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McNatt — Beyond Terminal Uniqueness - Liberal Faith in the Family of Things
Beyond Terminal Uniqueness - Liberal Faith in the Family of Things
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d Terminal Uniqueness: Liberal Faith in the Family of Things
The Rev. Ro
semary Bray McNatt
I want to
begin with thanks to all of you for being here, for the committee that invited me here and to Elizabeth Malone, who had the unenviable task of chasing me for two continents with all manner of details in order to get me here.
I want to start with words from my colleague, Rev. Dr. Victoria Weinstein, who does a blog called PeaceBang. In her blog posting of July 25, 2011, she writes these words:
“I’ve been screaming and yelling and doing everything but laying down on chancels throwing temper tantrums for years against liberal religious “terminal uniqueness:” that bizarre insistence lefty Christians and Unitarian Universalists have that we’re the really unique game in town. We’re the thinkers. We’re the skeptics. We’re the ones who stand on the side of love. We’re the ones who don’t want to be told what to believe.
“Yes. Just like every other mainline Protestant I’ve ever met, and I meet thousands. I have spent the past five years in constant conversation with clergy of all denominations from all over the Western world and can I tell you something? The progressive spirit is EV-REE-WHERE. Just the other night I was hanging out with a Salvation Army chaplain, a few Anglican priests and a Methodist minister. This sounds like the beginning of a joke but it’s not. It’s just women sitting around talking about ministry, all smart and educated, all irreverent and clever, all thoroughly modern and open to new truths, all ministering to incredibly similar communities of human beings.
We think it’s our differences that keep us apart or that make us more appealing to newcomers?
Naw. I believe that it’s our insistence that we’re unique that keeps us all looking very silly and out of touch to seekers who have done some comparison shopping and can tell us for a fact that our differences are almost entirely cosmetic. ….The Unitarian Universalist who cannot think metaphorically and who refuses to respect how deeply metaphor ministers to many people’s soul in his congregation is just as doctrinaire and fundamentalist as the Bible-thumper who insists that every word of the Bible is God’s truth. Same. I’m telling you. I think the future of the Church depends on our ability to move beyond terminal uniqueness.”
Terminal Uniqueness is a phrase that has its origins in the recovery movement: it’s a form of denial that is familiar to every person in a 12-step program, and it has at its core a destructive kind of self-regard. I am so different, so special, my problems and challenges are so bad, no one can help me and no one can understand me. I cannot change, nothing can be different in my life.
Not all of us suffer from terminal uniqueness, but I agree with Victoria and many others that our religious movement does, We know we are a small group in the larger religious universe, and yet even amid our quest for growth we cling to our limited numbers with a certain pride. I have had more than one person tell me that most people aren’t Unitarian Universalists because they aren’t smart enough, intellectually demanding enough, to tolerate reality. We tell ourselves that only certain kinds of people can be UUs. And because we are rightfully concerned with growing our numbers right now, I think that we keep coming up with lots of ideas and programming and strategies to increase our numbers while all the time –often subconsciously—subverting the work that we do to preserve our special sense of self. Because we just can’t face the fact that we can’t possibly be like those people, those other religious people, like those other religious people who talk about right and wrong and good and evil, like those people who make judgments and are unkind and….you know the drill.
But the truth is we are just like those people in more ways than we realize or want to admit. Just as important, being part of a religious community and having a spiritual life share a set of qualities that are remarkably similar across the divide of faith traditions. In addition to our own unique mechanisms of denial, we are also in a moment of great spiritual change in our movement; the pendulum has swung again, past the predominance of humanism in our movement that existed as late as 1979, past the most current numbers that tell us that there is no single theological position that holds prominence in our movement right now. I believe that the pendulum has swung back toward a spiritual life among Unitarian Universalists, and I say that anecdotally. I say it purely on the basis of the UU seminarians I have been teaching for the past eight years at two different seminaries, as well as the mentoring conversations I’ve been having with seminarians that I don’t teach, as well as the newcomers to congregations like my own in the United States. The Holy is making a comeback, and the primacy of human agency is giving way to humility among us. [As an aside, I am curious to see what kind of challenge awaits UU congregations with roots or membership in the humanist tradition as they seek religious leadership among ministers whose spiritual practice and grounding are quite different.]
As younger people connect to our congregations, some through friendship, some through social justice, some through proximity, as they face a modern life that is less secure, less affluent, more diverse and more understanding than our generation, they express the desire to connect to something larger than themselves for the sake of something greater than themselves. As a result, there continues to develop within Unitarian Universalism a growing counter-narrative about this faith of ours. It is rooted more intensely in covenant, Unitarian Universalism: rooted in covenant, open to many faces and expressions of the Holy it makes demands of its people—demands our members are learning to embrace.
There’s an old story, told across many cultures, of a couple who had been greatly blessed with the birth of their first son. When they sat down to decide on the child’s name, they could not agree on the name, and in fact were so angry with one another that they sought out the help of their spiritual leader. Together with the child, they stood before this holy woman and asked for help.
“What do you want to name this child,” the holy woman asked the father. “I want to name him Kaliba,” the father replied. “And what do you want to name him,” she asked the mother. “I want to name him Kaliba,” the mother replied.
The holy woman was baffled. “If you both want to name him Kaliba, what is the problem?” she asked. “That’s what I want to know,” the father replied. “Kaliba is the name of my wife’s uncle, a wise and learned man. It would bring honor upon our son to give him this name.”
But the mother protested. “I wouldn’t mind that. But your uncle’s name is also Kaliba, and he’s a horse thief and a scoundrel. What mother would want such a name for her son?”
The holy woman looked at them both for a minute, and at their young son, and then she smiled. “Name your child Kaliba,' she told them. ”When he is an adult, you’ll have a chance to see what he becomes. Then you’ll know which one of you was right."
In some ways, Unitarian Universalism is just like that child.
This is a conversation I have been having with myself, with my congregation and with this faith for more than a decade. When this faith is at its best, Unitarian Universalism has been a beacon of freedom, justice and wholeness; at our best, we create religious communities of memory, resistance and hope that make a crucial difference in the lives of many people. We support our people in finding meaning and living out their purpose. At our worst, Unitarian Universalism has been a way station for the disenchanted, the disruptive and the dyspeptic; at our worst, we create social clubs of the self-congratulatory and the self-involved that give liberal religion a bad name. Because we are a faith that in some ways is always becoming, it is still too early to tell what kind of religious movement we will ultimately be.
It might interest you to know that for hundreds of years, we’ve been having the exact same conversation about our future. For hundreds of years we have been heralded as being on the brink of a great renewal of our powers; for hundreds of years we’ve been warned of our ultimate demise in the face of various pressures and our collective inability to withstand them. For hundreds of years we’ve diagnosed ourselves as either striding forward or fading away. How could this be? Quite easily, in fact, because for hundreds of years we have lived with the tensions inherent in our free faith, tensions that we ought to be used to by now but aren’t, tensions that threaten to kill us if we don’t accept the ways in which they make us stronger. We are always struggling with the same set of questions in every generation. What do we owe the past? Where is our promised land?
Consider these words, written nearly 170 years ago, as the original proposal for the Constitution of the American Unitarian Association. The Rev. Henry Ware, Jr., presented a proposal to the assembled clergy that sought to create, as he put it, “a new organization ... the chief and ultimate object of which will be the promotion of pure and undefiled religion by disseminating the knowledge of it where adequate means of religious instruction are not now enjoyed. Its operations will extend themselves throughout the whole country and will chiefly consist of the publication and distribution of tracts and the support of missionaries.” [Lyttle, p. 20]
The final draft of that constitution eliminated the notion of tracts and the support of missionaries, but the impulse that inspired the proposal, coming from younger ministers within the movement, continued to agitate within Unitarianism, in spite of reluctance and disdain for missionary zeal.
Consider as well these words written more than one hundred years ago, by C. Ellwood Nash of Brooklyn, NY, in an 1894 essay entitled “The Possibilities of Mission Work in the Universalist Church”:
Our business is with both high and low. A primary test of our disposition and capacity to apply the gospel to “all sorts and conditions of men” will be found in the measure and results of our efforts to multiply centers of influence, to build for our faith a pulpit, and establish a fomentation of ideas in every city, town and hamlet of the land. ... Such mission work the Universalist Church must do or perish. A temporary stay of judgment, a pittance of toleration while its structures disintegrate, is the utmost fate will grant to a “has-been” church. A church no longer growing is already moribund. It may command a certain tenderness for the sake of what it was or tried to be; but its room is needed for active enterprises and it will “have to go.” [Rugg, p. 20]
For Unitarian Universalists, the past is prologue. One of the biggest symptoms of our terminal uniqueness is the way in which we talk about the history of this faith, even to ourselves. For decades now, we have been doing ourselves a terrible injustice by misunderstanding or underestimating the depth of our origins; our roots are in the dissenting tradition of Christianity. We have forgotten where we come from as a religious tradition. Because we fell in love with the heady power and self-affirmation of human agency, our Unitarian Universalist faith communities have for more than eighty years removed ourselves from the pressing religious and moral debates of our times, considering them passé or irrelevant. Until recently, we had declared the notion of divinity obsolete--in spite of the fact that there have always been liberal religious people for whom God was real--and we had announced that conversations about the nature of that divinity are trivial and unimportant. In so doing, we did come perilously close to making liberal religion irrelevant as well. Our decades-long abdication of our historic dissenting role in Christian thought has created a vacuum, filled by deeply conservative religious people who were free to hijack the language of faith. When I think of this last point, I am reminded of that scene in It’s A wonderful Life in which George Bailey and Clarence the Angel are in the cemetery looking at his brother’s grave. George protests that he saved his brother from a fall through the ice and that his brother saved dozens of men from a sinking transport ship. But Clarence replies that those men died because George’s brother died because George wasn’t there to save him. In some ways, our faith has been like that to the rest of the religious world. At crucial junctures, we opted out, we picked up our toys and went home.
Just because Christianity as it is currently expressed in the United States is more often a source of shame or embarrassment than inspiration and support is no reason for us to turn away from it, but turn away from it we have, until quite recently. There are excellent reasons for some of the distance we have placed between ourselves and the traditional Christian narrative. That narrative has been used to belittle and oppress some members of the human family, and that is decidedly not our way. What is more, as free thinking people, we have needed the room to maneuver, to experience for ourselves the insights of science, the mysteries of other faith traditions, the freedom of unbelief. It is, and it has always been, our unique call and our great strength, to test the boundaries of faith, to abide with uncertainty, to look ahead to the next revelation.
But that is far different from the dismissive attitude that too many of us have adopted toward the faith most foundational to our own heritage. Our fear and loathing of the Christian story has made us unreliable partners in the public religious dialogue. Our carelessness, even contempt, for the symbols of Christian faith, has made some of us as much an enemy of religious freedom as the fundamentalist Christians that inspire our disdain. Consider if you will the Darwin fish, the symbol of skeptics that can be found on the backs of cars all over the country. Not every Unitarian Universalist owns such a symbol, but some of us do, and as a religious community, shouldn’t we wonder about that? At what point in our history did it become part of our religious practice to mock the religious practices of others? For that is what we do when we display that particular symbol. The fish is an ancient symbol of the early Christian church, as meaningful to many in the Christian community as the spiral is to earth-centered religious practice. Curiously enough, the fish is also a pre-Christian symbol of The Great Mother, and the feminine life force; thus those who use the Darwin fish to thumb their noses at those who differ in their beliefs have managed to mock two ancient faith traditions at once.
I use this example not to induce guilt, but to provoke thought, thought about our responsibilities as liberal people of faith, at a time when liberal religious voices are at once in short supply and desperately needed. How prepared are we, in these days of hostility to all things liberal, to witness to the liberal spirit in religion? How are we prepared to give voice to the gracious and generous message of hope and courage that is ours to transmit? I submit we cannot do it through scorn and ridicule. It will take something more difficult, perhaps more painful for us than we are prepared to acknowledge. It will take radical consistent engagement by Unitarian Universalists, not only radical engagement in conversation, which we are fairly good at, but radical reformation of our own religious lives together. When we look at the UU communities within the United States and in other countries as well, the ones that are growing are engaging in practices that will build and strengthen communities and our spirits for the massive work of freedom that lies before us.
I am thinking of an example from my own congregation, already a few years ago. At coffee hour, a member of my congregation came over to speak to me. I’ll call him Leonard. In the years I have been the spiritual leader of our society, I knew this man first and foremost as an uncompromising social activist, someone who often solicited my help and support on projects that consumed much of his time. I had previously attempted on several occasions to talk with him, not about the work of justice that preoccupied him, but about his own life. Every attempt I’d ever made was met with polite but firm dismissal. And because you can only minister to those who will allow you to minister to them, I had made some peace with the notion that he had gotten all he wanted from me.
Yet on this Sunday after church, Leonard made it a point to find me at a moment when I was alone. He sat down across from me, and his typical businesslike demeanor was different, more tentative on this afternoon. I could tell he wanted to ask me something, so I tried, in a simple way, to lay the groundwork for the question on his heart. I asked him how he was doing.
“How are you doing, Leonard?”
“I’m doing all right,” he answered, “but I have something I want to talk with you about, and I don’t quite know how to explain it.”
“Just jump right in,” I said to him. “I’m glad you found me over here by myself,” I replied.
“Well, I don’t know if you know it or not, but I’m kind of an agnostic,” Leonard began to explain." I nodded, hoping to encourage him.
“Well, in the last few months, I’ve been experiencing this overwhelming desire to pray, and I don’t know what to do, so I thought I’d ask you about it,” he said to me.
Who are we, and where are we as a religious movement, when members have to wonder what it means when they might like to pray, I asked myself. But that is not what I said to Leonard. What I said to him was this:
“I have an opinion about what this means, Leonard, and I’m glad to tell you what I think if you want to know.” When he said he did, I continued: “I believe with all my heart that there is something beyond us, something that we call God because frankly, we don’t yet have a better name for it. I think we’re always being called by that presence, invited actually, to be in conversation and community. And some of us hear and answer that invitation, and our lives are different because of it. I think you’re hearing that invitation more and more strongly, and I think it’s wonderful, and I think you should go ahead and answer.”
“But what do I say?” Leonard asked me.
