Rethinking the Unitarian Universalist Relationship to Christianity
"The question of what any tradition means is part of that tradition itself, and as long as the tradition lives the question remains in dispute. " - Spiritual Marketplace: Baby Boomers and the Remaking of American Religion, p.166, by Wade Clark Roof Princeton University Press 1999 (not quoted in lecture)
My lecture rethinking our relationship to Christianity is in four parts. First, I shall outline the road we have traveled with the UUA since its founding. The second part will consider what makes us what we are. Thirdly shall be who we are. Fourth and lastly I shall suggest some implications for religious education and worship. First, the road we have traveled with the UUA
The American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America held concurrent conventions in Syracuse in August 1959 in order to agree on a constitution for the proposed consolidation of the two into the Unitarian Universalist Association. The only sticking point was the perennial lack of agreement on principles and purposes: what we stood for. The Unitarians voted to strike God from the principles and purposes. The Universalists voted to add Christianity.
The events were not as portrayed in our published history on this episode, A Stream of Light edited by Conrad Wright and described in the final chapter It Was Noontime Here written by Carol L. Morris. I know. I was there. I watched with concern and misgivings over the days it took to reach the necessary political compromise. Like most people, doubtless, I was far more concerned to see the merger succeed than I was to see any faction that week win a theological debate.
Both the Unitarian and the Universalist associations for years past had affirmed, at least implicitly, a relationship to Christianity. A special joint committee appointed to draft the purposes and principles for the proposed Unitarian Universalist Association made its recommendations to the two conventions meeting in Syracuse in August 1959. It proposed this wording:
To cherish and spread the universal truths taught hy the great prophets and teachers of humanity in every age and tradition, immemorially summarized in their essence as love to God and love to man.
By majority vote, the Unitarian convention voted to strike "immemorially summarized in their essence as love to God and love to man." The Universalists, on the other hand, voted to strengthen the Christian reference by identifying our root source as "our Judea-Christian heritage." They amended the principles and purposes to read:
To cherish and spread the universal truths taught by the great prophets and teachers of humanity in every age and tradition, immemorially summarized in our Judeo-Christian heritage as love to God and love to man.
Of course, the same exact wording had to be agreed to by both conventions. The compromise reached was to change "immemorially summarized in our Judeo-Christian heritage as love to God and love to man" to read "immemorially summarized in the Judeo-Christian heritage" etc. A colleague referred to the compromise as changing "our Judeo-Christian heritage" to that Judeo-Christian heritage. What had been a declaration of ownership was changed to a statement of fact.
All this took more than the first day attributed to it in A Stream of Light.
The Unitarian Universalist Association came into being the following spring, in Boston, on May 23, 1960. No sooner had the gavels sounded, and dinners been eaten, than the delegates of the two former associations met in Symphony Hall, Boston, to celebrate the new beginning. The preacher for the occasion, Donald S. Harrington of the Community Church, New York, made it more of a new beginning than many of us had anticipated. I thought we had just voted to set up a fresh larger household of Universalists and Unitarians together. Dr. Harrington informed us, with his customary vigour and enthusiasm, that we had just created a new faith. It was Unitarian Universalism. His sermon title was Unitarian Universalism: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow. He announced, to quote him,
a new synthesis, the coalescence of a new consensus, a new world faith, formulated by and fitted for the great, new world-age that is coming to birth in our time.
In the service of dedication that followed the sermon, prayer, and responsive reading, the assembled worshippers affirmed:
Standing today at a great moment and historic milestone in our long journey, deeply aware of the past that is present in us, and confronted by arduous tasks which command all that we have and are, we, Unitarians and Universalists, the spiritual free men of this hour, pause now to praise the forefathers offreedom's cause, those who by their courage and prophetic vision gave us our goodly heritage and laid the foundations of our new found faith.
The new UUA public relations department took full flight. UUA President Dana Greeley had his misgivings, which he expressed in his book Twenty Five Beacon Street [p.98f], but the Uni- Uni process was underway.
