Cerberus is a blog series. To start reading from the beginning, click here.


The current racial crisis in the Unitarian Universalist movement is a Cerberus event. Cerberus tactics are front and center, namely, rancor and anger, divisive strategies and devastating conquests. These emotions and strategies are the signature protocol of the hound from hell. The signature traits and strategies of the True Self—love, compassion, empathy and caring—are needed to resolve this crisis, but they seem to be trapped in hell.

The Cerberus race campaigns have prompted UUs to ask whether it is now appropriate in Unitarian Universalist culture for persons to be excluded who are “white and male” from being seen and heard because they are the “embodiment of white supremacy and patriarchy” (Todd F. Eklof, The Gadfly Papers)? Our house is divided against itself when answering this question. Not surprisingly, there are now public and private proposals afloat to dissolve the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations.

Many Unitarian Universalist ministers and congregants have asked me to not only comment on the current racial crisis, but also to offer practical steps forward.  Cerberus, my blog series, is the framework for my response to these requests because Cerberus is found on all sides of the present UU racial conflicts. 

My approach to this crisis is threefold.

Cerberus is found on all sides of the present UU racial conflicts.

First, I affirm that Cerberus in our current racial conflict is the ego that preys on those who attack him. He never backs down. He is without compassion and attacks others because his only job is to protect the person whose feelings have been hurt and whose wellbeing is thus at risk.  He avenges, prowls, attacks, strikes, growls and destroys others to protect his charge: a walking-wounded ego. Cerberus cannot heal this ego. He cannot heal himself and he vanishes whenever the True Self appears. 

Second, I believe we must rack focus to resolve the racial conflicts in our faith communities. I call this shift in focus Love Beyond Belief™ because we are a people who strive ever anew to love beyond belief.

We must now find and reaffirm our True Self, namely, what Unitarian Universalists “almost universally” consider the most important source of their religious convictions: personal experience (the 2005 Commission on Appraisal Report, Engaging Our Theological Diversity). Our foundational spiritual practices and theological insights and reflections on personal experience are expressed in terms that UUs can affirm as

      • Theists; atheists; secular humanists; persons who draw on Christian, Judaic, Islamic, Buddhist, Earth-centered or other faith traditions, and as
      • Persons who are politically conservative, liberal, progressive or politically self-defined in other ways.

We are members of a non-creedal, free, liberal faith tradition because we affirm personal experiences of the True Self rather than doctrines and Cerberus stances as the major source of our spiritual convictions.  Love, not race, is the doctrine of our faith. The quest of truth is our sacrament, And service is our prayer. To dwell together in peace, To seek knowledge in freedom, To serve human need, To the end that all souls shall grow into harmony with the Divine. Each of us gets to define what we mean by the term “Divine.” So, third, I believe we must reaffirm our “almost universal” claim that the major source of our religious convictions is personal experience.

Love, not race, is the doctrine of our faith.

Twenty years ago, during the 1999 General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations held in Salt Lake City, Utah, June 24-29, 1999, I reaffirmed the personal experience of unconditional love as a major experiential source of our spiritual tradition. To this end, I delivered a public lecture, Why Anti-Racism Will Fail, against the anti-racism program the UUA had sanctioned and launched. This racial program, I argued, dismantled rather than advanced the call for the revolution in love Martin Luther King Jr. preached during the last years of his life. My lecture infuriated the Unitarian Universalist Association administration and resulted in personal attacks against me.

Twenty years later, during the 2019 General Assembly in Spokane, Washington, Unitarian Universalist minister Todd F. Eklof also challenged the entrenched anti-racism UUA protocol system. To this end, he handed out free copies of his book, The Gadfly Papers: Three Inconvenient Essays by One Pesky Minister. All hell broke loose. Three hundred ministers signed a letter of protest without first reading his book. Many cautioned that his book should not be read. Anger flared up, and he was declared by many to be an unrepentant white racist. 

