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(c) Doug Slagle, The Gathering at Northern Hills, A Unitarian Universalist Community, All Rights Reserved
I’m going to recite a few pairs of words with opposite meaning for which I’d like you to think of and then shout out, if you wish, the one word that represents a middle ground or middle meaning between the two contrasting words. Pick just one word and not a phrase or sentence. OK? Here goes: Name a word between black and white (grey). Large and small (medium, middle). Fast and slow (moderate). Good and bad (okay). Happy and sad (pensive). Clean and dirty (smudged). Calm and anxious (normal).
Did you notice that finding a middle ground word got more difficult with each pair I recited? Did you also notice that most of the middle ground words might be characterized as boring? They don’t describe anything that is exciting. Indeed, few of us speak middle ground words very often because the English language has few of them, because middle meaning words ARE bland and because we tend to think in extremes. For instance, if I do not eat anything until this evening, I’m likely to tell myself and others that “I’m starving.” But that clearly will not literally be the case. I also tend to think of myself as neither shy or outgoing. But because there is no word for what exists in between, I struggle with describing my personality and, if forced, I will say I’m “reserved.” But even that word does not describe the “in-betweeness” of who I am. I’m neither an introvert or an extrovert. I’m a mix of both. I’m grey in that regard, but our cultural thinking and our language tells me I must choose one of the opposing labels.
Our choice to use dichotomous, black or white language leads many people, experts say, to think in extremes. In today’s world, people are described as either good or bad, liberal or conservative, moral or immoral, religious or atheist, happy or sad. In truth, however, few of us perfectly fit any one of those extremes.
And that is the problem with dichotomous language and dichotomous thinking. When we adopt an extreme way of thought, that everything is either good or bad, right or wrong, holy or unholy, we close our minds to the complexities of life. We believe in absolutes and not in nuance. We become rigid, uncompromising and lacking in empathy for those who are opposite from what we are. And, as history tells us, that can lead to hatreds, prejudices, and violence.
As we begin a new year, it seems as if our nation and our world are becoming increasingly polarized. Indeed, as I noted, feeling and thinking in the middle on many issues is not exciting and rarely initiates passion. In politics, religion, and everyday life situations, the extremes seem to be the only choice. But, as I often say, paraphrasing Gandhi, we can’t change the world unless we first become the change we wish to see.
While many religious people claim to have absolute knowledge supporting their beliefs, the reality is such that all spiritual beliefs exist within a so-called grey zone between fact and myth. A religious person might say to me, “Prove that God does NOT exist!” I can’t do that in a way that uses verifiable evidence. It is impossible to prove a negative. But I can just as easily ask this person, “Prove that God DOES exist!” Once again, the task is impossible using evidenced based facts. One can only employ beliefs and interpretations to talk about whether or not God exists.
Even the Bible admits as much. The New Testament book of Hebrews says that, “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” In other words, faith – not fact – comprises all the things we cannot see, touch, hear or empirically prove. But they are often things we nevertheless yearn for and desire. We can’t see and touch a universal power of love, or God if that is your belief, but we may hope that such a power exists. And it is in hope that faith resides – not in certainty. Within hope lies much of our spirituality – the hope that prays for peace, the hope that sees the dignity of every person, and the hope that love will one day conquer hate. In this regard, faith as an expression of hope is a beautiful sentiment to hold but it is something that can never be proven.
That perfectly states the grey zone of spirituality that Unitarian Universalism embraces. While we explore all that might be true in the universe, we have no evidence to show us that any specific religious belief is the right one. We humbly admit that we have no answers, only questions, and so we open ourselves to consider the merits of all faiths and all spiritual prophets – knowing that each one has worthy things to teach us.
Our critics tell us, however, that we believe in nothing, that we are boring, lack passion and are much like the color grey. I assert, however, that we do believe in exciting values such as human tolerance, humility, cooperation, and spiritually adventurous thinking. We offer the challenge to explore a grey zone richness of many beliefs and many historic prophets: the selflessness of Buddha, the devotion of Muhammad, the love of Jesus, the faith of Abraham, or the peace of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.
What we as Unitarians spiritually stand against is absolutism and fundamentalism. While any religion might argue their faith demands loyalty to its beliefs, almost all religions nevertheless embody grey thinking. Christianity and Judaism are full of grey area teachings that are practiced with reasoned interpretation. Indeed, Christianity itself is a grey zone belief with its claim to be a monotheistic, one God religion. The Bible describes Jesus as God praying to God the Father, and being anointed by God the spirit. Did Jesus therefore pray to himself? Was he anointed by himself? Can God be one while also being three? Christians use a grey zone argument – “yes, God is one, BUT(!)…..god is also three.” This seeming paradox was the reason why Unitarians split from Christianity. The Trinity is a grey zone concept that contradicts for us, Jews, Muslims and many others the principle that there is only one force, power or god in the universe.