“I’d just talk, just like you’re talking to me. That’s how I pray. My experience of God is not some guy sitting around waiting for you to trip up, or say the wrong thing. I think God will be delighted that you want to have a conversation. If it helps you to know this, let me tell you that you’re not the only person in this congregation who is having this experience. Several other people have said something similar to me. I’m planning to get us all in a room together to talk about what it is that’s happening to us. I think it would be cool if all of us could talk about prayer, and experience prayer, together. At the very least, we would know it’s nothing to be ashamed of.”
Forgetting our role
The relief on Leonard’s face was amazing to behold. And again I wondered. Who are we, and who have we become, that a member of our congregations would worry that his desire to pray would be a liability and not a blessing? I believe it is the mostly unintended consequence of our deeply important and deeply valued skepticism. Our willingness to question anything and everything about faith is precious to me; it was that openness that first attracted me to Unitarian Universalism twenty years ago. It was that openness, that freedom, that led me from the agnostic posture I’d held to the theist posture I hold now. We affirm all the time the congregational commitment to a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. But do we know, truly know, that it really works? And do we know that it leads to answers that we do not always expect? I think that some of us used to know this, but I believe that somehow, we have forgotten it.
We forgot, somehow, that we were meant all along to participate in the great conversations on intimacy and ultimacy, but from the basis of what James Luther Adams called our communally experienced and historically rooted faith. We forgot that we were meant to unite ultimate religious meaning and deeply personal experience. And we forgot that we were meant to do these things, not in an insular way, a way that allows all of us to feel good about being Unitarian Universalists, but in a way that also might engage those tempted to think we’re crazy, or doomed to hellfire. We have become so enamored of terminal uniqueness that we have abdicated our historic role as interpreters of the tradition, bridge-builders across faiths and between faith and doubt. Because we forgot that it’s not just about us, the religious world has become a much more dangerous than our forefathers and foremothers imagined it would be. The very notion of neighbor, as defined in Christian and Jewish scripture, is under siege. It falls to us, as members of a free religious community, to remind others, but first ourselves, how broadly defined our neighborhood really is.
I believe that we Unitarian Universalists have a date with history, and that we are running late. I believe that we are uniquely positioned to ask, to answer, and to act upon the question that Jesus answered so brilliantly in what must be the best-known of all the gospel parables: The story of the Good Samaritan. If you remember, It is an interpreter of the law who asks Jesus what he must do to be saved. Jesus coaxes him to recall what the law requires: that he love God with all his heart and mind and soul and strength, and that he love his neighbor as himself. Do this, Jesus tells him, and you will live. But who is my neighbor, the man asks, and this time the question is not a challenge, but the query of a searching heart. And in telling the story of the scorned, untouchable Samaritan who nonetheless cares for a wounded and broken man, Jesus is speaking to me and to you, and the message is clear, and it is difficult, and it is our sacred mission as liberal religious people, if we will but accept it.
Who is our neighbor? The brother--like my own brother--who is a born-again Christian; the mother--like my own mother--who is a member of an evangelical church. Who is our neighbor? The member of your community who is drawn to our liberal religion, attracted to the freedom of thought and inquiry we promise, but is not ready to give up God, and worries that he can’t talk about Jesus with you. Who is our neighbor? The protestor who claims that God hates faggots; the evangelist who declares women should be silent in the churches; the neighbor who invites you to prayer meeting and encourages you to leave that place you say is a church but she knows is really a cult.
Those people are our neighbors too, not just the ones we like, or feel good about talking to, or who we hope will one day see the light of liberal faith. We cannot create the radical change in the world that liberal religion is meant to create if we are only hanging out with one another; we cannot offer a healing alternative to the religiously injured, lying half dead on the road of life, by keeping our faith a private pleasure. We can create radical change only with radical engagement, only with the radical faith modeled in the ministries of so many faithful prophets and sages and wise people.
The faith we embrace as our own has never been more important than it is right now, because it has never been more at risk than it is right now. Not only our faith, but our freedom is in danger in these days, and our only consolation may be found in the fact that this is not the first time. This is not the first time that our nation has been gripped with a religious fervor that served to terrify our citizens and vilify those who believe differently. We owe it to all those we meet to speak, to act, to live, as vigorous, articulate, compelling examples of a faith that can cast out fear.
Again, I quote from our forefather C. Ellwood Nash, who though speaking for the Universalist branch of our faith, might very well be speaking of our congregations in the present day about the gifts we offer to a world battered by narrow and restrictive faith:
“We stand ready ... to give comfort, cheer, guidance to all. Our faith is revelational; it is rational; it is inspirational; it is sunny, though serious; it harmonizes the providences of God and the faculties of [humanity]; it is democratic; it anticipates and allows for progress; it embodies the genius of this best age the world has had; it welcomes science, evolution, even revolution in its place, while religiously holding fast to the heritage of past uplifts--in a word, it ”meets the needs of [humanity] both for time and for eternity.“ Could any service be greater than to equip the world with such a faith?” [p. 22-23]
Imagine falling out of love with our terminal uniqueness; imagine that we embrace our small part of the great work, imagine us choosing to become simply a worker among workers—not surrendering the great gifts we have been given, but simply adding them to the common human store, being fully ourselves in the face of the challenges that the world brings. What are those enormous challenges? And what must we know in order to meet them? I’ll talk about those after our break.
Vaclav Havel, the former president of the Czech Republic, is the author of a book called Summer Meditations. In it, he wrote something that’s been circling in my head since I first read it. He was talking about the struggle we all must face, the struggle between good and evil, and he wrote these words: “It is an eternal, never-ending struggle, waged not just by people who think about the world and eternity against those who think only of themselves and the moment. It takes place inside everyone. It is what makes a person, a person; and life, life.”
I am a child of the 1960s, and I literally mean a child: I grew up in the middle of the enormous upheavals in the United States, especially as it relates to African Americans and women. There is no part of my life that has not been touched and shaped by those events, and if I don’t know anything else, I know this: nothing I am and nothing I have could have happened without that struggle. I am standing here today because of it; I know what I know and I do what I do and I believe what I believe because people I never even met had a vision about what my country should be like, they were willing to fight for it and they were prepared to die for it, and some of them did die for it. And for those of you who may not get a clear glimpse of what is happening in the US, there is a growing sense among many of us right now that all the work and struggle and accomplishments of that time are in jeopardy. Many of us believe that there is a great world struggle going on right now, between good and evil, and it is complicated, and often unclear to many people. It is a struggle that has more layers in the US than it might have in other parts of the world. But it is always about class, about money, about power, about who is in and who is out, about what human beings deserve in order to live, and about who makes those decisions and how they make them. Still, it feels particularly threatening to those of us enmeshed in the twisted synergy that is race, class and gender in the US.
The return, the resurgence of virulent racism, misogyny, and hatred of the poor has not come about because that earlier struggle was a failure. In fact, its energy comes in part from how successful that struggle was. In the brief window that was the sixties and seventies, for example, there was a massive rise in the black working and middle class. People who never thought of college were suddenly going there, building careers and lives and breaking down barriers. As the daughter of sharecroppers, I was the first person in my family to finish grade school, the first to go to college. My younger brother got his masters’ degree before I got mine, so I am second in my family to get an advanced degree. It’s important to recognize that what seems like success to you is the breakdown of America to others. THIS WAS NOT SUPPOSED TO HAPPEN. I was not supposed to happen; my brother wasn’t supposed to happen; Barack Obama definitely wasn’t supposed to happen; Hillary Clinton wasn’t supposed to happen. And there are strong and well financed forces that are determined that it won’t happen again for future generations.
I am a strong believer in the separation between church and state, always have been. But I do not believe in the separation of religion and politics, because I think that values matter in the governing of a country. I think that they especially matter in the great democratic experiment that is the United States of America. And I believe that there are common values, rooted in a variety of religious faiths, that can serve our common good if they are rightly understood. But I find it impossible to believe that those who ought to know this actually do know it, and are willing to act on it for the sake of the country.
I realized recently that I am angry, because I believe that our democracy, our imperfect system of governance, our vote, all the things we complain about in America but that we really love—all these things are in terrible danger right this minute, and that as people of faith, we have a solemn responsibility to speak and to act in defense of this country we love. The threat is not Al-Quida, or the Muslim Brotherhood, or the Taliban, or any of the usual suspects with which we are continually distracted of late. No, the creeping rot is from within. Our country’s leadership is being overrun by a small group of partisan, willfully ignorant, deliberately hateful, anti-democratic officials who are determined to destroy our democratic republic and replace it with a Hobbsian theocracy. They must be stopped; if we love our liberal faith and our imperfect nation, we must do all in our power to stop them.
Our strength—the strength we need to resist this stealth tyranny which afflicts us right now—lies in the principles and the sources of our faith and in the level of trust we have always placed in the wisdom of the informed and gathered community. The practices of our faith—transparency, the affirmation of others different from ourselves, our openness to truth found even in uncomfortable or unexpected places—these practices prepare us for life in community. When such a gathered community is at work here, we call it the congregation; when such a gathered community is at work in the world, we call it democracy. What they share is the promises we make to one another, promises rooted in the common good, supported by faith traditions across the world and across time.
Yet our country and our culture has returned to a time when the consensus of the common good has given way to the heartless anarchy of self-interest. We are fools if we don’t take care of ourselves, if we dare to imagine a life in which we might love and serve others. When enough people in our society delude themselves into denying the interconnected web of all existence, when enough people have enough money to insulate themselves from the reality of human struggle, when enough of those people assume power within our political system, we can expect catastrophe to ensue. We in the United States are on the brink of that today, and in addition to being disgusted by these faux leaders, I am afraid of the incredible damage they have done, and continue to do, by cheapening our common life everywhere. These partisan leaders have divided us, segmented us, atomized us and lied about us to one another for the sake of profit and power, and they have done it for so long that we think it is normal.
In this new world of strategy and spin, we have lost much of our capacity to speak of right and wrong or good and evil, so let me say it now. What is happening in the recent shutdown of our government is evil; the resultant suffering and misery they will cause are evil. Their positions are anti-human; their tactics are anti-democratic; they have made a mockery of the rule of law. They deserve our protests and our scorn; ultimately they deserve to be removed from office.
Make no mistake, we are at war. This war of culture and values has been going on in this country for a generation, and for all kinds of reasons—primarily demographic ones—this may be the last stand, but this group of people will not go quietly. At the very moment that I stand here espousing liberal religious ideals, our religious and political opposites are gathered at the Values Voters Summit. The very name of the gathering is an insult to every person sitting in this room; the message is that we have no values, or we would be meeting with them. They are excellent at using our religious insecurities against us—so long as we squirm at the notion that we take our faith seriously, so long as we shy away from the use of religious language, we will remain voiceless and powerless even as we recognize the evil that they do. For you can be sure that when one dissatisfied group can hold all of us hostage, we are all in danger. When one faction of one party allows others to profit from our disempowerment, we are all in danger. When the common good is dismissed as naivete and compassion is synonymous with freeloading, we are all in danger.
I want to say that we will need faith and endurance to struggle against this. We should know our true enemies and we must be conscious of all the tools at our disposal. We get distracted by symptoms, and no matter how offended we are by all these things, they are only symptoms of the disorder of fundamentalism.
I believe that fundamentalism is our greatest single threat to progress and to peace. We most often consider it in theological terms and that’s wise, since it’s always a problem. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Christian who thinks everyone else is going to hell, or if you’re a Muslim who thinks the Koran opposes the education of girls, or you’re a Unitarian Universalist who thinks people who want to talk about God should go to another church and leave their church alone—you are fundamentalist in your thinking and you need to check yourself. Whether it is religious fundamentalism or economic fundamentalism that insists the market will take care of everything if we just let it run wild, or political fundamentalism that believes that all is fair in love and war and politics; it is fundamentalism that is eating at our souls and destroying our country and its possibilities for you and for me and our children and their children.
Faith in my experience is the only antidote to fundamentalism; Faith in the possibility inherent in human beings, faith in the goodness of life itself, faith in God or a power greater than ourselves, faith in democracy and the democratic process and the power of the people to know one another, to love one another and to govern themselves. Fundamentalists count on our cynicism and bitterness, they depend on our fear and they stoke it for personal and for corporate gain.
They don’t believe Dr. King’s words that: “that all life is interrelated, that somehow we’re caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. You can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.”
I am a sucker for lists. I like to make lists; even more important, I like to read lists. I’ll stand at a newsstand and read a magazine I don’t ordinarily buy, just to see what’s on the list of Five Fabulous Fashion Tips for RIGHT NOW. I’ll stay glued to a channel if the teaser promises me information about seven deadly hazards in the basement of my home. The fact that I live in an apartment is, of course, completely immaterial.
Some of this, of course, is training from my previous career. As a magazine editor, I learned to write those cover lines decades ago. These lists are meant to grab our attention, offer us manageable information to support our unmanageable lives. It’s why you see them on nearly every magazine cover; they get out attention.
The other inspiration is all the teaching I have been doing this church year. Teaching is fun; you get to talk about a topic you know and love with other people who want to learn about that same topic. My great love is UU history, and so I teach it to seminarians at Union and this semester at Yale Divinity School. I have eight students in my class and they are all very cool. I also get to teach by doing for the next two years, thanks to our ministerial intern, Kimberly, and she is very cool too. I think our faith is in good hands with these ministers in training. All this teaching, though, keeps me focused on what it is that I really want to make sure they know as they begin their ministries. What should a good UU minister know? The answers take years to accumulate, and sometimes you learn to be a good minister by being a not-so-good minister first.
But for liberal religious congregations to work, to be the communities of memory and resistance and hope we long for, you need more than a good minister—you need a few good UUs. Having one without the other is possible, but having both together creates a wonderful synergy that our world truly needs. I think I’m a pretty good minister, and I KNOW you’re a pretty wonderful congregation, and that didn’t just happen. Those of you who have been here a while, or began your spiritual lives in other UU congregations and then migrated here—you know some things that are important for good UUs to have under their belt. Some of you are new here, maybe brand new to us this morning. You’re still feeling us out, trying to decide if this is a place you might call home. Well, I’m especially glad you’re here today, glad that I can give you some tips—magazine style: here are 10 things good UUs know.
