Monday, June 4, 2012

"A Unitarian Universalist Theology"

A Unitarian Universalist Theology:

         If you can’t read it, this cartoon I found says “Consider me a purpose-drive meta-seeker with a moderate post-modern free-thinking worldview. I’m not sure what I believe yet, but I certainly nailed my label.” That will make more sense in a bit. The key though, is the last sentence, “I’m not sure what I believe yet, but I certainly nailed my label.”  
         There are two very different answers to the question “What do Unitarian Universalists believe.” The first answer, the one that I have given here most frequently, also the one that I know this congregation is most comfortable with, goes something like this:
         Unitarian Universalists believe a great variety of different things. And we encourage a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. That’s because we are a covenantal, rather than a creedal faith. We don’t all believe the same things but we build a community to help one another along their own journey for meaning.
         You have heard some variation of that answer from me for the past several years here at UUFLB. But there is another answer to that question that is equally valid. It just takes a little bit longer to tell. The other answer to the question, “What do Unitarian Universalists believe?” is , while believe a great many different things, there are a handful of core theological beliefs that most of us hold in common. We have a generally positive view of human nature. We believe that we are connected to each other and the world around us, and so we are called to make the world better for everyone. We generally reject the idea of a cosmic punishment for sins, but choose in the face of mystery to focus on living this life with meaning and purpose, trusting that what comes next will work itself out. And we believe that we are called to use logic and reason in every aspect of our lives, and the more we learn, the more we cultivate a sense of awe and wonder at the Universe we share. That’s just describing a few of our beliefs off hand.

         Today marks the beginning of a three-month journey in our worship together. It is a journey to explore some of those core UU beliefs that are commonly held in our past and today. Honestly, I’m not sure where the journey will lead. Hopefully it will lead to a new sense of rootedness in our tradition. As Unitarian Universalists we inherit some of the brightest minds that American religion has to offer. We also inherit the inspiration of social reformers that lived out their beliefs in a way that literally shaped our country.
         My hope is that this exploration of our core beliefs will lead us to a greater sense of rootedness in Unitarian Universalism. Or perhaps we will find that our diversity and commitment to religious freedom are more significant themes than those beliefs that we share in common. Perhaps this adventure will end in a new sense of religious liberty and freedom to explore. But there’s only one way to find out.

         This journey is not a new one. The conversation about core beliefs in the midst of our religious freedom has been going on for a couple of hundred years.
         One of the best early examples of that challenge is part of our Universalist heritage, dating back to the beginning of the 19th Century. Because of the tremendous variety of belief, they formed a committee to craft a profession of faith, a list of those things they believed in as Universalists. In 1803 it was crafted. I’m not going to read it, suffice it to say it was very strong on the Bible, a loving God, and universal salvation. The key part that I want to share with you is that it also contained a “Liberty Clause, so that individual Universalist societies could adopt theologies that fit their own particular circumstances. This thorough and solid statement of faith was difficult to get passed, but it did happen, with a liberty clause attached. Ninety-six years later the Universalists decided it was time to revisit the question of what do we believe. They crafted the Boston Declaraion. The language was updated, with nearly identical ideas, and an even stronger “liberty clause” attached. Stating “ The Winchester Profession is commended as containing these principles, but neither this, nor any other precise form of words, is required as a condition of fellowship…” Since that time, the Universalist tradition expanded it’s horizons to wider and wider sources of religious truths.

         Unitarians had their own moment of conflict over theological differences in the 1800s. For them, the difference in beliefs was geographically based. As Unitarianism spread west, it took on the sense of freedom and liberty that the West symbolized. Conflict between Boston and the Western Unitarian Conference became extremely heated. As those westerners took on a more and more Humanist perspective, the American Unitarian Association based in Boston made clear it would never assist any group that did not rest on a Christian basis. Finally the Western Unitarian Conference came up with the document “The Things Most Commonly Believed Today Among Us.”
         It was actually an attempt to compromise between divergent viewpoints. It tried to articulate simple truths that a majority could agree upon. These included “reason and conscience as the final authorities in matters of belief,” the “nobility of Man,” and an “unfolding, beneficent order to the universe.” Of course this also came with a sort of liberty clause, stating that no dogmatic tests would be used as consideration of fellowship.
         We have struggled for a very, very long time to describe what it is that we believe. It has been an official controversy for over 200 years. So you certainly shouldn’t feel overwhelmed when someone asks you, that dreaded question, “What do Unitarian Universalists believe?”
         It’s hard to nail down. Still, nearly every President of the Unitarian Universalist Association has called for a deepening of our shared beliefs and values. Our current president, Rev. Peter Morales has encouraged us offer a faith for those in need. Before him, President William Sinkford said “We need some language that would allow us to capture the possibility of reverence, to name the holy, to talk about human agency in theological terms.”

         Many of our greatest leaders have seen a need for a better grasp our share beliefs. The one who I think said it best was Eugene Pieckett, the president of the UUA from 1971-1985. He said:

The old watchwords of liberalism – freedom, reason, and tolerance – worthy though they may be, are simply not catching the imagination of the contemporary world. They describe a process for approaching the religions depths, but they testify to no intimate acquaintance with the depths themselves. If we are ever to speak to a new age, we must supplement our seeking with some profound religious finds.

         The point is, Unitarian Universalism is more than a method. Yes, we uphold religious liberty as a value as we search for truth and meaning. But we also have a couple of centuries of theology in our back pocket. It’s theology that informs who we are today as a tradition. These are strong and viable ideas that offer a message of hope. I think we can both encourage a free and responsible search for truth and meaning while we offer those life-affirming beliefs that have offered hope to Unitarians and Universalists for a couple of centuries.