In forming the Unitarian Universalist Association, both the Unitarians and the Universalists in their official purposes took steps away from their Christian roots. Our collective behavior, however, in a sense moved in the opposite direction. First there was the civil rights movement, where we marched arm in arm with black and white clergy in various places in the United States, creating new ties. Then there was the Vietnam antiwar movement, in the course of which President Nixon and Attorney General Mitchell got after the UUA for publishing the Pentagon Papers, and we called on the Christian churches to support us. Our calls were heeded. In those days in the sixties everything was up for grabs, as American society seemed to come apart at the seams and a tidal wave of baby boomers immobilized college campuses. Around 1970, newly elected UUA President Robert West observed that in the sixties a fundamental realignment of the UUA had taken place. In 1960, we had stood with the universities over against the churches. (One of our theological professors, Robert Tapp, once characterized our movement as continuing education for college graduates.) By 1970, we had moved, so that we stood alongside the churches against developments in a secular, consumer-oriented society.
We were becoming more religious. We were also, somehow, by some unacknowledged process becoming less Christian, though "the Judeo-Christian heritage as love to God and love to man" survived in the UUA Principles until 1985. That year, after two years of consulting congregations, we adopted the seven principles and five of the present six sources in a new set of UUA Principles and Purposes. The 1993 hymnal, Singing the Living Tradition, published the seven principles and five sources right after its preface, and divided the hymns in the book into the categories of the five sources. A decade later, the sixth source, spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions, was adopted by the UUA General Assembly against the recommendations of the Board of Trustees by a political process based on diverse group interests and pedestrian arguments.
In 1985 we all greeted the near-unanimous adoption of the new Principles and Purposes not only with relief, for we had averted a serious schism in our midst, but also with enthusiasm, for we seemed to have found a formula which satisfied us all. Now, fifteen years later, I find myself dissatisfied. There is a fuzzy focus at the centre of our religious movement which has troubled me for some time. That continuing ambiguity is what I want to address this evening. The seven principles and six sources that we as member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association covenant to affirm and promote are brought into relationship with each other by the words, "The living tradition we share."
Aye, there's the rub! What is the living tradition we share? What living tradition pulls together the seven principles, on which we probably largely agree, and those six sources that are so diverse and varied that, by emphasizing one source rather than another, one can come up with different faiths? The UUA statement of principles, published in our hymnal, ends on a note of faith. The penultimate sentence reads, "Grateful for the religious pluralism which enriches and ennobles our faith , we are inspired to deepen our understanding and expand our vision. "
I am not at all clear in my own mind and heart how the religious pluralism we have today enriches and ennobles our faith. I am not even clear what our faith today is. In retrospect, looking back over the years, and I have been an active involved Unitarian for fifty five years, I see now that for all our diversity, forty years ago there was a unity that held us together. Our movement then included Christians and refugees from Christianity, believers in God and agnostics and atheists , believers in science and human progress and sundry spiritual gypsies. Nonetheless we shared more of a bond than we realized.
Since then, the world, including the world of religion, has been transformed. In the sixties everything was up for grabs as a tidal wave of baby boomers hit the college campuses with revolt and rebellion, pot and protest. Out of that cultural bath, washed by consumerism inculcated by the mass media, emerged a radically different religious landscape. To a significant extent, the religious institutions which had persisted for centuries were replaced by a new phenomenon, one which has been called the spiritual marketplace. Instead of becoming members of religious communities, many individuals became shoppers, wandering through spiritual marketplaces, sampling offers here and there, seeking just those products or mixture of products that would put them in touch with their inner selves and work some wondrous growth within them.
The transformations of the last forty years have changed us Unitarians and Universalists, and I am a little uncomfortable with the change. It is not just that the cushion has been removed from my pew. What I have is an uneasy spirit, a fear that, collectively, we are in danger of losing something ,- the living tradition we share, our own soul.
SECOND PART: WHAT MAKES US WHAT WE ARE
James Luther Adams was probably our best Unitarian theologian of the last century. He used to bring such speakers as Margaret Mead, Paul Tillich, Martin Buber and Erich Fromm to the University of Chicago when I was a student there. After their lectures he would have them back to his apartment, inviting the Unitarian divinity students along for the conversations that ensued.
Late one evening in the apartment Adams challenged Fromm. Erich Fromm was a declared and committed humanist, author of such books as "Man For Himsef', "The Sane Society", "May Man Prevail", and "The Art of Loving." That evening in his apartment Jim Adams challenged Fromm saying, "Do you realize what an influence you are having on the Unitarian ministers on this continent? They are all preaching humanism, based on your books. Tell me," Adams asked, "What makes you tick?"
