I received yet another notice today about a group where I can use past-life regression to explore my previous existences so I can better understand how to live well and happily in this life.
I declined the invitation. I'll work on one life at a time, thanks.
But while I do want to decline, I don't want to do so derisively - with a scornful laugh at "those foolish New-Agers." I find myself torn between having that dismissive reaction and wanting to keep myself open to all kinds of ways of thinking, believing, and practicing.
I am not surprised at all that the traditional religionists are ready to dismiss the New Agey stuff without a second thought. They don't have to wrestle with such questions. For them, it is either part of the accepted dogma or it is nonsense.
Now, let's recognise here that if anyone came to you with a modern day story of a god walking around the earth, getting executed as a criminal, and then coming back to life - and that believing the right stories will guarantee you a place in heaven - you would be at least as dismissive as many of the people who believe that story are of the healing power of crystals.
Just as the great age of a story should not make it more credible, neither should the newness or unfamiliarity of a story or belief make it incredible.
What is an open-minded Unitarian to do? By what standards are we to evaluate beliefs and practices, whether old or new?
Unitarianism has long placed a strong emphasis on the use of reason, but while this has been interpreted by many as a requirement that beliefs be scientifically and logically sound, this is neither historically accurate nor - I would argue - a spiritually helpful stance. Spirituality and religion are about having faith - about holding onto hope - about working for justice even when these positions are plainly irrational. We believe in love not because it is about to break out in the world and break in to our lives, but because we faithfully cling to our conviction that this is what the world needs and that we will do our part whether or not it is rational to do so.
In the UK, about five-fold more people say they are "spiritual but not religious" than attend any kind of traditional religious observances. Because they are exploring beyond the bounds of western tradition, some of us are ready to mock and dismiss them. If so, then we are the ones who will be relegated to history's vast dustbin.
The "spiritual but religious" are doing what human beings have always done - seeking new ways to make meaning in their lives. We ignore them at the risk of our own increasing irrelevance.
Let's return to the question I posed above: By what standards are we to evaluate beliefs and practices?
The standard must not be scientific. And even though there is some truth to the notion that better systems survive the test of time, there are some truly awful beliefs and practices that have done so.
I would begin by looking at the organisations promulgating a particular path. Have they made themselves wealthy? Do they use coercion to keep people "in the fold"? Do they condemn those who believe differently? If yes, then run - do not walk - in the opposite direction.
My test has more to do with how a belief or practice leads its adherents to live. If the path makes its followers more loving, more connected, more respectful, and more ready to seek justice for all beings, then I'm ready to take a closer look.
Past-life regression fails many of these tests, but I will not assume that everything new is bad. And that - quite simply - is a part of my faith.