free from a social code that fails
and bids the soul, in search of truth,
go forward in the power of love,
Many of our Unitarian Universalist churches like to display message on outside signs, like we do. Many of these messages refer to our theological openness and diversity. These are messages such as “Freedom of Religious Expression” and “We don’t need to think alike to love alike.” And this one: “An atheist, a pagan, and a Christian walk into a church. We call that ‘Sunday.’” These sayings are ways to express that Unitarian Universalism has many paths within one faith.
A few times a year, I meet with students at Lancaster Theological Seminary to talk about Unitarian Universalism. One of the questions that inevitably comes up is how we do that. How do we minister to people with such a wide range of beliefs? How do we Unitarian Universalists function as a community with so many different ideas?
I often begin by reminding them that churches and various religions have always had in their midst people of wide-ranging ideas. There have long been, for example, Christians who didn’t believe in God or were agnostic. One difference for UUs is that we are open about these differences of belief. And more than that, we encourage them.
That encouragement in turn leads to our having an even broader range of theological perspectives in our religious community than exists in most others. Rather than asking all of our members to share a single belief or creed, we encourage our members to develop their own beliefs. These beliefs are rooted in their personal experiences and grounded in conversation with the religious community.
I also describe to seminarians the way our Unitarian Universalist worship services draw broadly from a variety of sources. Services are woven together around a common theme that incorporates our core values and principles and draws on the sacred sources of our faith. We weave together readings from Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam as well as other faiths, alongside literary, scientific, and sociological thinking.
Unlike most other religions, we don’t have a single sacred source or text we can turn to to find answers or direction. Instead we have multiple sources that we draw from. That means as individuals we can arrive at some divergent answers to our theological questions. The sources support our diversity of belief.
The sources affirm that there is space for your personal insights and experiences here in community. They also serve as springboards for our ongoing learning about and exploration of other religious ideas. These sources aren’t beliefs, per se. They direct us to our sacred texts: to experience, science and reason, God’s love, wisdom from the world’s religions, prophetic words and deeds, and earth-centered spiritualities. There’s a lot of latitude there.
The sources affirm and promote our “pluralistic outlook.” Rev. Bill Schulz describes this pluralism as a central tenet of ours. He says,
the mysteries of creation are so great as to overwhelm every human attempt to capture them in a single channel of religious faith. The primary source of authority in religious matters, we believe, is not the Bible or the Koran, not official doctrine or ecclesiastical officials, but each individual in conversation with tradition and in community with others. You know better than I what religious affirmations square with your personal insights and experience. To join one of our congregations therefore requires no assent to creed. (Our Chosen Faith, “Foreword”)
According to Rev. Kathleen Rolenz, the sources:
outline the diversity of religious experience that forms the basis of Unitarian Universalist faith. Our tradition is held together by our profound respect and love for these teachings and inspirations. The Sources are the ideas and deeds that reflect human experience, but they also point to that which lies beyond human understanding. (“Introduction,” Sources of Our Faith)
Both Rolenz and Schulz are describing how pluralism is an essential aspect of Unitarian Universalism. They describe how pluralism reflects human experience and what lies beyond it. That which lies beyond human understanding is what Bill Schulz called “the mysteries of creation.”
In those conversations I have with seminarians—and they are mostly Christian seminarians—I’m always sure to tell them that I can’t imagine doing ministry any other way. This pluralistic way of doing religion is basic to who we are and how we are together. We joyfully know and affirm that we do not all believe the same way. We do not all have the same experiences or opinions.
Yet these differences in community do present challenges. It’s good not to gloss over these difficulties that arise from our different theologies. Some are slight differences of belief and some seem fundamentally opposed to each other.
That’s where UU community gets both really interesting and also really tricky. Unitarian Universalists are humanists and theists. We are pantheists and agnostics. We are monotheists and pagans. We are seekers and mystics and hybrids of all sorts.
In addition to the differences of these broad theologies, Unitarian Universalist views of what happens after we die, whether humans are fated, free or something in between, and the understanding of whether children are born imperfect, blessed, or as a blank slate are quite varied. We differ about how we understand sin and evil, and our views of God.
