No Easy Answers
Whether you were born into this religion or chose it as you matured, I suspect you have been asked to explain what Unitarian Universalists believe. I came from Roman Catholicism and no one asked me what I believed. They all seemed to know, or at least they thought they did. I wonder if those of you who came from another denomination, say Presbyterian, Lutheran, Methodist, Jewish, etc. ever remember being asked what your religious sect's beliefs were. What is it about us that everyone seems to be clamoring to understand? Are we so mysterious? Are we such a challenge? Or, are we presenting ourselves in the wrong way.
Being able to identify who we are has become a serious thing with us. I can remember when we went around saying the most inane and inocuous statement...."we can believe anything we want to believe." Not only is it not true, it is perhaps the most harmful thing we could say. We've turned away from that silliness, and are now trying harder to really explain ourselves.
We can now carry this card in our wallets (hold up card) in case we're asked, or whip out a bookmark (bookmark) or maybe even hand out a pamphlet (pamphlet) If all that is too cumbersome to carry, we can memorize the card, the bookmark and the pamphlet, and really bore people to death. "Sorry I asked, got to be going."
Our latest craze is the "elevator exercise." It goes something like this....You get on the elevator for the 10th floor and a fellow rider asks you what Unitarian Universalists believe. You must be wearing a tag saying you are one, or how does the person know? Or, does the conversation with a perfect stranger begin with "what religion do you belong to?" I don't know about you but I've never had that happen.
Okay, all those doubts from a doubter aside, you have been asked this strange question, and now you have ten floors (on an express elevator, or one that stops a lot?) At this point you must be wishing for one that stops on every floor, and just think of the audience you will end up having. Since this has never happened to me, I can't be too critical of it. Also, I know that it's not intended as a real experience, but an imaginary one, so we may train ourselves to be able to answer anyone who asks us what we are all about. Are we Christian, are we Humanists, are we agnostics, are we atheists...yes, yes, yes. Easy. But, it still leaves others wondering.
So we try instead to jump on that old saw, we believe in Unity among diversity. As a student at Colgate Rochester Divinity, you can imagine my surprise when a Methodist student described Methodism in that way....the very words! Then, of course, we can always fall back on "we agree to disagree." That's a dandy. Again it says absolutely nothing. Or, maybe, even worse, it says we cannot agree on anything, but that's okay. I happen to feel we agree on an awful lot of things. And, even when we don't we can understand and respect each other. Remember the readings in the back of our hymnal; "you do not have to think alike to love alike." And perhaps, more to the point, "if we agree in love there's no disagreement that can cause us any injury, but if we do not, no other agreement, can do us any good." Another statement some of us say that bothers me is, "we're spiritual, not religious." All this says to me is that we are lacking in commitment. We're all spiritual, you know, but that doesn't mean we cannot be part of an organized group of people who are willing to come together to share their values...and become affiliated with a religious association. Religions have a social influence that is greater than the individual seeking spiritual fulfillment alone.
As a minister in this denomination I have thought sometimes that it would be great to have easy answers to the problems that plague us. And , yes I would like to have answers to the question "what do Unitarian Universalist's believe. Perhaps if I had that answer down cold all the others would be really easy. I think we are the only modern day clergy that don't have ready made answers to assure people that there is, for instance, a god, or creator, or loving magistrate whose hand is on the wheel, steadying us as we go, even if we don't always understand what is happening, Today with additional fears about our troubled world, an 800 number would be good to have, like our new Department of Homeland Security. Feeling insecure, afraid, wondering what you should be doing....how to present yourself , if questioned? dial 1 800 Be Ready! In some ways that's how I feel about all the emphasis we are putting right now on having a 45 second answer when questioned about our religion.