First: good UUs know that we are people of the covenant, not of the creed. Our community, our common lives, are only as good and rich and full as the promises we make to one another. We will not always succeed in keeping the promises we make, most often embodied in the seven principles that we affirm among us. But one of the things we promise is that when we fail, we begin again in love. That’s why, no matter what you may have heard, you can not be a UU by yourself. You need others to support and cheer you on in your journey of faith—and they need you for the same reasons. Good UUs affirm the promises that bring us together. [What might the world be like if we were models for those promises and the will to keep them?]
Second: Good UUs know that Unitarian Universalist do not get to believe anything they want. I think this is one of those malicious rumors that got started by more traditional religious people who decided that, because our minds are open, our brains have actually fallen out. And I frankly believe, too, that there are some of us who are lazy about our faith. In reality though, Unitarian Universalists believe what they must believe, not just any old random idea that passes through their minds. Our third principles is an important guiding value here: it affirms for us the free and responsible search for truth and meaning. Sometimes people hear the free part and forget the responsible part. Both are important to people who take religion seriously.
I joined Community Church in 1985 as an agnostic who cringed whenever someone said the word God. But I spent time in a community of people who were on a spiritual journey. I talked, I listened, I read, I investigated. My search was responsible. I stand before you today as a theist, a follower of Jesus and an admirer of Buddhist practice. In five years, my faith may take another turn, and so may yours. As your minister, it’s been my privilege to walk with many of you as you have made those choices and changes. But none of us got to where we are spiritually by believing anything we wanted to. Good UUs know that faith is more complicated than that. [If we behaved by example, what might we teach the world about faith?]
Third: Good UUs know that just as we don’t believe anything we feel like believing, we also don’t behave in any way we feel like behaving. We are conscious that even though we are individuals with our own thoughts and feelings, we are also part of a community, with a responsibility to consider the thoughts and feelings of others. So the theists in our midst would never think of disparaging the atheists among us, because our Fourth Principle reminds us that we agreed to accept one other and encourage one another in our spiritual growth, even when we grow in different directions. [We think it’s oh so witty, but it’s not so funny if you are a Christian and someone is mocking you. Think of how it feels to you when your evangelical neighbor tells you belong to a cult and that you are going to hell—and so are your kids. And because our First Principle affirms the inherent worth and dignity of every person, we find constructive ways to disagree with one another; we think before we speak; if we have an issue with someone, we speak to them and not about them. Good UUs know that all people are welcome, but all behaviors are not.
Fourth: Good UUs have tools and we know how to use them. For hundreds of years, ours has been the religious tradition that has encouraged us to use our minds as well as our hearts, and to trust them both in matters of faith. Unitarian Universalists have never been willing to hand over their spiritual lives to a hierarchy of any kind, in our congregations or in our larger associations. We believe in the value and the power of thought. We believe just as strongly in the value and power of our own lived experience. Whether it is our own encounters with the Holy, or the silence that has met our prayers, or the human hands that have pulled us up and away from the pools of despair, our faith is shaped by what we have been taught by life itself. We are willing to add to these stores of personal knowledge the sacred scriptures of our Jewish and Christian roots, and the texts of other faithful people from cultures different from our own, because we know that their words too contain a different wisdom. We consider too, the liberal tradition from which we spring, all the heroic women and men who first asked the questions we ask now. Good UUs embrace all these many ways of knowing, and see them as the tools for spiritual growth that they are.
Fifth: Good UUs know that science and religion are not in conflict. We are not afraid of medical advances or bedside prayers. We are not afraid of the evolutionary process or the many stories of the world’s creation. We love and rejoice in and are grounded by the beauty of our earthly home, and we use all the knowledge and research and skill available to us in the fight to protect and save our planet for ourselves and for our children. Science at its best tries to explain how things work the way they do; religion at its best tries to explain why things work the way they do. Good UUs know that most human beings need both those explanations; they’re important to us.
Sixth: Good UUs know who their enemies are. Some people are so romantic about religion in general and about Unitarian Universalism in particular that they decry the very idea of an enemy. I couldn’t disagree more. I believe that we people of liberal faith have a responsibility to identify those ideals that degrade human life and human flourishing, and to struggle against them with all the power at our command. The affirmation of the inherent worth and dignity of every person calls us to a corresponding condemnation of the true forces that threaten that worth and that dignity. Thus it is that God is not our enemy, but fundamentalism. Fundamentalism of every kind, in fact, may be our one constant enemy—an economic fundamentalism that enriches a few and impoverishes others and exhausts us all; a religious fundamentalism that denies woman and men the freedom to worship as they please or not at all; a racial and ethnic fundamentalism that fixes in the very marrow of our bones a sense of superiority and inferiority based on the color of our skin or pronunciation of our names; a fundamentalism of sex and gender that dooms millions of people to a life in the shadows; there are others. But what they all share is a narrowness, an extremism that closes the door on our common life rather than opening it. Good UUs know how to discern that extremism and how to respond to it, —with the unlikely combination of love and relentless confrontation with the truth.
Seventh: Good UUs know the things that unite us are greater than the things that divide us. We in the 21st century walk the tightrope of identity, defining ourselves by race and gender and class and neighborhood and a thousand other signs that hold real meaning for us. Sometimes those identities are hard won, some of them we take for granted. All of them matter in the short run as we navigate a society that pays close attention to where we fit and where we don’t. But in the long run, in eternal time, none of the labels we wear matter as much as the label human being. We are not cogs in the wheel of capitalism; we are not political parties; we are not wedge issues in the great cultural wars of our time. We are human beings, who need meaning and purpose and love in our lives, who struggle every day, sometimes every hour, to be truly seen and truly known. Good UUs are human beings with the eyes to see and the heart to know.
Eighth: Good UUs know the profound power of love. We find in our Universalist history the bedrock belief in a God who, instead of totaling up our failures and our missteps to exact eternal revenge, met us where we were, mistakes and all, loved us as we were, as we are, as we hoped to be. In all the decades of our religious evolution, as we expanded our horizons of faith to include an ever broader vision of what it means to be a liberal religious person, that singular vision of endless love stands at its center, and radiates outward through us and our work with and in the world. Our own Clarence Russell Skinner said it better than anyone in chapter three of his book, The Social Implications of Universalism: “The Universalist idea of God is that of a universal, impartial, immanent spirit whose nature is love. It is the largest thought the world has ever known; it is the most revolutionary doctrine ever proclaimed; it is the most expansive hope ever dreamed.” Good UUs root themselves in this expansive hope, knowing that even those we see as enemy might one day be known as a friend.
Ninth: Good UUs know that Revelation is not sealed. We who are awake and alive to life know that the possibility exists at any time to be transformed by an encounter, changed by a conversation, led into a deeper understanding of our own lives in ways we did not expect. The Unitarian Universalist theologian James Luther Adams puts it this way in his essay, Guiding Principles for a Free Faith: We cannot properly place our confidence in our own creations; we must depend upon a transforming reality that breaks through encrusted forms of life and thought to create new forms. We put our faith in a creative reality that is re-creative. Revelation is continuous.” It is this confidence in a transformative reality, our confidence that it will break through in us and around us to create something beautiful before our very eyes—this is why ours is a living tradition. at the turn of the 20th century the Unitarian Minister John Haynes Holmes wrote a famous hymn that we no longer sing. It’s called the Voice of God is calling: The voice of God is calling, he writes, its summons unto men. As once he spake in zion, so now he speaks again. There are lots of reasons we don’t use it anymore, not the least of which is its non inclusive language, but I love the hymn because it calls to a recognition of that transforming reality and to act in concert with it. Good UUs stand ready to hear and to move to the music of transformation.
At last, we are at the 10th thing Good UUs Know—Good UUs know that Religion is Not a Spectator Sport. We are called to do more than know—we are called to act on what we know. Even this list of mine is open to revision; it’s my list, after all, and though I think it’s a pretty fine list, you might think differently. So I invite you and encourage you, as one small participatory devotion, to create your own list for yourself. You might even start at this retreat, this weekend, with a couple of ideas that move you.
We need not settle for the thin gruel of terminal uniqueness. We could embrace instead a rich, full religious and spiritual tradition, translating and transforming it for our own time. We could instead, be invigorated anew by the words of our great Unitarian preacher Theodore parker: Be ours a faith which, like sunshine goes everywhere: its temple, all space, its shrine, the good heart; its ritual, works of love, its profession of faith: divine living. May a divine life be ours for the living. Thank you for listening.
The Biggest Tent
The Rev. Rosemary Bray McNatt
Sermon from Worship Service at EUU Retreat Nov. 3, 2013
Our reading this morning is taken from the work of the Indian novelist and activist Arundhati Roy:
"To love. To be loved. To never forget your own insignificance.
To never get used to the unspeakable violence
and the vulgar disparity of life around you.
To seek joy in the saddest places.
To pursue beauty to its lair.
To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple.
To respect strength, never power.
Above all, to watch. To try and understand.
To never look away. And never, never, to forget."
I begin this morning with a sad story, one that some of you may even know. It’s a story that’s hard to hear, but important for many reasons. I want to flag upfront the fact that if you have survived a trauma of some kind, you may react more strongly to this story, and it’s ok to recognize that in yourself, and give yourself permission to leave the room if you need to do that.
The story I want to tell is about a little boy from Springfield, MA named Carl Joseph Walker. He was one of four children of a single mother, part of an extended family that included his aunt and his grandmother. He was in sixth grade at a charter school in Springfield, where like his older sister, he played three sports. He was an advanced reader, a friendly helpful boy with a winning smile, a good neighbor.
But he was also a deeply unhappy child. Greatly beloved at home, he was cruelly bullied at school. Teased, threatened, and harassed, he had to eat his lunch with the school’s guidance counselor. His mother spoke to school authorities, but to no avail. Carl grew more and more silent at home, more withdrawn with his mom. He stopped talking about school, and came home in silence.
One afternoon in May of 2009, Carl came home from school, said hi to his mother making dinner in the kitchen and went upstairs to the third floor of their house. When his mom called him and he didn’t answer, she went upstairs to get him. That’s when she found him, hanging from the staircase, his book bag still in the landing. The paramedics were called, but it was too late. He left his mom a note, telling everyone how much he loved them, and saying goodbye.
I was reminded of this story while watching a show very popular in the United States at one time; it was called Extreme Makeover Home Edition. The design team had gone to Massachusetts to build a new home for the Walker family because they could not bear to live in their old home. The grief and the sorrow had trapped the entire family. They couldn’t bear to be upstairs anymore. Three of the five family members slept together in cots in the living room, because none of them could bear to pass the stairwell where little Carl had hanged himself. His mother made a statement early in the show that broke my heart: “Sometimes I have to wonder whether I will ever be happy again.”
I wondered the same thing as I watched this incredible woman. This was a two-hour special, at least one hour of which was total heartbreak, and I almost didn’t keep watching. I have sons, too, one of whom struggles with significant mental health challenges—and the idea that I might have come home to find one of them dead was much too close to home. But I kept watching, and admiring this woman, who has spent the years since her son’s death working to end bullying through her nation-wide education and advocacy. There is no daytime talk show that hasn’t featured her, no committee in Congress that hasn’t heard her testimony, no parents’ group that she will not speak to, no high school too big or too small for her to visit. She said something that haunts me still: “I failed my son in life, so I promised myself I wouldn’t fail him in death.”
At the end of the show, the camera followed the family through the rooms of their new house, and their relief and their gratitude was something to see. “I feel a lot of peace here,” Carl’s mother said, and felt that she might finally rest.
I have spent time with you together this weekend talking about this faith of ours, its capacity for being a beacon of justice in an unjust world, and many of you have approached me to work out in your own heads how you want to approach your small part of the great work. We are a religion with the capacity to embrace so many—sometimes I think of Unitarian Universalists as the biggest faith tent in the world, the embodiment of a famous verse by the Universalist writer Edwin Markham:
He drew a circle that shut me out--
Heretic, a rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in!
I am humbled that so many of you found in my words the inspiration to renew your personal passion for justice, to draw the circle wider, to expand our theological tent, and I look forward to hearing more in the coming months and years about the witness of European Unitarian Universalists. There is so much that can be done, so much that you can do best.
But I started with that heartbreaking story to remind us that some of us—perhaps many of us—begin or solidify our lives as faithful people because of sadness and tragedy. Some of us are drawn to church because our own burdens are too great to carry alone. After all, there are so many people in this world like Carl’s mother. My friend from seminary whose partner of 15 years died this summer. Friends from college who are dying right now. A member of my congregation, dying right now from a degenerative disease, determined to marry his partner before he dies. People who have gone a year without work, or another year of trying and failing to have that longed-for child, or who cope the lingering sadness of caring for a loved one struggling with illness. There is not a single person in this room who does not know the meaning of suffering in a real way, and that includes me.
So what I am here to tell you in the face of all this suffering? I am here to say, even so—rejoice. I am here to tell you that you and your life are so much more than your pain, more than the wounds you carry and the scabs you pick over each day. And we can know that best when we are open to the suffering and the pain and the needs of others; we know that best when we open our hearts and our congregations to others who suffer, who need the big tent and the broad embrace of liberal religious community.
One of the reasons I wanted to talk about this is that we are approaching the season of often cloying cheerfulness. Thanksgiving is coming in the United States, and though it’s not a European holiday I would be surprised if some of you were not planning to celebrate here on the European continent. Then there is the spate of winter holidays: Hannukah and Yule and Christmas and Boxing Day and New Years Day. All that enforced joy can take a toll on us, taunt us with missing faces and missing voices. For the first time since he was born, my oldest son will not be with us for Thanksgiving. It’s the right decision for him, I don’t feel neglected, it’s a day I knew was coming, but I am longing for him already. Perhaps there is something, or someone, for which you are longing too. I think those of us who have these longings should own them. We should refuse, in fact, to pretend. What I am suggesting for you as well as for myself, is that we take the paradoxical view of ourselves. I am suggesting that it is all right to rejoice, indeed it is essential to celebrate the gifts of this life even as you acknowledge our sorrows, both large and small. One does not automatically cancel out the other. What is more, sometimes it is only through connecting with what is bitter and painful and difficult for us that we can gain the capacity to celebrate. Our wounds can be the vessel for something more important than our pain. They can become the wellsprings of compassion, an openheartedness that helps us help others. These hardships can lead us to a deeper dissatisfaction with things as they are, can help us move toward action that serves not simply our own needs but the needs of this world.