         The point of church after all, is not to celebrate itself and it’s method. The point of any religious community is to point beyond itself to deeper springs of inspiration and hope.
         Often when new people find Unitarian Universalism, they invest deeply in it. Occasionally it is too deeply. Don’t get me wrong, I am thrilled when anyone finds a religious path that brings meaning to his or her life. I’m even more thrilled when that path is Unitarian Universalism. But on occasion, I see that what has stirred someone’s soul isn’t the path that Unitarian Universalism illuminates. Instead they are enamored with the institution itself. They are thrilled that such a church exists, because it is different, it is free from the dogma and hierarchy of other traditions, it is built on love. It is an almost magical community.
         These are the people that worry me, because I know they will be disappointed in the end. Unitarian Universalism is an institution, made up of people. Our Fellowship is made up of people. And I too, your minister, am a person. The faith tradition, this congregation, and undoubtedly I myself will miss the mark sometime, we will make mistakes, we will disappoint. That’s why you have to, we have to set our sights on something beyond the individual people and institutions that make up our faith. They are not perfect, they never will be. They are here not as the object of worship, but to point in the direction of fulfillment and meaning.
         It’s no different from appreciating a political leader as an individual. I’m sure you know by now that your faith in democracy as a political system can’t rest on the shoulders of any individual political leader. They are human, they will do their best, but the real power in democracy is that we have trust in an ideal, rather than any single individual person to execute that ideal.
         I learned this lesson myself a few years ago. I didn’t think I would ever preach about this, but I can’t think of another way to describe this experience. In my first year of ministry with this congregation I was still in the process of becoming ordained. I had had a wonderful internship at Orange Coast up in Costa Mesa, graduated from seminary with flying colors, including being named “student of the year” a valedictorian or sorts. Things were smooth sailing. So I headed off to have my final interview with the committee that would approve me for ordination.
         My experience there was less than perfect. After an intense hour-long interview, they essentially told me I wasn’t ready, and that I should come back next year. In retrospect, I now recognize that I wasn’t quite ready to shoulder the full responsibility of ordained ministry. But at the time I was truly devastated. I can say without hesitation that it’s the single most disappointing moment I have had in my life to date, and it came from my faith tradition.
         So I spent the year addressing their concerns in my ministerial formation. That was helpful. But what was far more helpful, what I will hold on to until the day I day, was a much needed realization that my faith is not in Unitarian Universalism. My faith is not in an institution. Sure I think Unitarian Universalism is a great structure to explore and express my ideas, but it is not the object of my worship. My faith is in the beauty and wonder of creation, and what I have come to call God.
         This is an amazing church. I mean that in the broadest sense of the word, our congregation, our faith tradition, the people who come here on Sundays and every other day of the week. Even this building. This is an amazing church, but it is not enough to sustain your faith. The role of any meaningful religious tradition must be to set your sights beyond, to set your sights on higher ideals and beliefs.
         Ralph Waldo Emerson explained most beautifully and most effectively. He said that the teachings of Jesus were true and powerful, not because Jesus said them. They are true because they are universal truths. In fact any other person might as easily have tapped into these truths and shared them with the world. Jesus shared with the world some wonderful truths about the nature of the divine, the nature of human beings, and the way we are called to treat one another. But those same ideas would have been just as true, were they spoken by different lips in a different land in a different time.
         No preacher or teacher or book or church is worthy of our worship. But each of these things, used wisely, can point us in the direction of the divine, and our highest ideals, the things that ultimately are worthy or worship and appreciation. We do not worship an institutions or leaders. This was the indelible mark of Emerson on our tradition. But we can, we should use our institutions to point to that which is worthy of our worship.

         Eugene Picket said, “If we are ever to speak to a new age, we must supplement our seeking with some profound religious finds.”  I contend that we have already had profound religious finds. In the midst of our diversity and free exploration there are profound and bold theological claims that make up our history. They are alive in our diverse congregations. And I believe they offer a sustaining vision of hope for our future, both as a faith, and as a world.

         There are a handful of different lists of what Unitarian Universalists believe. They have been written down repeatedly over the past two centuries. The language changes with time, but the core ideas remain the same. So for the Summer we are going to dive into one of those lists. This particular list comes out of the Mountain Desert District and the work of Rev. Mike Moran. After much discussion, they came up with five pieces of Unitarian Universalist belief. They are:

All souls are sacred and worthy
There is a unity that makes us one
Salvation is in this life
Courageous love will transform the world
Truth continues to be revealed
         These are profound theological statements. You may not recognize it because you believe these things. You may take these things for granted, and think of course, doesn’t everyone think this way.
         But I want you to know, these are major claims about the nature of the world we live in, about what is sacred, about how we will called to live our lives and what will ultimately save our world. These are religious beliefs and they stand in contrast to claims of other religious traditions. Religions that care more about what happens to you after death that what you do in life. Religions that think we as humans are sinful, dirty, and flawed. Religions that teach our fate as human beings is somehow separate from the fate of the world we inhabit.
         Do you remember the cartoon that we saw earlier? “Consider me a purpose-drive meta-seeker with a moderate post-modern free-thinking worldview. I’m not sure what I believe yet, but I certainly nailed my label.” It’s a joke about folks who are stuck in their own heads and in books.  It’s a joke about people who have some big words in their minds, but don’t know in their hearts what they believe. I can’t help but read it as a joke about Unitarians.
         There are many agnostics among us, those folks who say God is a big fat question mark and is an unanswerable question. I myself fall into that camp from time to time. I appreciate that. But there is no mention of God in this list of beliefs. There is plenty of room for big fat question marks even while we proclaim a life-affirming faith of reason and hope for our shared world.
         It is time for us to share that faith with the world; it is time to speak to a new age and share what we have found in our centuries of seeking as a liberal religious community.

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