I will always remember Rev. Richard Gilbert's first "Building Your Own Theology" course. In it Dick describes a person's religious belief as "that core of meaning and values out of which you live your life." Religious beliefs in this sense cannot be creedal or dogmatic. They cannot fit into a slogan or a bumper sticker. Speaking of slogans, riding through South Carolina a few weeks ago, I saw a large sign off the highway, sticking way up in the air. There were three lines. They said "Triangle Waffles, Eggs, Bacon and Ham, Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior." Now, if I went into that restaurant I wouldn't have to ask what the owners believed. I may, however, wonder if they might feel advertising Christianity along with breakfast, is inappropriate. Another sign in front of a church said: "Your name is on Heaven's waiting list. Don't disappoint God." Perhaps with enough of those waffle, eggs and bacon breakfasts, God won't have to wait long. We're in no danger of developing slogans. Our affirmations of faith cannot be fixed for all time and for everyone in the same way. It's work, and each one of us develops their own core of meaning and values, and we change them as we live, learn, and grow.
Perhaps we've all heard the joke "being a Unitarian Universalist minister is like trying to herd cats." It's true. And, that's the way it should be. Now, this doesn't mean that we can never find any common ground. I think we do that a lot, perhaps more than we think we do. But, it does mean that we are independent thinkers. It does mean that a Unitarian Universalist minister, is challenged to accept and work with all the thoughts and ideals of our varied congregants. It also means that our congregants have to work with each other, and with their ministers, so that the voice of liberal religion is heard as a comforting call. Clawing and scratching at others will not build the kind of religion we say we want to be. Donald Harrington once described liberal churches as "all accepting conglomerates of people affirming their right to believe whatever they want to, who exalt in the exhibition of their idiosyncrasies, who delight in the philosophy that anything goes, and everything is right." We have matured a bit since Rev. Harrington wrote that unpleasant description, I think. Although, I know not all of us agree on this either, but perhaps our Purposes and Principles have helped to steer us in a more positive direction. And, maybe, if followed, could keep us from becoming so outrageously independent as Rev. Harrington described us.
Each of us, if asked to draw a road map of our own religious odyssey, would find that between the usual milestones of our maturing lives, there were many unpredictable events. These
happenings are what set us on a new, and maybe frightening path. These happenings are the stuff of a religion that guides and nourishes us. The religious culture we were born into is rather like a piece of incomplete weaving. Out of the adventures and experiences of our own lives we weave the pattern that is uniquely our own.
Since we are the weavers, we look for an easier pattern sometimes. Perhaps, if we could meditate more often. Perhaps if we had some assurances that our lives had meaning, and that there was some kind of afterlife where we could see all the pieces falling into place, and really making sense. Perhaps, as a minister, it would be easier if I had all the answers when a child dies, or when an accident takes a loved ones life, or a loved one takes their own life. Will easy answers help us here? Sometimes, we may all just wish we could get the hard job of living with alert consciences, and awareness of what we should be doing, done, and like the stories of creation be able to sit back and say, "it is very good."
It is not destined to be that way for we who have accepted commitment to a high calling. Walter Lifton described our kind of religion as "high religion." what a great way to get "high" And, because we are on this high we will continue to question, to search, to doubt, and to wonder. And, we will continue to have to explain who we are as we find ourselves engaging others who question us. We will always have to do this in the most kind, considerate and pertinent manner. I don't think one answer can possible apply to all circumstances. It will always depend on who is asking and what they are asking.
Recently I was allowed to read an email that a young woman from Ithaca, Lorraine Moran, whose parents are members of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Amherst received from her cousins who are of another Christian faith. It was, to me, filled with meanness not toward Lorraine, but to those who believe like she does. Her cousins simply sent her a copy of something they received, and agreed with. It showed how little they knew about what she believes. It showed how little they understand that a person can be good without following the teachings they were following. Lorraine felt she needed to respond to these, her cousins, whom she cares a great deal about. She did not have a prepared statement. She addressed their concerns with these words. "You two are kind, decent, fun loving people who do the right thing and I am impressed by the strength of your convictions. My beliefs about God and the Bible are completely opposite from yours. I am one of those atheists and humanists you are talking about. I also know myself as a moral person, raising decent kids and being kind to people without relying on the Bible. I am fine with others being voluntarily attracted to whatever spiritual practice feeds them in their lives. I know that sometimes it is nice to just be with your own group and enjoy that comfortable place when it seems the world is not all with you. It's also a privilege, though, to be able to share your thoughts with those you love, even if they differ with you. I believe it is good to know where people are, especially your very own good and loving cousins, and what their convictions are."
