When the Center becomes the Whole

I have come to love Texas over these past couple of years, but I do miss Chicago’s trains. Soot stained EL trains suspended on century-old platforms crawling rikety clack through urban canyons of downtown. Or sleek modern commuter trains whisking through backyards and cornfields out to the surrounding communities. There were elevated platforms with blaring loudspeakers that you could never understand; street preachers on the green line, young families on the red, yuppies and professionals on the brown. Sometimes you wear your noise canceling earphones and plug in the iPod. Other times you let the screech of metal wheels over metal rails and the crying of children wash over you as the city pulls you year after year more deeply into a tradition that began with the Great Chicago Fire and will end when we’re gone and nature reclaims it all again.

Having grown up in Southern California, I had never experienced a mass transit system of any substance. Living in Chicago I could go anywhere as long as I knew three things:

where I was

where I wanted to go

and the location of Lake Michigan.

At any time you can ask a resident of Chicago to point to where the lake is, and nine times out of ten she’ll know. That’s how you know when you’re boarding the elevated tracks which platform to stand on. The lake tells you where you are in relation to the map.

Chicago is a modern example of Cartesian planning, a city laid out on a grid with the zero point downtown at the corner of Madison and State Streets, and all the blocks numbered accordingly. All you need is a map and a single orientation point, and you know where you are.

The only time I’d get lost in Chicago would be when the elevated train transitioned to subway where I had to transfer. I would get off and find myself in a maze of crossing tubes and tunnels. “The train you want is up that passage, down the escalator and onto the left platform,” the agent might say. Without the Lake to orient my journey, more than once I wound up at 95th Street where the train re-emerges from the underworld.

Now I live in Texas, a transplant to this great nation of ours, where navigation is more tricky. There is no lake and the main streets of San Antonio, as I’ve been told many times, were laid out by a drunk surveyor riding a burrow. Histories clash as Interstate highways built Texas big with turnarounds and colorful ornamentation complete with old Mission Trails carved from 17th century prairie compete with 19th century cattle trail leading from ranch to ranch.

These Texas roads, though, are a more apt metaphor for navigation in the postmodern world, where Cartesian grids and singular points of reference don’t exist, may not be agreed on, or probably even compete. Chicagoans can agree: that’s where the lake is, and usually only one train will be the one to get you where you’re going.

Traditional religious systems are built on modern Chicago-style concepts of a definable center. The Five Pillars of Islam, a center. The Four Noble Truths, a center. The belief in the Bible as God’s inerrant Word, a center. An Apostles Creed, a center. Even our principles were an attempt in the 1980s to find a center for us amidst criticism that we had nothing to hold us together. For centuries, from before and through the modern era, locating these points of common reference has worked for humanity.

This all came apart in the twentieth century: wars expanded to global scales; the nuclear genie was unleashed; transportation technologies shrank the earth, and theologians struggled to relocate that center that used to be so clear. For the early part of last century the struggle was a modern one aimed at locating an ideal center of truth, beauty and goodness. From art to city planning, progress was seen to rest in the pursuit of an elusive ideal. This is what is called “modernism.” Modernism is the attempt to find one ideal from the many that is most worthy of reverence.

By mid-century it is said the modern world ended. Television, global transportation and media, but more importantly, the emerging consciousness that a white, Western, and privileged center could no longer hold has necessitated a change in perspective. With the Vietnam War, our American faith in government began to fracture more broadly than with any previous conflict. Our faith in the office of the president was shattered with Watergate.  What was next, the question was asked?

One year of convergence for us might be 1961, when three things happened. In 1961 the Unitarians and the Universalists merged, forming in my mind the first truly postmodern religious movement of the twentieth century. In 1961 the term postmodern, a term formerly applied to art, music & architecture, became a discussion of postmodernity, a critique of modernity itself and the fruitless search for an idealized center that could hold across cultural and sub-cultural differences. And in 1961 the first members of the so-called Generation X were born, including our first Gen-X president.

After my sermon last year on the so-called Generation X, folks born between 1961 and 1981, I was told that there’s nothing different about Generation X than any previous generation, and that drawing such distinctions are pointless. But I disagree, for noting how our individual points of reference interact with those of another is precisely the game that postmodernism wants to play.