Furthermore, the Bible says that adultery is wrong but it also describes several men who marry multiple wives. Is that a grey zone solution to adultery – to marry any person with whom you are intimate? The Bible praises Abraham, the father of Judaism, for having sex with his servant Hagar since his wife Sarah could not conceive a child. Was Abraham an adulterer? It can be argued he was. Jesus lovingly forgave the woman caught in adultery even though the men standing in judgement against her were rightly applying Jewish law – the penalty for adultery was stoning to death. Which is right – Jesus or verses in the Bible saying adultery deserves stoning?
The Ten Commandments demand that believers honor the sabbath as a day of rest and no work. But Jesus disobeyed that commandment when he harvested grain to feed his hungry followers. As he said, laws were made to help people, not enslave them. The ethic of mercy must predominate. Jews today still debate what constitutes work on the sabbath. Cooking is seen as work but what about simply turning on the oven to heat an already cooked meal? Is that work? Many Orthodox Jews heatedly debate the issue.
The Bible says we are not to kill others but it is also full of commands from God to ancient Jews to kill unbelievers. Christians often support wars against our enemies even though Jesus said we are to love our enemies. Many Christians support capital punishment but oppose abortion. They use grey zone arguments in both instances to favor killing in order to prevent greater killing.
The Koran supports grey zone morality by telling Muslims that mercy and justice must supersede all acts of piety like prayer – even though five prayers a day is one of the primary pillars or commandments of Islam.
What we find in most religions are countless grey zone stories and examples. It is nearly impossible to follow any religious teaching to the letter of what it says. One must use grey zone reason and interpretation to move beyond literal meaning and find the underlying motivation of the teaching. That’s why Jesus condemned hypocrites – those who follow the letter of a teaching but not the core value. If you give money to charity, he taught, do it quietly or anonymously and not with a desire to have your name and wealth advertised. If that is your motivation, then you have not really given anything. You’ve simply paid for your ego to be boosted.
This idea of moving beyond polarized and extreme thinking must hold true in all parts of our lives. I love how this congregation voted for a new name that is perhaps a mouthful and likely not as exciting or fresh as a totally new name. But I believe we voted in a way that saw the grey zone of the issue – what is best for our unity and what is best for honoring our past while moving into the future. Some may say we compromised by combining two former names. I believe we instead cooperated and united. And that impulse to unite instead of divide is the true benefit of grey zone thinking.
Ultimately, I advocate not compromise – but collaboration. There are three ways to find a solution to any disagreement. One side can dominate and thus win the debate. Or, both sides can compromise, give up some of their demands and reach a conclusion where neither side wins. Some might say both sides lose. Or, the third way, which I promote, is to cooperate by coming together to listen, gently discuss, find common ground and reach a decision that includes the desires of both sides. That is a win-win outcome. By working together to find the core value each side supports, anger and animosity are eliminated. Goodwill and love are achieved.
As an example, I offer collaboration as a solution to the debate over abortion. Each side of this polarized issue asserts that its way is the most moral. But what is the underlying value for each side? I believe it is a shared value that there be no unwanted children. Might both sides figure out cooperative strategies to promote that ideal – to provide free reproductive education, to provide free contraception, to provide young families with free childcare, etc, etc? In other words, lets stop screaming at each other across an emotional and polarized divide we will never bridge and instead discover that all of us care about children and insuring that all are wanted. Let’s do all we can to promote what is, I believe, a grey zone ideal.
This way of approaching a problem, to collaborate and find common ground between two polar opposites, is one we can follow in all parts of our lives – in our marriages and partnerships, with our children, at our workplaces, and here at GNH. I particularly love that in the seven months since a joint Board of Trustees began overseeing work here, it has held only one vote in all of its meetings – and that was a mere formality since every Trustee had already agreed on that issue. Our Board has operated by consensus. It talks out problems, listens to concerns of each Trustee and then finds a solution that all accept. This may seem like a simple thing but it is actually quite beautiful. I encourage us to continue building within our spiritual community a cooperative and unifying vision we seek for the world.
The Buddha said, “Know well what leads you forward and what holds you back, and choose the path that leads to wisdom.” Let us continue in the new year to apply his teaching and boldly use reason and not polarized emotion to guide our thinking. Let us work to eliminate dichotomous descriptions, when possible, from how we label others: Muslims are not evil, Christians are not hypocritical, Unitarians are not unholy, conservatives are not heartless, liberals are not spendthrift. People are all so much more than extreme descriptions. We are each complex, diverse, and nuanced. Let us listen to one another, let us disagree but never be disagreeable, let us seek common ground, let us cooperate so that everybody wins. May I, may we, willingly embrace living our lives within a grey zone of humility, gentleness and empathy for all.
I wish you much 2016 peace and joy!