When I read all this material I remembered some of my own struggles with family and friends who did not understand the "road I had taken." I spent a lot of time in open discussion with them, and can honestly say my religious convictions are not a handicap to me in my relationships with them. I wonder, as I wondered about Lorraine's answers, if I had just put together a few words that sounded okay to me how it would have sounded to them. I am so afraid of easy answers that I can get long winded.
The person who is free from the confines of one truth, and searches wherever the journey takes them creates their own crucial link to eternity and whatever truth there is to find." In so doing we find bumps in the road that we can't always repair, but must steer around. In our bumpy trips we turn toward and beyond a plethora of religious customs, history and beliefs.
Try to imagine believing like the Gnostics, an early movement within the Christian church. For them it was possible to know what god is, and what our role in a god ruled universe should be. Today, our new theological term "agnostic" means just the opposite. Agnostics feel there is no way to know what god is, and how we should relate to the whole idea. Depending on who we are talking to it can be difficult to admit we don't have a firm system of belief that we can rattle off. It takes a degree of courage to claim agnosticism as one's theological stance. And, because it can be a hard position to explain to one who believes very differently than we do we can become militant about it. We may come off as scornful of others. We can seem arrogant. That's unfortunate because it's not who we are at all. Actually, we are really humble.
Most of the time when we try to describe something, even a concept less complicated than the idea of something called God we are stymied stopped in our tracks. And, it's no easier if we decide to use Goddess the uncertainty the doubts the questions are still the same. Uncertainty dogs us in all areas of our lives. I think the most beautiful thoughts about us, and our world, are also the most mysterious and the hardest to explain.
Imagine trying to describe a brook. A running brook is never the same. New water flows past, working away, little by little, at the banks. From moment to moment it is a different brook.
Many years ago I read a poem about the sea. I can't remember the name of it. All I can remember is that when the poet talked about the ocean he described how the light hits the undersides of the waves as they folded back into the sea, producing a uniqueness, that made each wave unlike any other. Now, when I go to the ocean I look for different patterns in the waves. I can create all kinds of different images because I am no longer certain about how a wave should look. In the same sense we have all seen amateur photographers who flock to scenic spots and go to a place marked "shoot here," or Kodak picture spot," rather than relying on a bit of uncertainty about where the best place might be to get the photo they want. By ignoring the signs it is possible for them to create a roll of pictures that speaks to their experience of beauty, rather than someone else's.
Looking at waves, brooks and other scenic spots without a pre conceived mind set develops intuition and opens us to the world around us. The problem of approaching any idea unconditionally is that creativity is cut off. In an old Ann Landers column a man wrote that he would really like to believe in God as his true friend the way some people do, but he hasn't been able to. She wrote back suggesting that he contact a Unitarian clergyman or woman, (I took the liberty of correcting her here) and she added "I am betting you will make the connection you have been searching for." What do you think she was referring to? I think she meant that by allowing this man to approach the idea conditionally, without creeds and dogmas and tenets, his uncertainty would result in a creative connection that would fulfill his longing.
The reason there are doubters like me, and you is that we were taught unconditionally about God, heaven, hell, Adam and Eve and damnation. There was no room for uncertainty that would result in a more creative approach to these dysfunctional stories. Did anyone ever use the word "maybe?." Were you ever encouraged to look at things with a conditional mind? Not in my religious training, and I'm afraid not in most other existing religious training programs, either.