Todd’s critique and my critique are complementary, although significantly different in emphasis, tone, and style. Todd focuses on the loss of reason, freedom of conscience, and our common humanity in our liberal faith movement today. My 1999 lecture focused on the loss of compassion and also on the unfortunate introduction of a doctrine of original sin into our doctrinally-free faith tradition. 

Both of us are inviting Unitarian Universalists to rack focus as a spiritual practice and reaffirm the heart and soul of our liberal faith tradition.

I believe we must reaffirm our “almost universal” claim that the major source of our religious convictions is personal experience.

In Appendix C, I offer a specific protocol called Love Beyond Belief Groups as a rack-focus spiritual strategy.  The heart of LBB Groups is insight, reflection, and action guided by compassion. In these groups of six to ten persons, who meet monthly, biweekly or weekly, people share from the experiences of their lives, draw from their insights, and find strength together to turn outward to their communities and the world. 

This recommended strategy does not focus on race but rather on the work requisite to find and reaffirm the True Self. More precisely, my suggestion refocuses our attention on our personal experiences of the loss and recovery of the True Self. Cerberus, my blog series, provides a framework for my suggestions because it delineates how and why Cerberus can take control of the race debates in our liberal faith tradition: fear and trembling. 

Insights from psychology, neuroscience, and contemporary affect theology are used in the work that follows. The goal here is to define and explain as precisely as possible the transformative power at work in Love Beyond Belief Groups. A protocol for creating and conduction LBB Groups is presented in Appendix C.

My recommendation for the resolution of our racial conflicts can be easily summarized: Start Love Beyond Belief Groups in our congregations. The goal of these groups is to create a safe space so that the True Self rather than Cerberus can show up in our lives. Each of these groups is a “micro-community” of love, compassion, and caring for self and others. 

The goal here is to create a national network of Love Beyond Belief Groups created in our local congregations, societies and fellowships. Together, they can reaffirm and advance Martin Luther King Jr.’s call for unconditional love. This kind of love is revolutionary, Dr. King insisted, because it “lifts neighborly concerns beyond one’s tribe, race, class and nation [to create] an all-embracing and unconditional love for all.” This kind of love unlocks the “door [that] leads to ultimate reality because it re-orders our heads and our hearts.” I call this kind of love: Love Beyond Belief™.

The following background materials and protocols are offered to help ministers and laity begin our work together to reaffirm and advance our communities as places where love is the doctrine of our faith community and service is its law.

I begin with the work of Dr. Barbara Lichner Ingram in her book Clinical Case Formulations: Matching the Integrative Treatment Plan to the Client because it provides a useful lens for understanding the power of LBB Groups in psychological and spiritual terms. 

Background

The work of Dr. Barbara Lichner Ingram in her book Clinical Case Formulations: Matching the Integrative Treatment Plan to the Client pays systematic attention to the increasing interests by psychotherapists in “exploring client problems and assets through the filters of spiritual and religious functioning” (CCF, 269). Love Beyond Belief work investigates these “filters.”

My latest book Love Beyond Belief: Finding the Access Point to Spiritual Awareness affirms the distinction Dr. Ingram makes between spirituality and religion.  

Writes Ingram: 

“Spirituality is generally defined as a subjective, individual experience, whereas religion involves an institutional framework: a prescribed set of beliefs, practices, and rituals; and a community of people who participate together” (CCF, 269).    

As she also notes, “The core problem and/or the resource needed for resolving the problem are found in the Spiritual Dimension of life, which may or may not include religion” (CCF, 268).  Key ideas for discerning and treating this spiritual dimension, she argues, must include “[1] spiritual values, [2] goals, [3] experiences, [4] beliefs and [5] behaviors that illustrate the breadth of the concept of spirituality” (CCF, 269).

