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Germantown, Maryland 20875-0320
Unitarian Universalism: A Religion?
Presenter:Rev. Amy Russell
Sermon Date:Sun, 09/03/2006
In our favorite UU hymn, Spirit of Life, we sing “Roots hold me close, wings set me free”. I love this phrase because it describes the deep roots of our Unitarian Universalist religious tradition that has the wings of religious freedom to “set us free”. When we consider the history of Unitarianism in Transylvania when King John Sigusmund declared Unitarianism as the state religion, but at the same time the state parliament made religious freedom and tolerance the law of the land, we know that our religion, if that is what it is, is founded in greatness.
William Ellery Channing, one of the fathers of Unitarian theology in New England in the nineteenth century, preached his famous Baltimore sermon in 1819. He outlined this new faith, founded in reformative Protestant thought, telling the world that God is One, that God’s love is perfect and is founded in perfect moral order. A God who is perfectly moral, could not create humans as sinful defective creatures who are born in degradation. God created humans as inherently good, he says, and he rejects that orthodox view that humans are only saved through God’s irresistible grace, pulling us or molding us into his image. Channing says that he believes in “our responsibility and the laws of our moral [ity]” as humanity’s inherent nature.
Hosea Ballou, one of the founders of Universalist thought in this country, spoke about a loving God and an imperfect but morally striving human turning toward God and away from sin. He said that God didn’t send Christ, his son, to take on the burden of humanity’s sins through his sacrifice. Ballou saw humanity as the ones who needed to reach toward God for reconciliation, not God creating some artificial test for humanity for them to be able to reach salvation. A loving God would never send his own creations into eternal damnation any more than a loving parent would damn his/her own children. Ballou’s Universalist theology emphasized the love available to humanity in the universe.
So, we see in these theological roots two strong messages- one of humanity’s inherent goodness, and the other the possibility for love and justice in the universe. These strong theological messages continue to resonate in the faith tradition we have inherited as Unitarian Universalists.
But many ask, since we have become a “creedless” organization, can we see ourselves as a religion? Or as a religious people?
And this of course, depends on the definition of “religion” that you accept.
I looked at many definitions of religion- one from Webster’s- the very traditional definition- “the service and worship of God or the supernatural” to the more updated accepting definition offered by Religious Tolerance.org. Their definition said religion was “a systematic belief about deity, often involving rituals, a code of ethics, a philosophy of life, and a worldview. This includes Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Native American spirituality, and Neo-paganism among others. Their definition also includes agnosticism, atheism, and humanism because these beliefs include a belief about deity- either that they don’t know whether deity exists or they have no knowledge of a deity.
This more open definition would certainly include liberal faiths such as ours. However, I would like to propose my own definition. I think that a religion that will offer people something of substance in today’s world would include the following:
What does this mean- that perhaps we are a religion, that perhaps we are a religious people? Does it make it easier to just blend in with other religions? Does it make us feel better when we are told that we don’t stand for anything, that UU’s lack any backbone when it comes to religious fervor because we allow any individual to hold any belief system?
Does our “religion” have enough rigor to withstand the unbelieveable moral questions that we face in today’s complex world? Do we as a faith have the tools to answer some of the difficult questions that liberal religion must deal with in a world that sees such evidence of evil?
Frederick Wooden, minister at the large Foundation Street Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, writes in the Fall issue of World magazine about his questions about our liberal religion and whether we can build a new theology that will stand up to events in the world such as 9/11, such as Katrina, such as the atrocities in Darfur, and the bombs in Lebanon. He poses the challenge for us that “Facing that “utter insecurity” which is what 9/11 demanded, is the new religious challenge for Americans.” He speaks about “two souls” in America, the “communalist” and “individualist” and how we must deal with the weaknesses that each of these worldviews poses for us.
Wooden describes the “communalist” as the part of our society that yearns toward the utopian possibilities in the world. The part of us that says “Can’t we all just get along?” He describes our UU tendency to want to sit in a circle holding hands, singing Kum Ba Yah” as we sway together. This is the picture that my son has always accused me of- that liberal hippie from the sixties who thought once the war in Vietnam was over, that everything was going to be okay. Wooden says that this kind of optimistic soul doesn’t realize that evil exists in the world and that we must be present to witness it.
I think I have to admit there’s a great big part of me that fits that description. I love it when we sing those sappy songs like Lennon’s “Imagine” when we all pretend that there could be a world where there aren’t any national boundaries, where we’re all just living as one big happy family. It sounds so nice- it sounds so much like what I imagined when I was spending my days in peace marches and demonstrations against the death penalty.
But then when I turn on the news these days, I almost curl up in a little depressed ball and want to hide in my personal isolationist cave . I become like what Wooden describes as an “individualist”. An individualist is the Henry David Thoreaus of our tradition. Those of us who would love to go out to the woods in our hybrid Hondas and Birkenstocks and build a log cabin and heat it with corn cobs. Wooden says that evil is real to this kind of soul, but evil is seen as manageble with certain “skill and shrewdness”. He says that “In Unitarian Universalism, the communalist elements may seem most prominent, but our rejection of creedalism and our defense of individuality in issues such as reproductive choice and the right to die clearly draw on the individualist mythos.”