Perhaps the reason we are taught from early childhood to believe what we are told is that it's too much work, and too risky to teach conditionally. There's a fear it will make us insecure. Well, if the world were stable and we taught stability, that approach might make sense. But, since it is not, teaching absolutes does nothing to create security. Instead, insisting on absolutes in the face of irrational facts only creates more problems.
Nowhere does such forcing of unconditional belief have a more damaging effect that in the area of religion. With all the new knowledge about the origin of the human race, we still can't answer all the questions. To say God created humans doesn't answer the question. We can only wonder, and doubt, and guess, and make our own best accommodations to that which we will never be able to answer. This is nothing new. Even though religions have tried to take away all doubt, people have debated the problems of existence for thousands of years and that is precisely why I am skeptical about most of the answers. One of the great lessons of modern science is that millennia are only moments. It is not likely that ultimate questions will be settled in such short periods of time, or that we will really know much about the universe while we are still toddlers trying to stand and run around in the solar system.
As Unitarian Universalists we recognize the fact that there is much about which we must reserve judgment. We must refuse to take conditionally all dogmas and revelations whose acceptance demands blind faith. They have been proved wrong countless times in the past. They will be proved wrong again in the ages to come.
So, too with creeds. We must beware of words that are not attached to deeds. They are airy sounds, whispered falsehoods. Claims that cannot be seen in the light of our intellects are not real. They may dazzle us for a while, but will fall into darkness, when held up to scrutiny. They will be unable to light our way even with the brightest sounds and decorated cathedrals, once we are willing to look beyond the superficial.
Because ours is a religion which seems to have been founded on a critique of creeds, even those among us who have taken time to work out our belief systems in careful language are not likely to share them. They tend to remain documents for private meditation only. They often remain our personal credos. And, they are quite different than the creeds most of us rejected.
Today the writing of credos is a popular activity in workshops and seminars in which Unitarian Universalists engage. This exercise is in keeping with the position of the agnostic who says I can't know, but I have learned how to live without total knowing. These credos are more confessional. We now concentrate on subjective, personal searches. Women, African Americans, Hispanics, Asians, Gays and Lesbians have all taken up to write for themselves personally what was once taken up by elderly white men, on behalf of others. Some of the old questions God, Christ, the Life to Come, Salvation don't even make it to the writing and speaking of our personal credos. The world as a whole is filled with less belief in the ancient certitudes now than ever before. Yes, I know, other superstitions abound and there are many people who swear by psychics, fortunetellers and every revelation written in the supermarket tabloids, but I assure you, the ancient terms of the creeds have little hold these days over the majority of the human race. There are even mainline religious people, leaders often in their denominations, who say now that all creeds are only symbolic. Personal credos read much simpler and truer with less high minded complex theology, and contain more spiritual values.
Try writing a credo sometime. Writing out a credo can be helpful in the living of one's life. It puts your beliefs on the table. Once you get your major beliefs out of the way, other less well organized beliefs may surprise you by surfacing. You may find that these less extravagant beliefs may affect your life far more than whether you believe or don't believe in something so grand as God. One of the requirements of the Coming of Age Service for 8th grade students is the writing of a credo. It's quite an exercise.
Really, what are the images and rules and truisms by which you live your life? What do you believe about God? Goddess? What are all the possible meanings of the word God that you could believe in, and which are ones you would always reject? What do you believe about people who say they do or don't believe in God or who don't care to discuss the issue ever? What do you believe about your enemies? What do you believe about love? About fear? About boredom? About justice? About the death of friends? About your own death? Do you believe your life is a brief spark that flashed between two dark eternities, or do you believe your life has some more perpetual meaning? If life is precious and rare, do you believe killing is ever justified? How do you choose what to believe because someone you personally like believed it before you, or because you have anguished over it for a long time? Do you believe that there is ultimately "an answer?"
There's no easy answers here, and there shouldn't be. The questions are too important.