I have used Ingram’s five elements (listed above) to add clarity to my own definition of the concept of spirituality with the following results:

The term spirituality in my LBB Group work refers to [1] the values of love beyond belief, namely, resonant uplifting feelings of infinite life. [4] For theists, these kinds of hallowed feelings often are explained as the result of a personal encounter with God.  For humanists, these kinds of uplifting feelings are often explained as a source of reason and respect for the interdependent web of life. Spiritual Feelings refer to [3] experiences of awe, wonder, compassion, love, and care that emerge from resonant uplifting feelings of infinite life and prompt activities that enhance the quality of life in oneself, others, and the world. Unfathomable beauty and infinite depth can take hold as persons develop their innate capacity to love beyond belief. These feelings can also [2 and 5] prompt persons to build communities of care through actions guided by compassion. 

The use of Ingram’s five categories in my above definition of spirituality highlights an intersection between her work and mine. 

I also expand Ingram’s definition of spirituality without distorting her core claims, by identifying the content of spirituality as uplifting resonant feelings of infinite life.  This expanded definition of spirituality affirms Ingram’s integrative treatment plan and also links it to the interdisciplinary field in religious studies and theology I have created called Contemporary Affect Theology. 

Contemporary Affect Theology (CAT) investigates emotional development in spiritual terms and settings. It integrates insights from philosophy of religion, practical theology, affective neuroscience, and neuropsychology to explain how spiritual communities transform primary emotions into uplifting spiritual sentiments. 

CAT pays particular attention to the work of Jaak Panksepp, who created affective neuroscience to track and explain the role and function of the brain as an experience-generating organ, which enables persons to (1) feel emotions (e.g., fear, rage, lust, care and playfulness); (2) have motivational urges (like thirst and hunger); and (3) evaluate sensory experiences as pleasurable or painful (Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions, 1998). Each of these three kinds of brain-generated experiences is first felt rather than thought. They are affects, namely, the way a person first experiences the world and oneself subjectively as shifts in the nervous system. By focusing on religious experience as both an innate spiritual capacity of human nature and a social religious construction of different human nurture systems, CAT studies the neural pathways of spiritual and religious experience without collapsing the differences between them.

CAT is thus a nature/nurture enterprise. It pays attention to the ego and its many forms, most especially, the presence of Cerberus.  It shows how socially-created feelings along with primal, innate affective states emotionally bond persons together as (1) a faith community with its own unique history of traditions, texts, beliefs, religious affections, and liturgical practices or as (2) a spiritual group with a vocabulary and practices that do not translate spiritual experiences into religious terms.

The basic premise of CAT is that a fundamental function of every spiritual community is to transform human emotions into specific kinds of spiritual feelings (e.g., awe, repentance, love, contrition, compassion, care, etc.). The correlate to this premise is the claim by CAT that religious communities tend to grow as their leaders master emotional competency and integrate these skills liturgically when planning worship services. Faith communities tend to stagnate or tank, on the other hand, if the emotional feelings of their members are not adequately attended to and transformed in the worship services and small group ministry programs.

A fundamental function of every spiritual community is to transform human emotions into specific kinds of spiritual feelings.

My treatment model, when using the terms of Ingram’s protocol, gains procedural clarity as a plan-oriented model.  This process allows me to gather subjective and objective data linked to spiritual issues without conflating data and theory, or evidence and conclusions (CCF, 23). As a result of this collaborative enterprise, the protocol for my work gains systematic clarity as an integrative treatment plan. This kind of clarity is also a hallmark of Ingram’s work.

The following three protocols reflect my use of Ingram’s strategies and categories to explain my approach and then presents an initial structure and protocol for LBB Groups.

First, The Objective Data

The objective experiences that produce the loss of a vibrant resonant feeling of uplifting life vary. My current work focuses on one source of this problem: the loss of community. 