I reread recently a 1999 dialogue between two of my very favorite people: the Buddhist nun and writer Pema Chodron and the Pulitzer Prize winning writer Alice Walker. The conversation, published in a magazine called Shambala Sun, was a talk about the pain and the suffering that is a given in every life, and about our capacity to decide whether our pain will mean something.
After Walker talks about the deep suffering she endured during a particular period, and her inability to move through it, she studied Chodron’s book and eventually did move through it. In commenting on Walker’s story, Chodron to ask a question: Is there any use in suffering?
Chodron: I think the reason I am so taken by these teachings is that they are based on using suffering as good medicine, like the Buddhist metaphor of using poison as medicine. It’s as if there’s a moment of suffering that occurs, what usually happens in that moment is that it hardens us; it hardens the heart because we don’t want any more pain. But the lojong teachings say we can take that very moment and flip it. The very thing that causes us to harden and our suffering to intensify can soften us and make us more decent and kinder people.
Pema Chödrön: I want to ask you about joy. It’s all very well to talk about poison as medicine and breathing in the suffering and sending out relief and so forth, but did you find any joy coming out of this?
Alice Walker: Oh Yes!....
Part of the joyousness was knowing we have help. It was great to know that this wisdom is so old. That means people have had this pain for a long time, they’ve been dealing with it, and they had the foresight to leave these practices for us to use. I’m always supported by spirits and ancestors and people in my tribe, whoever they’ve been and however long ago they lived….The other really joyous thing is that I feel more open, I feel more openness toward people in my world.
It’s what you have said about feeling more at home in your world. I think this is the result of going the distance in your own heart—really being disciplined about opening your heart as much as you can.”
Opening your heart as much as you can. Making room in your heart for everything, the joy as well as the suffering, is difficult work, and it takes practice, whether it is the Buddhist practice of lojong, or meditation practice, or a Unitarian Universalist practice—growing more common among us-- of putting our bodies where our hearts are, in the service of others.
As I practice opening my heart, I am learning that there is a great deal of joy to be found in spending a certain amount of every day paying more attention to what someone else needs than what I need. Being of service to others takes the relentless focus off ourselves, gets us out of our heads, our own sadness and resentments. It allows us to see where are blessings are, and reveals the glimmers of joy that might be awakened in us. Every religious tradition includes practices that place others ahead of ourselves. They are practices not meant to deprive us but to redirect us to the source of that greater joy.
so I present you with a challenge in the coming months, as we approach both the darkening days of winter and the holidays of light. What might you do to put the needs of someone else before your own? How will you open your heart more? What will you give of yourself to someone else? How will you choose to embrace a larger part of life? May you find ways not to look away, in the words of our reading today, but instead to expand your hear and this big-tent faith of ours to include not just your sorrow, but your joy and your trust, not just your personal concerns, but your capacity for service and a chance to build a larger life than you have ever dreamed. Amen.
PASTORAL PRAYER (to be delivered by Worship Leader)
Please stand, in body or in spirit and join in singing our closing hymn: Number 121, We’ll Build a Land.
Then: CLOSING WORDS
Be ours a religion which, like sunshine, goes everywhere; its temple, all space; its shrine, the good heart; its creed, all truth; its ritual, works of love; its profession of faith, divine living.
We extinguish this flame,
But not the light of truth,
The warmth of community,
Or the fire of commitment.
These we carry in our hearts
Until we are together again.
Celebrating What Has Been, Loving What is, and Dreaming of What the Beloved Community Might Become
In February 1962 the SS France made its maiden voyage across the Atlantic. In its day it was the longest ocean-liner in the world. July 27, when it landed in Le Harve, down its gangplank strode a wide-eyed 13-year-old wound tight with exhilaration and anxiety. This was it. His family was on its way to Paris, then Switzerland. That 13-year-old was me.
Months later the buoyant 53-year-old UUA president Dana McLean Greeley landed in Paris exuding nothing but confidence when he and George Marshall, the minister of the Church of the Larger Fellowship, (CLF) gathered the local CLF members together. In August 1963 John Kielty, secretary of the British Unitarian Association, met with nine members of the Paris fellowship. In March 1965 the UUA Board adopted an overseas extension protocol, and that May Greeley visited the group in Paris again. He reported that they contributed money to the James Reeb Fund that had been established in honor of the civil rights’ martyr. In those years Brussels and Wiesbaden were the other places you would have found UU fellowships.
Time passed. The War in Vietnam began. In the U.S. the draft was reinstated. By 1968 I was hustling to avoid it. That same draft, same war and Joan Breen were the reasons the UU Fellowship in Wiesbaden grew. In 1971 I fled back to Europe. By 1975 the war had ended, but already in 1974 I had returned to the U.S. to start on the path toward ministry. In 1979 Donna, my wife, and I had a baby, graduated from Meadville Lombard Theological School and gotten settled in our first ministry. By then all the fellowships in Europe, except Wiesbaden, had died.
Times changed. In that same year, 1979, Leon Spencer, Ron Diehl and Steve Dick arrived in Europe. Leon started a fellowship in Zweibrucken and got the ball rolling on what would become the European Unitarian Universalist (EUU). Steve and Ron were also among its founders and, as a New Congregation Organizer - a position funded by the UUA, Steve supported the groups that began springing up.
There had been retreats of UUs residing in Europe before but the gathering which marks EUU's formal and ongoing organization took place in 1982; its keynote speaker was O. Eugene Pickett president of the UUA. Subsequently, in Spring 1985, the UUA Board recognized EUU as the European Conference of the UUA. The next president of the UUA, Bill Schulz, continuing in the vein of Greeley and Pickett had an international vision of the UUA; in it EUU functioned as quasi-UUA district.
At home in Toronto on a shelf we have an album of photos taken in 1987. Donna and I were young ministers on our first sabbatical. Our two children, Charlotte and Elliot, were 4 and 7. The weekend of April 17, 18, 19 we were the theme speakers at the Spring EUU retreat. (We were so awful that it took 26 years i.e. an entire generation and no one who remembered before they dared invite me back.) Actually it is all vague now. Steve Dick, Jenneke and their daughter, Esther were there, so were the Owens. They were from Cooksville, Ontario and were living in Munich with their four children. Donna and I delivered the theme talk. I have no idea what we said. The location was in Belgium. The EUU was young, a mere 5-years-old, I was young, Steve Dick was young, our now adult children were young. Now EUU is 31-years-old, younger than my daughter. She grew up, went to college, is an editor, has a partner and has been on the road for the last 14 months. I am always happy to see her but that doesn't happen often enough. And I am happy to be with EUU again, too.
Times change. That is what I really want to talk with you about, and specifically how the world has changed around and within EUU?
Some of you have been around since Donna and I were last here, although I can see you aged more incrementally and kindly than Steve and I. But for you who are relatively new or even first-times I want you to hear this story – the story you are entering into and will play a part in.
Once upon time before the Blackberry, cell phone, television or even radio, we would have gathered around a campfire and what would we have done? Hear the tribal stories. We would learn how the world was created. Where we came from. What our ancestors did. About our identity and the values that guided those who lived before us. The more you hear the more what it means to be a member of this faith community makes sense. We grasp the meaning of things through narrative. We want, indeed need, to see our individual stories as part of a larger drama. This is who my people are. This is what we endured. This is who I am. This is what we value. This is where we are headed. That is where we will end up today asking: “What next?”
Times were about to change again. In 1993 John Buehrens was elected president of the UUA. He had a different vision of the UUA and saw the neo-colonialist implications of granting membership in the UUA to the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Philippines in 1988. How was an organization of multiple, non-English speaking congregations, merging from a very different culture context and socio-political-economic setting to meld into the UUA? How was it to be served? There were tensions with the EUU, as well. Fellowships paid dues but had no representation and received only limited services. Among John’s first acts as President was to tell the UUA Board that he was suspending any recommendations to admit other overseas groups. Instead, in 1994, he asked Ken MacLean to help gather a meeting of representatives of the various international Unitarian, Universalist, and UU groups to contemplate the possible parameters of an international UU council. This is something that David Usher had been lobbying for. In 1995 the International Council of Unitarian and Universalist was founded. I cannot emphasize to you how much that changed the worldwide Unitarian and Universalist context in which EUU operates.
We need to return to the theme of identity because understanding the importance of identity is the only way to comprehend the significance of the ICUU. Much of my life and my entire professional career I have been engaged with the question of identity, and specifically: “What does it mean to be a UU and an African American.” I wasn't the first to ask. The tumult during the 60s over the UUAs response to Black Power was about identity. How to be “Black” and UU? Where was the overlap? Could one be a congruent human being and be both? So powerful were the forces at work that they nearly tore the UUA apart. Indeed Bill Sinkford, who was the speaker at your retreat a year ago, left the denomination in those days because he couldn’t see a way. When I moved to Canada in 1988 it became clear to me that Canadians were also struggling with the issue of identity as they tried to articulate a Canadian Unitarian identity and create an institution, the Canadian Unitarian Council (CUC) that would support them in that enterprise.
The UUA, with only good intentions, was getting in the way. That is what John Beurhens saw. Americans couldn't help build a Canadian liberal religious identity any more than white folks could help black folks figure out how to be black and UU. Canada had a different history of origin, cultural milieu, parliamentary form of government and social challenges. In the struggles of Canadian Unitarians I couldn't help but see the predicament African-American UUs had been in. With the rise of black consciousness African-American UUs felt compelled to be involved in and do things relevant to the black community. Yet the cultural hegemony and centripetal force of the UUA is such that African Americans and Canadians both used most of their energies dealing with the Euro-American elephant i.e. white or U.S. realities rather than their own. In 2002, 41 year after its birth - which took place at the time of merger the of the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America - the CUC exited the UUA, as the Black Affairs Council had done in 1970.
I am describing the experiential reality of being marginalized, and how it feels. I think given your life experience as cultural outliers most of you have wrestled with that as well. In what ways are you a cultural outlier? What does that feel like?
Because I was attuned to the significance of identity I intuited the importance of the ICUU. In the context of the ICUU the UUA is a member. In an organization made up of institutional peers its voice one of many. There the UUA enters into dialog with other liberals religious peers. Seeing itself through their eyes it discovers the commonalties that bring them together, but also becomes aware of its own cultural uniqueness. [ICUU diagram] In this context the UUA learns about itself because it is liberated into particularities of being American i.e. it has an identity and is given the opportunity to look at the assumption behind American exceptionalism - that the American way is the best way. When it is attentive, as a partner in a world-wide movement, it is given an opportunity to see itself more accurately.
For Canadians the founding of the ICUU meant there was an umbrella group to belong to alongside Unitarians from Transylvania, Britain, the Kashi Hills – an equal partner rather than a supplicant of the UUA. The ICUU freed the CUC to get on with its life and build its own identity.
What did the ICUU mean for EUU? The UUA paternity of the first wave of groups in the 60s cannot be denied, or of the second wave that emerged in the 80s. The UUA sought to foster growth. Some congregations where, and still are, members. Some services were provided, but like the CUC EUU was a satellite. Then EUU was told the primary international body for Unitarians and Universalist is no longer the UUA; it is the ICUU. Buehrens reports that whenever he “discussed the changes in UUA policy and reasoning behind them, most European UUs were supportive.” This change posed challenges. One is the emotional loyalty (and resistance) one feels to a parent. The question arises, as it does when a child leaves home – or in this case told you are independent which is pretty much what happened to Canada, as well: What is our new relationship to be? The other problem had to do with building a new relationship, the one to the ICUU. The ICUU is made up of national organizations; EUU, however, is a transnational entity made up of both fellowships and individual members. It is neither fish nor fowl. This raises multiple questions: Where does EUU fit in the UU world that has been evolving over the past 19 years and into the ICUU? But I think there is a more fundamental question and it is the question of identity: What does it mean to be a European UU? What is your theological and institutional identity? This is important because EUU is not what it was in the beginning. Times changed and so did EUU.
What else changed? With the emergence of the Partner Church Council (PCC) and Project Harvest Hope (PHH) in 1993 the International Association for Religious Freedom (IARF) was no longer the vehicle through which American UUs interacted with Transylvanian Unitarians. By the end of Beuhren's two terms UUA funding shifted from the IARF to the ICUU. My guess is that few of you were engaged with IARF. The ICUU, on the other hand, [has] become a vehicle for more direct relations with the British, Transylvanian, and German Unitarian groups.
Still other things changed in the world in which EUU exists. The consolidation and growth of the European Union, the introduction of the Euro, the thaw in the Cold War, a plethora of wars in other regions. This led to troop reductions in the number of GIs in Europe. As U.S. military bases disappeared so did the fellowships: Zweibrucken died in 1988, Munich in 1994, Wiesbaden in 1995. John Buehrens said of the changes he saw. “The older ex-pat fellowships were shrinking, even as the network of European UUs was growing and diversifying. The biennial retreat gatherings were developing as a new vehicle for maintaining connection.” In addition to the decrease in military and embassy personnel, I think between the Internet and the easy of trans-Atlantic transportation and the expansion of EU the business model changed. That, too, led to fewer Americas being assigned abroad. What this has meant has been fewer Americans and Canadians here for a year or two. People are either here on a short time assignments or they live where. My observation is that among the people attending UU fellowships there are more permanent residents, more people in mixed marriages, more European nationals and dual nationals. To paraphrase John Eichrodt, who has been here throughout this evolution, EUU has become increasingly multicultural and multinational and much less American-centered than it was 25 years ago. Others agree.
The change in the composition of the congregations and the individual members of EUU returns us to the question of identity.
This is not the first time this has been addressed. In 1995 Mark Belletini, when he was the EUU theme speaker, did in his unique way in writing the EUU Anthem. He had chaired the UUA Hymnal Commission and was at “the end of the hymnbook years,” and he'd been “writing hymns like crazy.” Let’s singing it.
Mark says that this anthem emerged from conversations he had with a member of the Hayward congregation. The person was from Nederland; and it had dawned on Mark how North American Unitarian history is, and how UUs speak of the history in Europe as our “roots” as opposed to our actual history. So he decided as part of the program the first time he spoke at an EUU retreat was to offer this hymn for UU's in Europe to make that plain. He said, “I set it to the Beethoven tune because it was well known, and he was of course, European.” And also that “Channing's and Emerson's and Parker's and Susan B. Anthony's issues are mostly irrelevant to European religious liberals.” In celebrating your roots and emerging identity Mark was amplifying your voice.
