How Do You Know?

Rev. Megan Foley
Sermon Date: 
Sun, 01/25/2015

Reflection: Experience and Reason                          Rev. Megan Foley

Our worship theme this month is Integrity, and although we could talk about integrity in a variety of contexts, since we are a church, it makes sense to talk at least a bit about spiritual and religious integrity, in particular. 

Many of us in this room have deliberately chosen Unitarian Universalism as our religion, although some grew up UU and may just be sticking around out of habit – seems unlikely, though. And unless you’re under the age of 19, you didn’t grow up at this congregation, at Sugarloaf. 

These two facts suggest to me that most of us have selected the church we attend with at least some degree of care.  We’ve spent time thinking about what we believe, what we do and do not want to see in a religious community. It matters to us what happens at church.  We don’t want to swallow something without giving it some degree of consideration.  We are seeking, when we select Unitarian Universalism and we select Sugarloaf, we are seeking religious truths that we can believe in. We seek religious integrity, where our beliefs and our actions match.

But how do we decide what is religiously true, and what is not?  What events and institutions carry the weight of religious authority for us, so that we can weigh what’s right for us and what’s wrong for us, in order to grow our spiritual and religious integrity?

One would be hard pressed to talk about what one believes about God without first talking about what religious authorities he or she accepts as credible.  Should I believe something about God because my parents tell me it is so?  Because someone came to my door with a pamphlet?  Because a priest said so in church?  Because it is written in a book deemed holy by a group of people, but not by another group of people?  Should I believe something about God because it makes sense to me?  Should I believe something about God because I had an experience of what I thought was God?

If you have a gray hymnal with you I suggest you open it to one of the first pages where our Unitarian Universalist Principles and Sources are listed.  Take a look at the statement halfway down:  The Living Tradition we share draws from many Sources, and after that there should be a list of six sources, although if you have an older hymnal you might only have five.  [Does anyone only have five? Can someone who has the sixth source read it out for us? Spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature]

These are the Sources of our Living Tradition, or, in other words, these are the places where Unitarian Universalists tend to believe that their religious authority lies. These are the places that Unitarian Universalists trust to speak religious truth.  If you have never looked at these before, I invite you to take some time soon and look them over to see which ones appeal to you the most, and think about why. They’re available online as well as in our hymnal.

But today, I want to talk not about where UUs place their religious trust, but where the Methodists do.  In particular, I want to quote the founder of Methodism, John Wesley, and look at the four sources of religious authority that he promoted.  Wesley claimed that religious authority – the sources one could rely on or trust to bring you religious truth – Wesley believed those sources were fourfold.  These four Methodist sources are Experience, Reason, Scripture and Tradition.

Experience, Reason, Scripture and Tradition.

Experience, meaning your direct religious experiences that cause you to believe what you do. 

Reason, meaning the way you can use your intellect to decide what must be true and what must not be true.

Scripture, meaning the sacred writings of a tradition that inform, inspire and direct. 

And Tradition, meaning the way in which a religion has developed habits and practices over the decades, centuries or millennia, “the way we do things.”

Experience, Reason, Scripture and Tradition.

Unitarian Universalism slides in and out of agreement with Christianity all the time, and this is no exception.  I would argue that Unitarian Universalism, and maybe most Unitarian Universalists, would very surely agree with two of John Wesley’s sources of religious authority, but may have more trouble with the other two.

The two sources that I think most UUs agree inform their own religious lives are Experience and Reason.  And the two sources that I think most UUs would struggle with a bit more, or completely reject, are Scripture and Tradition.

The question for me is, do we want to be this way? Or are there potential learnings even in the sorts of religious influences that we tend to shy away from?

But this is going to be one of those listening and reflection services, so let’s stop here for a few minutes to reflect on Experience and Reason as bases for our religious truths.  Here’s what I want you to turn to a neighbor and share, one of two things:

Either, a religious experience you’ve had that informs what you believe.

Or, something that your brain, your intellect, tells you cannot possibly be true, about Unitarian Universalism or some other religion.

Reflection: Tradition                       

It was probably at least fairly easy to come up either with an experience that causes you to believe what you do, religiously speaking, or with an example of something religious that you just don’t think makes any sense.  The reason that exercise was probably not very difficult was because we Unitarian Universalists are largely used to making religious decisions using either our experiences or our reason, or both.  In fact, both direct experience and reason are listed in our own UU Sources as good bases for religious truth; just check your hymnal.

So, do we stop there?  Do we say, UUs only use experience and reason, and never use scripture or tradition?

I say that would be a shame, because there is much we can continue to learn from the total package of Wesley’s religious authority. 