Perhaps one of the reasons our particular religious tradition got rid of creeds is that they always leave more unsaid than they say, and they can never cover as much as they pretend to.
The agnostic doesn't say they do not believe in anything. They merely say that there is so much that defies complete certainty that an individual's spiritual growth is hampered if they must recite faith statements. When one thinks about what they believe they begin to understand themselves better spiritually. As Emerson said all knowledge attained by the senses is preceded by the belief that all such intuitions are in some way reliable and trustworthy.
Joining the ranks of the agnostic is to me an honest approach to religion, and one which I have no trouble explaining to anyone who asks. Agnosticism is not anti religion or anti spiritual because there is an awareness of a namelessness which grounds much of the emotions that are finally labeled religious or spiritual. It is what Paul Tillich calls "the ground of being;" ancient Arius of Egypt called it "the unknown unbegun;" Contemporary poet Denise Levertov struggles with namelessness by addressing it as "Thou deep unknown;" Lao Tsu's calls it the "Tao" and Siddhartha uses the term "suchness." These thinkers, who we relate to, know that attempts toward naming what we often call the unknown can tend toward idolatry. This is the danger. Nonetheless, some kind of provisional naming is often necessary. We have to have ways to communicate. But, those groups that insist on their own terminology only tend to suggest that mystery is not mystery. And, one of the beauties of living is destroyed.
Being an agnostic is a richly creative endeavor since no one "thing" image, idea, emotion, proposition, tradition, authority, book, et cetera is supreme. When someone tells me what God is, it doesn't tell me what God is. It only tells me who the speaker is.
The discipline of saying "I" instead of "we" is the primary spiritual discipline for me. I can affirm who I am through what I believe, and what I believe makes me who I am. Trying to force one's beliefs on another is an act of violence that prevents each individual from growing their own soul. I remember asking a priest, when I was about 12, or so, and wondering whether or not I believed in God, why I had to say, "I believe in God, the father almighty, etc." His helpful answer was that it's known as the Apostle's Creed, and we are all apostles. Talk about an innocuous statement! If the Jesus of Biblical history ever did return, as we keep hearing about, his teachings might be fairly summed up in this way: "We're all in this together, so listen to each other carefully, question any values that shirk from saving the whole, and tell the truth, in word, story, ritual and life."
I do have some strong beliefs. I arrived at them through living and not lecture. I believe that I am a creature of biological origin, and that to speak of survival beyond the grave of the human person remains an unknown, but so far I have not found very convincing evidence. Whatever mysteries about human existence will be revealed with the passing of time, to hope for eternal, changeless survival for all time perverts the mysteries for me, and hampers creative living.
I believe that human religious community (church community, synagogue community, sangha, Islamic pilgrimage, temple gatherings at festival time, et cetera) complete with rituals, from the past, and shaped by present concerns, is a body that may properly be called spirit. I believe worship is a form of play, not a form of work. I believe there are no guarantees in my life no matter how I live it. I believe all patterns found in life are read into things, not discovered there. Patterns are not gifts. I believe that free will or bondage of the will are both mistaken and simplistic. I believe that what other people believe about me is not necessarily who I am. I believe in neither medieval certainty of doom nor in unmerited grace. I believe that there are no universal meanings, only personal meanings. I believe that all the philosophical statements, such as "God exists" and "God does not exist" are meaningless and merely rhetorical, since all such statements are tethered to personal stories. I believe in having a deliberate relationship with life and in noticing all that happens around me, smiles, gracefulness, beauty, kindness and trust.
I remain an agnostic even though I affirm an extensive list of beliefs. But, they are mine. When I state them, I do it freely, not under duress or feeling hypocritical. And, more importantly I accept responsibility for living in accordance with what I believe.
And like the man in Ann Landers column I remain a Unitarian Universalist because it is here that I make connections that allow me to worship in ways that promote creativity in the uncertainty of my life. I stay clear of easy answers for myself or for others. As a minister in this denomination when asked about what Unitarian Universalist believe, I tell about what I believe being careful to make it clear that others can believe quite differently than I do.
