Theosophy Northwest View

The Newsletter of the Northwest Branch of the Theosophical Society

July 2012 – Vol. 15 Issue 5

Important Words: “I Don’t Know”

“This is not a world of binary opposites. We just live that way. … there is more to this world than we know. And then, it seems, the most rational response might be to explore it to see if the events … described could really be so.” – Steve Volk

Public debate is uncompromising in many fields today, including that perennial area of controversy, the paranormal. As is the norm, media focus is on the extremes: true believers and die-hard skeptics. In Fringe•ology (2011) journalist Steve Volk makes the case for an open-minded investigation of the mysteries that surround us, neither dismissing them out of hand nor embracing them without evidence. Examining such subjects as near-death experiences, telepathy, UFO sightings, lucid dreaming, quantum consciousness, and meditation, he advocates for acceptance of ambiguity and uncertainty, states difficult for people to tolerate. “The problem is … when a claim carries the whiff of hoo ha, too much of the intelligentsia goes running for the hills. And on the opposite pole, when a scientific finding seems to undercut our spiritual belief, we dismiss it that is, if we even bother to read it…. the truth seems to lie, tantalizing and undiscovered, somewhere between two self-serving accounts. And among the most strident of believers and atheists, there is no balance at all only right and wrong, the heretics and the saved, the intelligent and the foolish.” (pp. 262-3) The remedy, he holds, is more willingness to own up to our own ignorance, to be able to admit “I don’t know” instead of jumping to certainty.

Why is it so hard to be open minded or change our minds? Volk finds a clue in modern research: “It is the finding of neuroscience, in fact, that belief is at least in part a matter of emotion. Whatever we believe to be true lights up areas of our brain responsible for self-identification and the processing of feelings and sentiments. If we believe something, then, the object of our belief becomes an emotionally potent aspect of our own self-image…. This emotion, this self-identification, rather than our faculty for logical reasoning, is why so many interpret … agnostic data as confirmation of their own worldviews.” (p. 186-7) Moreover, as researcher Andrew Newberg remarks, “The brain has a propensity to dismiss ideas that conflict with the way we see the world. If someone disagrees with us, our brain starts sending anxiety messages. Because our brain wants to preserve this view of the world it’s constructed, and in order to do that, the easiest thing to do is reject this person” or their ideas (p. 203).

One of the things the author regrets most is the way disrespect for those with different views creates conflict and deep divisions. Such hostility is a choice we don’t have to make, even if it’s encouraged by popular culture. While discussing unexplained sightings in the sky over Stephenville, Texas (emphasizing that UFO means “unidentified flying object” not alien spacecraft), Volk observes:

 “The truth is, we don’t have to treat the so-called paranormal the way we do. We don’t need to bathe in it with the believers, or strenuously deny its existence, like the skeptics. And we don’t have to turn the whole thing into a fight. The people of Stephenville seem to have struck up a bargain among themselves, in which the believers go on believing, and the skeptics go on being skeptical. Either way, on Friday night, just the same, they all go watch the Yellow Jackets play football. I talked to dozens of people in Stephenville, if not a hundred random people in stores and on the street…. when they did offer me their opinions, I never heard a whisper of judgment creep into their voices. I never heard anyone called a name, never heard anyone else’s point of view dismissed outright.” (p. 137)

Volk is also heartened by atheist Sam Harris’s empirical take on the mysterious:

“For millennia, contemplatives have known that ordinary people can divest themselves of the feeling that they call ‘I’ and thereby relinquish the sense that they are separate from the rest of the universe. This phenomenon, which has been reported by practitioners in many spiritual traditions, is supported by a wealth of evidence neuroscientific, philosophical, and introspective. Such experiences are ‘spiritual’ or ‘mystical,’ for want of better words, in that they are relatively rare (unnecessarily so), significant (in that they uncover genuine facts about the world), and personally transformative. They also reveal a far deeper connection between ourselves and the rest of the universe than is suggested by the ordinary confines of our subjectivity…. A truly rational approach to this dimension of our lives would allow us to explore the heights of our subjectivity with an open mind, while shedding the provincialism and dogmatism of our religious traditions in favor of free and rigorous inquiry.” (The End of Faith, pp. 40-41)

It is just such a curious, clear-eyed, civil and unprejudiced attitude toward the mysterious that Volk hopes to encourage by his book.