But we’re going to go from the easiest of the sources of authority to the hardest, for UUs at least.  We are now going to talk about religious traditions as a source of authority.  Are you already feeling squirmy in your seats, in a “organized religion can’t tell me what to do!” sort of a way?  Very normal.  Let’s first turn to a primary authority on Tradition, Tevye, the father from Fiddler on the Roof.  This scene opens with Tevye talking about how he finds balance in life.

YouTube: Fiddler on the roof: Tradition (with subtitles)

It’s a funny clip in some ways, and touching in others, and annoying in some ways, just the way UUs traditionally think about tradition.  If you’re like me, you agree that there are traditions that lead to stability and balance.  A society that agrees on everyone’s social roles might be an easy place to live.

Or is it? The social roles in the clip already make me mad, in part because I don’t want people telling me what to do or being in charge of me, and in part because it would be a waste for me to be baking bread at home instead of reading holy books, just because that’s tradition. Tradition sometimes means oppression, and that can’t be good.  And the fact that Tevye doesn’t even know where these traditions come from?  Well, that doesn’t help.  You may feel similarly.

I’m making the argument that Tradition is the source of religious authority most suspect to Unitarian Universalists.  That is because we have been heretics from the beginning of Christianity, being born again and again out of the wreckage of what wasn’t really allowed by mainstream religion.  And that has continued to this day, where UUs tend to celebrate the quirky individualist and the new religious invention, rather than the time honored ritual whose origin is unclear but we just stick to it because that’s what we do.

But with that in mind, I call your attention to this very ancient UU document, the Cambridge Platform.  The Cambridge Platform is self described as “A Platform of Church Discipline, Gathered Out of the Word of God, and Agreed upon by the Elders and Messengers of the Churches Assembled in the Synod at Cambridge in New England, to be Presented to the Churches and General Court for their Consideration and Acceptance in the Lord, the Eighth Month, Year 1649.  1649, people.  This is pilgrim writing we have right here, our religious ancestors in this country.  And what theyre talking about is how to run a church.

And guess what is laid out in the Cambridge Platform, all the way back in 1649?  See if this sounds familiar.

Churches should be free and distinct from each other, allowed to manage their own affairs for the most part without interference from each other.

The members of the church can elect their own officers – hello, Board of Trustees – and can ordain their own clergy by a laying on of hands.

The members of the church should be bound together by a covenant of behavior, because, quote, “we see not otherwise how members can have church power over one another mutually.”

All of this is exactly how we run our UU churches today.  So maybe we are more sticklers for tradition after all.  Or maybe our legacy of suspicion of hierarchy is itself a tradition.  Something to think about.

Reflection: Scripture

One last source of authority to consider: Scripture.  Again, sometimes a sticky one for UUs.

You may be well steeped in another religion’s scripture, for good or for ill.  Or you might be new to scripture in general. It’s hard to just pick up sacred readings and dive right in. My mother once said that reading the bible cover to cover was like trying to learn about US history from the west coast to the east coast.  It starts off relatively interesting, but then you get to Exodus and full chapters about who gave birth to whom.  She compares that to Nevada, and she says at that point, most of us give up.

So scripture can be hard to dive into without help, but the kind of “help” that some of us got growing up seemed rather saturated with that religion’s particular perspective or agenda, with which we may or may not have agreed.  Many UUs give up on regular sorts of scripture altogether, forgetting that for UUs, any sort of important writing can be sacred.  Any meaningful writing can in fact be scripture for us.

The spiritual practice of meditating on sacred texts is an ancient one.  The act of sacred reading, or lectio divina, originated centuries ago with the Benedictines and is still used today by all sorts of religions, to allow meaningful texts to really sink into our consciousness and make a difference in our lives. 

The practice of Lectio Divina comes in four parts.  I’m going to describe how it goes, and then we’re going to do it together, and it’s going to be awesome.

First, you read the scripture, slowly, at least 2-3 times.

Then, you reflect on it. What’s your intellectual reaction, what does the passage make you think about? Why do you like or dislike it? What does it remind you of?

Then, one quiets a bit and lets the heart, the spirit, respond to the reading. What phrase is catching your attention?  Which line do you love? What image keeps popping up? Is there a still, small voice in you trying to say something about part of this?

And finally, we let the reading go, and we just meditate quietly, letting new understandings bubble up and settle down.

We’re going to try this out with some meaningful texts that I’ve collected from a variety of sources.  I’ll hand those out in a minute, but first, let’s all take a deep breath together. Let’s close our eyes and tell ourselves that we are ready for a new understanding, something that will make a difference in our lives.  Good.

I’m going to hand out the scripture pieces now. When you get your scripture, first, give it a chance.  You might be surprised or feel challenged by it, and that’s okay. Remember that you are open to new understandings.  Take another deep breath. 

I’m going to give you 8 minutes to practice the lectio divina at your own pace.  Go through these steps.  You can do a couple of rounds if you wish.  I’ll let you know when we’re half through and when we’re nearly done.

Meditation: Lectio Divina