Designs of Faith
a sermon delivered by Mark W. McGinnis
Boise Unitarian/Universalist Fellowship, June 11, 2017
The light is low. The room is quiet and the projector has a comforting hum. My voice has the studied monotone of an academic. I told my students that a good nap is never time wasted, but I also told them that some of this information will be on the exam. You need to keep that in mind.
My sermon this morning will deal one of my art projects from the 1990’s titled Designs of Faith. The basic content of the project is a study of four Western, four Eastern, and four Tribal religions. The project has four sequential components: research on each faith, an essay I wrote from the research, a preliminary study for the final painting, and finally a 8’ X 6 1/2’ five section painting for each religion. The preliminary studies are now a part of BUUF’s collection and hang in the north and south hallways in support of our youth education. There is a copy of a book version of the essays in the BUUF’s library, all essays are posted on my blog, and the book version is available from the amazon.com. The large paintings are in the collection of the Visual Art Center, Washington Pavilion of Arts and Sciences in Sioux Falls, SD.
My intent in producing this project was to gain a deeper understanding of how religion created systems, designs, around which people could organize their lives.
Each essay includes a detailed explanation of symbolism in the paintings.
I would primarily like to say a few words about each of the twelve religions. Please keep in mind the following are my thoughts, observations, and opinions.
I will begin the tribal belief systems.
I first studied The Dreaming of the Australian Aborigines. In my research I felt I was getting brief glimpses into an entirely different way of being human: a culture without a sense of time, but a hyper-sense of space and place; a people with few generalized words in their vocabulary, but with so many specific descriptions it was nearly impossible for outsiders to learn; and a religion based on the process of ongoing creation of which the people are continual participants.
I studied Inuit people of the Far North as I wondered what kind of a spiritual system would develop in a people who lived in such incredibly harsh conditions. I found it was a religion which had at its core fear and a struggle for survival, but also a faith that developed a respect and affinity with all aspects of the natural world. One of spirits of the Inuit is the Indweller of the wind called Sila. Sila is the air around us, the air inside us, the air passing from person to person and creature to creature; the air of all creation connecting.
With the Hopi people, as with many tribal groups, the religious and the secular had no division in their lives. Their incredible agricultural existence was designed in such a way that their lives were in constant contact and communion with God as a matter survival.
The Hopi believed they needed to settle in a difficult part of the world to be sure they would not become soft and greedy.
Ifa Divination of the Yoruba (youruba) of West Africa is a practical and complex system of communication between earth and heaven and divination represents only one facet of their sophisticated spiritual lives. The tremendous memorization skills needed by the divination priests is something that would be impossible to nearly all modern people. The verses of the divination process, called odus, were a cultural history, a set of moral values, a series of folk tales, a medical encyclopedia, a compilation of sacrifices, and much more.
Next the four Eastern religions.
The study of Hinduism can be daunting due to its vast scriptural base and because of the complexities of its concepts: dharma, the proper and truthful way that a person should live their lives; samsara, the concept of lives in a nearly never ending cycle of reincarnation; karma, the basis of causality; and moksha, the possibility of blissfully joining with the essential energy of the universe.
Buddhism grew from Hinduism with a great teacher in search of the truth.The teachings of the Buddha were remarkable in their tolerance and their insistence that they not be blindly accepted by the Buddha’s followers. He taught that only personal experience should be trusted to test his ideas. The individual must always remain open to new ideas as we can have only a partial understanding of reality.
Taoism glories in the indefinable aspect of the essence of nature, the Tao or the Way as it was called by its semi-mythical founder Lao Tzu. Non-action, passivity, anti-education, emptiness, anarchy, anti-progress – these are not values of today, but they are of Taoism. It is about flexibility rather than rigidity, about passivity rather than activity, emptiness rather than fullness, quietness rather than loudness, gentleness rather than harshness, the natural rather than the artificial.
Confucius seems to be everything Lao Tzu was not. His focus was on society. His goal was to form a system where people could live together in harmony and peace. Morality, family, and tradition were at the center of his teachings. They were teachings of the utmost practicality and utility. People are not created by Heaven, they are a part of Heaven. When a person becomes fully developed in a Confucian sense they transcend their ego and the individual, the community, and Heaven all become one. Confucianism is a social religion.