Wooden says that the myth of the peaceable kingdom of the communalists in America and the myth of the freedom for the individual in the wilderness are both dead. In the post 9/11 world, we must give up both of these myths and build a new possibility for liberal religion in the future. In creating this new world, he says that we need both the individual who will strive for their expression and the need for community in which all are empowered. And it is the freedom- this freedom that our Unitarian and Universalist and American forebears described and fought for that will create a theology both of optimism and realism. But Wooden emphasizes that religious liberals need a theological vision that will hold together freedom, community, and the individual. And within a theology that does not contain a controlling God, we must still admit to the possibility of evil. Because with freedom, evil is possible. But Wooden also reminds that while we must be present to the dangers of evil, we must also witness to the inherent nature of goodness which our tradition steadfastly holds up as humanity’s possibility.
Rev. Wooden experienced 9/11 first hand since he was the minister of First Unitarian of Brooklyn that fateful day. He saw the ashes of that bitter tragedy sweep by his office window. Many of us have experiences of that day that have profoundly affected how we see this world and our place in it. Many of us no longer feel safe in this brave new world of America. We see how the actions of our country over the past few years and over many decades have created many enemies for us in the world.
But can we react robustly with a religion that has no backbone, as many accuse us of? Can we create for ourselves a safe harbor in which to meditate and pray? How do we move forward optimistically with an attitude of believing in humankind when all we see humans do is blow each other up? It’s not easy being someone who believes that the future progress lies in the hands of humankind as opposed to believing that God will save the righteous of the world.
I feel my optimism shrinking these days. It’s having a few bad days. While I still watch the news most days, I tend to turn it off at certain moments when I just can’t stand any more. I hit that mute button sometimes because I just can’t stand to hear what the leaders of the nations of the world are saying to each other anymore. It doesn’t sound like the measured tones of Abraham Lincoln or Winston Churchill. In fact, it sounds a lot like a playground in a middle school if you listen closely. “You can’t tell me what to do!” one twelve year old whines as he hides his ball behind him. The older and supposedly wiser playmate says calmly with his sidekicks safely beside him, “We will tell you what to do, and we will take your ball and hide it from you if you don’t listen!” It’s a little scary to comtemplate the outcome of this schoolyard brawl.
Marilyn Sewell, another of our great ministers today, critiques our movement by saying that while we have maintained that tolerance for the individual that our forebears fought and died for, we tend to turn aside when individual behavior should not be tolerated. She says, “Yes, our deep respect for the uniqueness of each person in our midst is one of our great strengths. On the other hand, the shadow can lead us into a kind of radical cult of the individual. Elevating individual freedom is a national trait, to be sure, but it is magnified and sanctified by our movement. This assumption about the relative value of the individual versus the value of the community too often prevents us from coming together around a mission greater than keeping our individual members satisfied, in a ‘consumer church’ model.” She reminds us also that we must recognize “sin” when we see it in the horrors of war and atrocities and oppression.
Sewell says that “we are a religious movement”. She unabashedly stands on the side of our being a religion. We are a religion that teaches us to respect each other’s beliefs, whatever they may be, she says. But, she says, that we must face the fact that our freedom of religion includes a freedom “for” religion, not against religion. Sometimes we reject the notion that religion can mean belief in a spiritual way of being- sometimes we fear being “spiritual”, she says because it implies a certain kind of spirituality for some. Sewell emphasizes that this spiritual nature is what will give us the freedom toward creating a religion of robustness in today’s world. “Our theological grounding rests in freedom and is expressed in love and is articulated nowhere more profoundly than in the worlds of Francis David: “WE need not think alike to love alike.” Unitarian Universalism will be more robust a liberal theology if it allows spirituality to be whatever is it to each person.
In my experience, Unitarian Universalists are some of the most religious people I know. They are people who care about their place in their own community, in the world, and in the universe. They are seekers who are constantly re-examining their faith, not accepting it at face value. Many UU’s lead intentional lives meaning they choose their careers, their homes and communities, and their lifestyle with great deliberateness. We are known for our concern for social justice and for our often sticking up for the “underdog”. Many of us spent our lives in seeking a spiritual path that would give us great satisfaction, rejecting religion that came with its own packaged instructions.
But that doesn’t let us off the hook. We must take responsibility, as Wooden and Sewell point out, for witnessing “sin”, both in our personal relationships and in the larger world. Since we recognize the importance of the individual’s personal choices in life, that gives us the responsibility to safeguard the freedoms of individuals to be able to make those choices. And since community is at the heart of our faith, we must continue to strive to make our religious communities places of safety and of welcome.
In my earlier definition of a religion I said that a religion offered its believers a way to find meaning and purpose in life. Searching for truth and meaning is one of our foremost principles. I think we demonstrate this is our Sunday services that offer many theological points of view and in our discussion groups that encourage people along their own spiritual path.
A religion is based on an ethical code of behavior. Our principles that affirm justice, equity and compassion and the use of the democratic process urge us toward applying a moral code. And our principles demand that we use our conscience- that inherent moral guide that Channing talked about as being uniquely human without the need to be guided by a Higher Power. All these principles hold us toward a high standard of ethics.
And in many of our UU communities, like this one, we have implemented community covenants which describe the kind of behavior we expect from each other. While we still have work to do to instiutionalize this covenant, we are on our way toward making it something more than words.
And finally, a religion defines a worldview for its believers. As UU’s, we believe that we are an integral and interdependent part of the universe which contains a unity, that we are intertwined inextricably with all of the natural world, but that we don’t own the world. We have a responsibility toward cherishing the world and safeguarding its gifts.