Perhaps there’s nothing more to it than to note that the generation born in 1961 is the first to be born into a postmodern world after many old maps had been declared failures. We were born after the advent of the atomic age, after science had lost its innocence. We were born after the race to the moon. We were born after the Civil Rights revolution and learned that it will take more than law to make the world just. We were the first to enter adolescence knowing that sexual experimentation was no longer a rite of passage, but a flirtation with AIDS and death. We were the first Americans who didn’t know if we’d be able to go farther than our parents. Growing up, I knew it was possible to fly to the moon but impossible to escape a sense of anxiety that the world was not just or fair, especially for those with less privilege than myself.

I’ve been asked what my generation has to offer, and maybe it’s nothing more than a certain comfort when dealing with ambiguity. We may be comfortable when the navigation is more fluid. This also demands my generation acknowledge the wisdom and experience of those who went before, those who understand things about the struggle toward freedom in a way I will never understand. Theirs is a loss of modern ideals that I cannot fathom. My point here is that by acknowledging difference we can better collaborate across generational, racial, and social lines to bring this question about “where is our center” itself to wholeness.

If we acknowledge that the idea of a single “center” that can hold and unite diverse people together has failed, for it has, then one solution is to shift the idea of the center so that it is larger. And as we keep enlarging that center—which before was a single point of reference that might have been anything from an ideal of freedom to a personal sense of entitlement to a way of doing church—as we keep enlarging that center of reference we see it eventually becomes not a single point, but a circle, and that what was previously the center is now the whole.

Again, one principle of postmodern thought is that since a single center cannot old for all people since the complexities of culture, plurality, and history are too great for simple all-in-one solutions, that a new way of looking at relationship must emerge.

To me, liberal religion is fertile ground for this postmodern exercise of inclusion. Ours is truly a postmodern religion, born the same year as the word itself, a religion that encourages us to  question the unmovable center and value the process and journey as much as our individual need to know Truth with a capital T. It encourages us to build theologies that work for us and that doesn’t demean another’s worldview.

But if that is our strength, it is also our challenge, for most of us stop our theological explorations when we encounter a sense of feeling lost, before we’re pulled into deeper relationship with each other and that which is bigger than us.  We can feel the pull toward more wholeness if we let ourselves.

Maybe we need to spend more time down in those subways, crawling around for meaning, lost, so that when the lake’s no longer there we don’t find ourselves stuck. How do we build a postmodern theology that grounds our felt sense of ultimacy and awe in relationship with other people who do not experience it in the same way?


We talked a few weeks ago about the five pieces to a complete theology that Richard Gilbert proposes in his Building Your Own Theology curriculum (ultimacy, human nature, history, ethics, and meaning). The two that give Unitarian Universalists the most difficulty are the sense of ultimacy (a sense of God or divinity) and meaning. The other three don’t give us nearly as much trouble: We may struggle a bit with history and community, but we understand the importance of grounding ourselves in a tradition and of gathering. We may struggle a bit with human nature and ethics, but we are on the same general page. Most of us agree that putting our principles into action is a worthwhile thing to do—we just need to do more of it. In other words, we’re in healthy dialog about three of the five essentials of a complete theology. 

The two that give us trouble are the two that I will work on in the final third of this sermon: the sense of ultimacy and our need to feel meaning in our lives. I believe we struggle because we keep searching for a center that isn’t possible in the postmodern context of our lives. Or put in a better way, the center is no longer just an ideal point in the middle of an imaginary circle, the center has now expanded, expanded, expanded, so that it’s now the whole.

The center is now the whole.

Yet we still argue about God because most religions put a very specific and culturally located construct of God in the middle of faith, the object of worship, as a prerequisite to salvation. My postmodern God has nothing to do with that. My postmodern God may be nothing more than an expedient word that I use to mean the whole. My postmodern God is a word that resonates because culturally I have been conditioned into a sense of feeling, not because I have put a supernatural being in the middle of my understanding as an absolver of sin or worker of miracles. My postmodern God exists for me because I feel love and connection and a sense of awe that something like this creation could possibly exist. I do not understand it and sometimes I do not feel worthy of it—the good and bad—so I bow my head in awe and reverence for the intricacy of the whole.

