The Religion of the Circle


From Edwin Markham to Starhawk, the circle has been
a metaphor for inclusion, an openness to all life,
a gesture of respect for the earth and all people.
We have lost the art of circling, of living in community
with others in our egoistic American culture.
We need to restore ancient practices of council
and interdependence. The greatest power in our
Unitarian Universalist churches to attract newcomers
is to offer a place for the intimate circle, the vital community,
the small group, that respects and values them.
It truly takes the Word from the hierarchy, the Bible,
and the pulpit and places it in the people.




The Rev. Robert Bowler was a Unitarian minister in England
for three years, 1994-1997, before returning to the United States
and qualifying for Fellowship as a Unitarian Universalist minister.
He currently serves the Walpole Unitarian Church in Walpole, New Hampshire.
Previously he served churches in Glens Falls, New York
and Cheltenham, Gloucester and Evesham, England.
Currently, Robert also teaches Religious Studies courses
at Franklin Pierce College in Rindge, New Hampshire.
He is a graduate of Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, California.
His wife Cindy is an artist completing her Masters of Fine Arts degree
and they have a teenage daughter.

 The Religion of the Circle

by Robert Bowler


Edwin Markham’s poem “Outwitted” expresses to me
our task as Unitarian Universalists in American culture:

He drew a circle that shut me out­
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in!

I call the practice of drawing ever larger circles
of inclusion the religion of the circle.
The religion of the circle is a process that
respects life in all its diversity, a practice
that celebrates nature's abundant web of relationships,
and a set of principles that strives to build
a human community of equals.

It is my religion and it is Unitarian Universalism.
Let me elaborate.

I use the word circle because there is power in a circle.
Nature seems to function in circles,
from the orbits of the planets and the spiral galaxies,
to the round earth and sun, to the horizon and
the continuous cycles of the seasons,
of birth, life and death.
Looking to the example of nature,
it is a sacred pattern in which all life is held.

Black Elk described the religion of the circle
based on his vision of “the whole hoop of the world.”
He saw the religion of the circle wherever power moves,
in everything natural and flowing with life:

“Everything the power of the world does is done in a circle.
The sky is round and I have heard that the earth is round
like a ball, and so are all the stars.
Birds make their nests in circles
for theirs is the same religion as ours. 
The sun comes forth and goes down again in a circle.
The moon does the same, and both are round.
Even the seasons form a great circle in their changing,
and always come back again to where they were.
The life of a person is a circle from childhood to childhood,
and so it is in everything where power moves.”

With simplicity and elegance, Chief Seattle
as well warned those who were
taking the land of his people:

“This we know.
The earth does not belong to us;
we belong to the earth.
This we know.
All things are connected
like the blood which units one family.
All things are connected.
Whatever befalls the earth
befalls the sons and daughters of the earth.
We did not weave the web of life;
we are merely a strand in it.
Whatever we do to the web
we do to ourselves.”


Though Chief Seattle's words are so familiar,
so simple, and so obvious, they, sadly,
remain very radical in our culture.
We have fragmented ourselves from the earth
and from each other.
Community is an ideal lost,
a practice forgotten, an art ignored.
My religion calls me to work for human community,
to yearn for a shift in human culture,
to heal the egoistic fragmentation from which we suffer.

Religion feeds fundamental principles,
it inspires worldviews and lives.
If our religion is going to be circular rather than linear,
holistic rather than fragmented,
we need to learn to see ourselves as part of nature,
as a circle within a circle.
We are parts of the whole,
inextricably woven into its fabric of interconnectedness.
Likewise, our challenge is to weave human circles,
sit on the rim with others and offer all respect.

Fragmentation is so ingrained in our culture and in us
that the religion of the circle becomes very difficult to practice.
Political maneuvers and power plays end up fragmenting
any endeavor to build a community of equals,
any growing confidence and self-respect for those left out
of traditional power arrangements.
When two people hold power,
they can triangulate a third, shutting them out.
When some become an “in group,”
they build walls to exclude.
If one is not white, heterosexual,
intelligent, good looking, physically fit,
one is excluded from the mainstream of our culture.
One cannot walk into an institution
and become a valued member if one is different.
We may shun Nazism,
but our society has not entirely rejected it in practice.
It is easier to conform and perpetuate walls
than to open to the rich diversity of human life
and make it work in business, in neighborhoods,
and in church.


Today people like Starhawk and others are not afraid
of the politics necessary to embrace a religion
that sees all as part of the circle instead of fragmenting life.
She calls people to embrace the light and the dark.
She invites us to deepen and awaken to the inner self
as well as live in ways
that are in sustainable relationship with others and the earth.
Action for change grows out of
embracing more of ourselves and more of the earth simultaneously,
recognizing that “dominance over” ultimately fragments.
It destroys us as whole beings.
It fragments our society as a community
and our earth as a living, interdependent web.
It divides the people in the room.
It reduces citizens to economic units,
subjects to objects.

