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Sermons: “From the One, Many: Prospects for a New Universalism

I feel sorry for the kids today who are taking geography in school for the first time. When I was in school, unless you got really interested in the history of Iraqi Kurdistan, there was a chance you could get all the way through geography class without ever having to know learn to spell Sulaymania. But these days, places that were footnotes in history are back on the front pages, with a vengeance.

Almost every week’s current events seem to bring a further explosion of geographic diversity that represents one more headache in international diplomacy and on the final exam. Whereas we could happily point out on the map of the world where Yugoslavia used to be, kids today have to know Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, and Macedonia. Even worse, whereas we used to be able to point out 20% of the world’s land mass with one finger and four letters (U.S.S.R.), we now have to remember Kazakhstan, Moldavia, and Ukraine, not to mention Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

For those of us fortunate enough not to have anxiety about being examined on all this more complicated place-name identification, these ongoing political developments can be contemplated more calmly, but with a great deal more bewilderment and sorrow. After all, these new places that our kids have to learn about are not new places at all. They are old places. They are places that were there well before the states that absorbed them. It is nations that are the really durable social entities in our world, while states are more often bureaucratic fictions, created from the spoils of war.

There are five thousand nations in the world today, but there are only about one hundred and ninety states, and most of those states have been around only since the end of World War II. A nation is a much more durable community than a state because, along with a sense of place, a territory to call their own, nations have a language, a culture, a preferred form of political organization, and a shared history. All these will sustain a nation’s identity even if the flag that flies over its territory changes its colors, and even if the people of the nation are forced to leave their territory altogether. We have learned that over and over again, in Palestine, in Tibet, in Kurdistan, to kill a nation, you have to kill all the people of the nation.

A great deal of what’s going on in the world these days has to do with conflicts between nations and the states that claim to represent them: how autonomous can these nations be? Who controls their resources? How free are they to speak their own language, to express their own culture, to believe in their own religion?

Even before the dramatic breakup of the Soviet Union and the disintegration of Yugoslavia, the dilemma faced by states that are trying to get their nations in line came home to me when I was visiting my family in Manitoba, Canada, way back in 1990, at the time of Elijah Harper’s famous No Vote. You may know that for years, the federal Canadian government has been trying to work out a new constitution that will accommodate the political and cultural concerns of Canada’s large French-speaking population. In 1990, a lengthy negotiating process had led up to an agreement called the Meech Lake Accords, which needed to be ratified by enough provinces to make it binding. Manitoba was one of the last provinces to take its vote on the accords, and was approaching a midnight legislative deadline that, if ignored, would scuttle the whole agreement.

The point in the legislative debate came when unanimous agreement of all the members of the Manitoba Legislative Assembly was required to extend the time of the session so that the final vote ratifying the Meech Lake Accords could be taken before the deadline for ratification expired. On that occasion, when a new constitution for the entire country required unanimity, one voice was heard in that Legislative Chamber calling out:

“No.”

The voice belonged to Elijah Harper, the only Native Canadian Member of the Manitoba Legislative Assembly. Harper voted No because the aboriginal peoples of Canada are a nation too, and in the course of years of constitutional squabbling between French and English speaking Canadians, their concerns, which are quite parallel to those of the Francophones, had been set aside or ignored. So this carefully crafted constitutional package, a symbol of what federalism might have to become in this new world we were moving towards, went down the tubes on the strength of one man’s vote, and all because his people did not have their seat at the table.

In Canada, Harper’s vote symbolized the new strength of aboriginal people’s demands to be heard and to be treated with respect, but, viewed in a global context, it was one more reminder of the new tribalism and ethnic nationalism that has asserted itself in every corner of the globe.

There are some among us, scholars, political scientists, clergy, who are greatly disturbed by this new tribalism, some who decry the allegiance people feel to their nations, to their ethnicity, their religions, to the ancient roots of their cultures. This despair at the new tribalism is of course influenced strongly by the human tragedies we have seen associated with these loyalties, and particularly with their violent suppression. Who among us can see any good in the continuing tragedy of the Sudan or Chechnya? These tensions and the sudden breakup of larger states into smaller nations have turned the tables on the motto that has been an inspiration for this American State. Instead of “E Pluribus Unum—From the Many, One,” we seem to be living in a time when the world’s motto is exactly the opposite “From the One, Many.” The despair we feel therefore goes beyond our horror at the bloodshed occurring in these specific places. The despair we feel is rooted in the perception that this new tribalism and religious exclusivity seems to be the repudiation of a fondly held dream: the dream of national and cultural boundaries dissolving, the dream of people coming together instead of splitting apart, the dream of one world. “From the Many, One” has been a theme of liberal religion in all of its forms for generations. In all the diversity of worship, we discern one God; in all the diversity of creation, we discern one interdependent web of life; in all the diversity of beliefs and expressions, we discern one faith that has motivated the great religious teachers and leaders throughout history.

This was a dream that was at the heart of the Universalism that was being proclaimed in the first half of the 20th century. Fifty years ago, there was no stronger voice for this religion of unities and universals than Clarence Skinner. He combined a compelling social conscience and critical analysis of the evils of society with a mystical optimism that the unity of creation would manifest itself in the advance of humanity towards greater justice, compassion, and knowledge.

Skinner’s mysticism still sounds a chord that I can hear as I read his writings today, but his optimism is more difficult to embrace. There has been too much bloodied water under the bridge this past half century, too many wars, too much disappointment in the broken promises of technology, too much horror at the inhumanity of people to each other to jump on that bandwagon any more. Can the religion of unities and universals that Skinner preached speak to the world in which we live today? Or is it a religion that is hopelessly naive and deluded about the way things really are?

