Making Religion Relevant

September 9, 2012 - 10:15am

Using the wisdom of Reb Zalman, Laurie Stuart will introduce the Fellowship's topic for the month Making Religion Relevant.

Stuart attended a three-day symposium last month where Reb Zalman was the keynote speaker. She will relate Zalman's teaching on how we approach the experience of religion which is to come up with a cosmology that will enable the earth to heal.

The one hour service is followed by fellowship and refreshments.


Welcome to the Upper Delaware Unitarian Universalist Fellowship this September morning. Last week, we had a lovely service outside at the pavilion. We shared a wonderful lunch and shared readings and songs that spoke to a justice that was necessary for recognizing the worth of labor. It was the beginning of a month-long exploration of making religion relevant.

Today, I will be introducing you to Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, known as Reb Zalman, who is 88-year-old granddaddy of Jewish Renewal Movement — the New Age, neo-Chasidic movement he founded three decades ago — who is considered one of the few Jewish sages alive today. In the 1970s he fused the mystical traditions of his Lubavitch background with modern sensibilities concerning the environment, technology and psychology in an effort to reinvigorate a Judaism he found stultifying.

Reb Zalman was at the Starr King School for the Ministry Symposium, called Living in the Difference, that I attended last month. At the heart of Zalman’s teaching is that we need to make religion relevant by understanding the God and religion is a verb and not a noun.

Consider his definition of a spiritual seeker:
A spiritual seeker is a person whose soul is awake, whose spirit has experienced---whether the mind knows it or not---that slap that gets the first breath going in a newborn. Such a soul is not content to stay on the level of mere observance, ritual, and dogmatic belief that it encounters in most Jewish settings. It needs a more personal and mystical approach. It wants an open-sky Judaism: a Judaism that invites the infinite and operates at a higher level of spiritual consciousness. It senses the divine just beyond the surface of everyday existence and wants to connect to that. It yearns to achieve for itself those inner experiences that lie at the heart of religion's external forms. A mystical approach to Judaism is therefore less dogmatic and more experimental. It doesn't have a low ceiling, capping the mind and frustrating its desire to unite in love and awe with a vital, living universe. It is open-minded, open-souled. It says, "Try this. If you feel it as a living reality, we're getting somewhere."

And the living reality that is at the core of his teaching, or to put it in terms of our emphasis, to make religion relevant is that we need to come up with a new cosmology that helps to heal the earth. And in finding that new cosmology, we need to adopt ethics and practice that brings that cosmology into being.

Call to Worship: 

I live my life in widening circles that drift out over the things.
I may not achieve the very last, but it will be my aim.
I circle around God, around the age-old tower;
I’ve been circling for millennia
And still I don’t know: am I a falcon, a storm, or a sovereign song?
-- Rainer Marie Rilke

Chalice Lighting: 

“The mind is like tofu. By itself, it has no taste. Everything depends on the flavor of the marinade it steeps

Sermon Title: 
Reb Zalman's address at a Roundtable Dialogue for the visit of His Holiness the Dalai Lama in Vancouver, B.C. in April 2004
Sermon Author: 
Reb Zalman

The problems we face at this time don’t seem to yield to the solutions our traditions and lineages have provided in the past. Each one of our traditions had built in a high degree of surface tension and saw itself as sharply separate from others. Often universalistic statements were made which in subtle and not so subtle ways were what people call inclusivistic; that is to say “if you come under our umbrella as a lesser adjunct, as a minor satellite, we will legitimate you.”

Still the attitude was basically triumphalistic; when the Mashiach – Christ – Mahdi – avatar – Maitreia -- comes we will be proven right and you will end up to be on a lesser plane than we. Then came Auschwitz – Hiroshima-Nagasaki – the moon walk , the image or Earth from outer space-Gaia – the internet – and now we can no longer afford any reality map that does not base itself on an organismic view of life on this planet.

Our traditional theologians, in order to defend themselves against existential terror and high anxiety the spiritual vacuum in which they have to preach -- have by and large, been co-opted by those haves, who have the deep pockets, to hold on to the status quo- or by the have-nots who want to return to implausible security of the old time religion.

More and more have deep thinking eco-theologians come to the conclusion that each religion is like a vital organ of the planet and that we for the planet’s sake need, each one of us, aim to stay alive and devout in the most healthy way we can manage.

Hence for all my universalism I need to be the best and healthiest Jew I can be and urge my co-religionists to become the best and healthiest Jews they can be in order to contribute to the healing of the planet.

While I have gained much help from our tradition which provided me with the sacred tools and means to higher consciousness, many of them seem not to be immediately applicable to our current situation. However, there is a revelation coming down to us from helpers above our ken as well as the result of a chthonic push from below from our mother the Earth.

This leads me not so much to offer answers as to raise questions. Therefore my contribution will be to raise questions and they are all intertwined.

As each generation comes it needs answers for the problems, which the old answers have created. Example nuclear fuel, pesticides and herbicides, - soon we will have to deal with questions which genetic engineering is creating in bio-engineered plants and who knows how soon? Even with human genetic stock.