Thus the religion of the circle draws us into a new form of politics.
I would use different language,
but Starhawk calls this the politics of eroticism (a mature intimacy)
that, she says, "cannot be based on hierarchical structures"
but must rely instead on "small groups."
It must be in the image of the Goddess, she says,
as the living, interconnected web.
Her politics, she writes,
is "strengthened by an underlying network of human connections,
a weaving of close relationships that bind it like warp and weft."
It is sitting down in a circle
and looking at how we are affected
by the linear, fragmenting culture in which we live.
It is sitting down together and valuing all equally.

One of the books that has most inspired my ministry
is titled Calling the Circle: The Once and Future Culture,
by Christina Baldwin.
She offers an art of circling that anyone may learn.
Its politics are quieter than Starhawk’s, but no less challenging.
She speaks of creating the space for council,
for being present to one another in a way
that values all who sit on the rim of the circle.
The simple act of valuing and being valued
is a powerful event for people today.
The circle heals, it inspires, it nourishes,
and it brings people to the place from which
they can act together for the good of the whole.
“Moving our bodies from rows to circles [she says],
and our self-interests from center to edge,
enables each of us to reclaim our innate knowledge
of circle and carry it forward consciously.”


I know that pulpit preaching is a core act in our tradition.
The Word was taken out of the church hierarchy,
then out of the Bible, and placed in the dramatic stage of the pulpit,
in the voice of the reasoning, feeling, yearning, striving human being.
Admittedly, it was always the Minister,
historically nearly always a man,
usually trained at Harvard Divinity School,
who occupied this elevated place.

Usually freedom of the pulpit is reserved for the minister.
I interpret this tradition as freedom for all members,
an elevated stage for the free voice.
However, when we sit a circle
our voices can be heard without separation.
And in a circle we do not give our own power away
so readily even though we may find it easier to do so.

Nevertheless, I have to confess, I love the Unitarian tradition
just as I love my traditional New England church.
Both have a beauty and elegance I find deeply satisfying.
Perhaps this is because within them,
within our revered tradition and here in our beloved church,
the feminine circle is free to thrive.
Our traditional churches may be masculine,
set in rows with a high pulpit,
but adding a circle for our worship balances the whole,
and restores a sense of community.

But it has not been here, in this beautiful space,
that I have found the deepest spiritual experience.
It is small groups, in adult religious growth and learning circles.
In circling, I find wholeness and health.
I find aliveness and spiritual awakening.
I find a unity emerges in a group that is greater
than the fragmenting pull of our wider culture,
greater than the sum of the parts.
Circling has become for me a compelling,
lifelong spiritual practice.
Magic happens when together we sit on the rim
and hold to the center,
a center that is not an ego, but the power of life itself.


"To work magic, [says Starhawk] we begin by making new metaphors.
Without negating the light, we reclaim the dark:
the fertile earth where the hidden seed lies unfolding,
the unseen power that rises within us, …
parts of ourselves we have shoved down into the dark.
Instead of enlightenment, we begin to speak of deepening....”
My vision is similarly holistic.
The center is as vast as life and as mysterious.
On the rim, we strive to strengthen the shared power
of sitting together as a community of equals.
We need to feel safe to bring
all our struggling human imperfection
and all our capacity to love and value to the circle.
Facilitating small groups
has been a profound spiritual experience for me.
The circle is a place where magic happens,
life energy is released, people learn and grow,
and health and wholeness is restored.


I am convinced that we cannot learn
to practice Unitarian Universalism
as expressed in our principles and in our traditions,
until and unless we can sit in a circle together as equals.
Just as Starhawk's magic
comes from deep within the earth and ourselves,
the spiritual experience of circling comes from us,
from our commitment to the whole
and our respect for one another.
When we listen well and speak with integrity,
we gain the humility to risk personal growth
and the openness to draw ever larger circles of love and trust.
Magic happens, the group becomes a coherent and unified whole,
a community, a basis for real change,
a foundation for an ancient but ever-new culture.

Despite the forces of fragmentation,
facilitating circles of growth and learning,
building communities of equals,
has been and continues to be a profound spiritual experience for me.
Sharing it with more people more often
has become the core of my ministry.
If we can create together a true community of equals,
we will learn to walk with others and with the earth with integrity.
We will walk the religion of the circle.
We will harness the power of diversity in community,
the greatest energy in the universe,
the largest circle of all, life itself.

So May It Be!


"The Religion of the Circle"

    This sermon was first presented by the author, Robert Bowler,
the Walpole Unitarian Church in Walpole, New Hampshire on February 8, 2004.

    It was selected as Rural Sermon-of-the-Month
by the subscribers to RURAL-L for March 2004.

    {Other uses will be listed here.}

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