Let’s talk first about the way things really are. It is all too easy to paint a bleak picture about the direction that the world is taking today, especially after the tragedy of 9/11 woke us up to the grim possibilities of the “failed states” left behind as the U.S.S.R. fell. And this is all I have done for you thus far this morning. Are there any places where we can find hope these days for the emergence of the kind of world about which Clarence Skinner dreamed? I think that there are.

It is easy to forget that it has been little more than a decade since our hearts were lifted up by the crumbling of the Berlin Wall, the most powerful symbol of the ideological division which had held the world hostage for a generation. In the midst of our enthusiasms for the freedoms that became possible with the end of the Cold War, we heard voices reminding us that this path toward a new world order would be very dangerous and very hard. They have been proven right. Yet along side of (and in spite of) the creation of vast swaths of lawless territory where criminal and terrorist organizations have been able to take root, there are many nation-states in Eastern Europe and Asia both new and old that managed to move through the difficult economic adjustments of the 1990’s without civil war or anarchy.

Many of these former Soviet states have been accepted into the E.U., joining Western Europe’s system of a unified citizenship and currency. Those of you in this room who lived through World War II—ask yourself if you ever could have imagined in 1945 that before your grandchildren reached adulthood a continent that had been so divided by war would unite together for purposes of common good and benefit, all the while sustaining their rich and diverse cultures.

Tribalism, ethnic pride and nationalism are not necessarily the demons that plague our world. But they do have their demonic side. The demonic side of tribalism is the tendency to make the people of other tribes into the agents of the devil. It is to misunderstand the religious revelation or spiritual insight of your tribe’s religion as exclusive, and impossible to reconcile with that of the tribe next door. To fight the tribe next door then becomes not only a matter of pride or self-defense but a religious duty. All over the world, in places where religious obligation is combined with tribal economic and cultural interests, we find humanity creating hell.

In its earliest forms, the pioneers of Universalism saw as their task the liberation of the human mind and heart from the fear of hell. Today the Universalism we preach does not address hell as specifically as it once did, but the world around us is still imprisoned by hell’s image. In the 21st century, our Universalist message is consistent with that preached by our religious ancestors when we proclaim that the face of the enemy is not that of any Great Satan or his agents, but instead the face of people well known to us—people who love their children and seek the best for them, people who face death with courage and wonder what lies beyond it, people whose aspirations are no different from the ones that we have. The Universalist message that makes sense in the 21st century can no longer be based on the belief in “E Pluribus Unum, From the Many, One.” “From the Many, One,” suggests an imposed unity, a phony syncretism, which no longer speaks to the aspirations of the many tribes and nations around the world. On the contrary, the Universalist message we must embrace will be grounded instead in the motto “From the One, Many,” the belief that from the One, Within the One, which is behind our human drama in all its forms, there is a place for the each of the many cultures, many ways of worship, many revelations through which the One is manifest.

This country in which we live, the United States of America, has been among the finest examples of what “From the One, Many” can mean. The ideal of a liberal democracy, with individual liberty and economic opportunity for all, has attracted people of every nation and tribe to come here to make their home. This country is moving from the image of a melting pot to the image of a mosaic. Yet we see a disturbing trend within the political and religious right in this country. The strongest “tribal division” we see happening in this country today may not exist between diverse ethnic groups or denominations, and not even between the different races that make up this country. The strongest tribal division may be happening between the cultures of fundamentalist conservatism and the rest of society which it demonizes. When a President of the United States can consistently support using the views of the religious right to dominate our laws and culture, we should have cause for concern. A Universalism for today will have to seek the common moral ground that can transcend even these persistent, familiar animosities which have helped create this great cultural division—animosities such as those around gender roles and reproductive rights. To paraphrase Christopher Lasch:

The circumstances of our collective insecurity in the world make it necessary for us to trust those who cannot be subjected to our control. If American politics today represents the mobilization of resentment, (Universalism) represents the mobilization of trust conceived not as a favor we bestow on [others] but as a necessity imposed on us by our common weakness.

The ever changing technologies of communication—wireless internet, digital media—have brought the world closer together than it ever has been before, and yet we know that technology itself does not hold the answer that we seek. When ancient hatreds, personal greeds, and demonizing the other all conspire to create tribal warfare and terrorism, the first thing that is sacrificed is the technology on which we are so dependent. There is a spiritual challenge that must be met for the technological miracles of which we are capable to make a difference in the world. Universalism today speaks to that spiritual challenge.

In an essay on Liberal Religion in the 21st Century, the former President of our Unitarian Universalist Association, Bill Schulz, offers a call to proclaim this renewed Universalism. He says:

Every race or nation—with their divergent appearances, customs, and interests—is a challenge to the self-sufficiency of every other, and in the face of such challenges, we forget our common roots and common tribulations. Surely one of the things about religion is to remind us not just that we are free but that we each will die, not just that we are different, but that we each are subject to grace and capable of praise…If we are to overcome nationalism, economic exploitation, and the accumulative mentality, we require a religious proclamation of that which binds us to one another, to the earth, and to the Holy.

The Universalism that we embody in our contemporary Unitarian Universalist churches must create a home for the diversity that exists around us if we are to be an authentic voice speaking for the One that is there to be found among the many. We need not worry that other ways of being in the world will dominate or overpower the ways of being to which we have become accustomed. We need not fear the new tribalism if we, ourselves, can begin to appreciate the strengths and insights of cultures different from that which predominates in our churches. A religious proclamation of that which binds us to one another, and to the earth and to the Holy must begin in this day and age with the words, “From the One, Many.” Let us search for new ways to live this kind of Universalist faith in all that we do. So be it.

Copyright: The author has given Unitarian Universalist Association member congregations permission to reprint this piece for use in public worship. Any reprints must acknowledge the name of the author.

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Last updated on Tuesday, February 26, 2013.

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