Jim Haught writing as a Unitarian Universalist humanist said " I wish the denomination would adopt a statement saying something like." The Unitarian Universalist Association takes no position on the existence or non existence of god. Members are free to reach their own conclusion about this profound question. For me, such a statement is not necessary. The unspoken truth is that most Unitarian Universalist's deny the supernatural. We question the magical, miracle claims central to most other faiths...the pantheon of gods, devils, heavens, hells, saviors, angels and the rest. Unitarian Universalism is the only formal religious organization that welcomes those who claim they are complete atheists as members."
We have a history of this kind of personal independence. First Unitarian President John Adams signed a treaty with Tripoli in 1797 declaring that the government of the U.S. is not in any sense, founded on the Christian religion. Another Unitarian Universalist president, William Howard Taft when offered the presidency of Yale which was then allied with the Congregational church declined on doctrinal grounds. He said: "I do not believe in the divinity of Christ and there are many other postulates of the orthodox creed to which I cannot subscribe."
In spite of these historical statements, I think we still have a secret yearning to be able to draw others to us without them having to make such heavy heretical statements. A few years ago, when Carl and I conducted a class on Unitarian Universalism at Williamsville North, for teachers, in keeping with their new curricula of teaching religions...not religion, we were asked what traditions were uniquely ours, not those we have adopted from others. It was a stickler. I must admit I felt at a loss for words...almost...so I talked about the tradition of the lighting of the chalice, and what that spiritual act symbolizes to us. Several weeks after that rather humbling experience, I heard Rabbi Kushner on WXXI in Rochester, speaking about the ties that bind the communities of ancient religions. And, again I felt a little bereft. What ties bind us? Must we intone ancient scriptures, even if the stories in them are known to be mythological, and written after the events depicted in them happened, to have a history and traditions that affirm and build a spiritual community? This has been on my mind a lot, and I think it has something to do with our recent emphasis on trying to define ourselves in a few easy words.
Humanism, Christianity, Judaism, Earth centered religions, Eastern religions, they're all part of what we affirm and promote. Such a faith defies an easy answer, and even if we could find one for today...it would be just that...an answer for today. Our faith keeps growing and changing and reflects the life of specific religious communities, that we identify as Unitarian Universalist. They are made up of the lives of real people. Our faith is not formless nor empty, nor an anything goes matter, but rather has unfolded in distinct ways, taking on particular expressions over the centuries. We are more than our past...we are more than tradition...we are active workers in the vineyards in all our communities.
We are a religious movement in every sense of the word. I claimed Humanism as my new theology when I rejected the religion of my youth . As I read all kinds of things I hadn't been allowed to pursue as a child I found that science and ethics were replacing scripture and theology. I felt that humanity was finally coming of age. The world could now be understood and with new understanding came new ways to make society just and democratic. We were capable and responsible for creating the good society. Humanism became a strong element in our Unitarian churches, and was a strong attraction for me. Even today, it's there when we promote justice, equity and compassion in human relations, our second principle, as a human, not divine, endeavor.
Today we're reaching further and deeper. We want more than purely human centered and rational approaches to religious experience. We're more willing to admit that we don't have all the answers. We have somehow become aware that we overlooked, in our need for rational religion, the direct experience of the body and the earth, respect for non human life forms, and a sense of intimate connection to the web of life which nurtures and heals our spirits, exemplified in our 7th principle..
Change, movement and growth is so intricately interwoven with our expressions of faith, that a sort of mystical wholeness has entered the ways in which we worship, live and express our deepest concerns. We try to live with an intelligent view of the essential unity of all things which emphasizes our common origin in the birth of the Universe and seeks a greater awareness of the marvel of being alive.
When we take the time to think about the important events and people that have been connected with our lives, whether they sat in one of our pews, joined one of our churches, or claimed a wider membership in our association, we have a great heritage. We could write our own scriptures. But, for us it has always been more important to ask what is it that we offer to people living today.