Who are you? And what are you becoming? Are you cultural outliers straddling countries, cultures and languages? Are you in-betweeners, being neither this nor that? Do you bear the tension of that situation within yourselves? Do you feel perhaps, like citizens of the world – something no one but the World Federalist recognizes? Are you what some have begun calling “Internationals”? Do you come to EUU retreats looking to be at home among others who share this experience? I do not have the answers. I am not 100% sure these are the right questions. But I know you come where seeking something, and what you find feeds you because you keep returning. And I suspect that the number of people who are like you is growing, and they, too, are searching.
Change will come whether you welcome it, resist it or simply wait. But I want to posit that the fall and spring EUU retreats were a creative response to change. That in an unusually fluid environment in which some congregations grew, some plateaued and some withered. Sometimes the reason was that strong leaders (Bernard Redmont in Paris in the 60s and Bill Barraclough in Belgium and Paris in the 80s) left. So did Leon Spencer from Zweibrucken. Joan Breen died. Many came and went, and others - without a group nearby - made EUU their congregation. These gatherings from the beginning have been resilient, engaging, nurturing and perhaps most importantly have provided community and continuity. These retreats are good – great even – but are they sufficient for what you have become and are becoming?
Answer these questions: How did you get here? What do you cherish? What might EUU become?
l First, are there significant factors I missed in describing the influences on EUU?
l Second, why do you cherish EUU? Or what does it do for you? What I am trying to get at is: What are you seeking in a religious community? I want us to become more aware of what EUU does well so you can continue to that, and build upon it.
l Third, What next? What is the future of EUU? When EUUs 50th anniversary arrives in 2032 what will it look like? Ask yourself: What does the world need that a liberal religious community can help bring about?
l What would help EUU move in that direction?
These are big questions, and the answers important. Nonetheless the most important answers are the ones we cannot know because they have yet to evolve and take root. Often we live them out first, rather than speak them into being. We get fooled. We are fooled into thinking every question has an answer. Sometimes a question is just the beginning of a conversation.
Sustaining a conversation is a challenge for EUUers, scattered as you are, gathering as you do every six months, with the Coordinating Council (CC) meeting in between to deal with pressing issues. Being driven by its job description rather than the EUU mission my hunch the CCs times goes to the basic maintenance of EUU, the next retreat, and the agendas of other groups. How does EUU balance the differing needs of its individual members and of congregations of vastly different sizes? You are not sure? You do all this as volunteers with busy lives. By tomorrow evening you will again be spread to the wind - exhausted and exhilarated. In the fall a new retreat, a chance to see friends, have community, hear a new speaker, and the speaker will bring fresh ideas that are probably unconnected to what was offered before.
Next fall when you gather to hear Rosemary Bray McNatt this time together will be a memory. And maybe you'll say 'Remember Mark asked us...' or maybe not. Continuity is a challenge for EUU and keeping this conversations going will be, too.
Who spoke to you at your last retreat? Abhi Janamanchi. I think he left you with a challenge. His presentation was entitled “Nurture Your Spirit, Help Heal the World.” In it he explored with you the many ways available to live a spiritual life and then came to this conclusion: “We are spiritual because we ask ourselves what life wants from us, how we should treat each other and the world, what kind of contribution we can and must make, and what will be left after we're gone. We grow spiritually by facing those questions more honestly and deeply, more humbly and willingly, and by discovering our individual answers and discerning our collective responses as we seek to live lives of joy, hope, integrity, and service.”
Did you act on what you heard because facing such questions as Abhi raised is to go down the path of spiritual growth – which, I believe, is why we are here?
This leads to subsidiary questions - institutional ones. That is what I have been addressing: How does EUU build on such an understanding of our own and the world’s deepest needs? How does it strengthen itself in order to support the individuals who are here – and those who are not, and those we know not yet of - in leading more deeply spiritual lives? How does EUU strengthen its congregations? How does it start new ones? How does it invite more people into this circle where we strive “to live lives of joy, hope, integrity and service?” What will EUUs next step be?
By Spring 1963, 9 months after, the 13-year-old who walked down the gangplank of the S.S. France in Le Harve figured out he didn't want to leave Switzerland. He was blossoming in a way he had not before; finding an independence he hadn’t known before and at age 14 setting his mind to it he did stay for another two years after his family returned to Chicago. He tried to return at age 17. Thwarted, he didn’t return until he was 21. It’s a long story. It’s enough to say I decided and I persevered. There is always a next step. What will yours be? Your choices are two: plan and initiate, or wait and react. Maybe there is a third: plan and when the unforeseen happens cope. What's next for you and EUU?
Mark D. Morrison-Reed
April 13, 2013
Nurture Your Spirit, Help Heal Our World:
Exploring UU Spirituality
by the Rev Abhi Janamanchi
The 47 slides used to accompany Rev. Janamanchi's theme talk can be viewed at the UU Spirituality tab to the left.
Or click this link Theme Talk slides.
DEMANDS OF THE AGE ON LIBERAL RELIGION
by the Rev. Abhi Janamanchi, EUU Retreat, Oct.28, 2012
What opportunities will there be for us in the coming decades of the 21st century? Will we be ready to recognize and respond to the invitations that come our way? What must we do, how must we act, what do we need to affirm and promote, if we are to be a religion for our time (and for the future) in our community, in our larger world, as well as amongst ourselves?
In 1824, William Ellery Channing preached a sermon titled "Demands of the Age on the Ministry" at the ordination and installation service of his junior colleague Ezra Stiles Gannett.
In his sermon, Channing proposed that his was an enlightened age demanding an enlightened ministry. I submit that ours is a pluralistic age demanding a pluralistic ministry
How people of all faiths, races, and cultures begin to engage with one another in shaping an inclusive society is one of the most important questions we face today.
The demand of pluralism on our faith is to challenge us to move beyond mere tolerance which today tends more often to be a mask or shield for perpetuating certain forms of intolerance and prejudice. Tolerance can enable coexistence but it is no way to be good neighbors. As Prof. Diana Eck rightly observed in her book Encountering God: A Spiritual Journey from Bozeman to Benaras, “(tolerance) is simply another expression of privilege.”
Unitarian Universalism was born out of a spirit of religious toleration but has evolved over time to promote a deeper sense of acceptance and pluralism. It teaches us to move beyond tolerance, to be respectful, accepting, and understanding of difference and diversity. It is a gritty process that honors each perspective for all its particularities and angularities. It is a process that continually tests our commitments and challenges us to go deeper than our comfort allows us. It reminds us that an authentic religious community is created and sustained not by people being comfortable together but by taking the spiritual risk of facing their discomfort together. It emphasizes that a beloved community is not built through achieving agreement but through achieving relationship.
Channing called, second, for an earnest ministry. Today’s demand I would say that we be balanced – to take serious matters seriously and ourselves more lightly, i.e., to maintain a sense of humor. It is possible to be terribly and terminally earnest especially in moral and religious things and lose sight of our common humanity.
One issue of balance in this age is facing the reality and challenge of multiculturalism, for there is not one among us whose life is not in some sense divided or hyphenated. We are all in some way or the other, theological crossbreeds, religious mutts, and cultural mongrels.
The novelist Salman Rushdie might not usually be considered a likely source for a quotation in support of multiculturalism. He has fashioned a genre which he has termed ‘theological comedy,’ which seems more frontal in its satires. But hear his statement of intent, however you may assess his work:
“The Satanic Verses celebrates hybridity, intermingling, the transformation that comes of new and unexpected combination of human beings, cultures, ideas, politics, movies, songs. It rejoices in mongrelization and fears the absolutism of the pure; the hodge-podge, a bit of this and a bit of that is how newness enters the world . . . . The Satanic Verses is for change by fusion, change by conjoining. It is a love song to our mongrel selves.”
Again, he confesses, “Like many millions of people, I am a bastard child of history. Perhaps we all are, black and white, while leaking into one another . . . . like flavors when you cook . . . I say, let it continue.”
Does Unitarian Universalism indeed celebrate bastardization, mongrelization, hybridization, the abdication of the pure? In a sense, I think it does; it points us to a necessary intermingling. There are no pure-breds here. We treasure our mixed identities.
To be whole and human and to maintain one’s sense of humor requires an inner balance that perhaps only the cultivation of religious community can help sustain in us.
For you see, the speed-addicted, attention deficit, instant gratification seeking world in which we live in demands an agile ministry. Our lives are rushed and harried, our hearts and souls are anxious, and our relationships more neglected perhaps more than ever. How infrequent it is that we pause to reflect, to wait, to wonder, to ponder, to catch our breath. A ministry in our age must be agile indeed to help us stop, to see our lives more often, more constantly, under the aspect of eternity as Santayana put it, our lives not as they seem as they pass us by but as they will remain when their story is over. A ministry must be agile indeed to bring to our lives a sensibility that is both timely and timeless. For, as Channing put it, there is no such thing as naked truth at any time. At least so far as moral subjects are concerned. Truth which related to god and duty, to happiness and our future is always humanized by passing through a human mind.
In our accelerated age, the demand on the ministry is to be agile, nimble, self-aware, calm, non-anxious, humble. The demand has never been greater.
Another demand of our age that requires a humane ministry is the demand on families raising children. What is desperately needed today is support for those whose primary spiritual discipline is the raising of children. As John Buehrens once remarked, “we need an AARP for parents,” for parents, like the schools to which we send our children, are over-stressed and under-supported; where the spiritual and moral education is left to the internet and television where it is subverted every day by the money grubbing media that cares nothing about nurturing our children’s spiritual, emotional, intellectual, and social lives except their bottom line. We need a common social agenda. One demand of the age on pastoral ministry will be not only to support faith development within families of our own churches but a broader ministry of value-centered moral education, of humane education that teaches compassion, reconciliation, and justice to the children of many others.
It is a demand, nay, an imperative in this inhumane age, that we be more humane for the coming generation.
“For our religion owes much of its power, “said Channing, “to the power of the life of the woman or man who communicates it and the greater the enlargement and the development of the mind from which it has possessed itself and from which it flows, the wider and deeper would be its actions on other souls.” Which is why one of the chief demands of this age on our ministry is a prophetic ministry.
“The age is in many respects a corrupt one,” said Channing, “and demands a spirit of reform. “ That much has not changed at all.
Channing’s call for a transformed religious liberalism is as relevant today as it was 288 years ago. The historical situation and the intellectual climate today are quite different. Nevertheless, it is striking to see how our sense that we are living in a time of spiritual and social crisis and our uncertainty about the ability of liberalism of whatever stripe to respond effectively to the needs of the age have not abated but only deepened. The L-word is shunned by politicians for a host of complex reasons, while the word reform has been hijacked by conservatives in systems of public welfare, education, and national security. In consequence, liberalism and liberal religion are laboring under a disabling tentativeness and identity confusion.
If we are to be a relevant force for spiritual and social transformation in our country and in the world, we must rescue religious liberalism from its long-standing individualist, secularist, and at times, self-centered captivities and become a mission-centered faith that helps people live lives of integrity, joy, service, and hope. Otherwise, we run the risk of becoming, as the Rev. Kim Beach warned, “a religious decompression chamber, or, a way-station for those passing from fundamentalism to the golf course.” We have drifted in this direction for a long time now and it is time we got more focused on who we are, what we are about, and what our mission is in the larger world. And it needs to begin from within.
Finally, the demands of the age on the ministry is on each and every one of us - ordained and non-ordained – all called to a covenant, a beckoning beyond what we want into what the world needs where we are asked to bring the deepest yearning of our own hearts, the gifts and talents we have been given and have cultivated to serve the world’s greatest needs.
Remember this. Who we are matters. What we do matters. It really does. Each of us, doing the work we do day in and day out, individually and collectively, creates the future of our movement. We decide.
“We are called,” says Peter Morales, “to feed the spiritually hungry and open our home to the religiously homeless.”
They’re out there in the hundreds and thousands and millions, yearning for depth without dogma and divisiveness. If we invite them and welcome them and feed them with love and joy and hope and justice, we will be the religion for our time and the future.
The great American poet Adrienne Rich in her masterpiece Phantasia for Elvira Shatayev tells the story of a women’s climbing team all of whom died in a storm on Lenin Peak in August of 1974. I want to close with the words with which she closes the poem.
In the diary I wrote: Now we are ready
and each of us knows it I have never loved
like this I have never seen
my own forces so taken up and shared
and given back
After the long training the early sieges
we are moving almost effortlessly in our love
In the diary as the wind began to tear
at the tents over us I wrote:
We know now we have always been in danger down in our separateness
and now up here together but till now
we had not touched our strength
In the diary torn from my fingers I had written:
What does love mean
what does it mean "to survive"
A cable of blue fire ropes our bodies
burning together in the snow We will not live
to settle for less We have dreamed of this
all of our lives.
References & Resources:
Writings of William Ellery Channing, Salman Rushdie, Diana Eck, John Buehrens, and George Kimmich Beach.
Phantasia for Elvira Shatayev by Adrienne Rich
A Humanist View of Spirituality
by the Rev. Dr. Walt Wieder
Paths to Understanding
"Not to weep, not to wax indignant, but to understand" – Spinoza
EUU 2011 Spring Retreat Theme Talk
The search for spirituality seems to be everywhere. The topic just won’t go away; on the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Chat, on the internet, in conversations at my local bar, over coffee over lunch – the topic is, of course, spirituality. I have been reduced to prayer – “please”, I ask the heavens, “save me from folks who say, “I’m not religious, but I’m very spiritual.”
“Of course you are,” is my standard reply.
But I’m always unsure of what it means; to be spiritual without being religious, to be spiritual without the support of a community. Unsure and more than a little suspicious.
Since I am not a household name, even in the small pond that is Unitarian Universalism, I thought it proper to introduce myself. My name is Walt Wieder. Folks call me Walt, not Doctor or Pastor or Your Eminence. I invite you to do the same.