Conrad Wright, a Unitarian Universalist and long-time professor of American religious history at the Harvard Divinity School, said that “part of our consensus is, paradoxically, what we have agreed to disagree about.” He says:
some questions, and not trivial ones only, . . . recur generation after generation, but . . . never find resolution. An obvious one. . . is the relationship of Unitarianism to the Christian tradition. . . . Is there a minister in the denomination who has not preached a sermon entitled: “Are Unitarian Universalists Christians?” . . . If the time should come when that question is no longer at issue, the denomination will have changed in a very significant way; and I am sure that I would not be alone in regretting it.” (Engaging Our Theological Diversity, Commission on Appraisal)
This question of whether Unitarian Universalists are Christian is not new to Unitarian Universalism and not likely to cease any time soon if at all. But my particular focus in this sermon is not to explore whether UUs are Christian or not. But instead to encourage our exploration of theological questions like this.
When such questions are asked with genuine curiosity and interest—as opposed to reactivity and judgment—our understandings of ourselves and what we believe individually and as a spiritual community grow. In other words, it’s useful to stop trying to answer the question as though there are right and wrong answers.
Our theological differences lead us to ask and explore not only why we celebrate Easter and Christmas, and, perhaps more importantly, how to celebrate them. Some might long for more talk of Jesus and heaven at Eastertime while others hope we will emphasize our pagan or humanist sources. At Christmas, do we honor the birth of Christ or the solstice or something else? And what about the Jewish holidays and the Muslim holy days? Wouldn’t it be better if we focused on social justice issues and skipped the theology altogether? Certainly some Unitarian Universalists claim social justice as core to their spirituality.
These questions and perspectives can and do lead to disagreements—even heated ones. Throughout our UU history there have been full-blown controversies—not just simple disagreements—among those who held different beliefs. This has happened at the national level and among individual congregations and among members of churches. Even among Unitarian Universalists, there can be a tendency to insist on one’s personal ideas and to struggle with ideas that seem foreign or irrational, even if intellectually this faith aspires to pluralism.
To avoid any controversy, it can be a temptation to choose simply to avoid talking about belief at all. Or to tolerate each other’s views. Toleration was once lauded as a hallmark of Unitarian Universalism. But tolerance has come to be recognized as a weak substitute for knowing someone and for enlarging the capacity for inclusion and belonging. Who wants to be tolerated! That doesn’t even sound good. How do you feel about the idea of being tolerated by the person sitting next to you? Or tolerating your minister? Or having me tolerate you?
True pluralism requires a shift from tolerance toward appreciation. Conversations and times of deeper sharing make it possible to make that shift. They make it possible to get to know people and begin to learn why they believe a certain way not just that they believe a certain way.
This means listening to hear the back story, to learn about each other’s upbringings and experiences and to appreciate the ways that age, race, gender, sexual orientation, abilities, financial circumstances, struggles, achievements, failures, and so much more influence beliefs.
Understanding that someone’s convictions are connected to their autobiography helps to open up that conversation. What’s important isn’t just what another person believes, but also how they came to that understanding.
When someone tells me they believe that humans live on after death, that doesn’t tell me a lot about what that afterlife looks like. Nor does it tell me how that belief impacts their day to day life. What interests me is how that idea helps a person live life in a way that is meaningful and purposeful. What interests me is how that idea is rooted in and supported by the sources of this faith. What interests me is how that idea meets and merges in Unitarian Universalism.
Our opening hymn today celebrates the meeting and merging of many beliefs in Unitarian Universalism. The first verse of the hymn declares that:
Marion Franklin Hamm wrote this lyric in 1933 as a way of celebrating a growing relationship between Unitarianism and Universalism. In 1960, when the two denominations voted to merge, this song was sung at their combined worship service. The following year, 1961, the merger was official. (http://farfringe.com/stlt145-as-tranquil-streams/, www.uua.org/re/tapestry/adults/river/workshop11/178672.shtml)
Today this hymn continues to celebrate diversity and also the unity among us. This heritage of liberal religion is a full-hearted risk-taking venture into meeting and merging and diverging. Liberal religion is an invitation to suspend the need for a singular perspective and to widen the pathway of our shared spiritual journey. This is a journey toward freedom and connection.
Unitarian Universalism is ever asking: how wide is this pathway of Unitarian Universalism? How wide is the call to liberation? In community, our individual and collective values are ever being re-examined and tested in the light of new knowledge and new experience.
Unitarian Universalism expects that individuals will each build their own theologies, respect and learn from each other’s beliefs, and evolve those understandings over the entire lifespan. This process of learning and growing and evolving and risking is a lifelong process. So too is the meeting and merging of the streams of belief from which we build this church that is free. There are many paths and yet we are one religious community.
“An atheist, a pagan, and a Christian walk into a church. We call that ‘Sunday.’” We call that Unitarian Universalism.
And to that, I say, Amen. Blessed be.