UU minister Brian Kopky describes Unitarian Universalism as a "zesty faith." That's a tasty image isn't it? It says that our faith is dynamic in our lives. He says we emphasize the high moments, dwell on success, are pervasive doubters which energizes our spirits, and we possess a courage which is evident in our everyday lives, as we articulate and verbalize our hope for humankind.
The high moments in our lives keep our faith alive. These are the times when we are open to change, and inspiration, and are uplifted by our own strength. We become enthusiastic, full of joy, confident. We must keep these moments close so we can draw on them when we are sorely challenged. When we call ourselves "doubters," it doesn't mean we are cynics. Doubt is a way to avoid the arrogance that is all too easy in a world of unheard of technology. It is also the doubt we must have in order not to succumb to easy answers to the world's problems, be they quoted from scripture, or from fanatical leaders.
Our zesty faith supports us in the courage of our convictions as we face the dangers of the unknown, overcome fear, get up after being knocked down. This is the kind of religious faith we need today just as did Jesus, Gandhi, King, David, Servetus, and so many others who modeled faith and conviction for us.
From the earliest period of recorded history we know that humankind needed answers. Why were there earthquakes, volcanoes, tornadoes, hurricanes? Why did bad things happen to good people? Why did it often seem that those who behaved badly seemed to reap the benefits of society? Who is in control? What happens to me after I die? Why are there wars? Would dancing around a fire bring much needed rain? Would wailing and beating drums heal a dying person? Would praying for long hours and climbing steps on one's hands and knees, or facing in a certain direction and praying three times a day bring one closer to heaven and salvation? Such desperate questions brought forth good people who thought they could be of some help. However, these questions also brought forth manipulative people who knew they could benefit from others miseries.
I was kind of hoping I would have an easy answer to give you all today to help you answer the questions often posed by others who want to know who we are and what we believe. Isn't that what a good religious leader is supposed to do? All I can tell you is that I know we are a challenge to the orthodox because we can live with ambiguity. And, that's not easy.
We will always have to take the hard road, I believe. It is important for us to look into ourselves to try and determine just what Unitarian Universalist faith is all about. When we do, we find it is rich, it is ever open to new expressions, it is vital and growing, it is sustained because we are people of courage, and we are willing to ask ourselves how our values play out on the human stage of our everyday living.
We can get ourselves so entangled over the words we choose to describe ourselves that it may often seem to outsiders that we are two denominations....the humanisitically oriented liberals, and the theistically oriented liberals. And, I think it's not just outsiders that are confused about who we are. We are confused too. I've heard it said, all too often, that the Universalist part of our name is Christian, and the Unitarian reflects the Humanists. That is not the case. The Universalist name came from rejection of the theology of Hell, and the Unitarian name derives from rejection of the trinity. Both sides are heretics. Both sides came from Christianity. Both sides read and studied the Bible and tried to live according to the teachings of Jesus. Both sides said, in a flare of arrogance, that we were the religion "of" Jesus, other Christian churches were the religion "about" Jesus. And both sides loudly rejected any creeds or statements of belief that must be accepted.
I think all Unitarian Universalists are religious liberals, whether or not the word religious is problematic for us, or not. Attempts to eradicate the word from our vocabulary will not meet with any lasting success. It will continue to sneak into our speech. I personally find it useful to tell someone who knows nothing, or little, about us that we are religious liberals. This is sort of an easy answer, for me. Yet, I know that there are other groups of religious liberals as well, and that I risk having us be confused with either the United Church of Christ, liberal Christian, or a group like Congregation Havarah, liberal Judaism, a group who rents from the Unitarian Universalist Church of Amherst. Nonetheless, I find it useful to describe us that way rather than getting in a long diatribe about all we have rejected, and all the wonderful things we embrace. Using "religious liberals", as the opener I find an immediate relationship with the asker. I know if I'm talking to a Fundamentalist, or a person who also considers himself or herself a religious Liberal. Finding a common ground, rather than being on
the attack, allows for an open dialogue. Then I can really talk about who we are, our diversity and acceptance, and the many sources from which we draw.
