Monday, May 31, 2010

Sermon - Replacing Orthodoxy

Replacing Orthodoxy

I find that it is difficult to know what you believe until you have tried to explain it to another person. Unfortunately, many of us usually only really think hard about our beliefs in moments of crisis. I spoke a little about this last week and some of my beliefs. Those moments of profound crisis and joy tend to bring out the question why me? Why now? Do I deserve this pain, this tremendous joy? We don’t really think much about those things until we have to explain them.

Maybe we need theological study partners. That was the best way for me to prepare for a test in school, to study with another person. It always helped me to study with other people. First of all, if I didn’t understand the reading or a lecture, it was likely that a friend would be able to explain it in a way that made sense . But more than that, and why I think we need theological study partners, is that only when I was forced to explain something to someone else, whether it’s an algebra equation or my understanding of salvation, not until I spoke the words out loud did I know if I really had it, if it really made sense. If you learn something well enough to explain it to someone else, you really know you know it. And if you can share your deepest beliefs with someone you trust, you get a much better sense of what those beliefs are, and you can trust them more.

Unless you have spent some time in a theology class, or one of our Building Your Own Theology classes, it’s quite possible to go through life without someone ever asking you what you believe. For some reason it isn’t polite conversation I guess. I think many family members don’t know this about one another. We don’t bring it up, and it’s time for that to change. Right now.

I am going to ask you a few questions, and I want you to respond with a show of hands. These are somewhat simple questions, because were’ limited by yes and no responses, so just answer to the best of your ability in the here and now. You may change your mind once you think about these a bit, but that’s the point. Being asked, and having to come up with an answer makes you think about it.

Raise your hand if you think humanity is inherently good.

Raise your hand if you think that we are more often driven by selfish desires.

How many hold a belief in something that you call God?

Raise your hand if you find God to be either a meaningless or unhelpful idea to you.

Raise your hand if you do some activity that you call a spiritual practice.

Raise your hand if you believe in some form of afterlife.

Raise your hand if you think this is the ballgame, here and now until your heart stops beating.

Thank you for sharing with each other on those personal topics. I know forcing you to raise your hand without any nuance to the questions is a particular form of Unitarian Universalist torture. There was a resounding but unspoken, “But what about…” that I could see on your faces.

And that’s part of the reason I wanted to do that exercise, because it forces you to make some hard choices. It forces you to think about what you believe even for a brief moment, and to share it. Hopefully that got some ideas flowing in your head and may start some conversations among you, so you can clarify exactly why you were raising your hand for that challenging question.

The other reason is to make a point. We believe profoundly different things in this community. We believe different things about what it means to be human, to live and die. We believe different things about God, about the ultimate nature of reality. This is a kind of theological diversity that is not represented in ANY other faith tradition that I know of.

We are a religious experiment. Yes some liberal religious traditions embrace theological diversity within their tradition. Liberal Judsaism is perhaps the most diverse in this way. But that is because many, many people are culturally Jewish, without adhering to the theological precepts of the faith.

No one, I really think, no other religious tradition has supplanted orthodoxy for dialog the way that we have as Unitarian Universalists. It’s a wonderful thing, but it’s also a responisibility. Embarking on a different trajectory is a risk. Creating a different kind of institution is a heavy load to carry. But we seem to be doing it.

And it baffles people. This is probably the hardest thing about Unitarian Universalist to explain. You can explain the history and the diversity of belief. You can even explain the various traditions that we draw from currently, and still the question comes, “Yeah, but what does your church believe about the Bible?” Replacing orthodoxy with dialog is anathema to many people. It’s inconceivable to them that we don’t have a set of beliefs that we all subscribe to.

But there is a phrase that became ingrained in my head in my youth. It’s very glib and probably not the most graceful way of describing Unitarian Universalism to someone who doesn’t know us. But it is very much a part of me. It’s the simple statement, “Churches don’t believe, people do.” Churches don’t believe, people do.

Belief is an activity carried out by people, different people, with differing life experiences, differing ways of experiencing the world, and ultimately different beliefs. In any religious tradition, any gathering of people, a diversity of opinion will emerge. Even the people sitting in the halls of the most orthodox institutions known to humanity have a variety of belief among them. It’s part of human nature. We know that, and accept is, and embrace it. And if we take it seriously, it creates a whole different kind of religious institution.

If we take this experiment seriously, if we really engage the theological diversity in our midst, it changes everything about religion. It changes from a set of rules to an exploration of how we can best live together. It changes doctrine into a personal journey into our own deepest beliefs. It changes church from a place that provides the answers, into a place where we learn and grow and challenge one another.

Nearly every week I have a conversation with someone about how the religion of their past shapes, and usually inhibits their engagement with our Fellowship. It is usually around three different words, “church, worship, and God.”