Fromm was a psychoanalyst. He knew himself. Without hesitating he answered , "Old Testament Messianism." As a boy of nine in Germany before the First World War he used to attend the synagogue on Saturday mornings with his grandfather. There, sitting beside his grandfather, he took in the yearning, waiting, expecting, striving enthusiasm of Jewish messianism. The sense that the world should and could become a better home for all people took hold of him and energized him, as it has energized many Jews to work for social reform.
Fromm is a humanist. But if you read his book You Shall Be A Gods, you will see it is a humanism with strong Jewish roots. Fromm had studied the Old Testament and the Talmud from childhood. You Shall Be As Gods was written as a radical humanist interpretation of the Bible.
This all may seem at first blush paradoxical. That is because it is usually all perceived so differently. But let us consider the broad canvas of the Bible taken as a whole.
The focal point of the Bible for Jews is the exodus and the ten commandments. What happened? Slaves fled Egypt and slavery. They had a leader, Moses, to whom they did not always pay attention. There was no class system among them. They were all equal. They had to survive on their own, first in the wilderness, and then as intruders in Canaan. Now you cannot simply have a mass exodus of slaves from a civilization into the desert and expect the fugitives to organize automatically and cooperate effectively with each other. Some basic ground rules are needed. Moses produced ten, one for each finger. Six rules deal with how people should treat each other. Four rules deal with deity, and even one of those four gives every person a day of rest once a week.
The god the Israelites chose to adopt was an unusual one, perhaps a mountain storm god. They made a deal with him. Each, people and god, had exclusive rights to the other. Yahweh would be the god of the Israelites, and they would be his people. The people would worship Yahweh, and Yahweh would see that in the long run the people prospered. Because of the contract, Yahweh was restricted in what he could do. The Israelites had a right to challenge their god if he did not live up to his end of the deal, as Yahweh could challenge the people. The ultimate sanction against Yahweh was for the Israelites to disown him. Then that god would be without a people.
You may not see it or appreciate the fact, but I could argue at length that our whole tradition of constitutional law goes back to that social contract entered into in the desert by slaves from Egypt, over three millennia ago. And much of our democracy goes back to the equality of rights, freedom, dignity , and opportunity of those people who undertook to order themselves by those ten commandments.
For a whole year at the Harvard Divinity School I listened to the professor of theology there, Dr. Auer, argue the case for humanism. If you did not know certain facts of religious life when the course began, you had a hard time not knowing them by the time the year-long course ended! The Unitarians in the class remained Unitarians. The fundamentalists, drawn to Harvard by its name and reputation, tended to change vocation, becoming chicken farmers, or bartenders, or musicians in dance bands, to cite three options actually chosen.
I learned no theology from Dr. Auer. He, however, made one canny observation along the way. He observed once that Unitarians are Calvinists turned inside out,- Calvinists turned inside out! Unitarians present very different faces,- Christian such as Channing, theist such as Emerson, humanist such as Dr. Auer. But turn them inside out, and they are all Calvinists. What does this mean? The reference is to the strong impulse many of us have to change the world, to make the world a better place for all its people. It refers to our hunger for social justice, our hankering to change society to foster and spread human rights, opportunities, and prosperity. The better world today includes trying to save the environment. This is not a concern with the saving of souls while the world goes to hell. This is saving the world and the people in it, as much as we can. This is the social aspect of Calvinism. And it goes right back to Sinai and to Messianism, which was the reason for Sinai.