Religion is not an easy word to define. It can be spoken of as a system of faith or worship, or as an awareness or conviction of the existence of a supreme being arousing reverence, love, gratitude, and the will to obey. In its worse forms it goes beyond a will to obey, but instead becomes a mandate to obey. This idea of religion is one that I reject, and can comfortably state that position to anyone who inquires. However, Unitarian Universalism is a religion to me. We understand the meaning as arousing mystery, love, gratitude, awe. And, that is a concept with which I am very comfortable.
I like Thomas Paine's description: The world is my country...to do good is my religion.
John Dewey described religious attitudes as a thoroughgoing and deep seated harmonizing of the self with the universe. And he defines religious experience as that which has the power to bring about a deeper and more enduring adjustment to life.
For Julian Huxley, the basis of religion is "the consciousness of sanctity in existence, in common things, in the events of human life."
A Humanist definition of religion defines it as the creation and pursuit of ideals, and the relationship people feel with one another and with the universe.
With the above understandings of what religion can mean, we should not shy away from its usage. But, I know it's hard. We live with the knowledge that all too often, the religious person is described as having some unique connection to God.
That is not what being religious is. We don't need that belief in order to call us ourselves religious liberals. All of the things we do to make life more meaningful, less fearful, more hopeful, more loving, and even more playful derive from our belief in humanity, which in turn comes from a liberal approach to life... There is something in us that wants to open ourselves to gratitude...to celebrate life's passages, to engage ourselves in the traditions and holidays of seasons and change. We stay in tune with our physical and natural rhythms. And we honor our place in this universe and this world. This is what being religious is all about.
The true members of the liberal tradition of faith are persons who dive so deep that when they emerge they have something to say. Whether they describe themselves as Transcendentalists, pantheists Buddhists, Hindus, mystics, neo pagans, Christians, Jews, or Humanists, is irrelevant. Tempered in the abyss, branded by its mystery, they speak beyond triteness and cliché. They speak beyond magic and superstition and creed. They speak about what they have felt about life's grandeur and misery, its horror and its glory, its tragedy and its hope.
What we should care about in our churches and fellowships is not where we come out theologically. The mix is interesting. The most important thing about us, though, is not in the richness of our diversity only, but how we are, and how we live with each other. If we search for ways to live with a greater degree of harmony, rather than with dulled imaginations and worn out clichés, we will show us who we are, first of all. Then, those who wonder about us will also see who we are.
If someone shows an interest and attends one of our churches only to find divisiveness and petty bickering, it will not matter what our 45 second answer is, or what the purposes and principles printed on our bookmark say, or any other explanation in pamphlets and wallet cards.. To be people of faith that others can see and feel we must have a deep inner trust in the power of transformation. We need the ability to accept the grace by which we are redeemed through events in scriptures of other religions, by the events in our own religious communities, by the events that happen when Unitarian Universalists gather, and by the events in the lives of those great thinkers of own tradition and other traditions. We have faith in the power of redemption and we know we need the whole human and natural world for this redemption.
In spite of all I've said about the difficulties and maybe mistakes of easy answers, I still know that it is important to offer some ideas to others who are curious about us. The website for the Unitarian Universalist Church of Canandaigua begins with these words: "We believe that there is truth to be found in all religions, but also that there is no single religious truth, and that life is a spiritual journey best experienced with others. We also strive to be theologically, ethnically, socially, and affectionately diverse and we welcome all honest approaches to religion. We hope that such a statement may be the impetus for someone asking us more questions.
What's important is that on this majestic sea of being we're not just hanging around on the surface, but diving deep, and emerging refreshed and refreshing to others, with something to say about life, its mystery and its beauty.