(c) Rev. Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved
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I said last Sunday in my message on Native American values that they are remarkably similar to Unitarian Universalist seven principles. That similarity points to the expansive nature of our spirituality – that UU’s do not confine themselves to specific religious doctrines and philosophies. We instead commit ourselves to the seemingly perplexing idea that we do not, and cannot know the answer to eternal question humans have posed: Where did the universe come from and how was it created?
Those two questions get at the mind-bending mysteries about eternity and the source of all creation. If the universe was created by God, what existed beforehand? Where did God come from and what was she doing before the universe began? The same question arises from a non-religious notion of the Big Bang as creator of the universe. What was the stuff that exploded in the Big Bang and where did it come from? A creative explosion has to have been caused by something.
These mysteries, while we don’t often think about them, are the foundation of Unitarian Universalism. As UUs, we confess that people cannot answer such questions and we cannot rely on ancient myth to do so. We ask more questions than we assert having dogmatic answers. What we DO claim to know are seven principles that guide our thoughts and actions.
Having more questions about spiritual matters than absolute answers, as an amusing point, is the basis for one joke about UUs. How do people who disagree with Unitarian Universalism express their disapproval? They burn a question mark on a UU church front lawn!
But as much as we take pride in our questions about spiritual matters, and our seven principles, we like all people are prone to often ignore our own so-called values. I unfortunately do not always respect the inherent worth and dignity of every person – perhaps most especially toward a certain orange skinned, fake blonde haired politician – which is not good of me.
I also suggest we do not always understand or practice the UU seventh principle: the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. And for the purposes of my message topic today, that is why I believe we must heed the Native American value of moderation and balance in all things.
Our seventh principle states not only scientific fact, but also a fundamental belief in how everything in the universe SHOULD function. The universe is not a collection of different things that function independently. Indeed, as we all know, all life forms and all of the cosmos operate dependently on other forces and things. A tree, for instance, cannot grow into a towering living organism unless it is nourished from the soil, watered by the rain, and energized by the sun. The same is true for humans. We exist and each us thrive because of the finely tuned balance of many complex natural functions. If any of them should operate outside a balance – for instance if the sun would suddenly become far hotter – we would perish.
As pre-scientific people, Native-Americans understood that truth. And it was for that reason that they deeply respected the natural world and believed they must live within its well-balanced systems. They therefore did not over-hunt animals and take their existence for granted. They did not foul the water, abuse land used for growing crops, or assume they could own any part of nature.
Their understanding of the universe also informed their philosophy for getting along with one another. The harmony and balance they saw around them in nature was not just how the universe operates. They understood that harmony and balance are critical for how people should live. They must coexist in a harmonious, cooperative and empathetic way.
As I’ve pointed out the last two Sundays, that stands in stark contrast to white European values and philosophies. Our individualistic approach to life comes from how we see the universe. Employing a misguided understanding of science, western thought sees the universe as “atomized” or divided into distinct parts. Each piece of the universe, westerners often believe, functions more or less independently and according to Darwinian principles – the strongest survive while the weakest are soon eliminated and evolved out of existence.
Western European ideas about how to live are thus guided by such atomized individualism. People, we tend to believe, succeed or fail due to each person’s ability to fend for him or herself. And that philosophy has created a white European value to compete aggressively against one another – which has led to what we have today: a divided and very competitive humanity separated by meaningless divisions of race, gender, sexuality, politics, and nationality. We look past the beauty of our many shared values to instead focus on relatively minor differences.
Individualism also led white Europeans to believe they could simply take the new American land as their own and plunder its resources for their enrichment. Individualism led white Europeans and their forebears – including us – to see the universe as something in which all creatures MUST compete – NOT cooperate – to survive. In order for my so-called race to thrive, others must not. In order for the US to be great, other nations must be less great. In order for any of our opinions to prevail, other opinions must be defeated and demeaned. White Europeans too often fail to understand the interdependence of human relationships, and thus compete aggressively so that one side wins and all others lose. We fail to see life as Native-Americans did – that there must be a win-win outcome for everyone – so that humanity can live in balance.
Native-Americans knew by experience that humans and their communities cannot thrive as isolated loners. People are not so smart or powerful that they can exist outside the balance of nature, or without harmony between one another. Native Americans understood that people thrive only when they live within a cooperative community that constantly works to maintain peaceful coexistence. Indeed, as I related last Sunday, natives valued tribal harmony so much that they honored all decisions made by tribal councils – even if they felt some were bad decisions. Indigenous people understood that good decisions will naturally succeed and bad ones fail – to eventually be corrected. Their wisdom told them that collectivist cooperation and peace were far more important than competition with one side winning and an angry imbalance as the outcome.
Most natives therefore lived in large communal lodges with adults and children eating and sleeping immediately next to multiple other unrelated persons. Indeed, polyandry and polyamory – having multiple romantic partners – was a common native practice. Sex was seen as a natural way to strengthen bonds between different people. Indigenous people did not hold the western view of monogamous marriage as a way to insure that the property of a man would pass down to his progeny. That western view of marriage originated from an individualist philosophy based on the perpetuation of wealth.
