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2019-11-07

From the Sabbatical Minister - November 7, 2019

Transmogrified.

I first learned the word “transmogrified” from Calvin and Hobbes, a comic strip by Bill Waterston that ran from 1985-1995.

One day, seven-year old Calvin built a transmogrifier. To us, it was just an upside-down cardboard box with a dial drawn on the side. But to Calvin and his stuffed tiger Hobbes, it was a machine that could turn them into whatever they wished to become—eel, baboon, bug, dinosaur, tiger, toad. While everyone else still saw a little boy and his stuffed tiger, Calvin and Hobbes saw themselves transmogrified—transformed in a surprising manner

I think sometimes we forget that we can transmogrify things—especially in religious communities. Which is why I was struck when my colleague Ian Riddell wrote, “I’m in a bad mood that our principles are in a list. So I transmogrified them.”

Huh. It’s true that our UU principles appear in a numbered list. We even tend to quote them by number: Our fifth principle calls me to fight for responsible gun control legislation. I’m doing third principle work in learning about Hinduism. I’m a seventh principle guy so I invest in renewable energy.

A handy, step-by-step list. Nice. Neat. Ordered. Isolated. Each principle an individual.

But that was bugging Ian, so he devised something new. Instead of an ordered list, a wheel. No numbered principles, but rather a different pattern of organization. A surprising way to approach them.

The center—the axle—is the inherent worth and dignity of every person. It’s where we start, where everything else moves from. Then, encompassing it all, is the interdependent web of which we are all a part. The spokes are the other principles, the ways we understand ourselves in the world, the ways we act in the world because of who we are and where we are.

What does this mean? How would we approach our faith, our work, our connection to other human beings, our sense of the divine, if we were willing to transmogrify how we think of them?

Let’s start with the spoke calling for justice, equity, and compassion in human relations. Alone, it sounds pretty good; it’s the cornerstone of every social justice action we take, both within and outside Unitarian Universalism.

There’s something missing, however.

Unitarian Universalists are good at questioning things, but we can forget to examine what’s underneath our own principles. Often we might ask What?—What do they mean? or How?—How do we affirm and promote them? But rarely do we ask Why?—Why are they important for us to affirm and promote?

But when we change how we see them, we suddenly have a way to question the why of our principles, to interrogate the deeper meanings, to see the connection between the individual and the world.

Why is justice, equity, and compassion so important? Because if I as an individual am inherently worthy of dignity, then every other individual must be as well. And if we are all connected, how can I be like the pigs in Orwell’s Animal Farm and say some animals are more equal than others? How can I fail to notice that the compassion I hope you’ll show me might be worth showing to everyone else?

This principle calls us to be in that state of becoming just, equitable, and compassionate. We are never JUST just. But if we remember who we are and where we come from, we are becoming just. The justice, equity, and compassion we see in the world helps us become more just—to others, yes, but also to ourselves.

It reminds me of what my colleague David Bumbaugh wrote: “In this interconnected existence the well-being of one cannot be separated from the well-being of the whole…. We all spring from the same source and all journey to the same ultimate destiny.” In other words, y’all can’t grow into harmony with the Divine without me, nor I without you, nor all of us without each other.

It is this connection—from the individual to the collective and back again—that helps answer questions of why. Why do we affirm and promote justice, equity, and compassion in human relations? Because it’s about me and it’s about you, neither of which can stand alone, so it becomes about us. As theologian Frederick Buechner famously said, “It’s the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you, too.”

The question of why can apply to any of our principles. Why do we affirm and promote this? Why, of course, being the question this wheel seems to ask of us over and over. And over and over we see the need both for affirmation of the individual and for commitment to all of our complicated relationships—including those that reach beyond the human realm.

Each principle connects the self to the interdependent web and back again, in areas of truth, justice, community, connection, process, growth, and compassion—leading us from the familiar form that asks what, to the transmogrified form, which inquires why.

Once you see it, it can’t be unseen. Now we can’t think of the principles without thinking about the wheel and the spokes and the interconnectedness. We have transformed our way of thinking about it. We’ve transmogrified our principles, our ethics, and our faith.

And maybe that’s the real message. Not that we become something new overnight, but that we—and our world and how we act in it—are always in process, always rolling forward on this wheel which carries us to new lands, but always brings the essentials with us as we go: You matter. You are not alone.

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