This past week the grabbing word was “worship.” And I explained to a LONG time Unitarian Universalist that what we do in worship is not bow down to a deity that some of us believe in. It’s not a veneration of God and a diminshment of ourselves as human beings.

What we do in worship is join together in community and name those things that are more important to us, and celebrate them. Those things like human community, principled living, justice, and for some people God, the amazing planet that sustains us. All these things we celebrate in worship, all these things we name as things that are worthy of our attention. We offer worship, or worth-ship, to these things that are worthy of our attention.

But that’s just one example. If we take this religious experiment seriously, If you can remember and respect deeply the variety of belief that we saw expressed earlier, it totally changes the meaning of “Church,” of “worship,” and of “God,” and of all those concepts that are deeply rooted in our subconscious. When we really come together in dialog, rather than orthodoxy, we are doing something profoundly different.

There is a question that comes up over an over again in Unitiarian Universalist circles that is a big piece of this topic. “Can Unitarian Universalists believe whatever they want?”
The answer is a resounding NO. That may be a surprise in the middle of a sermon that is all about theological diversity and supplanting orthodoxy with conversation. But no, you cannot believe whatever you want and be a Unitarian Universalist.

Because, we expect you to have integrity with your beliefs. We expect you to have sound beliefs. Just last week on the patio someone asked me what is “sound theology” and I was stumped at the time. Well I think this is a good moment to answer a very good question. Sound theology isn’t just what you expect to come from this pulpit on Sundays. Sound theology is what we all should expect to be coming out of everyone’s minds and hearts.

Sound theology, meaningful theology has only two criteria. It must make sense, and it must make a difference. That’s it, it must make sense, and it must make a difference.

What you believe must make sense. It has to stand up to some reasonable amount of criticism and engagement with other people. It’s not that you have to have a fool-proof systematic theology that covers every concern of human and divine existence. That’s not what I’m saying. It doesn’t have to be perfect. But, your beliefs should be clear enough to engage other people. You should be able to describe it, to talk about it. It doesn’t have to be beautifully articulated but it has to make sense to you, and it has to be formulated enough in your mind to say something about it.

And more importantly, that belief that makes sense to you also has to make a difference. Your belief should make you a better person, it should deepen and expand your relationships. It should encourage you love for the world. Your faith must encourage you to act out that love. Religion has a great capacity to make us better people in the world if we hold ourselves responsible to it.

So no, you cannot believe whatever you want, especially if that belief leads you to be cruel or disengaged. You cannot float through without making any claims at all. This is not a willy nill sort of religious tradition. No one gets a free ride, no one gets told what to believe. And with that freedom comes responsibility to believe something, and to live it out.

I have spent all this time talking about belief as if it’s something that exists in our head or in books alone. For most of us, our most profound beliefs come through our experience with the world. Not ideas, not theories, but experiences shape our understanding of the world, and of God. Those beliefs are important, don’t discount them because they aren’t the kind of “religious” experiences that other people talk about.
Just last week I had a wonderful conversation with one of our folks who had the yearning to really feel her faith deeply. She wanted to connect on a deep and experiential level. Not more than five minutes later, that same person described to me what can only be called a mystical experience. She was walking outside and the world was illuminated to her for the first time. The world around her dissolved into countless points of light. And in that moment she was struck with a profound clarity, an experience of interconnection because the energy that makes up the world around us, the light, is what we live and breath as well, it is us. We are fundamentally connected to a universe composed of moving energy.

It was beautiful. This is the same woman, who not five minutes before bemoaned the fact that she didn’t feel her faith more deeply. She didn’t think she had had a religious experience because it didn’t look like the religious experience that other people had talked about. It wasn’t easily categorized as an encounter with divinity.

That’s her story and her experience.But the same conversation has happened with many of you. Replacing orthodoxy with dialog means that there is room for your kind of religion, your glimpse of the divine. These stories come out in timid moments usually. One person finds a grounded connection in the redwoods of northern California, an ineffable but very real connection with the Universe. He’s an atheist by the way. Another person feels the divine every time she looks out on the ocean and it moves her to tears. Another, I recently learned has an ongoing dialog with God every day, they are best friends.

I want to close our time together by being clear that we are not engaged in an intellectual exercise here at UUFLB. Sure, we engage our world with critical thought, and use our best mental resources to understand and describe the world around us. But this is not a classroom, or a lecture hall. This is a religious institution. This is a place to feel, to experience deep within, the unknowable and ineffable spirit of life.

The end is not an intellectual exercise. It is a place of feeling and celebrating that which touches us most deeply. As we read earlier from William Ellery Channing, “In a word, the great end is to awaken the soul, to excite and cherish spiritual life.” This is not a classroom or a discussion group. Call it a church, call it a fellowship, I don’t care, but it is a religious institution, where we not only talk about ideas, but we hold them in the depth of our being and strive to live them out every day of our lives.


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