The breakdown of community life lies at the root of emotional distress today among Americans at vulnerable stages of their lives (Dan L. Edmunds Ed.D., B.C.S.A, “Distress and the Breakdown of Community, Psychology Today, April 5, 2013). By 1992 three-quarters of the U.S. workforce—as Robert Putnam notes in Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community—said that “the breakdown of community” and “selfishness” were “serious” or “extremely serious.” 

Traditionally, religious institutions have been communities that support Americans at vulnerable stages of their lives. But today two-thirds of the millennial generation (ages 18 – 33) don’t attend religious services at all. When they attend traditional religious services, they don’t find the emotional connection—the strong sense of community—to meet their spiritual hunger. So they withdraw. 

Today, 50% of America’s churchgoers attend 10% of America’s churches. And these churches, for the most part, are Southern Baptist, Catholic, or nondenominational Christian (National Congregation 2006-7 study). Methodists, United Church of Christ, Unitarian Universalist, American Baptist and other mainline congregations still have the most churches in America, but the fewest congregants in them: about 75 on a typical Sunday. (The 2009 Barna Report).  

Big-tent evangelical churches used to thrive because bad times drew big crowds (December 14, 2008, The New York Times, “An Evangelical Article of Faith: Bad Times Draw Big Crowds”). But not anymore. Southern Baptist churches, for example, “lost almost 80,000 members from 2016 to 2017, and they have hemorrhaged . . . one million members since 2003,” as Jonathan Merritt noted in his June 16, 2018 The Atlantic essaySouthern Baptists Call Off the Culture War.” For years, Southern Baptists criticized liberal denominations for their declines, but today, as Merritt notes, “their own trends are now running parallel. They are turning away more people than it is attracting.” 

The loss of community is particularly evident in the UU youth exit problem. Nine out of ten of our young people leave us. The Rev. Dr. Terasa Cooley, the program and strategy officer of the UUA a member of the UUA’s four-person executive team (2013-2016) did the numbers: There are 600,000 self-identified Unitarian Universalists in the United States. Only 12 percent of the 150,000 members of our congregations were raised as Unitarian Universalists. This means that 90 percent of our youth leave our congregations but a great many of them, so it seems, retain their Unitarian Universalist identity. And thus the result: we produce more “nones” – persons who define themselves as spiritual but not religious and constitute the fasting-growing religious group in the country – than any other religious association in the country. Mainline Protestant denominations, for example, retain 50% of their young people when they grow up. We keep 10%.

Time magazine, let’s remember, calls the national trend of young adults away from religious institutions “The Rise of the Nones” [March 12, 2012]. And Don Skinner, the editor of the Interconnections, the online journal for Unitarian Universalist lay leaders, says that current talk about the nones sounds uncomfortably like talk about the Unitarian Universalist congregations our young adults reject [posted April 11th, 2012]. He’s right.

A major source of our youth exit-problem. We give our youth free choice about their religious beliefs and then add to this venue something else: emotional distance. “We stay at arm’s length” from our youth, as the Rev. Mike Young told me in 2012, when I interviewed him as minister of The First Unitarian Church of Honolulu, Barack Obama had briefly attended as a child. Young calls this separation between youth and adults our congregational “age fracture.” 

One of the major problems in every congregation he has served, Young explains, is the “uneasiness of really getting people involved across the age lines – the demographic lines.  The middle-aged folks are uneasy when dealing with the young adults and the young adults are uneasy when dealing with the kids.”  

Why? I asked.

The kind of personalities we attract to our congregations, says Young, are not “touchy feely.” So when he conducts programs for the children during Sunday services and spends time “talking about feelings of loyalty with candor rather than guided by restraint,” he gets complaints. He is being much too informal with them, he is told, and should be telling them moralistic tales rather than personal ones that relate directly to them. Many congregants find his emotional “brew of camaraderie and intimacy” tasteless, so the venue “created among the kids is rarely ever achieved among the congregations.”  

