Our videographer, Steve, has been out with an arm injury so we haven’t been posting as many sermons online as usual. This was one I gave on January 14, 2018.
Sources of Faith
Once upon a time, and not so long ago, if you were Jewish, you learned Jewish tradition and Jewish Scripture. If you were a practicing Catholic, you learned the catechism and took the sacraments. You read the Catholic Bible (which is a bit different even from the Protestant Bible). If you were a Buddhist, you practiced Buddhism according to whatever lineage your tradition was. If you were a Jain child in India you practiced the dharma and did not know anything at all about the Kabbala. And so on. You get the idea.
And if you were a Unitarian Universalist, in post WW II era, you were part of a humanistic religious tradition that proudly announced its appreciation for the wisdom of all world religions.
Nowadays, Jews and Catholics and Protestants and Buddhists practice an ancient Hindu form of embodied spiritual practice called yoga. The Episcopal priest is reading the Upanishads in order to better understand the texts that were foundational to the life and thought of Mohandas Ghandi, who was himself reading the 19thh century Unitarian Transcendentalist philosopher Henry David Thoreau for inspiration. The Buddhist priest is part of a study group that is spending the year studying the works of Baptist minister and civil rights leader, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.. She cross-references Bible references as she reads through King’s speeches and letters.
The young Muslim attends a Taizés service on Thursday nights because she finds the simple Christian chants to be centering and the music beautiful. An elderly Greek Orthodox woman joins her Muslim neighbors in their Ramadan fast because she is interested in understanding and experiencing the spiritual effects of fasting, a practice that is part of her own religious tradition. The Jainist child grows up, goes to university and dates a Brazilian Pentecostal woman.
The Unitarian Universalists are no longer unusual. What was once fairly unique kind of “selling point” for them has become mainstream. What they once fantasized, that they are a world religion in their own right by virtue of borrowing smatterings from other great faith traditions, turns out to be a far more problematic and complex assumption than anyone imagined: at the best, naïve, and at worst, colonialist, entitled and prone to cultural appropriation.
Who knew? Not UUs. But we evolve, and we learn, and we get humbler, and we hopefully get better.
Unitarian Universalism is confronting its terminal uniqueness and coming to terms with what that means. We know now that it is not at all unusual for people in a wide variety of socioeconomic and cultural contexts to find spiritual inspiration from a variety of sources. The internet, patterns of human migration, doctrinal evolution and globalization have made it commonplace for people to weave a personal tapestry of meaning from a wide variety of sources: world religions, spiritual philosophies, the New Age movement, metaphysics, the occult literature, the arts, science, futurism, technology, the recovery movement, and secular self-help gurus. While this evolution is occurring, awareness of cultural appropriation has caused Unitarian Universalists to consider that it not always responsible or ethical to freely take from and adapt rituals and theologies not original to Unitarianism and Universalism for our own use.
When someone suggested in our General Assembly a few years back that we identity the religion of Islam as one of our official sources of “wisdom and spirituality,” there was a fast rejection about which many of us were relieved. It isn’t a bad desire to want to show special respect for Islam at a time when Muslims were being targeted for harassment in the United States, but Unitarian Universalists generally know very little about the Muslim religion — and furthermore, we have no permission or authority to declare ourselves to be formally affiliated with the Muslim religion. What begins as a desire to be more inclusive can wind up looking a lot like colonization. Hopefully we are getting wiser.
Let’s take a look at what UUs identify as our sources of spiritual wisdom:
- Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life;
- Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love;
- Wisdom from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life;
- Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves;
- Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit;
- Spiritual teachings of Earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.
Where do you find yourself and your own theological grounding in this roster? You may find, as I do, that some years you’re more of a first source UU – other years or seasons, more of a sixth source UU. This is not a hierarchically ranked list, nor is it proscriptive or exhaustive.
The broad categories of our sources leave each of us individually with lots of room for us to explore, to study and to investigate whence we find most profound religious meaning. That is the joy and the huge responsibility of this non-doctrinal tradition: it asks each one who participates in it to do that investigation in an intentional way.
Have any of you seen the film “Lady Bird?” It just won the Golden Globe for Best Picture, Comedy or Musical. and I loved it. It is a coming of age story that centers around a mother-daughter relationship. The lead character, Lady Bird, is a dramatic, intense high school senior who attends an all-girl Catholic high school in Sacramento. One of the things I loved best about the film is its affectionate treatment of Immaculate Heart, and of religion, which is depicted as a sometimes irritating obligation in the students’ lives (there’s a great scene of Lady Bird and her best friend lying on their stomachs on the floor and munching communion wafers) but often the thing in their lives that opens up their minds to important growth. Two of the most sympathetic and beautifully written characters of those of a priest who runs the drama club and Sister Sarah Joan, a wise and funny nun who is the school’s principal.
The writer and director of the movie is Greta Gerwig, who based much of the feel of the film on her own Catholic school years in Sacramento. When she was recently asked by interviewer Terry Gross if she was Catholic, Gerwig said that no, she was actually raised Unitarian Universalist, which gave her a great respect and appreciation for ALL religions. Gerwig then talked about how powerful she found the Catholic religion to be, with its rituals and mystical theological tradition.