Community Gathering

Holy Cross Lutheran Church invites the community to a potluck on July 13 at 6:30 p.m. in their orchard gardens; bring something from your tradition or a favorite item and share a meal outdoors (or indoors if the weather is inclement). On July 14 from 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., all are welcome at a com-munity gathering that will include a storyteller, meditation labyrinth, music, crafts and games. The church is located at 4315 129th Ave SE, Bellevue. We hope to see you there!

Theosophical Views

The Path of Unitarian Universalism

By Sally Dougherty

Who are the Unitarian Universalists, one of the most liberal denominations to emerge from the Christian tradition? The group was formed when Unitarians and Universalists, each dating back to the 1700s in America, merged in 1962. Although they have no creed, they affirm a statement of principles: “The inherent worth and dignity of every person; justice, equity, and compassion in human relations; acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations; a free and responsible search for truth and meaning; the rights of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large; the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all; and respect for the interdependent web of all existence, of which we are a part.”

The Unitarians grew out of New England Congregationalists dissatisfied with Calvinist ideas of a punishing God and humanity’s innate depravity. In the 1830s the Transcendentalists formed its radical wing. From the mid-19th century Humanism became the radical position. In time Unitarians came to also accept non-Christian and nontheistic members and ministers. As Frederick May Eliot put it: “Such a church is a company of seekers, and the bond which holds them closely together is their common confession that what they seek is still beyond them.”

The Universalists also emerged from Congregationalism, among those who could not accept that anyone was destined for eternal punishment, but rather that God would save all humanity. In 1915 Universalist leader Clarence Skinner wrote: “The idea of the Universal Brotherhood is the great social dynamic of the twentieth century.… It fires our hopes, builds our dreams, unfolds before us the Messianic vision of an imminent Kingdom of heaven on earth. And Universalism inspires this faith not only because it teaches the divine origin of all men, but likewise because of its belief in the common destiny of humanity in all times and in all stations of life. Universalism … believes that all human souls are children of God with a spark of the divine in their nature, and that even-tually, after the varied experiences of this world and the next, those souls will reach a perfect harmony with God.”

Although these two non-creedal denominations were firmly congregational and against centralized imposition of theology, they appealed to different social classes and the Universalists held much longer to a Bible- and Jesus-centered theology. But by the mid-20th century both had embraced the ideal of a universal religion for humanity and then merged.

Unitarian Universalism grounds itself in six sources of faith: “1) direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces that create and uphold life; 2) words and deeds of prophetic women and men, which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love; 3) wisdom from the world’s religions, which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life; 4) Jewish and Christian teachings, which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves; 5) humanist teachings, which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit; and 6) spiritual teachings of Earth-centered traditions, which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.” In line with this last concern minister David Bumbaugh has written, “We are called to define the religious and spiritual dimensions of the ecological crisis confronting the world and to preach the gospel of a world where each is part of all, where every one is sacred, and every place is holy ground, where all are children of the same great love, all embarked on the same journey, all destined for the same end.”

Unitarian Universalists, as the Rev. Forrester Church remarks, “simply hold that no single book, no revelation, ancient or modern, contains the whole truth. Since for us revelation is not sealed, Unitarian Universalists are free to range broadly in search for answers to age-old questions… Today, our challenge is to codevelop what Dr. King called ‘the Beloved Community’ – the whole of love being shared and justice being done in a realm where that which is greater than all is present in each…. According to the level of co-operation we achieve with one another and with that which is in each of us but greater than all of us, we shall either thrive or perish.” Indeed, making real in our daily living a recognition of the kinship of all humanity and all lives is a very practical method of bringing about more justice, well being and peace in our communities and our planet as a whole.

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