain expectations for the future. But these are based on a real, active and natural participation in a community.
This summer, I spent a weekend at the Murray Grove Retreat Center in Lanoka Harbor, NJ. It’s south of Tom’s River. The retreat center with a small chapel adjacent to the property is considered the birthplace of Universalism in America and takes its name from John Murray.
John Murray lived in England where he was a preacher with a good education. He had a wife and infant son. He was a Christian preaching early ideas about universalism, that God loves everyone, which was a heresy. Murray’s wife and their son became sick and died, as did three of his sisters and a brother. He fell into debt. And his universalist religious ideas put him at odds with his religious colleagues. He became depressed and even considered suicide. Eventually, he decided to go to America and get a fresh start, including leave behind his religion. He swore never to preach again.
He sailed for America on a ship named the Hand In Hand whose destination was New York. But fog rolled in and the ship ran aground in New Jersey. John and a few others volunteered to leave the ship, go on land, and get directions and supplies. He was directed to the home of Thomas Potter, who had built a meetinghouse for Universalist discussion groups in the woods 10 years earlier. Potter had been looking for a minister ever since. Potter greeted Murray saying, “I have been expecting you a long time!” Some people say this is the closest thing we UUs have to a miracle story. Potter invited Murray to preach, but Murray insisted he would be gone by Sunday. Potter eventually finally got Murray to agree that if his boat didn’t sail by Sunday, he would preach at the chapel. The wind didn’t blow, and the ship didn’t sailed. John Murray preached on Sunday morning, September 30, 1770, in what is today known as the Potter Chapel. You can see a photo of it in the weekly or monthly newsletter or on the church website with my monthly column. That Sunday those in attendance heard a Universalist message of love, and John Murray rediscovered his call to ministry. He is still often referred to as the father of American Universalism, and helped to found Universalism as a denomination in the 1790s. (story compiled from various UU sources).
Murray is one of the ancestors of our faith. That wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t been rooted in a tradition and also allowed himself to be open to new ideas – like Universalism and a theology of radical love. As an historically Universalist congregation, we can acknowledge a special debt of gratitude and trace our roots to Murray and to Potter. But our religion has certainly changed a lot since the 18th Century.
While we still value love as a central value and guiding principle for our faith, we don’t necessarily express it in the ways that Murray or Potter did. Despite Murray’s historic importance to us, there’s very little connection between his actual preaching and theology to modern Unitarian Universalism. The words in our hymnal, attributed to John Murray are actually the words of Alfred Cole, as he imagined Murray might preach. Cole wrote:
Go out into the highways and by-ways.Give the people something of your new vision.You may possess a small light,But uncover it, let it shine,Use it in order to bring more light and understandingto the hearts and minds of men and women.Give them not hell, but hope and courage,preach the kindness and everlasting love of God.
We are rooted in a tradition that values the ongoing revelation of the divine. Let us celebrate the roots, including our religious ancestors like Murray and all the treasures of the past. Let us also celebrate our wings and allow ourselves to soar, ever learning and growing.
Let’s honor our hunger to be open and our need to be connected.
Amen and blessed be.