I would describe myself, theologically, as an existential humanist, a kind of double denial of the transcendent. I am a humanist in the sense that I believe that values and meaning are a human project where the existence of God or God's is irrelevant. I am an agnostic. There are two forms of the agnostic position, hard and soft. The soft form says, well, I'm not convinced, but who knows what will happen next. The hard form says, not only do I not know, you don't either. I am functionally an atheist. Not Zeus, not Krishna, not, not, not, not. I am as spiritual as they come.
I have been a Unitarian Universalist minister for almost 40 years. I am the Senior Minister, for this past 15 years, of the UU Church in Surprise, Arizona, a 280 member congregation in a suburb of Phoenix, Arizona. I am a member of the UUA General Assembly Planning Committee.
I also host a radio show in Phoenix titled "A Different View". While the AM signal does not quite reach Europe, there is a podcast site, wwieder.podbean.com.
My undergraduate college career is not a bad metaphor for most of my life. I became financially emancipated when I entered college. It was my choice. I was quite willing to work for the independence that supporting myself allowed. That theme, independence and self-determination, runs through my life. It is not unrelated to the fact that I am a Unitarian Universalist.
I followed my nose and interests (philosophy, psychology, English) with little concern for required courses. As a result I was able to cram 4 years into 7.
I dropped in and out of school as finances and circumstances dictated. I spent a year as a Vista Volunteer in West Virginia. After I completed my year as a Vista, I stayed in West Virginia, there being no pressing reason to be anywhere else. I owned and operated a small bookstore while taking classes at West Virginia State College, a historically African American College. It sounds grander than it was. It was a one room building with a partition part way across the back. I lived in the back of the store with cold and cold running water for two semesters. I later worked as a newspaper reporter and social worker.
I had encountered Unitarian Universalism and the Kanawha Valley Unitarian Fellowship shortly after arriving in West Virginia as a Vista. I still didn't have a degree when I decided I wanted to become a Unitarian Universalist minister.
It was all very natural and totally lacking in any road to Damascus experience. I had taken on increasingly significant roles in the life of the Fellowship. It seemed a logical next step.
I did ask friends in the Fellowship if they could imagine me in the UU ministry. They said "yes", they could imagine it… perhaps more a testament to their imaginations than my abilities at the time.
My seminary experience was similar. The Baptist seminary I attended would suggest a Bible course or perhaps Biblical Greek. I would counter that since the Bible didn't loom very large in my religious life, why didn't I take another pastoral counseling course or perhaps work as a student chaplain on the burn unit at the local hospital.
It was the 60's -- they said “sure”.
I did the minimum core curriculum and again followed my nose and interests, mostly to suffering, not to talk about suffering. I demonstrated against racism and War and sat with people who were dying. I found theology boring.
My D.Min. from Southern Methodist University, you will not be surprised to hear, included significant credit for a year-long Clinical Pastoral Education residency as a chaplain at Children’s Hospital in Dallas, Texas. The typical CPE question was "describe the theological issues raised." I never got far beyond "they weren't alone."
My experience in the UU Ministry has likewise consisted of putting one foot in front of the other, doing what fell to my lot, without much concern about career. All very Zen, except for the boring meditation.
I have a colleague whom I quite admire who says that most of ministry can be summed up with the advice: “suit up and show up.” That, along with the mantra, “Please yourself and at least somebody’s pleased”, has served me, and I hope, the congregations I have served, well.
What follows are paths I have found congenial in my search for meaning and a deepened spiritual life. There is an important caveat... there is a crucial distinction to be made between "this is how I do it" and "this is how it is done".
Mark Twain was once asked to explain how he reached his advanced age. He gave some general examples of his course (never stand if you can sit, never sit if you can lie down; never smoke more than one cigar at a time, and so on). He then observed that such a regime suited him down to the ground, but added, "don't you dare try it, it would probably kill you."
Mark Twain's point (he almost always had a point) was that we each must find our own way.
The impulse which drives the search for spirituality is as pure as any concrete expression of that impulse is false. Crystals, covens, bibles, et al, are not the source of spirituality – at best they may be the occasion of bringing ourselves to ourselves. Any guru, anywhere, anytime, is of limited use.
The examples this morning are just that, examples to stir you to recognize what is or could be, for you, paths to deeper sense and experience of spirituality. Later this morning we will have a chance to share ways you have found helpful. I invite you to spend at least some time this weekend sharing with others your sources.
What is meant by spirituality, anyway? It of course means many things, ranging from the trite to the profound. Spirituality, it seems to me now, in the midst of ceremony, worship, meditation and prayer, is the occasion of the connection and awareness, with and of, something greater than can be expressed any other way. It has the disability of being absolutely unintelligible except on its own terms. It clearly is connected to our search for meaning and connection.
You can imagine my relief to discover I am not the first religious professional to have to deal with the claim of spirituality without context. I assume it was exasperation with folks claiming that they were not religious but they certainly were spiritual, which led St. Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274) to list the seven works of spiritual mercy. Aquinas obviously had the same discussions that I find so problematical. He came up with a list of what the effect of being spiritual ought to be. What were the hallmarks of genuine spirituality?
This is Aquinas’s list: To teach the ignorant, To counsel the doubtful, To console the sad, To reprove the sinner, To forgive the offender, To bear with the oppressive and troublesome, To pray for us all.
If someone means that they try and live up to Aquinas’s list when they say they are spiritual, all I have to say is, “good for you”; and that with a complete absence of irony.
I appreciate the impulse that led Aquinas to his list even if it doesn’t totally work for me.
To teach the ignorant -- fine
To counsel the doubtful – I want to encourage doubt
To console the sad -- OK
To reprove the sinner – if we could only agree on what is sinful
To forgive the offender – forgiveness is a good practice
To bear with the oppressive and troublesome – I have a list if you are having trouble finding someone to practice on.
To pray for us all – I’m not sure it does any good, but I don’t find it offensive
I have my own shorter list. There are some signs I have come to use in distinguishing between trite and profound claims of spirituality - fruits, as it were, of genuine spirituality.
Compassion, appropriate anger, and wisdom.
Compassion - self, family, tribe, nation, humanity. To be able to imagine oneself as the other.
Appropriate anger - at injustice suffered, not by oneself, but by others
Wisdom - limits and well as the courage to admit those limits
Philosophy, Hume and Kant in particular, led me to the “hard" agnosticism I claim. It protects me from believing that my ignorance means that the first fool claiming knowledge is right. It leaves the universe open.
Do you yearn for a more spiritual life? Gravitate to those experiences that deepen these three in your life.
There are two modes of understanding which I have found helpful in inviting and appreciating the spiritual; two places I go, again and again, to refresh and deepen my religious life, lyric poetry and humor, especially irony and black humor. Poetry and humor, like spirituality at its best, allow us to apprehend and savor the conflicting truths which exists independently and simultaneously within all our experience (truth, pure and complicated).
((Flowering of intuition))
((That big hot fire which is truth))
Lyric poetry: complex, dense, able to do more than one thing at a time. It is able to capture a moment, some present, the now, in all it's complexity. It mimics the world I find, pure and complicated
I have two longish examples that represent what I have found in Yeats, Roethke, X.J. Kennedy, Frost, Sandburg, Stevie Smith, Houseman, Hardy, Elliot, Donne, and a host of others.
((Larkin quote: “depravation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth”))
Church going - Philip Larkin
Once I am sure there's nothing going on
I step inside, letting the door thud shut.
Another church: matting, seats, and stone,
And little books; sprawlings of flowers, cut
For Sunday, brownish now; some brass and stuff
Up at the holy end; the small neat organ;
And a tense, musty, unignorable silence,
Brewed God knows how long. Hatless, I take off
My cycle-clips in awkward reverence,
Move forward, run my hand around the font.
From where I stand, the roof looks almost new-
Cleaned or restored? Someone would know: I don't.
Mounting the lectern, I peruse a few
Hectoring large-scale verses, and pronounce
'Here endeth' much more loudly than I'd meant.
The echoes snigger briefly. Back at the door
I sign the book, donate an Irish sixpence,
Reflect the place was not worth stopping for.
Yet stop I did: in fact I often do,
And always end much at a loss like this,
Wondering what to look for; wondering, too,
When churches fall completely out of use
What we shall turn them into, if we shall keep
A few cathedrals chronically on show,
Their parchment, plate, and pyx in locked cases,
And let the rest rent-free to rain and sheep.
Shall we avoid them as unlucky places?
Or, after dark, will dubious women come
To make their children touch a particular stone;
Pick simples for a cancer; or on some
Advised night see walking a dead one?
Power of some sort or other will go on
In games, in riddles, seemingly at random;
But superstition, like belief, must die,
And what remains when disbelief has gone?
Grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress, sky,
A shape less recognizable each week,
A purpose more obscure. I wonder who
Will be the last, the very last, to seek
This place for what it was; one of the crew
That tap and jot and know what rood-lofts were?
Some ruin-bibber, randy for antique,
Or Christmas-addict, counting on a whiff
Of gown-and-bands and organ-pipes and myrrh?
Or will he be my representative,
Bored, uninformed, knowing the ghostly silt
Dispersed, yet tending to this cross of ground
Through suburb scrub because it held unspilt
So long and equably what since is found
Only in separation - marriage, and birth,
And death, and thoughts of these - for whom was built
This special shell? For, though I've no idea
What this accoutred frowsty barn is worth,
It pleases me to stand in silence here;
A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognised, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.
He gets at least part of what church means to me. It is hardly an uncomplicated relationship even as I near retirement after 40 years.
Life Cycle of the Common Man
Roughly figured, this man of moderate habits,
This average consumer of the middle class,
Consumed in the course of his average life span
Just under half a million cigarettes,
Four thousand fifths of gin and about
A quarter as much vermouth; he drank
Maybe a hundred thousand cups of coffee,
And counting his parents’ share it cost
Something like half a million dollars
To put him through life. How many beasts
Died to provide him with meat, belt and shoes
Cannot be certainly said.
It is in this way that a man travels through time,
Leaving behind him a lengthening trail
Of empty bottles and bones, of broken shoes,
Frayed collars and worn out or outgrown
Diapers and dinnerjackets, silk ties and slickers.
Given the energy and security thus achieved,
He did . . . ? What? The usual things, of course,
The eating, dreaming, drinking and begetting,
And he worked for the money which was to pay
For the eating, et cetera, which were necessary
If he were to go on working for the money, et cetera,
But chiefly he talked. As the bottles and bones
Accumulated behind him, the words proceeded
Steadily from the front of his face as he
Advanced into the silence and made it verbal.
Who can tally the tale of his words? A lifetime
Would barely suffice for their repetition;
If you merely printed all his commas the result
Would be a very large volume, and the number of times
He said “thank you” or “very little sugar, please,”
Would stagger the imagination. There were also
Witticisms, platitudes, and statements beginning
“It seems to me” or “As I always say.”
Consider the courage in all that, and behold the man
Walking into deep silence, with the ectoplastic
Cartoon’s balloon of speech proceeding
Steadily out of the front of his face, the words
Borne along on the breath which is his spirit
Telling the numberless tale of his untold Word
Which makes the world his apple, and forces him to eat.
It is a poem about courage and the human dilemma.
The dilemma revolves around being “condemned to freedom". We are free in two senses - self determined and undetermined - it is the dilemma of freedom which drives the never-ending search for meaning.
Humor is a second source. The darker the better, irony, gallows humor (preferably without the actual gallows)
((Failure to fly – distance and engagement, all at the same time))
((surprise at unexpected connections; a door of ah ha as light breaks through))
I see the world slightly skewed – I wonder why everyone doesn’t see what I have come to call existential signs. The drive up teller machine at my bank that has instructions in Braille; the strip club on the road between my house and my Safeway with the sign, All Nude, No Cover – redundant, right?; walking down the street in Rochester, NY, in March, the streets full of slush and salt, and passing a diocesan store front with the legend on the door, Society for the Propagation of the Faith, Holy Childhood and, in an attempt to preserve the floor from winter slush, someone had taped a hand-lettered sign to the door, “please remove rubbers”; ah yes, the truth, pure and complicated.
The world shifts, we see that too often we don't see. Awake, humor calls, awake our spiritual longing cries.
Spirituality worthy of the name should help us with the human project - its goal to deepen and broaden our compassion - for ourselves and others. To increase our anger at injustice. And to seek wisdom – a matter, my philosophic training suggests, which includes an appreciation of limits.
The test of the claim of genuine spirituality is simple (though I fail often enough): how do you treat those closest to you; how do you treat those in that next circle, particularly those who are not in a position to advance your interests (your waitress, the bus driver, the clerk at the store, etc.); and finally, how large a circle can you draw.
To see creation as related... All people brothers and sisters in a non trivial way.
For me, it requires no God, but a willingness to be present to the world.
Religion Beyond Belief
Gathering of European UUʼs
October 31, 2010
In the congregation I served in Colorado, and as I have traveled across the United States andbeyond, I have heard hundreds of stories of people who came to Unitarian Universalism as adults.
The first story is perhaps the most typical, especially for people of my generation. People tell me stories of feeling driven from the religious traditions in which they were raised because they simply could no longer believe the teachings. In fact, our congregations serve as religious refugee centers for doubters and heretics. I know this story well, for it is my story, too.
Millions have felt abandoned by the religious communities in which they were raised. When they were very young, the church was a kind of extended family. It was a place where they belonged, where they were accepted, where they felt safe. However, there was a price of admission. They had to pretend to believe what they found unbelievable. When they couldn’t do it any longer, they were told they no longer fit. Many of us left all religion behind. I wonder how many millions of people there are in America who have left the church in which they were raised and have become bitter and anti-religious.
There is a newer story I am hearing more and more often. The new story is the tale of a younger generation, particularly for people under 40. They come to us wondering if there is something more than a life spent pursuing success. They have no bad memories of indoctrination and rigidity. They do not come seeking refuge from orthodoxy. They come seeking community and a spiritual home that is a refuge from the banality and emptiness of consumer society.
Those who grew up Unitarian Universalist tell a different story. Theirs is a story of growing up with freedom from rigidity—perhaps too much freedom. They seek depth, something to which they can anchor their lives. If they are not imprisoned by rigid orthodoxy, they are sometimes adrift in a relativistic sea.
Each of us sees a bit of ourselves, our friends and our family in these stories.
