Imperfection, playing God, and universal religion

Imperfection, playing God, and universal religion

Questions for spiritual reflection and adult group discussions.
Jane Greer


Imperfect enlightenment. In “Broken Buddha,” Meg Barnhouse describes the comfort she finds in an image of a Buddha with a broken hand. “The enlightened one as imperfect, cracked, and chipped—maybe that is how my enlightenment feels.” She writes, “Sometimes I feel like I understand so much, that I can be a lot of help to people. Other times my mind is blank and there is nothing in my mind or heart to say but ‘I’m so sorry.’” (page 19)

When have you been able to help someone in spite of your own inadequacies and uncertainties? When you think of enlightenment or spiritual maturity, do you call to mind images of perfection?

You don’t think that. Barnhouse criticizes a “particularly crappy combination of sweetness and meanness [that has] been coming at me from church people since I was eight years old. There was a line to toe; there was a circle of approved thoughts and behaviors within which to stay if you were to be a member of the group in good standing. If it looked as though you were about to stray, the enforcers descended with that exact tone: ‘Oh, you don’t think that,’ they would say with a tinkling laugh.” (page 19)

What experiences have you had with “enforcers” of approved thinking and behavior in religious communities? Do you ever find yourself tempted to become an enforcer in your UU community?

Playing God. Barnaby Feder describes an emergency room encounter during his hospital chaplaincy training. “He’s on life support, but I’m not sure exactly what that means,” the daughter of an elderly patient tells him. “I feel like I’m being asked to play God.” Feder responds, “Maybe it would help if you can think of this as being given the gift of playing God. Is there anyone who loves him more, who cares more about doing the best thing for him, than you?” (“The Gift of Playing God,” page 14)

Would you find this a helpful response if you were in a similar position?

Culture clash. In “Walking in Others’ Shoes,” about her early experiences with Transylvanian Unitarians, Gretchen Thomas describes the profound confusion she felt when she was asked to serve communion at her congregation’s partner church in Romania in 1990. “I knew I should feel honored when the Rev. József Kászoni, our partner church’s minister, invited me to serve communion with him,” she writes. “But the Unitarianism I had grown up in was stridently adopting a ‘beyond Christian’ identity, and even in seminary I had never been asked to take communion.” (page 29)

For Thomas, who grew up Unitarian in the Bible Belt, worshiping with the Transylvanian Unitarians finally helped her feel “that I am a living part of a very old and significant religious movement.” Have you had experiences with Unitarians or UUs from other parts of the world?

Majoring in community. Thomas also writes about Kászoni’s first visit to his American partner church in 1992. In California, Kászoni was upset to encounter so many panhandlers, and he surprised Thomas by giving coins to each of them. “Our Transylvanian partners major in community,” Thomas writes, “while we major in individuality.” (page 31)

What kinds of encounters have you had with people who are homeless or asking for handouts? What questions come up for you in these encounters?

Religions’ common ground? Dan Harper reviews three books that ask whether all religions have something in common at their core. He argues that it may be more productive to recognize the essential differences between religions. “With a deeper understanding of our differences, we can begin to understand how to coexist peacefully, and then figure out how to work with other religions to make the world a better place. In short, we can start with religious education and head straight to social justice, without getting bogged down in the bottomless swamp of metaphysical speculation.” (“Do All Religions Share a Common Thread?” page 60)

Does interfaith work depend on finding a shared kernel in the different religions, or can we find common ground in other ways? Does Unitarian Universalism depend on the idea that all religions are fundamentally the same?