Humanism and the Jewish scriptures are not as far apart as we might think. The Hebrew Bible is a this-worldly book. There is no other place in which to exist. When you die, as Genesis says, you sleep with your ancestors. What fulfilment we know as the human beings we are we know in the lives we live here and now. There is no other place. This is what we have. So it is important to make the best we can of it, to support each other, to enrich each other, and to improve the way for those who will come after us. This is both humanism and what you will find in the Hebrew Bible: "This do, and thou shalt live. Therefore, choose life." Life,- this life,- to live this life,- is good. The world is good. The Genesis myth declares that when God made the world, God beheld it, and declared that it was good. Unitarians, at least until recently, like the Jews of old, have been very much this worldly, in the body, in their outlook on existence. This is where what happens happens. Unitarian and Universalist Christians and humanists have been closer in their basic outlooks than has often appeared. Some people may think the twenty third psalm ends "and I will dwell in the house of Lord forever" and take that as Old Testament affirmation of an afterlife. This version of the end of the twenty third psalm, however, is based on an old translation of a flawed Greek text. The early Hebrew more accurately translated reads, "And I will dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long." This is entirely different. The worshipper can only be with God while still living here and now.
Let me now in far briefer compass say a bit about today's spiritual marketplace. We are all aware of it. The clear lines of religion defined by churches have been replaced by a marketplace where shoppers seek something softer called spirituality. "How can I feel good about myself?" becomes a more important question than "How can I be saved?" The language of Judaism and Christianity seems empty to many. Something more diffuse that does not come into focus pervades the air. The media, to an important extent, replace the churches and such religious institutions. My granddaughter, who is not yet four, already has notions about heaven and angels. The shelves of bookstores guide personal quest, offer New Age, angels, fantasy, and spiritual wisdom. Feminists revive goddesses. In films and on television, boundaries are crossed,- aliens from other worlds, abductions, supernatural phenomena, in which the "paranormal" shades into the "normal." On the internet, web pages can as easily be found for neo-paganism and witchcraft as for the Roman Catholic church. In the midst of all this , the faiths of human kind meet and intermingle as they never have before. For decades now, there have been more Hindus in Canada than there are Presbyterians. There are also more Sikhs than Presbyterians here, and more Moslems than Presbyterians. Not as in Emerson's day must one buy a book from Germany to read about Hinduism in India. You can attend a Hindu temple in Montreal any day you want, - and find all the major religions right there, including the largest population of Parsees outside of India.
I do not need to inform you about the spiritual marketplace. It was scarcely imaginable forty and more years ago on anything like the scale it is now. Then it impinged on the awareness of a relative few. Now, it is impossible to avoid it. For many people today, perhaps a majority, it is more mainstream than churches, synagogues, and all such religious institutions. Many among us today have been on their personal quests in the spiritual marketplace.
PART THREE: WHO ARE WE?
That said, I come to the issue that has troubled me increasingly in recent years. Where do we who gather in Unitarian Universalist communities find ourselves? Who do we think we are? Where do we want to be heading? What, to quote those words that tie principles and sources together, what is 'the living tradition we share"? What do we care enough about to sustain and to pass on? What should we be caring about now?
John Baros-Johnson, the Unitarian Universalist minister in Halifax, Nova Scotia, said in a recent sermon:
I am glad that I am not a Hindu or a Catholic or a Jew, but I am glad that SOMEBODY is. Somebody has cared enough about the Hindu tradition to bring it 10,000 kilometers around the world here to Halifax. The Hindu members of our community have done this in order to meet their own needs , to be sure, but I benefit in a secondary way in that, because of their presence, MY spiritual life is enriched.
What do we keep alive? What do we offer when we meet those of others faiths? We offer open, sympathetic minds. But do we offer anything more than a well-intentioned attempt at appreciation and understanding? Many of you will know the comic strip Doonesbury by Gary Trudeau. The Rev. Scot Sloan, the dedicated, idealistic minister who sometimes appears in it is modelled after an actual Unitarian Universalist minister, Scotty McLennan, now the chaplain at Tufts University. McLennan was Garry Trudeau's roommate at Yale. In the summer of his freshman year, McLennan travelled to India where he stayed with families of different religions and learned about their faiths ,- Muslim, Jain, Sikh, Zoroastrian, Buddhist. Finally he lived with a Hindu Brahmin priest. In his new book, Finding Your Religion, McLennan tells of his experience with the priest:
It turned out the priest knew the Bible better than I did. Even though he was a Hindu, he kept a copy next to his bed. He'd also read the Qur'an from cover to cover and recited passages from its suras (chapters). He seemed as familiar with the Buddhist scriptures as the Hindu. He spoke of many avatars - incarnations of divinity - throughout history, including Krishna, Buddha, and Jesus. As I sat cross-legged each day in my white cotton dhoti and kurta, I began to think, Maybe this is the way to spiritual maturity. Be open to all religious traditions. Pick and choose from what rings true for me in each. Yet the priest kept emphasizing getting on a path, following a discipline, becoming committed to a teacher and a set of teachings. "There are many paths up the mountain," he would say, "and they all reach the top, but you need to follow a path and you can't be on more than one at a time."