It is difficult for us, says Young, “to reach across these divides and find comfortable ways to be together. One of the constant challenges is how do you do stuff together for intergenerational activities. My director of religious education and I wrestle with these generational issues – how do we get people to be together across the age differences?” Our youth, Young adds, have enough hormones going and enough energy to close the divisions, but the adults don’t. And we don’t seem to know what to do about it, he says. 

To resolve this exit problem, we must not only see what’s missing in our religious lives, but we must feel this missing part of our life together and be transformed by the experience. 

Presently, our racial conflicts look as if we are fighting for the best seats on the UU Titanic as our ship sinks. 

Second, The Subjective Data

The subjective data that is the source of spiritual issues in one’s life pertain to the loss of the ability to experience resonant uplifting feelings of infinite life.

One of Etty Hillesum’s last entries in her journal written in Westerbork, a detention camp in Holland where Jews were held before transport to the death camps of Poland, is a vivifying example of the power of this uplifting feeling. She was killed in Auschwitz in 1943.

(Etty Hillesum: An Interrupted Life the Diaries, 1941-1943 and Letters from Westerbork, 1996.)

“All I wanted to say was this: the misery here is quite terrible and yet, late at night when the day has slunk away into the depths behind me, I often walk with a spring in my step along the barbed wire and then time and again it soars straight from my heart—I can’t help it, that’s just the way it is, like some elementary force—the feeling that life is glorious and magnificent and that one day we shall be building a whole new world.  Against every new outrage and very fresh horror we shall put up one more piece of love and goodness.”

The loss of the ability to experience the “elementary force” of spiritual power described by Hillesum is a major problem in America today for persons who do not belong to religious communities.

As a 2010/2011 Gallup poll discovered, “Americans who are the most religious have the highest levels of wellbeing.” Religion in principle “provides mechanisms for coping with setbacks and life’s problems, which in turn may reduce stress, worry, and anger,” but in practice fewer and fewer Americans seem able to connect with the language in which traditional religious experience is framed, so they miss its salvific grace. The distress of these Americans must be addressed in spiritual but not religious terms. America thus needs help in creating new spiritual communities that support Americans at vulnerable stages of their lives. 

The spiritual but religiously unaffiliated young adults are five times more likely than other Americans to self-identify as suffering from a “great deal of stress” (USA Today, February 7, 2013). They are often referred to as Generation Rx because so many of them eat “prescription drugs like candy” (millennialmagazine.com, June 28, 2014). By the year 2020, they will make up almost half (46%) of America’s workforce. On current trends, this workforce could become disabled, disaffected, and dangerous. Moreover, the World Health Organization has standardized stress as an “epidemic.”

While traditional religious experience is meant to make ordinary people feel good about their lives and help them escape the existential prison of everyday experience, America is home to 17 million spiritually faithful including a fourth of all atheists and a third of all adults under 30 who never attend any church (Pew Research Project, October 23, 2013; December 9, 2009). These faithful can be part of America’s new salvation story. But if left unsupported and estranged they become a lost generation.  They want “emotional rescue” (New York Times, June 21, 2015, “Oh, to Be Young, Millennial, And So Wanted by Marketers”).

Third, An Integrative Spiritual Plan: Love Beyond Belief Groups

The goal of this plan is to create micro-spiritual communities of six to ten persons, namely, Love Beyond Belief Groups in which persons can feel renewed, supported and transformed. (See Appendix C: The Anatomy of LBB Groups).

A final note to my Unitarian Universalist readers. Several years ago, I was the keynote speaker at one of our youth conferences. The adult conference planners told me to talk about my book Learning to be White and about white racism. They told me to be hard on the teens. I was surprised.

I knew the teens present would be mostly middle-class kids who went to middle-class schools and lived in middle-class families in middle-class communities.  But I had yet to meet a bunch of American middle-class teens who, collectively, didn’t feel afflicted. I had no desire to afflict the afflicted.

So I began my presentation by asking for a volunteer to give the speech on race and racism the teens expected to hear from me.  One of the most popular boys took center stage. He explained why prejudice is bad and racism is wrong. There is really only one race, the human race, so everybody should cross the racial divides and become one loving community.