Then there’s the challenge of meaning, and again, because we’ve been using the language of modernity we wind up stuck. Many moderns attempted to solve the crisis of faith by looking for new meaning makers,  to narrow, new gods, what Terry Pratchette calls small gods and Neil Gaiman calls American gods: science, literature, art, psychology, or even a misunderstood concept of Emerson’s rugged individual. But these are little gods, pieces of the whole, because they exist outside a felt sense of ultimacy that connects it together.

It’s not even a matter of choosing to be modern or postmodern. The postmodern era is simply where we are, where history has placed us. We are a world become to aware to be innocent–as much as materialism and consumerism want us to forget what we know to be true, that the world is out of balance. Liberal religion calls us from innocence and back into relationship with … you guessed it… with the whole.

Postmodernism does not eliminate the old signifiers and anchors of meaning. Lake Michigan still’s right there, guiding the way for all Chicago. But it asks us: Who is left out? Who can read the maps? Who were the maps drawn by? What culture? And if my own, what does that say about my inability to connect with others in the whole?

So how do you get from here to there in the postmodern world?

If the metaphor of traveling around  Chicago taught me a thing or two about the modern world, navigating in Texas has taught me three things about getting around this one. This is how I manage not to feel lost all the time. Do you ever feel lost?

First, I learned to read the old sign posts, to find the old landmarks. In the book I edited this past year called Rev. X, my colleague Nancy McDonald recalled Diana Butler Bass’s notion of retraditionalizing the faith. She noticed an interest in reclaiming from the past that which is worth of reclamation, a movement toward more pluralism and theological diversity in our ranks. So we’re embracing again some of our Judeo Christian roots and a language of reverence that’s makes many of us uncomfortable. But these are not bad questions: “Why everything but Jesus?” “Why science and not spirituality?” “Can we embrace the day language of science and the visible,” as Evolutionary Evangelist Michael Dowd asks, “as well as the night language of mystery and religion, the night language of the unseen, god.” Can we do both.

The second way I learned to navigate is by reaching out. With modern systems you can do it alone. In San Antonio I sometimes have to get out of my car and ask of people who look quite different than myself—for I have yet to be mistaken for a Texas—the way home.

Finally, the third way I found to navigate the unknown is technology. My iPhone can pinpoint my location wherever I am, but it has its failings. On the way last month to the minister’s retreat it put me at the end of a dirt road in an abandoned railroad lot. Or how on the way through West Texas the connection got so slow that all it displayed was a purple line with a pulsing blue dot, no map. As long as I kept the blue dot in the middle of the screen on the purple line, I could find my way home.

These are today’s lessons of the postmodern: to be fluid, to foster connection, and to use every resource at your disposal.

This is what “doing theology” is really about: finding the metaphors, stories and symbols that help us find our way to home and wholeness.  The postmodern metaphors keep shifting and bouncing around as cultures bump into and engage one another. In Chicago I had my lake and a system. In Texas I keep having to reinvent, reorient, adjust.

But this much is true: Chicago is no more. I am a Texas now.

This perspective is also what liberal religion offers to the larger religious conversation now happening, particularly in North America. Unitarian Universalists no longer have a market on free faith, universal salvation, tolerance or any of those features on which we may have had the past market cornered. But as a religious movement reconfigured in 1961– on Postmodernity’s birthday– we know the road well. It is an opportunity to get ourselves out from under the claim that we’re the privileged intellectual few, and into dialog with other people of free and responsible religion: With Christians who are learning what it means to be welcoming to people of all sexual orientations. With soldiers coming home from war with a deep need for healing and wholeness in the face of ambiguity.

We have traveled this path.

We have a theology of wholeness,

a history of reorienting old centers

so they embrace the whole of creation

to affirm the worth and dignity of each person.

We have something useful that needs to be shared,

for the good of the world and all creation.

And all this not just for ourselves alone,

but for, as our Universalist heritage proclaims,

for the greater Glory of Love.

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