We come to liberal religion by different paths, yet there is one basic notion that almost all of us share with the most conservative, reactionary and fundamentalist religious extremists. It is an idea that we also share, ironically enough, with hard-core atheists who are opposed to all religion. A spate of books in recent years have attacked all religion. All of these books see religion as a set of beliefs. The idea is so pervasive that virtually all of us have accepted the notion that religion is about what we believe. The first question most people ask about a religion is, “What do they believe?”
So we get questions like, “So what do you Unitarian Universalists believe, anyway? Is it true you can just believe anything you want?”
When someone asks us what Unitarian Universalists believe, we tend to give answers that are long, convoluted, and tedious. We aren’t comfortable with the question. We squirm. We fidget. We struggle. Often we talk about what we don’t believe.
The trouble is that we treat the question, “What do you believe?” as a obvious and natural question. After all, religion is about what we believe, isn’t it?
No! No. Religion is not about what you or I or Baptists or Catholics or Jews or Muslims or Hindus believe. I would even go a giant step further: Belief is the enemy of religion.
Let me repeat that: Belief is the enemy of religion.
Perhaps I should explain.
We are so immersed in a culture that views religion as a matter of what people believe that we think this the way it has always been. It isn’t. All of this emphasis on what someone believes is actually very modern and very western.
I sometimes cite an extreme example to make this point. I had the privilege a couple of months ago of meeting the Dalai Lama and being in the room when he addressed a small number of religious leaders on the nature of religion.
No one objects to calling Buddhism a religion. Yet Buddhists like the Dalai Lama have no theology at all in the way we use the word. Buddhists don’t “believe” anything, at least not anything that is a set of propositions. Buddhism doesn’t even have a god in the usual sense.
But, of course, Buddhism might strike us as a bit esoteric and foreign. Well, let’s take a look at the religious culture out of which many of us came—the Christian and Jewish tradition.
Jews have never had anything like a creed, a statement of belief. Ironically, Jesus, about whom there are all sorts of creeds, probably never encountered a creed in his life. The whole idea of a creed would have been foreign. Jews did have a definite sense of God, to be sure.
However, the key to the God of the Jews is that he had a covenant with the people and gave the Hebrew people the law. The Hebrew scriptures never show any interest in what people believe. The scriptures show a lot of interest in what people do. They are supposed to love God and follow the commandments. The great prophets were concerned with justice, compassion and being faithful to the covenant. They had no interest in doctrine.
The early Christian communities, while they did show more concern with what people believed, actually tolerated a lot of variety.
Islam, the next great religious movement, also has little theology. Its statement of faith is that there is no God but God and that Mohammed is his prophet. This is a way of insisting, as did the Jews, that there is only one God. And this is another way of saying that we all owe allegiance to a common source; we are all one people. The great emphasis in Islam was with what the faithful are supposed to do, not what they are supposed to think.
All the emphasis on religion as belief does not come on the scene until much later. It started with the Catholic Church and its creeds, but it really got intense with the Reformation. All of this emphasis on religion being about believing the right things is really a modern development—a development that happened here in Europe.
Even the whole idea of belief has gotten twisted. The word used to be used in a very different way. “Belief” once meant “what I give my heart to” or what I commit myself to. Belief was linked to emotion and action.
“Belief” did not mean agreeing with a set of metaphysical or theological propositions.
Actually, even in religions that emphasize belief, beliefs change over time. It is no longer a sin to believe that the sun is the center of the solar system. Today the Catholic Church accepts evolution. So one can be a faithful Catholic (one can even be the Pope!) today by believing what a Catholic would have been burned for believing a few centuries ago. Lots of American Protestant churches once taught that slavery was God’s plan.
So even in the religions that care the most about what people believe, beliefs change. Yet the religion goes on and on. So a religion is not simply what its followers believe.
Yet I want to make a more radical point. The point is that religious belief is actually the enemy of religion. Every major religious tradition seeks to impart a sense of wonder, mystery, awe and humility. Belief systems stop this cold. Once we think we have explained it all, once we think we have all the answers, we become arrogant, belligerent and defensive. Our spirits and our minds close.
Just look at what happens when a belief system takes hold. What follows is truly horrible. First, we categorize everyone who does not agree with us as either ignorant or evil. If we have the truth and are certain we have it, then our task in life becomes spreading this truth. Our task also becomes defending the truth from all of those who disagree. Believers have enemies everywhere. The world becomes a battleground. This is the world of Muslim fundamentalists blowing up innocent people and of Christian fundamentalists trying to criminalize gays and lesbians. This is the world of John Calvin burning Michael Servetus alive in Geneva because Servetus did not agree with the doctrine of the trinity. This is the world of the Spanish Inquisition.
Once a religion becomes an all encompassing belief system, murder will surely follow.
Believers are dangerous. They always have been.
So, if religion isn’t really about what we believe, then what is it about? Can we be religious without a belief system?
I am convinced that religion without belief is true religion. Religion that is focused on belief is a dangerous corruption of true religion.
Religion without belief is not phony religion. It isn’t fake religion or pretend religion or partial religion or religion lite. I have heard critics of liberal religion complain that ours is church where people can believe anything they want. Actually, that is not true. I cannot truly believe anything I want. I would love to believe that I will live to be 900 years old and will play professional baseball. What is important about liberal religion is that you and I don’t have to pretend to believe what we don’t believe. We don’t have to lie. But most importantly, we don’t get caught up in endless ridiculous debates about whose beliefs are correct.
The problem with asking what someone believes is that it is the wrong question.
True religion is about what we love, not about what we think. True religion is about what you and I hold sacred. The practice of true religion is faithfulness to what we love.
The key religious questions you and I must answer are these: What do we love so much that we are moved to tears? What gives us unspeakable joy? What gives us peace beyond understanding? What do we love so much that it calls us to action? What do we care about so deeply that we willingly, joyfully, devote our lives to it?
When we focus on what we truly love, we ask life’s essential questions. We ask questions like, “How shall I live?” When we ask the question together in community, it becomes, “How shall we live together? What shall we do together?” When we focus on what we truly love, we discover something wonderful: we discover that we love the same things.
We realize that we need one another. We want to be compassionate and gentle with one another. We want to raise children who are kind, joyful and responsible. We aspire to create a religious community where we can come to know one another more deeply. We want to create a place where we can cry together, laugh together, sing together, learn together, and act together. We want a place where we can come together to remind ourselves of what is truly worthwhile. That is what worship is—it is literally an affirmation of worth.
And we want to make a difference in the world. We are not content to be a club. We know there are hundreds, thousands, of neighbors who love what we love. And if they love what we love, they have the same religion we do. We open our hearts and our doors to them.
Religion beyond belief is the religion millions of people long for. It is religion that transcends culture, nationality, race and class. It is religion where we can grow spiritually, a religion where we can forge deep and lasting relationships, a religion where we can join hands to help heal a broken world.
The central issue before us is not to decide what we believe. That will just set us to arguing among ourselves until the theological cows come home. (Trust me, the theological cows have been gone for millennia and they’re not coming home in our lifetime.)
No, the central issue before us all is whether we will accept the challenge to become a religion beyond belief. We live at a time when religious tribalism kills people every day.
Fundamentalists try to force their beliefs on others. Millions upon millions want no part of that kind of religion.
Yet the options offered by secular consumer culture are empty. People know that consumerism is a false god. Modern society, with its mobility, has eroded the network of relationships that gave people a deep sense of belonging and transcendence. Rigorous studies in social psychology show us that modern Americans are the most emotionally isolated people who have ever lived.
People, millions of them, seek a community where they can nurture relationships, raise children, deepen spiritually, and serve a mission that is worthy of their highest ideals. What these millions are seeking is a religion beyond belief. We can be that religion. We can feed the starving multitudes.
The possibilities for our entire movement are breathtaking.
This is our challenge. We must know what we love. And then we must let that love guide us. This is true religion. It is not really religion without belief. It is religion beyond belief. It is a religion to be lived and experienced. This is the religion our world so desperately needs. This is what we are called to be.
Let me conclude with this simple prayer:
May true religion, the religion of what we love, guide us today and always. Let us create a religion beyond belief.
So may it be. Amen.
UU Visions of the Earth Today
By Rev. Brian J. Kiely
President, International Council of Unitarians and Universalists (ICUU)
Spring 2009 - Theme Talk
Theme Speech for the European Unitarian Universalist Retreat
Spa, Belgium, April 4, 2009
By way of introduction, I am an unrepentant optimist. I not only see the glass as half full, but I am willing to swear on a stack of scriptures of your choice that it is getting fuller by the second. That said, even I have to admit that the world is not in good shape and that the prospects of the future of the human race look dicey at best.
All citizens of this planet face the same kinds of challenges, whether they are well-educated and well-to-do Europeans, slum living Brazilians, factory-working Chinese, activist Australians, rural villagers in the mountains of north eastern India, or a UU minister while reflecting on the family farm in the oil rich wilderness north of Edmonton.
In large measure, the challenges are the same as they have always been: How will I make my living? Can I keep myself and my family safe and secure and maybe even a little prosperous? Can I live a happy and maybe even satisfying life?
Of course the answers to such questions are greatly affected by the social context in which they are being asked.
I have never lived in a place where there is war. My safety concerns have more to do with a good furnace against -40 winters, and whether or not the exploitation of the Alberta tar sands will pollute all of our vast water resources. A Chinese factory worker may be most fearful of the thick black smoke and the funny chemical smells at the plant. The African farmer might be most frightened of the drought that have killed his crops and driven food prices into the stratosphere.
The context in which we live affects the very way we state our hopes and dreams… and our fears about living. Religion, which frames our response to those things, is equally shaped by our context. The most interesting thing I have learned since becoming active as a UU on an international stage is that our creedless ‘faith’ is not a single religion at all. Rather it is a collection, a loose federation of widely varied responses to social conditions around the world.
This discovery fascinates me, and I have spent the last while puzzling over how each of these sometimes quite disparate groups finds their way into the tent marked Unitarian Universalist. I’d like to explore that with you today, and then spend some time thinking about what we Unitarian Universalists have to offer the world locally and globally. Finally, after the break I would like to share some of the activities of the ICUU and some of the elements of a strategic plan the Executive to bring to the September Council meeting in Koloszvar – give it a test run and do some brainstorming about what you think our International organization should be trying to do.
Plan for the day:
What conditions exist that give UUism a chance to matter in the world?
What are the key themes that describe early Unitarianism?
Are they relevant in UU expressions around the world?
Taking a trip to a few UU places-
Conclusion and discussion
Where should the ICUU fit into this? (Discussion)
The ICUU’s Mission and developing Strategic Plan
Are we on the right track? What should we be doing? (Discussion)
So my questions for today What unites us as Unitarians and Unitarian Universalists**? What common values do we share? And finally, What is it that we can bring to the world and its troubles?
I suspect one thing that unites us is our love of ideas and communication. After last night I am pretty convinced that you are a lot like other UU’s I know. Making and maintaining connections are important to you. We build community by choice, not because we live down the road from each other. Keeping in touch is important.
It always has been. Making use of the tools of communications is a hallmark for us.
Today, we live in the most connected and highly populated world we have ever known. Six centuries ago Gutenberg** invented the printing press a few hundred kilometres down the road in Strasbourg. Before then many priests had never even read the Bible. As for lay folk…almost none. In many places, the church forbade the reading of Scripture by those not under Holy orders, a prohibitions that lasted well into the middle of the 20th century in some places. Letters and public decrees, if they ever arrived, could only be read by a few and took days if not weeks to get to their destinations. In short, information that really mattered rested in the hands of very few and was quite tightly controlled.
Now, we can find the Bible on-line in an enormous variety of languages, along with the Qu’ran, the Buddhist Sutras and the Hindu scriptures and everything else under the sun.
The fact is, there are few secrets anymore. A year ago February, I went to Nairobi, Kenya to be part of the ICUU Leadership Conference faculty. You may recall that that nation had fallen into tumultuous times only two months before after bitterly disputed elections. In the isolated and rural west part of the nation, inter-tribal violence erupted killing hundreds and displacing tens of thousands. It began to look like this progressive African nation would be swept under a wave of genocidal violence as had happened in Rwanda 15 years before. That didn’t happen. There were many reasons, including a fairly well grounded democratic tradition. But I think we have to give credit to advances in communications technology. Within minutes of the first atrocities, mobile phones were ringing across the country and around the world. Reporters were overflying remote areas within hours with images digitally broadcast the same evening to homes worldwide on TV’s and computers. Within days, international condemnation was such that the instigators were calling back their forces.
There are no secret purges anymore.
With radical new telephone technology and an internet that has quickly moved from desktops to laptops and now to hand held devices, traditional news agencies as well as non-mainstream journalists have direct access to us. Add in the opinions of the plethora of bloggers out there and there is more information that any one person can digest in a lifetime. But with ever improving search engines, it is becoming almost effortless to find out anything we want to know. Probably the greatest single example of this democratization of information is Wikipedia, the extraordinary on-line encyclopaedia created by everyday people.
And I suppose I should shamelessly insert here that telephones were invented by the Unitarian Alexander Graham Bell (in Canada!) and that this marvellous Internet capability was invented in part by the Unitarian Sir Tim Berners-Lee. Now if we could only figure out a way to claim Gutenberg!
In a way, that’s no surprise. Unitarians have a long tradition of seeking the free flow of information, of pursuing truth in all things including science and religion. Indeed one of the UUA’s Seven Principles, also adopted by the CUC and widely respected around the globe, is an affirmation of ‘the responsible search for truth and meaning’.
If there is a value we share around the globe it is the interest of learning more and thinking more and asking more questions.
Why? What’s behind our inquisitiveness and our desire to share our discoveries? The Unitarian historian Earle
Morse Wilbur postulated three key themes in our intellectual and institutional history: Freedom, Reason, and Tolerance**. A quick anchoring of the three can be found in the story of our philosophical founder, Michael Servetus.
Servetus was a Spaniard educated in law, in medicine and with a deep and abiding interest in theology. His medical research was cutting edge. He uncovered facts about the body and the circulation of air and blood that was well ahead of his time.
But, as I say, he was deeply fascinated by religion. He read the Bible and noticed that there was nothing in the Gospels nor in the writings of Paul that suggested the existence of a Trinity. This, of course, is a basic required belief of Christianity.