The urge to grow in awareness we experience is often blocked and opposed by forces that want to cut us off from that creative life affirming urge and flood us with mind deadening distractions to addict us into consuming what we really don’t need.

Yet at meetings like this one, we want to amplify that urge that has the push of our earth’s need of healing as well as the pull of the vision of organismic health, that wants to birth and grow itself in us. Here, we want to wake up ourselves and wake others up to even greater awaked-ness.

We have been habituated to find the easiest and most immediate answers so that we not stay in the anxiety of holding on to the question. We are afraid of the tension the unanswered questions produce. The wrong answers, which are easily available, don’t work to stave off the impending disaster of our accelerating global dying. So what are some of the questions which we have to endure for all the stress they produce until some real answers will come forth.

What ideas of cosmology does our mother the Earth want us to have in order that she may heal? Apparently the reality map we have at this time is not helpful or useful. Our sense is that the direction to which the possible harmonious life matrix points - demands that we must change that map.

Creativity does not reside in the way we are imprisoned to repeat precedent. It is in daring – to be outrageous, to play with the least amenable possibilities available to our political and corporate culture, the ones more weird and spiritual --- where we may find answers. These possibility forms dance before the mind’s eye and from that vision there emerges an unexpected form with its creative proposal and therefore new way to understand and map reality.

We need to learn this process of questing in order to discover – and this is urgent – to co-create with the integral - planetary mind - the cosmology we have to have in order to approach the healing of the planet.

What is the basic healthy ethos arising from that new cosmology?

The cosmology of the industrial revolution gave us an ethos to productivity at any cost. The cosmology of corporate capitalism pushes an ethos to consumption at any cost.

The cosmology we seek to find should produce first and foremost an ethos that honors harmonious biological health in the individual in the matrix of the most harmonious biological health of the environment. In order to co-create this cosmology we can no longer rely on the mind of a single enlightened individual. The complexity and with it the responsibility of what we have to mind in the world and life is too great to bear for only one person. The only way to get it together is together.

I plead for research that would, discover what it takes to enable us to operate in webs of consciousness in mind networks.

At least for a small group of prepared soul/minds to seek to merge dreams and behold visions. These people would serve as our psychonauts and contact minds on other regions.

We are quite underdeveloped in this area. We have very low ideas of how groups really work. While there is immense sophistication in the technological area of military systems and lethal Weapons of Mass Destruction we are very low in our understanding how we need to handle conflict resolution. Much research needs to be done to help us to optimal social and political harmony and this cannot wait. What do we need to do in order that there be that cultural revolution that is now urgently needed?

I have often challenged educators to plan the curricula for handling information with ecological wisdom, for the formation of character, for education of the heart, for raising the emotional IQ, for teaching skills of cooperation that would produce the adepts, saints, Zaddikim, rishis, Bodhisattvas and shamans that will need at this time.

What are the upaya, the skillful means, needed to lift cultural trance and launch the awareness of the emerging cosmology? The mind of the current chaos of global consensus leads us to ever greater crises. We must do the miraculous work of altering millions of people’s awareness. We must go deeper and deeper in to regions where we cannot use muscle effort, where only awareness can shift awareness which is, as one of my friends remarked, changing the tires while the car is moving - moving fast.

We need so to update the inner resources of our spiritual traditions that once worked well but which were associated with flesh rejecting monastic asceticism. Does your spiritual tool chest offer practices now the work for urban 9-to-5 people? If your suggestions for my spiritual practice exceed 20 minutes in the morning and 20 minutes in the evening I will not do them and the old traditions demand more time than I can afford.

So we need to look at what works of the old techniques and enhance their yield by learning to attune our consciousness to optimal transformational power. These actions take place in other regions than the mind of the shopping mall.

When I think of the turbulent mind space we inhabit at this time I get close to schizophrenia. I can’t hear the choral – symphonic music of a sacred common dream. Just as some people once lamented the twilight of the gods so it seems that we now experience the twilight of the life affirming archetypes!

How can we access them? How can we empower them? How can they empower us? We have come to realize that we are not on the top of the chain of being. What do we, as spiritual people, have as means to access the waiting helpers from higher planes?

What do we need to do to address the matrix of the life process on the subtle plane to gain understanding of the deep life process? Only then can we embark on designing the needed education of heart and spirit.

What adjustments in psychology, anthropology, biology, physics, medicine, philosophy, political science, theology, spiritual technologies, economics, the arts, communications, and most of all, the ethics we need in order to heal the planet? So the big questions remain.

The current state of the disciplines of Transpersonal Psychology and Transpersonal Sociology is too primitive to handle our crisis.

Theologies that have not transcended their old triumphalism, who still insist then they are the only reliable there is of truth have each in their own way become bankrupt. Their magisteria have for long time been laminated to reality maps but obsolete. Having become absurd to the modern thinker the other traditional teachings of the various traditions/lineages I've become ignored because of their atavistic uselessness.

You who are here, my colleagues on the dais, as well as you in the audience, I invite you to help find the answers to the questions we raised.

We need to relearn the technology of blessings.

Sermon PDF: