What does spirituality on the alternative lifestyle "cutting edge" look like? I've long been curious about this.
Having written about the Lancaster County religion scene for a number of years, it's hard to ignore some of the tensions that dwell just beneath the surface.
One of these is a paradox - in an area which is still predominantly known for its evangelical Christianity and strong Amish traditions, there is a thriving underground scene in which the lines between spirituality, philosophy and sexuality sometimes become a little blurry.
Paganism, free-thinking groups of various varieties, sadomasochistic rituals - a cursory glance at the Internet or a few e-mails asking for more information finds groups and individuals espousing lifestyles at variance with the county's well-scrubbed, conservative image.
A few years ago, in the course of doing research for an article that never got written, I interviewed some area residents practicing polyamory - romantic relationships with more than one partner and (it's crucial to polyamory advocates that you know this) the full knowledge and consent of all involved.
Since that time, polyamory has gotten a fair amount of mainstream press coverage, such as in this July 29 Newsweek article . (For a fuller picture of media coverage of the subject, go to http://polyinthemedia.blogs.../).
One of the organizations that support polyamorous relationships is Unitarian Universalists for Polyamory Awareness.
Aware of the group's sometimes rocky relationship with its parent body, I asked public relations director Daisy Kincaid to clarify the UUPA's relationship with the Unitarian Universalists.
Terming the UUPA a "related organization," Kincaid responded in an e-mail.
"The UUA has never supported the legal recognition of polyamorous relationships, nor has this issue ever been considered by any official decision-making body of the Association," Kincaid wrote.
Kinsey researcher Kenneth Haslam, the Delaware contact for the UUPA, explained where he saw polyamory and spirituality intersecting.
"I think Jesus said something about love," said the retired anesthesiologist, who has done a lot of research on the topic of polyamory. "We're (Unitarian polyamorists) not Jesus people, but we are love people. ..."
Speaking of polyamorist partners, Haslam said, "You are connected to them, bonded with them, sharing your soul, sharing your vulnerability."
But, he added, dancing naked around a bonfire in a pagan ritual on a moonlit night also can be a spiritual experience.
Are there active polyamorous Unitarians in Lancaster? Patricia Hart of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Lancaster isn't sure, she said - and at the moment there are other pressing priorities, like gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights.
"As a parish minister, my involvement is particular to a parish community", said Hart, who leads the approximately 700-member church with her husband, Peter Newport. "I have to have a darn good reason to bring up matters not pertinent to the life of my congregation."
Hart says that she's not really sure personally about her stance on polyamory.
"I can make an academic case (for it), understand it and honor the courage of those who feel deeply that they have found a way to live a life of honesty and integrity that doesn't limit love to one person," she said. "I can admit that I don't really know, without endorsing or condemning their position."
For another view on the place where multiple relationships and spirituality converge, I spoke with Beverly Dale.
An ordained Disciples of Christ minister, Dale spent several decades heading the University of Pennsylvania's Christian Association. Currently a freelance consultant on sexuality and social justice, she has both a pastoral and sociological interest in polyamory as a way of expressing integrity and mutuality in intimate relationships - an integrity and egalitarianism she sees as grounded in the person of Jesus.
"To live a life of faith is to live a life of risk," Dale said. "It is to believe in the goodness of God and the goodness within ourselves, to believe that the world needs more love."
The honesty and respect that polyamorous partners demonstrate, and their belief that the world has a need of more of that love, is consistent with a life of faith, she said.
Though Dale continues to see a public interest in the subject, she is troubled that liberal (or progressive) churches haven't come up with ways of discussing the topics of sexuality, love and faith with men and women who are searching.
"Too often churches say that if we get to the prepuberty kids then we've done our part," she asserted. "Sexuality is a lifelong development process."
If church leaders and congregations were willing to talk about Jesus as egalitarian and rule breaker, said Dale, they might not be "quite so strict about the monogamy piece."
But Dale continues to be outspoken on the subject, presenting performances, studies and lectures in venues both sacred and secular - places where she knows that people will gather and ask questions.
And in spite of her dissatisfaction with the pace of change in American culture and American congregations with regard to sexuality and spirituality issues, she sees a ray of hope.
"When I've done some of these programs with church folks, I've been surprised that when I leave people will come up and say 'you know, I've felt that all along,'" Dale said. "I have affirmed what they have intuited themselves. You know that the church may be more ready than we know."