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Sermons: “Unitarian Universalists, Cats and Dogs

In the Unitarian Universalist Church we find inspiration from many different sources. The inspiration for today’s sermon comes from a joke. You may have heard it:

Q: What’s the difference between cats and dogs?

A: Dogs look at people and say, “They feed us. They give us shelter. They take care of our every need. They must be gods.” Cats look at people and say, “They feed us. They give us shelter. They take care of our every need. We must be gods.”

I’m not sure if this joke gives us any real insight into the way that cats or dogs think. However, the joke does remind me of a comment that Thomas Starr King made about Unitarians and Universalists. Until 1961 Unitarians and Universalists were two different denominations. In that year the American Unitarian Association merged with the Universalist Church of America to form the Unitarian Universalist Association. However, in the 19th century Thomas Starr King was asked to describe the differences between these two denominations. He replied, “Universalists believe that God is too good to damn them to hell forever. Unitarians believe they are too good to be damned.” And so we might say that Unitarians are cats and Universalists are dogs.

Of course, every metaphor breaks down under close scrutiny. Our family has four cats. One of the best ways to entertain them is to get one of those laser pointers and shine it around the house. The cats will chase it, jump for it, pounce on it and never understand why they don’t seem to be able to catch that sparkling red point of light. I have never seen any Unitarian do this, although Unitarians do show a lively interest in science and technology. Our family has a dog. Like many Universalists, Annie finds inspiration in Nature. She likes to go for long walks in the fields and woods. She thrives on running in the clean open air. However, I have never seen a Universalist sniff some of the things my dog is willing to sniff. So when I say Unitarians are cats and Universalists are dogs I am not trying to gloss over the real differences. I am simply employing an imperfect metaphor.

Many of us who came into the movement after 1961 think of ourselves as Unitarian Universalists. We do not identify with one tradition, but both. I am one such person. However, Unitarians and Universalists did bring two distinct theologies into the movement. In Unitarian churches the emphasis was on the worth and dignity of every person and tolerance for differences. Universalists focused on the text “God is love” and placed emphasis on the ways that human personality blossoms in the larger sustaining love of human community and to the divine. I think there is value in both of these traditions.

My cats seemed to have a strong sense of their own worth and dignity. They are affectionate but often on their own terms, choosing the place and the moment for any contact with the human members of the household. Our cat’s attitude toward our dog is one of tolerance. There is a “live and let live” philosophy but no great warmth or demonstrative affection. My cats are independent, self-sufficient. I do not claim to know their religious beliefs but it is possible they are Unitarians.

My dog, on the other hand, is very demonstrative with her affection. She runs to greet me at the door. She wags her tail. She barks. She jumps up and down. Around my dog I get the feeling that the meaning of life is to love and to be loved, to express our feelings. To let others know that we are glad to see them, that we missed them while they were gone, to be an open book. My cats like to curl up in a corner for some silent solitary retreat. My dog wants to be in the thick of things, surrounded by people and love. I do not claim to know my dog’s religious beliefs but she might be a Universalist.

In some ways this creative tension between cats and dogs, Unitarians and Universalists is similar to patterns that can be found in other aspects of life. For instance, in Buddhism there is a tension between the Theravada and the Mahayana schools of thought. In the Theravada school, enlightenment is achieved through silent retreat, self-contained meditation. The goal is enlightenment and no one can achieve this goal for you. You must achieve it for yourself. No God or gods can help you do this; you must do it on your own. Radical self-reliance is the path to the goal of individual salvation. Once you reach enlightenment or nirvana you do not return to help others get there. Everyone must get to enlightenment through his or her own efforts.

The Mahayana school of Buddhism places special emphasis on compassion. According to the Mahayanists, compassion is more important than wisdom or enlightenment. Or perhaps it is better to say that compassion is the necessary fruit of enlightenment and without it enlightenment has little value. Here, the goal is also to reach enlightenment or nirvana. However, once you achieve it, the idea is to return from that state into the real world in order to guide others to the place you have discovered. The person who returns to serve others is revered as a bodhisattva, or what folks in the West might call a saint.

Huston Smith describes the differences between these two schools of thought by quoting poetry. The Mahayana school of thought can be summarized in the words, “He findeth not who seeks his own. She findeth not who seeks her own. The soul is lost that’s saved alone.” The Theravada school can be summarized in the words, “No one saves us but ourselves, No one can and no one may; We ourselves must tread the path: Buddhas only show the way.”

My cats belong to the Theravada school. My dog belongs to the Mahayana school. Of course, this tension between self-reliance and compassion for others is found in many other aspects of life. In some ways the Theravada school is the Republican Party of Buddhism; the focus is on self-help, working for personal advancement, not looking for hand-outs but opportunities to move up in the world. The Mahayana school might be called the Democratic Party of Buddhism. The ideal is, once you have made it in the world, to help others move on up in the world as well. Personal salvation is not enough. You’ve got to help others make it also.

You can get a lot of mileage out of the philosophy, “God helps those who help themselves.” But Hurricane Katrina reminds us that all our efforts can be blown away in a single moment. When the hurricane hits, the flood waters rise, the levees burst and we are stranded on top of a roof we might come to the conclusion that “God helps those who are helped by one another.”

Of course, another thing is also true. I am teaching a class called “From Aging to Saging.” In one session, we discussed people’s fears about aging. One theme in those conversations was the fear of the loss of affirmation. There is the fear of losing the affirmations that go along with the roles of career and vocation. And so there are times when we need to affirm ourselves. There are occasions when we must practice self-respect. We need to recite the chant that Jesse Jackson leads with inner city children: “I am somebody. Respect me. I am a child of God.”

For many, there is a strict dichotomy between these ways of looking at the world. It is self-reliance vs. compassion. It is either/or instead of both/and. There is something to be said for self-reliance and individual autonomy. As the Sufi mystics teach, we all need times alone, “for only when a glass of water is taken out of a raging ocean can it be still.” And we all need those moments of stillness and solitude. However, we also need to love and be loved, to express ourselves, to be demonstrative about how we feel. These are human needs and perhaps deeper than human. Perhaps cats, dogs and all creatures of the earth and sky feel these needs too.

The Unitarians and the Universalists merged in 1961, a combination of two different kinds of creatures. Occasionally, if you go to denominational gatherings, you will still find someone who laments the merger; someone who deeply regrets the day it happened. There are folks who trace all the source of all the evil in the world to the decision to merge. But I joined the movement after the merger, and I have always thought of myself as a Unitarian Universalist.

Anyway, it’s just possible that we need both cats and dogs in the world, Unitarians and Universalists, Theravada and Mahayana Buddhists. In order to be whole and complete persons, we need to cultivate our self-reliance and our ability to give and receive love, our humility and our pride; our times of solitude and our times of companionship. The prophet Isaiah envisioned a day when the lion and the lamb would lie down together, to which Woody Allen commented, “The lion and the lamb may lie down together, but the lamb won’t get much sleep.” In my household, the cats and the dog do lie down together; in their own unique ways, they seek to accommodate other creatures that are not exactly like them. So perhaps there is hope for peace in this church, peace in the world, peace between Unitarians and Universalists, cats and dogs.

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 19, 2013.

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