The teens laughed and applauded. The speaker bowed. I next invited the teens to ask the speaker the questions they would have asked me. Now things got serious. One of the teens summarized their collective complaints, saying, “Tell us something that will make a difference in our lives right now.”

I thanked the speaker, we applauded him again for his courage and aplomb, and I then said to the group: Let’s talk about things that will make a difference in our life right now – our feelings. I told them harsh stories from my own “perfect” middle-class life as a teen. Stories that made me feel alone and lonely, scared and afraid in the midst of my own highly educated liberal and professionally successful parental environment. These weren’t stories about racism. They were stories about personal feeling defaced and ignored.   

I then left the stage and sat down on the floor in the midst of the teens. They formed a large circle in which I was simply one of the points of its circumference. And then we waited. 

One by one the teens stood up and talk about their own feelings.  They disclosed stories of sexual abuse, of being racially profiled at school, about being the unwanted child, stories about not feeling loved, appreciated or adored by the people who were supposed to love them.  Some of the teens cried as they spoke. The teens held and comforted one another. And at the end of each story, we said together, “We hear you and hold you in our hearts.” 

I then talked about why we were able to be so open and honest with each other: we are Unitarian Universalists, I said, and this is what we are called upon to do when we come together. Our religious tradition tells us to listen to one another, to cherish one another, to hold one another in our hearts until we, together, are healed. We can do this work at youth-cons – and you can do this work when you are together in other settings because you are Unitarian Universalists. This is what we do. We love rather than dismiss others. We hear rather than ignore aching hearts. We love each other beyond belief – now. 

At the end of the session, one of the chaperones came up to me and held my hand.  She told me how her mother used to hold her hand tightly as a child, whenever they went downtown. Whenever a black person passed by, the woman now confessed, her mother would squeeze the little girl’s hand even tighter.  This tightness terrified the child because she could feel her mother’s panic. Then came her second confession: It’s taking her a long time to learn not to panic when she’s around black people.  

She held on to my hand tightly as I held her hand. We held each other beyond belief because the core content of her racial fears wasn’t racism or racist ideas. It was panic. And this raw feeling needed to be held and healed. Our faith as Unitarian Universalists helped both of us stay the course, go below the panic until, together, we felt loved beyond belief. 

My youth-con stories remind us to stay the course. The stories show us what happens when we enter the divide between our minds and our hearts, our youth and our adults, our race talk and our terrified feelings – and we stay the course: we are transformed. We give up the so-called “luxury” of feeling isolated and alone. Not because we have to, but now because we want to feel loved beyond belief. 

The heart and soul of this work takes place in Love Beyond Belief Groups as an ongoing spiritual practice.

Benediction

The World is broken!
If your heart is not broken
You aren’t paying attention.
Even though your heart is broken,
you yet need to reach out your hand.
Even though your heart is broken, 
You yet need the hand reaching out.
It may not heal your broken heart,
But you may find a broken heart
still can love …
And be loved.

The Rev. Mike Young

Appendix B, The Cerberus Syndrome, will be released soon.

 

This blog series and all other materials on this website have been offered to you at no cost. New chapters will be released at regular intervals. If you like this blog and find it useful, please consider making a donation to support Rev. Dr. Thandeka’s work.

If you choose to send a donation of U.S. $20 or more, we will email you a PDF file containing the complete Cerberus series ahead of the publication; that’s all 15 chapters, filled with gripping narratives about Thandeka’s deeply personal journey, told with all honesty, vulnerability, and grace; and revelatory insights into her study of feelings and emotions. This material will also include extended appendices that outline Thandeka’s thoughts on the modern anti-racism movement, touch upon the recent UUA GA controversy, provide theoretical background and practical principles related to Contemporary Affect Theology, and lay the foundations of a new approach to the work we are called to do.

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