Thursday, March 22, 2007

A Unitarian Universalist's take on St. Joseph's Day

Until recently, all I knew of St. Joseph was that you needed to bury a statue of him in your yard, upside-down, if your house was for sale. We did it in 2005 and maybe it worked. We buried the statue after the house had been on the market six months, and had an offer in 6 weeks. My former minister, too, at a point of desperation (she had retired and already had a contract on a house in another state), buried St. Joseph in her yard, and her house sold shortly thereafter. Miracle? Who knows. But I still have my St. Joseph statue in a "place of honor" in my house, and have a soft spot in my heart for this patron saint of the home. He seemed like a pretty good guy in the Bible. One of the most accepting step-fathers ever, right?

As an art history major in college, though, I learned a lot about saints. Because art from about 1200-1800 A.D.? Is mostly religious. And most religious art? Had saints in it. I found myself fascinated by the veneration of saints, by their stories, and sometimes the gruesomeness of their deaths. Images like The Ecstasy of St. Theresa and images of the martyrdom of St. Sebastian were compelling, exciting, and depicted lives completely dedicated to the spiritual. Heady stuff in my late teens and early twenties. I found myself reading The Lives of the Saints in order to reinforce what I learned in art classes (it was much easier to remember the subjects of the images if I had more understanding of the lead characters). I soon had some saints who were my personal favorites (Francis and Lawrence, as well as Joan of Arc and others), mostly because they died in weird ways or they said amazing things or they had interesting symbols depicted along with them. The legends were compelling and made the art that much more interesting. (Plus, learning about the saints also forced me to learn so much more of the history of the early church. Good stuff when you're taking religion and history classes at a liberal arts college.)

All this to say that St. Joseph's day was celebrated this weekend (not in Memphis, but in New Orleans and, I presume, other cities with significant Roman Catholic populations). I read this post, by an upwardly-mobile New Orleans chef, and it really made my day. His take on spirituality and religion, and the noble role any religion can play in any person's life, was so similar to my own beliefs, which are generally on the humanist/agnostic side of the fence.

I'm very pro-religion. I think church is good for people. And I also think that most people find the church that they need. That belief, specifically, is what separates me (as a Unitarian Universalist) from most other religious people (mainstream and evangelical Christians, Muslims, etc.). While those religions are based on a principle of exclusion ("the only way to worship God is our way"), my faith is built on inclusion ("God loves us so much that all are saved").

Unitarian Universalism used to be two different denominations. The Unitarians were (and remain) intellectuals. From the UUA's website, "In the sixteenth century, Christian humanists in Central Europe-in Poland and Transylvania-studied the Bible closely. They could not find the orthodox dogma of the Trinity in the texts. Therefore, they affirmed-as did Jesus, according to the Gospels-the unity, or oneness, of God. Hence they acquired the name Unitarian." Thomas Jefferson, though never "officially" a Unitarian, was definitely sympathetic to the faith, and published a version of the Bible in which all miracles or references to the "supernatural" were removed. It's shorter, but still quite pithy. The teachings of Jesus are just as powerful and revolutionary without tales of healing lepers and exorcising demons. The Universalists, however, were rooted in reformation of the Christian church. They rejected Orthodox Christianity and its interpretation of the Bible. They professed a faith in a loving God, a God who would not deem any human to be unworthy of divine love. With that belief in universal salvation, the name Universalist was born.

From those two faith traditions, those two schools of thought, we get two worldviews with the same conclusion: all are saved. The Unitarians would posit that God created humans in the image of God. Therefore humans are good, and are saved because of their inherent goodness. The Universalists posit that because God created humans, God loves humans too much for them to not be saved. See the distinction? "Humans are worthy," is the essence of the Unitarian stance, while "God is all-loving," is the Universalist position.

I find it to be an uneasy peace sometimes. There's a dissonance to me. And I struggle to claim my own position on the continuum. My present faith (or lack thereof) is certainly informed by my moderate Protestant upbringing. It's also informed by my life experience and education. It's less informed by personal spiritual revelation, because that's not my experience. I've not heard the voice of God or seen the face of God or had burning bushes talk to me or met an angel. (Or I was way too distracted by something else to notice.) But. I don't think, even for a second, that I've missed out on some great spiritual awakening by not having that experience.

But then we come back to the saints, and their celebrations, their feasts, their veneration. I do see how praying to these fully human people, who through faith, works, goodness, whatever, became somehow "better" than human, could be a very useful part of a spiritual practice. Having a saint for just about every day of the year, for just about every occasion, seems to me a way to help make sense of your life. It helps to clarify exactly what it is you want, need, pray for. You're not going to pray to the patron saint of animals for your grandmother. You're not going to pray to the saint of mothers for clarity of mind during final exams.

But the folks in New Orleans? Are probably making a good choice with their veneration of St. Joseph. They need all the help they can get with their housing situation. Maybe they should light some candles to St. Jude, too. Just in case.

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