New wine

About the author
Dave Belden is managing editor of Tikkun

I guess several readers found my last openDemocracy column weird. There, I wrote that social change artists could use some religion.

Two readers wrote excellent objections on the Discussion page. Paul Wilson and David Thompson are sceptical about religion. I won’t try to summarise their thoughts – they write so well it would be best to read them undiluted. It may be enough to say that they both see religion as a force for regimentation, conservatism, political control.

Now, I disagree that religion has always been conservative and I am surprised that these two highly intelligent guys don’t see that. In a previous column I wrote: “In its self–righteous secularism, the left may not have appreciated that … innumerable radical heroes in the past were believers.” I gave four examples. I could also have cited innumerable Quaker or Unitarian social reformers, “liberation theology” Catholics, Mahatma Gandhi, the African–American Christians who led the civil rights movement in the United States, dissidents in the Soviet empire. The list is very long.

I am not interested in religion or ritual as a unifying force in society: more the opposite. I am looking for inspiration to withstand the numbing conformities of society.

My concern is how to foster independent thought and combine it with art, music, spirituality, political campaigning, community organisation, care for the old, sick and dying. How can these all come together without hierarchy, without regimentation, but with the power of a whole–person, whole–community experience?

A curious result of personal freedom is how easily we can become comfortable, atomised observers and consumers. I am the type to sit on the sidelines and analyse, criticise, feel superior, and do very little to better this world. David Thompson says: “I prefer to experience my rituals and ‘communal warmth’ in the darkness of a cinema.” I love that too. But isn’t it a perfect image of the atomised consumer?

The powers of this world are organised in webs of influence and money. To extend freedom, democracy, justice and opportunity to the oppressed, we have to be equally well or better organised. Right now this organising is – fittingly – done in web–connected pressure groups, trade unions, political parties.

But like so many other aspects of modern lives, these organisations are one–dimensional. You do your politics in one place, your art in another, spirituality there, education here, care for the old there, paid work elsewhere, and all separate from your family. You may not even meet the same people in different areas of your life.

This is the modern experience. Many people like it. But many don’t – and for a good reason.

Before organisation comes inspiration. We need visions of how the world could be better – and not just in novels or speeches, but in working alternatives. No wonder people have tried to create communes, co–housing, worker–owned businesses. Many people have worked hard and accepted a lower income in the attempt to be more whole: work from home (maybe in the arts), homeschool the kids, build your own house (including an altar or meditation area), grow your own vegetables. Yet people living “alternative” lifestyles can also be highly involved in political actions – they are often the ones building the big puppets on demonstrations, making music, dressing up, singing.

What I am suggesting is that there is another way of combining these separated aspects of our modern lives. A more accessible way for those in conventional jobs, with kids in school, but which includes alternative lifestyles too.

Take an old form, scrub it out, and pour new wine into it.

I am not talking theory, but my own experience of the last six years in a small but growing rural congregation.

David Thompson thinks I pine for hierarchy – an understandable misunderstanding. The Unitarian Universalist (UU) congregation I belong to is self–governing, and although there is a central UU Association, the congregations are autonomous: there is no hierarchy as in traditional religions.

There is no joint belief system. A UU friend of mine who died last year called himself a “Christian Buddhist Hindu Jew”.

There is a code of agreed principles – our core human values.

David asks what worship might add to art. My answer lies in the power of ritual I discovered when I got married the second time. My partner and I had written the ceremony ourselves, with vows and symbols that worked for us. To my surprise the experience brought a kind of transcendence, a sense of being outside of normal time – it was the very opposite of the usual meaning of “ritualised” as formulaic and empty of meaning. It was a moment so rich with meaning, the rest of life appeared thin. It was like a condensed experience of what our relationship was and would be, a hugely powerful moment to look back on all through our years together. And it was somehow made possible through the presence of our friends and family around us.

Meanwhile, in our Unitarian Universalist congregation we explore ways to celebrate awe, gratitude, love, respect, giving, learning and to share sorrow and pain: through rituals, meditation, classes, fun, work. For us individualism, doubt, enquiry are a central part of the mix. One of our most active groups is our Social Action Committee, working on sentencing and prison issues or environmental concerns. The UUs in our area have taken a national lead on gay marriage. Family and children are central to our community. I would never have used “religion” as a positive word even a few weeks ago. But I haven’t undergone a sudden conversion. Instead I realised that the UUs call themselves a religion, and that this thing I have been part of can be called that.

The word shocks my friends and I hope may get them to think new thoughts. For me, it works: it is more down to earth and inclusive than “spirituality”, as it can encompass the full range of mundane as well as “spiritual” things that we do at our congregation.

But I’m not wedded to the word. It’s the thing itself I like.