My study of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism all focused on the philosophic basis of the religions. Philosophy does not have much chance of a mass following, so in popular manifestations of the faiths the founders were deified and cosmic layers of spirituality formed around all three.
We now move to four Western religions that are not Western at all as all four developed in the Mid-East.
The study of Judaism was a challenging and rewarding process. The challenge was, as with Hinduism, the vast body of religious writings and I did try to read many of the basic scriptures for each religion. Judaism and Hinduism are the great foundational religions of the world. Judaism is an incredible story of a tribe that was chosen by God to hold a special covenant with him. In my view two of the most striking aspects of Judaism are its adaptability and tenacity. Perhaps the most remarkable adaptation was after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem and the conversion of Judaism from a faith based on temple sacrifice to one based on law and family ritual. This created a family faith that was so deep and meaningful that it was able to survive the extraordinary ordeals it was to face the next two thousand years and beyond.
The teachings of Jesus are that of a Jewish rabbi, but he was a radical teacher. He took the foundations of Judaism and expanded them by making certain points primary: we are not to judge others, we are to reject wealth, we are to give unquestioning forgiveness to others, we are to give unconditional love to all. After the death of Jesus it seemed his legacy was to remain within the tradition of Judaism with his brother James leading the sect. This direction was radically changed when Paul became dominant and his new interpretation of Jesus shaped Christianity into not a variation of Judaism, but a faith apart from Judaism.
The third great religion of Abrahamic tradition was Islam. Muhammad was an illiterate businessman from a desolate region of warring tribes who became one of the greatest prophets and political leaders of all time. Everything about Muhammad seems remarkable, but what struck me most was his humility and sense of justice. He seems to be a leader who truly practiced what he preached and he developed a social and moral system that created a balanced life from chaos. His life as a warrior makes it difficult for those of us more passively inclined to accept his holiness, but it is a direct reflection of his time and place.
Originating in the late nineteenth century, Baha’i is a faith in its infancy and it is the fourth step in the religions of Abraham, growing out of Islamic tradition but in opposition to Islam as Muhammad is considered by Muslims to be the final prophet of God. We have the revelation of Baha’u’llah, the primary prophet of the Bahai faith in his own handwriting — over one hundred books. While much of Bahai’s social structure is firmly in the Islamic tradition it was born modern in its global perspective. It is now very quietly spreading around the world.
I completed this project nearly 20 years ago and, in one way or another, it has informed nearly all the artwork I have done since. My project of portraits and interviews with Catholic Benedictine monastics, my Buddhist and Taoist children’s books, my projects dealing with Indian and Japanese literature, even my current series of Neo-Modernist paintings, all have been given direction by the Designs of Faith project.
Then and now I do not see these religions as sacred designs but very much human designs that were created to bring order to peoples lives. Many people want there to be a power beyond themselves. Someone or something that can take some of the burden from their lives, provide them them assistance in living their lives, and give them hope for something after death. These seem very natural desires and I hold that any interpretation of religion that does not harm others or force others to join is acceptable to me.
I hear people say ISIS and other radical Mid-East groups are not Muslim. I disagree and think they are most certainly Muslim. You can find their beliefs in interpretations of the Koran. Was the gentle and wise Rumi also Muslim? Yes. Was the Inquisition Christian? Was the slavery and genocide of the native people in the “New World” Christian? Yes, they were justified by interpretation of Christian scripture. A large majority or German Christians supported the rise of Nazism. Eighty percent of white evangelical Christians voted for Donald Trump. But, was Martin Luther King Jr. a Christian? Is Pope Francis a Christian? Yes. As human creations, religions can be manipulated to great good and great evil as that is what people do. A true religion is true only to the person, group or time making the claim.
Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard University, has done extensive research with statistics that suggest our time may be the most peaceable period in our species’ existence. One can see such research as illuminating a positive direction of humanity, or a statement on how horribly violent our species has been through millennia. One thing that is certain is that mainstream media focuses very heavily on violence and very little on the goodness of people and religions. This distorts our perception of what is happening in the world.
Is our Unitarian/Universalism a religion? Certainly. It is congregations of people come together to support, encourage, and inspire one another. Here in Boise we have our “priestess,” our sermons, our rituals, our rites, our hymns, our sub-cults, our potlucks. At BUUF we have a system to help us better function in this world. We are a Design of Faith.