Trying Something New

By Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – Sunday morning the front door of Temple B’Nai Israel was propped open, letting in the cool autumn air and the late morning murmur of the Joyner neighborhood.
Inside, the members of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation, guests in a Jewish house of worship, lit candles and briefly told their friends about special concerns.
Bob Spencer spoke of a homosexual friend who’d recently been the victim of discrimination. Otho Stevens, a Shriner, prayed for an end to “greed and hypocrisy” in American society. Margi Komarek simply gave thanks for a good book she’d recently finished, called “Three Cups of Tea.”
The Unitarians are a group in search of a higher truth, but a truth they’re careful not to define too narrowly. Their services might include anything from poetry readings to screenings of documentaries, like Al Gore’s film about climate change, “An Inconvenient Truth.” They frequently blend bits of different religions, like Christianity and Judaism, with classical literature and Eastern philosophy. On this morning, Stewart Guernsey, an attorney from Water Valley, read from the Book of Job.
A recent study by the Pew Institute found that a growing number of Americans have something in common with the Unitarians. They’re embracing a variety of religious practices in an attempt to broaden their spiritual horizons. Like the Unitarians, many of these people are deeply committed to morality, justice and equality, but they’re not necessarily looking to religious doctrines to provide the basis for those commitments.
Some of the Tupelo Unitarians believe in God. Others don’t. Almost all believe, however, that organized religion has too often been the enemy of reason and tolerance, so they’ve sought community among those who, like themselves, don’t feel comfortable in traditional houses of worship.
Non-traditional nourishment
A poll released in January by the Pew Forum for Religion and Public Life shows that most Americans believe in God, but the ways and experiences through which they express that belief are becoming increasingly diverse.
According to the poll 82 percent of American adults believe in a supreme being. That number hasn’t changed much in a generation. On the other hand, 49 percent of people today say they’ve had a religious or mystical experience. That’s twice as many as 40 years ago.
Sixty-five percent of people today say they’ve experienced some kind of supernatural phenomena, such as feeling spiritual energy in physical things or experiencing yoga as a spiritual practice.
Taken together with declining attendance at most churches over the past quarter century, the Pew poll seems to indicate that Americans are increasingly going outside the bounds of their own faith tradition to find spiritual nourishment.
According to Pew, among the people who attend religious services at least once a week, 39 percent say they attend at multiple places, and 28 percent say they attend the services of a faith other than their own.
The search for spiritual satisfaction has taken Kate Read down a very different path than the Catholicism she practiced for most of her life. In order to share quality time with her husband and son, Read still attends Mass at St. John’s Catholic Church in Oxford, but she no longer considers herself a devotee of her childhood faith. These days her spiritual balance comes from listening to dharma talks and meditating at Magnolia Village, a Buddhist community that meets at a retreat center just west of Grenada.
Read stopped identifying herself as Catholic because she’d come to see the church as rigid and judgmental. She searched for a more inclusive community experience, one focused less on a reward in the hereafter and more on things like mindfulness, compassion and what she called an “integrated approach to life in the present.” She found it among the monks and nuns at Magnolia Village. Several times a month Read and other guests, including many Christians, participate in meditation and soak up the tranquil atmosphere.
Read has also embraced other mindfulness practices, like veganism and yoga, and she said that her new spiritual repertoire has brought her to a deeper understanding of the teachings of Jesus.
For Dr. Laurie Cozad, professor of Buddhist studies at the University of Mississippi, interest in communities like the Unitarians and the retreat center at Magnolia Village shows there’s more diversity of beliefs than one might imagine among the people sitting next to each other in the pews on Sundays.
It might also show that people are looking for forms of religious expression that aren’t opposed to science and critical thinking, as fundamentalist currents of Christianity and Islam sometimes are. Cozad sees that as a reaffirmation of the scholarly traditions in many of the world’s great religions.
“Thinking critically is an essential part of being a healthy, spiritual person,” said Cozad, who has had the Magnolia Village monastics as guests in her class at Ole Miss. “The great theologians, such as those in Christianity, attest that critical thinking should never cause you to be in conflict with your faith,” she added.
Advances in communications technology, such as the Internet, Cozad said, have also introduced people to spiritual practices that used to be buried in libraries or restricted to other parts of the world.

Critical approach
Monday night a small group gathered in the CREATE building in downtown Tupelo. Jim High opened the meeting by reading a quote from Albert Einstein, then another member shared some wisdom she’d picked up from the book, “Awakening the Buddhist Heart.” Before long the members were into a wide-ranging discussion about prayer and how the search for the divine begins within.
The Next Level League is a fluid gathering. Much like the Unitarians, they’re spiritually and intellectually hungry but they don’t find much nourishment in traditional churches.
Some, like High, occasionally visit local churches. Others, like Lavella Medford, have had negative experiences with Christianity and have completely severed ties.
“After a while I just came to believe that the devotions I’d been taught in the Church of Christ didn’t make any sense,” said Medford.
Most of the members don’t have any major problem with organized religion, but they don’t have any use for it, either.
Leah Headings was amused that some people believe a person must be religious to be moral.
“I care about other people and I’m concerned with meaning and morality and justice,” said Headings, smiling.
A decade ago one might have described the group as “New Age,” but members today will tell you that term is passé. “New Thought” is the term that best describes many of the ideas they hold, like positive thinking, creative visualization and the evolution of consciousness.
Several of the Next Levels also attend meetings of the South Points Association for Education in Religion, or SPAFER, a Birmingham-based organization that brings people together to talk about religion within the context of critical thinking.
High started the Tupelo SPAFER chapter in November of 2008. The work of the Jesus Seminar, including that of biblical scholar Marcus Borg, and the teachings of retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong are popular among members of SPAFER.
These authors essentially take an Occam’s razor-like approach in trimming away centuries of tradition and piety they feel have unnecessarily collected on Christianity. They suggest a new – and some would say radical – approach to re-imagining the Christian faith.
There’s a lot of cross-fertilization between SPAFER , the Next Levels and the Unitarians, mostly because they all offer a safe, nonjudgmental environment where people can discuss alternative ideas about spirituality and religion. A quote that High read from Albert Einstein at the closing of the Next Level meeting Monday perhaps best expresses the common thread that runs through the groups.
“I am a deeply religious non-believer,” he said. “This is a somewhat new kind of religion.”

Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holley at 678-1510 or
galen.holley@djournal.com.

For more information
– The groups featured in this
article provide a different experience
of spiritual community
and conversation:
• Magnolia Village: 123
Towles Road, Batesville; retreats,
Dharma talks and meditation
offered frequently, free of
charge, in English and Vietnamese.
Contact magnoliavillage123@
yahoo.com or call
578-2800
•The Next Level League:
Usually meets Monday or Thursday,
6 p.m. at CREATE, 213 W.
Main St., Tupelo. Contact
Stephen Thompson,
stephen2816@mac.com
•SPAFER: Meets first Saturday
of the month, 9:30 a.m. at
CREATE. Contact Jim High at
highjim@gmail.com or visit
www.spafer.org for more information.
•The Unitarian Universalist
Congregation of Tupelo: Meets
Saturdays at 11 a.m. at Temple
B’Nai Israel, 1301 Marshall St.,
Tupelo. Contact Bob Spencer,
roblspen@bellsouth.net.