Natives, however, owned no property, but shared equally and widely. Since it was therefore not important to determine who was the father of a child and thus to whom property will be inherited, sexual relations between natives was very open. Women in many native tribes were the ones who chose their romantic partners – not men. In that regard, most native cultures were often socially female centric. An entire tribe assumed responsibility for the well-being of a child since paternity was often not known. Even more, human sexuality was seen as fluid so that many indigenous cultures welcomed same sex relationships.
Such cultural practices extended to other attitudes as well. Believing in the balance within nature, natives did not believe there was anything wrong with other abled persons or animals. There was, for instance, no native word for disabled. Their views on many things were not binary – as they are in western culture. People and things are not good or bad, normal or abnormal, gay or straight. Instead, all things and all people exist equally, in harmony, and in delicate balance. Something can be both good and bad, masculine and feminine, abled and other abled. Indeed, as I’ve suggested in past messages, there is great value in the so-called grey areas of life – the zones between two opposites. And natives believed this.
Once again, their values contrast with white western views that life IS binary and that people and things are either one extreme or the other. And that, I believe has led to our culture’s disharmony and lack of balance – resulting in anger and hatreds toward one another.
Juli Rose shared last Sunday that natives incorporate circles in their spirituality. Circles, for them, symbolize the continuity and balance of life. Circles are unending and definitely non-linear. Indeed, perfectly straight lines do not exist in the natural world. Bends, curves and complexity are instead the norm. Circles therefore represent how people should think, act and understand one another – in a non-linear way.
The all encompassing quality of a circle epitomizes Native values to understand the universe in a holistic manner. The universe cannot be taken apart and considered by its atomized parts. It’s instead a balanced amalgam of many things all existing, cooperating and working together. A holistic way of thinking, therefore, accepts multiple ideas and truths – much like Unitarian Universalists do. We do not believe in a linear approach to spirituality – that a person takes one direct line from question to one absolute truth. Instead, life and spirituality are complex and encompass a wide range of truths. We celebrate the timeless hope and resolve of Jews, the sacrifice and forgiveness of Christians, the solemn dedication of Muslims, and the reverence for nature of pagans and indigenous people. Life is not about separating into supposedly right or wrong ways of believing, thinking and living. It’s instead about celebrating diversity and harmonizing differences into a balance of synchronized cooperation.
Natives did not have the ability to fully understand how stars and planets operate, but they saw how the moon, sun and stars moved in regularity and balance. That awareness was ahead of its time, but it proved for natives how nature works and how people must act the same. One planet in our solar system, or one group of people in our congregation cannot separate from others without chaos or volatility resulting.
The clash between Native-Americans and white Europeans was and is, therefore, a clash between two different sets of values and philosophies. Natives were collectivists who valued respect, cooperation, unity, harmony, balance and sharing. White European conquerers of this continent, our ancestors, were individualists who valued competition, aggression, hoarding of wealth, and dominance. I believe, however, that native culture and spirituality was most in tune with what Unitarian Universalists say they value. In that regard, I want to move away from a more western oriented way of thinking to begin to think and act collectively as natives did. They valued respect for all people – even their opponents. They valued harmony in human relations – trusting that time will determine whether decisions were correct or not. They refused to fight amongst themselves. They valued empathy and understanding of differences. These collectivist values are Thanksgiving ones I want to give thanks for and begin to adopt – which means I must accept that life is not about my personal wishes, but about everybody’s wishes working together for the common good.
In that regard, I ask for your indulgence for just a moment. I believe this congregation is a loving one that is currently imbalanced. The debate and vote that occurred over the last several months has affected all of us. Several of our dearest friends say they can no longer be a part of this place because of the vote outcome. That wounds me not for my sake, but for the sake of this good place. My message today on moderation, balance and harmony has convinced me that Native American thinking was right. And, ironically as I pointed out in my recent Harbinger column, that is what our recent banner vote reflected. Two thirds of us essentially wanted the same thing – a banner that would at least in part say “black lives matter” – but that 66% super majority could not agree on how that would appear. In truth, what seems a negative outcome was actually a positive reflection that GNH IS mostly united and committed to social justice.
But our current imbalance and smoldering angers indicate we do not always practice our seventh principle – to honor the interdependence of human relationships such that we practice balance and harmony in this congregation. Our passions can get the best of us such that we sometimes hurt those near to us, or who disagree with us. Disharmony in this place has been caused by all of us – me and you. I confess to you sorrow over my role in that.
We must harmonize, we must come together, we must see that even when we disagree, we should not be disagreeable. I humbly plea for empathy toward each other. I humbly plea for cooperation, compromise and love to prevail. Instead of blaming someone else for any imbalance, let’s look in the mirror to see our role for the imbalance. What we do here, what this place stands for, are so important in the world today. Will we thrive in loving harmony, or will we be like our culture that is divided into warring camps that dislike and disparage one another? Let’s look to Native-American values for our answer.
I wish you peace, joy and a Happy Thanksgiving.