And I laughed, because it seemed so classic a UU thing to say: “My religion taught me to appreciate other religions so much that I decided to leave UUism.”
I too was raised Unitarian Universalist and got the impression for a very long time that Unitarian Universalism was nothing but a place to contemplate interesting ideas posed by other world religions and spiritual philosophies. I definitely got the idea that UUs were not their own legitimate religion. I graduated from Sunday School never having any idea that Unitarianism and Universalism were two distinct religious traditions that have ancient roots but flourished during the Protestant Reformation — or that each had a huge influence on the development of American culture from the founding of this nation through the mid-19tth century.
No one informed me that Unitarian Universalists are heirs of the far left wing of Protestantism, or that our form of governance (polity) and congregational structure was created at great sacrifice and bequeathed unto us courtesy of the Puritan movement in England. No one explained to me that our focus on love and acceptance did not emerge from the 1970’s “free to be you and me” movement but had theological origins way back in a third century argument against the development of a punishing God concept, and that when our forebears argued that point again in the Reformation era, they were called heretics and persecuted.
I wish I had been taught that our fervor for debate, interpretation, over-thinking, learning and reading were not contemporary developments but centuries old, influenced by the Enlightenment, classical Humanism and historical criticism of the Bible. Someone in one of my Sunday school classes might have explained that our church was built in the woods and we spent some of our Sunday school classes communing with Nature because of a group called the Transcendentalists, who flourished way back in the 1840’s and had a huge influence in the creation of American culture. It wasn’t because we were hippies.
I would have been fascinated! I would have so appreciated having some knowledge of this!
But when I was born into a mixed marriage in the mid 1960’s to parents who were married in the UU church, the vast majority of Unitarian Universalists were what we call “come-outers,” that is, refugees from some other religious tradition to which doctrine they could not subscribe or even tolerate. A lot of people were rejecting religion altogether and were gathering in lay led fellowships in a sort of ethical culture society model to discuss important ideas and to study religions in some cases – educational forums were very popular – but often to assiduously avoid anything that smacked of, you know, religion. There was a serious skepticism about the necessity or advisability of having clergy around. Some of that suspicion was based in generational suspicion of authority figures.
The word “spirituality” was treated with some horror as a mushy, irrational concept not fit for sharp minds. God was dead, or so said existentialist thinkers at around that time, and Unitarian Universalists weren’t so much interested in knowing their theological heritage as they were in social change and intellectual inquiry (as if though those things couldn’t be compatible. Of course they can be — and marvelously so).
Unitarian Universalists were aiming to be modern and relevant and culturally cutting edge, and so they buried their Protestant origins in their libraries and didn’t mention or teach them much, and kids like me grew up not even knowing that our religion was a religion. I learned that it was when I won a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to study Emerson, Thoreau and Margaret Fuller with Professor David Robinson at Oregon State University in 1992. I went into the summer seminar a tired high school English teacher. I came out four weeks later with a burning passion for the ideas to which I had been introduced over long days of study and the long nights of reading, and a suggestion by Dr. Robinson that I apply to Harvard Divinity School – Emerson and Thoreau’s alma mater. David is not just the author of several books on Thoreau, he is also the author of the seminal Unitarian Universalist historical text, The Unitarian And The Universalists, and a graduate of HDS himself.
Funny how the universe works.
That is my story. But the broader story of our religious community is that Things Have Changed. The world has changed. The derision toward “spirituality” is resolving as staunch opponents of anything “mushy” realize that new generations are not only not afraid of it, but are perfectly capable of joining science and soulfulness, ritual and intellectual approach. They are rightfully dismissive of humanist fundamentalists.
I learned a lot about Unitarian Universalist theology and religion in seminary. But I have learned just as much in the parish ministry, in congregational life. After twenty-one years in the parish I believe that it is the practice of community that is the essential theological foundation of Unitarian Universalism. Whether or not you are a fan of the Puritans, we must give credit where it is due and appreciate their legacy of organizing and establishing congregations not around doctrinal conformity but around covenant; the relationship between God and humanity and humans with each other.
I will be preaching more about this because it is so important for us to understand, and to embrace and to own, and to explain: we are ultimately and essentially a religious tradition that believes in growing the soul in community.
Where each one of us personally finds profoundest meaning, whether in the Bible or walking meditation by the beach, or Jewish rituals learned from our youth, or dream work, or choral singing, or a combination of any or all of these and other sources, is interesting and important. However, when someone asks you, “What is a Unitarian Universalist” you can say, “We are a religious tradition with historical roots in the Protestant Reformation but that has evolved over the centuries to include a wide variety of sources of spiritual wisdom. We personally believe many different things but what we practice is spiritual and ethical growth in community. Our shared spiritual practice is community. That’s what we understand what it means to be the church: to be in relationship, and it’s demanding. It holds us accountable. It gets intense. It’s creative and dynamic and sometimes frustrating.”
And then you can quote the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to them and say,
“Our goal is to create a beloved community and
this will require a qualitative change in our souls
as well as a quantitative change in our lives.”
To be a Unitarian Universalist, or in fellowship with UUs, is to carry within an inextinguishable flame of faith that humans are capable of moral evolution. To hold confidence in that possibility and to work toward it is our heritage and our mission. It is a journey, and let us sing praises to it.