By the end of the summer I had decided I wanted to become a Hindu. On the morning I approached the priest with my request, he took me to sit with him in the front room on a Persian rug. The rain was coming down in sheets and banged loudly against the roof. I was stunned by his response. "No, no!" he chided. "You've missed the point of everything I've taught you. You 're grown up as a Christian and you know a lot about that path. It's the religion of your family and your culture. You know nothing of Hinduism. Go back and be the best Christian you can be."
I remember how the rain against the roof seemed to rattle my brain. I was upset. "But I don't believe Jesus was any more divine than Krishna or the Buddha," I pleaded. "And Christians would condemn you for knowing about Jesus and not accepting him uniquely as your Lord and Savior." His response was simple: "Then go back and find a way to be an open, nonexclusive Christian, following in Jesus' footsteps yourself, but appreciating others' journeys on their own paths." The more I could learn about others' paths, he explained, the more it would help me to progress along my own and deepen my understanding of it. Those words have remained my marching orders for life.
To play in an orchestra, a good orchestra, you must play an instrument, - just one instrument,- well. You have to practice your scales, so that you play readily in the different keys. You have to practice until playing becomes second nature, so that you express the notes rather than go through the physical motions of producing them, and in expressing the notes you express the music behind the notes. To make noises in various keys on various instruments will not qualify you to play in an orchestra. You may say, "It is too difficult, it takes too long to master an instrument." You may say, "Why should I tie myself down to any given instrument? Why can I not roam the music store, watching and listening to others as they play, trying my own hand at the variety of instruments available to me?" It's not that easy. One must choose. One must work at it. One must allow time for a seed of talent to grow and blossom into flower.
Music is universal. Actual pieces of music, however, are particular, indeed momentary particular creations. Musical instruments too are particulars. In music, you cannot have the universal without the particular. I wonder if the near-fatal flaw of too many Unitarians and Universalists is not the notion that one can have the universal without the particular, indeed that the universal will stand forth clearly and bring people together best when we speak in universals and emphasize no particular particular.
Is Christmas to be so universal we shall not even refer to the greatest miracle of them all , the miracle of human birth, lest it offend some people? Shall Christmas be as in the comic strip "Hi and Lois" last December, where the pianist in the shopping center sings,
"I'm dreaming of a many-colored, multicultural, nondenominational national religious holiday"?
Shall we let our roots die? Bill Jenkins , the Unitarian minister who led the expansion of Unitarianism in the Toronto area after 1945, was a hard-boiled humanist. He latterly called himself an atheist. Yet he used to say "Unitarians are more Christian than anything else." Than anything else: more than we are Buddhist, or Hindu, or pagan, or what-have-you: that does not say how Christian we are. Howard Box, the scientific humanist who was minister of the Unitarian Congregation of Ottawa in the 50's, left Ottawa to become the leader of the Ethical Society in Brooklyn, New York. He later told me, "I never realized how much of a Christian I was until I became the leader of an Ethical Society. "
It is worth noting that while the UUA Principles speak of "wisdom from the world's religions ," the only specific reference is to "Jewish and Christian teachings."
Do we have a center, a focal point in history? Or are we all over the map of the world and the spiritual marketplace? Are we becoming like the commentator on the contemporary spiritual scene who spoke of
the entrepreneurial spirit of popular religion - pragmatic and creative, even if historically disconnected or theologically unsophisticated?
The UUA Needs and Attitudes survey of 1997 showed that our people categorized themselves as follows: humanist 46%, earth/nature centered 19% , theist 13%, Christian 9.5%, mystic 6.2%, Buddhist 3.6%, Jewish 1.3%, with Hindus, Moslems and others the remaining 14%.
