The Five Jagged Rocks of Unitarian Universalism

In the Bible, there’s a pretty well-known story about David and Goliath. Goliath, a huge warrior from the side of the Philistines, challenged someone from the side of the Israelites to battle. David was chosen and he knew that even with all of the armor in the world, he would not be able to win against Goliath by strength alone. So he took his staff, and picked up five smooth stones, and put them in his bag along with a sling. As he approached Goliath, David took the stones and slung them at Goliath, striking him on the forehead and knocking him over.

As Unitarian Universalists, we rely heavily on the teachings of our parent traditions, Judaism and Christianity, interpreting their stories through an open-minded perspective, seeking universal meaning in those ancient texts. In the centuries in which our faith has expanded outside the boundaries of traditional Judeo-Christianity, we’ve also expanded what we draw our inspiration from. Universalism is now sometimes interpreted to mean that we draw a “universal” meaning from all religious traditions. As Rev. Leslie Takahashi says, “They teach us… to believe in the teachings of Jesus—OR Buddha. To believe in human potential—OR a power beyond a single will… [But] life embraces multiple truths, speaks of 'both,' of 'and.'”

We draw many of our rituals from paganism, focusing on how to embody our faith, live fully as our best selves, and respect the Earth and her people. Buddhism teaches us to be mindful, disciplined, and present in the moment, focusing on our actions and intentions to make the world better. Feminist and liberation theologies from various religious traditions remind us that we are a prophetic faith, we are not complacent in the face of change but rather pushing forward beyond our comfort to challenge the status quo and our role in oppression.

What about Unitarian Universalism? What did we believe? A connection that we miss a lot of the time when we draw from other religions, is how those truths connect to OUR truths.

So how can the story of David and Goliath, a story from one of our many sacred texts, be interpreted in Unitarian Universalism? James Luther Adams, a Unitarian minister and twentieth century theologian, used the story of David and Goliath, and the five smooth stones that David carried, to articulate “five smooth stones” of the liberal religious tradition: the beliefs about what it means to practice faith in a responsible, progressive way, because although as far as religion goes, we are for sure in the minority, but we can still have a big impact on the world.

But UUism isn’t the only liberal religion, and many beliefs that we hold are held by many. Where does our theology lie? What can we point to when asked not only what we believe, but what is the bedrock of our faith?

As the title of this sermon suggests, there are some rocks that we can base our faith on. The Five Jagged Rocks are an adaptation of James Luther Adams’s smooth stones. They were created by Revs. Nancy Bowen and Mike Morran, who wanted something that could build on the seven Principles, but focus even more on a declaration of our faith. Instead of the “smooth stones” created by Adams, they chose “to recognize a faith that is dangerous and not always smooth-going,” according to Rev. Gretchen Haley. So our stones are jagged because we aren't perfect, theologically or otherwise. We're rough around the edges but that doesn't make us less valid.

The first of the five jagged rocks—although there isn’t necessarily a specified order— is the belief that “there is a unity that makes us one.” Simply put, we believe that everything is connected. This rock gives us freedom to express our theology. Some might call that connection God, or the Spirit of Life, or the mystery of the universe. As our fourth Principle guides us to a “free and responsible search for truth and meaning,” our third reminds us that all of our faith discoveries are aided by “acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth.”

The second jagged rock is that “All souls are sacred and worthy.” This is reflective of our first Principle, the affirmation of the inherent worth and dignity of every person, but it focuses more on each something greater than simply intrinsic ethical goodness. You may have heard Thomas Starr King’s well-known quip, “Universalists believe God is too good to damn people, Unitarians believe they are too good to be damned.” This rock signals that our sacredness and worth are tied to something greater than each individual. We don't focus on whether someone is damned or divine, because it doesn't matter where they're going, it matters that they are here. When we talk about All Souls being sacred and worthy it's a truly radical statement. When we proclaim that people are sacred just for being alive, when we don't focus on the color of their skin or their immigration status, don't think about who they love or who they are or how they move, just state that they are sacred and Worthy, we are living into our theology as Unitarian Universalists.

