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“Making sense of this craziness is a religious task.”

Filed under: Reflections — Jess at 10:52 am on Monday, October 22, 2007

This week is dedicated to the ideas presented in Rev. Robert Hardies’ essay, “Love the Contradictions,” printed in the UUWorld’s summer 2007 issue, from The Seven Principles in Word and Worship, edited by Ellen Brandenburg (Skinner House Books, 2007). Rev. Hardies serves All Souls Church, Unitarian, in Washington, D.C.

The essay is just packed, so I’ve broken it into three sections. The first describes Rev. Hardies’ personal realizations of the contradictory nature of the world, and his life within the world. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t struggled with this.

Part two can be found here, and part three here.

Love the Contradictions, pt. 1

by Rev. Robert Hardies

When I was in seminary, I had to take a test called the Minnesota Multi phasic Personality Inventory, a multiple-choice exam that asks questions like, “Have you been hearing voices lately?” When I sat down with the psychiatrist two weeks later to hear the results, he told me, “By and large, this is a healthy profile.” Then he pointed to a line that plummeted from the top of the page to the bottom. “But do you see this? This means that your soul is conflicted, filled with tensions and contradictions. Those tensions can either be a blessing or a curse; they can either stimulate creativity and vitality in your life, or they can shut you down.” Seeing my reaction, he reassured me, “Rob, you have to learn to love the tensions that are in your soul.” Love the tensions? I wasn’t sure I had heard him right.

Ten years later, I am still trying to discover what it really means to not merely accept the tensions and contradictions of life but to love them. We want to love the world, but does that mean we must condone all that is wrong with it, that we must quietly acquiesce to injustice? What is there to love about contradictions?

Learning to love contradiction is no small thing; it amounts to a fundamental spiritual imperative for our time. We live in a crazy-quilt world that is at once becoming smaller, more complex, and more polarized. This world presents us with contradictions at all levels—within our own souls, in our communities, and in our world. Today one in five children lives in poverty right here in the United States, the richest nation on earth. The golden arches of McDonald’s now rise above the dusty streets of Kabul where the Taliban once banned all traces of Western culture. People fly planes into skyscrapers and call it the will of God. If the divine plan does, indeed, include so much conflict and contradiction, then we can be excused for concluding that either the gods must be crazy—as in the 1981 movie of that name—or we are.

Making sense of this craziness is a religious task. Religion is the faculty through which we try to make sense of the world and our place in it. But these days, religion seems to be more of a problem than a solution. What kind of spirituality can help us live with integrity in the midst of the ambiguities, complexities, and disparities of our contemporary world? What kind of faith can sustain our love and care for such a world?

Nobody likes a mess. We regard a mess as a threat to our spiritual and psychic integrity. We react to a mess the same way we would to a physical threat: We want to flee or fight. Fighting gets the most attention these days. The front pages of our newspapers are filled with stories of people who are engaged in a religiously motivated fight in response to the complexity of our world. Radical Muslim jihadists use bombs and terror against Western “infidels” who, they believe, threaten their way of life. Christian fundamentalists use slander to foment hatred against gays and feminists for upsetting their view of the traditional family. Extreme fundamentalism of any stripe is a faith whose creed is fear and whose ritual is a sacrificial amputation of anything that does not fit into its worldview.

Though less violent than fighting, the flight response is another destructive reaction to our complex world. It takes many forms in contemporary religious life. Some on the religious right harbor hopes of an imminent Rapture, when God will destroy this vale of tears and gather the righteous to live with God in Paradise. This idea is reflected in books like Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind novels. I describe this as a flight response because it is the equivalent of living one’s religious life in a gated community, where one can hide from all the dangers beyond the guard at the entrance. This is the religious behavior of people who have long ago given up on loving this world.

On the center and left of the religious spectrum, the temptation to flee is also great. It usually occurs among those who have made a serious attempt to engage the complexity of modernity but have succumbed to its stresses and strains somewhere along the way. They burn out and withdraw, often to the confines of the nuclear family, declaring that the household represents the limit of their capacity to care. They may be aware of all the conflict that roils around them, but they have the luxury of retreat, often due to wealth and privilege. Sociologists call this “compassion fatigue.” I call it the “Calgon Moment,” because it reminds me of the embattled mother in a commercial from my childhood. As her children spill grape juice on their clothes and the dog tracks filthy paw prints through her house, mom throws her arms in the air, looks to the heavens, and shouts, “Calgon, take me away!” This is a prayer for deliverance disguised as a bubble bath commercial, for in the next scene she blissfully soaks in a tub full of bubbles. But neither bath products nor spiritual fantasies can deliver us from the messiness of our world. Nor should they.

We need a spirituality that moves us beyond fight and flight, one that sees complexity not as an enemy but as a friend. We need a spirituality that views paradox as a creative opportunity and contradiction as a stimulant. In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, “With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do.” But what kind of spirituality allows our souls to embrace contradiction and complexity? The kind that lets me do what the school psychiatrist charged me to do: love the tensions in my life.

Source: “Love the Contradictions,” by Rev. Robert Hardies, who serves All Souls Church, Unitarian, in Washington, D.C. Reprinted with the permission of Skinner House Books and the author. The Seven Principles in Word and Worship by Ellen Brandenburg, from which this essay was taken, is available at (800) 215-9076 or

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October 23, 2007 @ 11:00 am

[…] Gratitude, Life) I read the first part of a sermon by Rev. Hardies over at Best of UU yesterday, Love the Contradictions, part 1, and was reminded of a very brief moment over the weekend.  I was walking from one part of my […]

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