When the UUA was formed forty years ago, we had three ways in religion. Today we have even more voices speaking in different tongues. We are no longer a religious movement. We are an association of religious movements. As such, while we can agree on principles, we have no real or true living faith to affirm or uphold. We have competing faiths which can coexist like porcupines, comfortable with each other as long as they do not get too close together.
PART FOUR: IMPLICATIONS FOR RELIGIOUS EDUCATION AND WORSHIP
What, then, can we share with our children? What are we agreed is so important to us that we want to pass it on to them? We have an approach. But when does it reach a destination? Or must it always be exploring, with no home where one can lay one's head?
We still like to quote Channing's address on the Sunday school:
The great end in religious instruction, whether in the Sunday-school or family, is, not to stamp our minds irresistibly on the young, but to stir up their own; not to make them see with our eyes, but to look inquiringly and steadily with their own: not to give them a definite amount of knowledge, but to inspire a fervent love of truth .....
We quote Channing on the great end in religious instruction. We ignore the fact that the larger part of his address on the Sunday school was not on attitude and method, but on content. Channing made it clear what the content should be: the Christian religion, not the catechisms of the churches , but the life and teachings of Jesus, as set out in the Scriptures. He said:
The great work, then, of the Sunday-school teacher is to teach Christ, and to teach him not as set forth in creeds and human systems, but as living and moving in the simple histories of the Evangelists.
I was raised on "the simple histories of the Evangelists," not under Unitarian, but Anglican auspices. I never learned anything that was offered me in a Sunday school class, but I absorbed much from children's worship. J loved singing hymns like "All things bright and beautiful," I heeded stories and homilies offered in a worship setting. The parable of the Good Samaritan made a deep impression on me in kindergarten. The parable of the Prodigal Son also gave me much food for thought, as did later the story of the rich ruler, where Jesus sums up religious duty as love to God and to one's neighbor. Angus Cameron, a Unitarian minister in Montreal in the forties and fifties, used to say that Anglicans made the best Unitarians.
Why can't we do better growing our own?
I sometimes say Unitarianism is a Jewish way of looking at Christianity. I have to add that we do not look at Christianity that often. And that is becoming a problem for us now.
It is one thing to have the option to draw from many sources, as laid out in the UUA principles. It is an entirely different proposition to know one source well. Forty years ago most of us knew a fair amount about Christianity. Those who did not know it at first hand knew Judaism. We could take some literacy in the Judea-Christian tradition for granted, and proceed from there. But our world has changed. We have many people coming into our congregations today who know precious little about the Judea-Christian tradition. They have not been soaked in it, as many of us had been forty years ago. People today do not have the religious roots they had when the UUA was formed. We can no longer take it for granted that grown people have experience and knowledge of Christianity, or the Bible, or of any religion at all.
And now, you might ask, as did Emerson in his Divinity School Address, "What in these demanding days can be done by us?" Emerson found the remedy for his complaint of the church. Redemption was to be found in the soul. The answer was soul, and ever more soul. Carl Scovel, until recently minister of King's Chapel in Boston, in an address at the Shelter Rock UU Church a year ago, argued,
Unitarian Universalism represents the triumph of Transcendentalism over liberal Christianity, intuition over tradition, individual insight over collective insight. The UUA is the embodiment of institutionalized Transcendentalism.
We need to reverse Emerson's complaint and remedy. My complaint is of our shapeless individualism. The remedy is to be found in religious communities that take tradition and collective insight seriously. I would argue that we need to save Jesus in our living tradition so that Jesus can save our living tradition. Freedom, reason, and tolerance are not enough. "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose," Janis Joplin sang in the song "Me and Bobby McGee." She wanted more than freedom. She wanted Bobby McGee.
We need to lay claim to something, to claim some ownership, some responsibility for the nurture of some piece of ground that is our own. I know many among us will resist such an idea. Should we not all be free to make up our own minds, to form our own personal faiths? But if that describes us, what is the living tradition we share? What is the faith our religious pluralism nourishes?
Apart from the Biblical tradition many of us shun and too few of us know, understand, and appreciate, we have no story to share with each other or the world. Our story as Unitarians and Universalists makes no sense without the Biblical tradition behind it. Yet we shy away from making any story our own. To lay a claim to any story as ours is to limit ourselves, to place less value on another story, to be less than universal in our approach and understanding. God help us!