The third jagged rock, “Courageous love transforms the world,” is deeper and wider than just love. When the Beatles say “all you need is love,” they’re talking about courageous love. UUs do their very very best to side with love, and that’s what makes all the difference. Even though we’ve fallen short many, many times, we Unitarian Universalists keep trying. We get up again, and again, on the side of love. We are a justice-seeking faith, always reaching, reaching, reaching, for that Beloved Community. How do we create Beloved Community? With love—with courageous love. Not love for oppression or hatred, because as much as we have to recognize that all souls are sacred and worthy, it’s hard to think about that when they refuse to recognize the sacred and worthiness of my soul, or yours. It’s much more important to focus on loving each other. Loving the promise of our shared liberation. Because that's what's going to transform the world.

The fourth Rock is the knowledge that “truth continues to be revealed.” Our revelation is not sealed; what we believe as a faith community has changed throughout history and will continue to change. Ours is one of the most transformative faiths, because instead of being defined by one set creed we are defined by how we choose to be in covenant with each other. And that covenant can change, and will change, and has changed, over time. Our Principles, one of the most formative parts of Unitarian Universalism, were only adopted in 1960. In fact, the seventh Principle, about the interdependent web of existence, was only adopted in 1985. And science, one of our six Sources, teaches us that we always have more to learn about life, the universe, and ourselves. As a species, we are always discovering, always adjusting our hypotheses and changing our realities. That is true for what we know of ourselves and the world, so why should it not be true about our faith?

Freedom and tolerance have been central to our tradition at least since the Reformation, but we can wonder if the many famous Unitarians and Universalists we claim as our ancestors would claim us, too. If they made it through the service, they’d certainly be shocked to learn at coffee hour that a solid proportion of the congregants here don’t even believe in God!

But so is the journey of our faith, ever changing, ever growing. As Universalist Edwin Markham once wrote, “He drew a circle to shut me out -- heretic, rebel, a thing to flout. But love and I had the wit to win: We drew a circle and took him in!”

As the Unitarian and Universalist merger showed us, our faith and its beliefs are appealing to many. If we can keep growing our circle, catching those at the margins and holding them close, revealing truth as we discover it, our love and our faith can only get stronger.

“Salvation in this life.” This comes from our Universalist roots, and it might be the most radical Jagged Rock of them all. While most other faiths believe in an afterlife, as Unitarian Universalists as a whole we understand that no one belief is guaranteed to be true. Each person can still have their own truth, but what’s more important to us than what happens after we die is how we live. Maybe we go to heaven, or are reborn, or cease to exist. Maybe our fate is predetermined, or maybe our actions add up to determine whether we make it into The Good Place.

But what can we do now? What can we do to make the world a better place, not because of some future reward, but because our lives now depend on it? Because our liberation is tied up in one another’s, because we are connected and when one of us is in pain we are all in pain, because none of us are free until all of us are free?

There is no salvation for us in this life unless it is for all of us. We have to gather that light together — that is the promise of Beloved Community.

In 1790, when the Universalist Convention in Philadelphia adopted an antislavery resolution proposed by Benjamin Rush, who signed the Declaration of Independence, they were fighting for salvation in this life. When American Unitarians traveled to Europe and risked their lives to help Jews and other refugees escape the Nazis, they were fighting for salvation in this life. When Rev. James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo were killed in Selma after traveling there for the Civil Rights Movement, they were fighting for salvation in this life.

And today, as Unitarian Universalist congregations around the country vote to provide sanctuary for undocumented immigrants, as UUs travel to the southern border to protest and bear witness, as we proclaim that no one can be illegal on stolen land, we are fighting for salvation in this life.

Rev. Sofia Betancourt reminds us:

“We are in control of what we do with our daily living. If we, each one of us, represent a missing remnant in the fabric of our collective future, then together we can lean into a possibility that we have yet to fully experience in human history: a collective wholeness, an unassailable good… [So] immerse yourself, unapologetically, in what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist in these days. Then go out into the world and live knowing that your faith matters.”

There have been many, many times in our history, and today, where we have not done the right thing, where we have forgotten about what we are all working towards.

But Unitarian minister Theodore Parker said it best when he said, “Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”

And it bends that way because there are people who are bending it. Who are bending it towards justice because it is our duty to help heal the world, to fight for salvation in this life.

We are a community of thinkers and seekers. We are heretics—the word coming from the Greek “to choose.” We have chosen how we want to be in relationship with each other, what we draw our wisdom from, and what we believe, through our seven principles, our six sources, and now our five jagged rocks. We are a radical, liberal, and theologically rich faith. And like David with his smooth stones, bending his sling towards Goliath, we will use our jagged rocks to to bend the arc of the universe towards justice.

A stack of five stones on top of a larger rock.

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