A recent pamphlet by the UUA Department of Education states, "Religious education is for the holistic engagement of the mind, body, heart, and soul in making a meaningful life journey." It is a marvelous all-embracing vision, with so much which ideally children should get somewhere. But how much can we really accomplish effectively in an hour on Sunday mornings? What should be the role of parents, the family, and the weekday school in nurturing the mind, body, heart and soul of the growing child and adolescent?
I have an uneasy impression that in our programs for our children, we try to cover too much ground. I suspect the result is many of our efforts accomplish little, except giving our children a sense of a home they outgrow. We give them almost no sense of roots. We share with them little or no story.
There is one thing we do in Montreal we have done for over a decade, which some of our children know and love, and will remember, perhaps perpetuate. That is our annual Passover Seder. It probably seemed strange to the children at first. But we have children, now teenagers, who have relived the story of the exodus year after year for whom it may well have become a spiritual anchor point in their lives. At root it is a Bible story , known and appreciated as such, with a meaning even for today in terms of human dignity, freedom, and opportunity. It is a religious education activity we have in Montreal I know has been effective.
We need to re-read Channing on the Sunday school, what he says about the content of the teaching. We shall not do today quite as he advocated things be done going on two centuries ago. But I take heart that at least some of our churches are taking Channing seriously on the content of religious instruction as well as its end.
I suspect too it is time we revived interest in the Bible among our adults. Some Unitarians/Universalists are showing interest in the Jesus seminar and the lectures of J.D. Crossan. The Jesus seminar may not have any scholars from the major schools of religious studies, and Crossan may have more imagination than hard-won scholarship, but at least they whet an interest among us. If only people were willing to take the next step and dig for depth!
I am reminded of the story James Luther Adams told of the astronomer who met a theologian at a cocktail party. The astronomer said to the theologian, "Well , I guess theology all boils down to the same God." "Yes ," replied the theologian, "and I suppose astronomy all boils down 'Twinkle, twinkle, little star, how I wonder what you are!'"
Perhaps too our congregations and our Sunday worship should move closer to a liberal Christian focus, instead of further away as in increasingly detraditionalized, censored, corrected and" improved" hymns or songs, as they are now sometimes called. Follow the fate of St. Francis of Assisi's hymn "All creatures of our God and King" from the 1964 blue book Hymns for the Celebration of Life. The 1982 green Hymns in New Form for Common Worship has some desirable and on the whole acceptable alterations to the familiar old hymn. The rendering in the 1993 Singing the Living Tradition is flat and lifeless. A hymn which originally called on all creation to praise the creator has had removed from it all references to the creator except in the last verse. The consistent form of direct address, such as "Thou flowing water, pure and clear" is gone. "Mother earth" has become "embracing earth," doubtless in the interests of political correctness. To avoid joining with the creation in praising the creator we are reduced to singing "Alleluia" seven times in each of all five verses. I am both glad and sad we do not sing this hymn any more.
We Unitarians and Universalists are like free-ranging chickens. We roam, picking up isolated bits of nourishment here and there. We shall continue to do so. We should. But we need a center. Perhaps in the nature of things with all our diversity the UUA cannot have one, other than an address in Boston and a set of bylaws. We, however, need centers in our personal lives. I believe our congregations are better if they have them too, and that we have collective insights we share. We need living traditions that are more than phrases. We need living traditions that inform us as to who we are, and where we are. I hold we are more Christian than anything else, and that our salvation as a religious movement with any sense of integrity lies in maintaining some acknowledged connection to our roots. If we save Jesus for ourselves, Jesus will save our living tradition. Elsewise, we may well lose identity, becoming adrift and awash in the spiritual marketplace. Jesus must in some vital sense remain for us the center of history, however little we acknowledge the fact.
The focal point is still there, the center of history for us, the center of our tradition, in those Galilean hills. I still find the summing up of its famous rabbi unsurpassable: to love God wholeheartedly, and your neighbour as yourself. And that has summed up the living tradition for many Unitarians for generations, and probably been acceptable to Universalists too. If "prayer is the soul's sincere desire," then I hope and pray that however widely we roam in the spiritual marketplace, we shall remember whence we have come, and continue to know it as home.
In Little Gidding T.S. Eliot wrote:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.