In 1519, the same year that Martin Luther was kicking off the Reformation by nailing his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg church, the youthful Servetus published On the Errors of the Trinity, asserting that insisting on an unscriptural required belief did not make rational sense. He applied REASON to Scripture and found belief wanting. The book was immediately condemned pretty much everywhere. John Calvin ordered it burned and swore that he would try Servetus on heresy charges should he ever get hold of him. In fact, Servetus was tried by the French Inquisition and sentenced to death. But it seems like no one had the stomach for carrying out the execution, so he was conveniently allowed to escape. For years he would pursue his medical research and stay out of the public eye for 3 decades.
And then, one day he decided to go visit his ‘old friend’ Calvin in Geneva** thinking that he could persuade the humourless reformer to see the light. By this time Calvin had a pretty firm grasp on power in that city, both religious and secular. Though ruled by a council, not much got done without his approval. It’s worth noting that after Calvin, the most headstrong, arrogant and just plain stubborn reformer was probably Servetus himself. His decision to go to Geneva clearly falls into the “What was he thinking?” category. Who among us would go all alone and take on so powerful a figure who had sworn that he would see us dead? We can only assume that he expected that Calvin would respect his FREEDOM to believe and listen to reason.
Calvin immediately had him arrested and guided the prosecution from a distance. Again Servetus was sentenced to die. Calvin himself went to his cell to persuade him to recant so there could be a swifter and more merciful beheading, but Servetus refused. He was burned alive at the stake in 1553.
Now as I said, Servetus was probably not the guy you would want to take to lunch more than once. For all of his gifts, he was not a religious leader, nor did he ever try to become one.
Unlike Jesus or Buddha, no religious movement sprung up in his name. No one was ever tempted to revere him, except possibly as a ground breaking physician.
But if he had few friends and no followers, Michael Servetus did have sympathizers. What did spring up after his death was a deep concern among other religious reformers. “If they can try and execute him, what’s to stop anyone coming after us? Have we not just thrown off the Roman church so we can have Freedom of belief?” It was a great test for the Protestant Reformation: What will we do with those who disagree?
The death of Servetus would set off what would come to be known as the Toleration debate across the continent. Though it would take a couple of hundred years, every European nation, and most nations later influenced or colonized by European countries would guarantee – or at least tolerate- religious freedom. That is Servetus’ greatest legacy.
Freedom, reason and tolerance. These are the cornerstones of the Unitarian, and to a lesser degree the Universalist traditions.
These would also become critical values of the Enlightenment starting in the 17th century. The use of freedom, reason and tolerance allowed the flowering of science, philosophy and social theory as well as theology. In the last hundred years we have discovered more about the world than the entire sum of human knowledge up to that time, and we have probably created more technology in a decade than ever existed before that. I have already referred to the boom in communications capabilities, advances so mind boggling that even the science fiction writers of a few decades ago couldn’t envision it all.
Our world is becoming ever smaller. We have uncovered ways to go anywhere we want to go, even to hold back death, to manipulate the world and Nature to our advantage…
…but is that a good thing or a bad thing?
Where do we go with our problems?
The human race grew up in tribes. If history teaches us anything it is that when the tribes got too close to one another, either warfare or commerce broke out. The destructive consequences of warfare are obvious. However, it may be that we are only coming to understand the potential negative impact of commerce and technology. I need not tell you the challenges facing the global economy nor the environment. Both are the product of human enterprise.
On top of that many nations are wrestling with immigration issues as societies struggle to match openness and generosity with the desire to preserve cultures and ways of life. There is no shortage of problems facing us.
As these issues grow more complex and pressing, where can we turn for inspiration, for support, for help in finding solutions? Well, that’s a mighty big question and there are a lot of good answers. But for those of us with a certain predisposition, what some of my colleagues call ‘the church gene’, some of us turn to religion. And within that vast field, there is a minority’s minority who claim the title Unitarian Universalist.
I have always believed that all human societies and every human being shares a religious impulse. By that I mean we all wrestle with the biq questions. Why are we here? How did the world begin? Is there something beyond this life?
Sometimes these questions arise out of our own musings. Other times they grow out of a response to wonder or tragedy. Probably the most famous question in that realm is why do bad things happen to good people? To me, no matter where we seek the answers, these are religious questions.
If you have been to enough of these retreats, you have probably heard one of my predecessors remark that the Latin root of the word religion (religare) literally means to tie up or bind together. The religious impulse** is the desire to find explanations that tie the world together for us, both the physical world we can see and the metaphysical world we can only vaguely sense. Religion (with a small r) is the combination of notions, beliefs, assumptions, morals, philosophies and just plain guesses we use to make sense of things around us.
Like everything else, how and where we seek our answers is partly dependent on our own personality, but it is also heavily dependent on our cultural context…where we were born, family of origin, the culture in which we live.
From this we can make a key assumption that applies to all religion including Unitarian Universalism.
Religion (formal and informal) is part and parcel of the culture in which it arises. They are inseparable. This is particularly intriguing when you look at the state of our faith around the globe. Unitarian Universalism is a free faith. There are no set doctrines, no required beliefs. In fact we are so free, that some critics argue that we are not a religion at all. There is no center, no one size fits all ritual or core value.
If there is anything uniting us, and we shall test this idea this morning, it is those vague notions of freedom, reason and tolerance, locally interpreted. If that is the starting point, then it’s likely that each expression of our faith will have as many differences as similarities. Why? Because each national expression responds to a different set of cultural values, conditions and challenges.
So let’s test that out by looking at a few very diverse Unitarian and UU expressions.
I began this morning by talking about the incredible boom in communications. We will see in awhile that this new technology is the means through which many new people are discovering our liberal message. The history of our tradition is closely tied to our ability to communicate the gifts of reason, to share our understanding of faith.
A few years after Michael Servetus was planning his ill fated trip to Geneva, an Italian reformer named Giorgio Biandrata** was finding Italy, religious upheavals a little to threatening. He too was a believer on one God and the use of reason. He left for Poland, then a place of burgeoning culture and intellect. There he would become a leader of the Minor church, later called Socinianism after Biandrata’s successor. That movement would flourish in Poland for a time only to be crushed in the violence of the Counter-reformation. It has never fully recovered, although there are a few keeping the flame alive.
For his part, Biandrata met Queen Isabella and her son John Sigismund. They were the exiled rulers of Transylvania. In 1563, when they returned to the throne and Biandrata went with them, for there were intrigued by this new Unitarian Christian faith. Biandrata would play an influence in the conversion of one Frances David, who would become the court preacher.
Now if I keep repeating a theme, it is that religion is influenced by culture. At that time, Transylvania sat in a very precarious place. It was in the middle between the Christian empire of Europe and the Islamic Ottoman Turks of Asia Minor. Isabella had gone to Poland in the first place when the Ottoman invaded as far as Buda. I have to think that there was a measure of politics of survival involved when King John proposed the radical notion of getting along. With the help of David, he presented the idea of religious toleration to the Diet. A furious debate ensued, but when it was done, perhaps due to a divine lighting effect**, Transylvania passed the first Edict of Toleration in 1568.
His majesty, our Lord, in what manner he – together with his realm – legislated in the matter of religion at the previous Diets, in the same matter now, in this Diet, reaffirms that in every place the preachers shall preach and explain the Gospel each according to his understanding of it, and if the congregation like it, well. If not, no one shall compel them for their souls would not be satisfied, but they shall be permitted to keep a preacher whose teaching they approve. Therefore none of the superintendents or others shall abuse the preachers, no one shall be reviled for his religion by anyone, according to the previous statutes, and it is not permitted that anyone should threaten anyone else by imprisonment or by removal from his post for his teaching. For faith is the gift of God and this comes from hearing, which hearings is by the word of God.
For a time Unitarianism would be the national religion of the land. Unfortunately, John Sigismund died in a suspicious hunting accident, and in time Francis David was imprisoned in Deva** for heresy where he died. He preached that it was an error to pray to Jesus. The Edict was repealed for a time, but ideas cannot be undone. A Unitarian church structure was formed in Transylvania which continues as the oldest expression** of our religion. It is liberal Christian in outlook but with a unitary God and the motto Egy as Isten- God is one.
I noted that the Polish Brethern or Socinian Church was crushed in the Catholic counter-reformation, but not before they had established a printing press in the town of Rakow. Among other publications was a Unitarian catechism.
Following our theme of communication, many of these works were sent out of Poland and across Europe. One place where they landed was Holland where they furthered the thinking of a Jacobus Arminius. Arminianism sought to throw off the most repressive aspects of Calvinism, but he was not a Unitarian. However, his ideas inspired John Wesley and several generations worth of dissenting English clergymen including Theophilius Lindsey. In the 1760’s this friend of Charles Dickens would connect with a Unitarian rationalist message and hold the first Unitarian services in the Strand, London over top of the Feathers Tavern.
The idea of rationalist religion was very attractive to Enlightenment thinkers, even as it created strong negative reactions among traditional Christian leaders. A few years later scientist and Unitarian minister Joseph would carry the faith to the New World…just steps in front of an angry mob. In Philadelphia he would start the first church that in time would grow to become the American Unitarian Association and eventually the UUA we know today.
The ideas of freedom, reason and tolerance were so in tune with the Enlightenment inspired philosophies of the new United States that Thomas Jefferson would call himself a Unitarian by myself, and predict that it would become the dominant religion in the U.S. Well, still a bit of work to do on that one.
Today Unitarian Universalism in North America is mix of humanism, atheism, paganism, Christianity, a few other religious traditions and liberal social ethics. The particular mix in any congregation also often depends on the local cultural context, but that level of detail is beyond the scope of this presentation.
So far we have seen ideas spread slowly in person or in literature passed hand to hand with each new recipient either drawing their own new conclusions or reshaping received ones.
We have also seen the significance of Freedom, Reason and Tolerance, but in a sense that has all been defined within a western mostly Christian cultural context. Now I would like to journey to places with origins different from the European tradition. Here we will see Unitarian and Universalist ideas born independently and then merge with western ideas as they are received. But we will also find ourselves as westerners being challenged in our understanding as Tolerance evolves into a commitment to Diversity in faith. The most meaningful part of my journey into international UUism has been the need to expand my horizons. My Unitarian Universalism must now encompass all the diversity we already know, but add to that, things like ancestor worship, faith healing, evangelical passionate Unitarianism. In correspondence to good Unitarians and Universalists these days I now find it necessary and appropriate to include phrases like “Blessings on you and your family!” and “I trust you are moving forward in faith.” For a humanist like me it feels a little odd, although I do have a good handle on the language thanks to my Jesuit upbringing!
Khasi Hills Unitarians
Within a radius of 50 miles in the highlands of northeast India live 98 percent (over 9000 people) of the country’s Unitarians. At that size, they are the fourth largest national group within the ICUU.
So how the heck did they get to be so significant in such a remote and apparently non-European place? MAP
The early Khasis were a matrilineal tribal people who came to India from Southeast Asia and settled in the upland center of Meghalaya, the mountainous north eastern most part of India. The Khasis have never been Hindu or Muslim but have always retained their own indigenous animist religion.
The Khasi culture and ethnic background is more southeast Asian than Indian. They are not vegetarians, they do not typically cook with spicy curries, and they do not wear saris.
The native Khasi religion had no temples or churches, holy books or ministers. It was a religion based on the belief in one formless living god (UBlei) who was omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient. The religion taught that through service to others, one serves God.
At the same time they believed in gods and goddesses of rivers, streams, jungles, etc. Their religion was based on conciliating good, evil and ancestor spirits through animal sacrifices to these gods and goddesses. The indigenous Khasi religion is still practiced by many in the region.
In 1835 the British built a road into and through the region and made it part of the Indian state of Assam. With the arrival of the British came waves of the Welsh Calvinist missionaries. By the early 1840s they had written the Khasi language using Roman (Western) letters and had translated the Bible into Khasi. They opened missionary schools and created a monopoly in education.
John Rex points out that “with a written language tied to the imposition of colonial government, the only way for tribal people to progress was to learn to read and write by attending missionary school and enduring proselytizing” By 1887 Christianity had established a stronghold in northeast India and had launched a large-scale evangelical movement.
Christianity was soon followed by the arrival of scientific humanism and rationalistic ideas which stimulated thought and questioning. (and for these details I have to thank my Executive Committee colleague Pearl Green Marbaniang). Also factoring into the broader context of the time were the 19th century social and religious reform movements.
It was into this culture that the founder of Khasi Unitarianism was born in 1865. Hajom Kissor Singh** was well-read, inquisitive and even in his childhood, showed interest in spiritual and religious matters. He attended missionary school and at age 15 Singh converted to Christianity.
Singh’s inquiring mind propelled him to study and question religious ideas and led him to disenchantment with Calvinism. He concluded that there was no basis for belief in the Trinity or for the Calvinist preoccupation with sin, hellfire and damnation. The missionaries’ threatening message was, reasoned Singh, incompatible with the teachings of Jesus as he read them in the Gospels. The heart of the Gospels is divine love not judgement. This love casts out fear, overcomes evil with good, and recognizes the essential divinity and potential splendour of the human spirit.
Drawing on traditions from both the Christian and tribal religions, he formed a “new” religion which he called a Religion of One God (“Ka Niam Mane Weiblei”).
Singh’s new religion merged tribal customs and a positive Christian theology. Singh maintained the core of the Khasi traditional belief system including the covenant requiring Khasis to follow a code of clan behaviour in all personal, family and tribal matters, but omitted beliefs and practices such as the reading of omens and animal sacrifice. Singh’s religion of one God provided many Christian elements to Khasi religion as it had been practiced: churches, a liturgy, Sunday services, and group worship.
Singh made contact with an American Unitarian minister in Calcutta George Appleton Dall. There ensued an eager exchange of letters and through those and the writings of William Ellery Channing (which Mr. Dall had sent him), Singh discovered that there were many others, called Unitarians, who shared his faith. He thereafter called his faith “Ka Niam Unitarian” (The Unitarian Religion).
Though Hajom Kissor Singh, was never ordained, he devoted his life to preaching, starting churches, and growing the religion he began.
He provided strong leadership and by example set the precedent for lay-led rather than clergy-led services. Today, ministers in the Unitarian Union are called Church Visitors. Each is responsible for 3-5 congregations. Church Visitors are usually unpaid volunteers with some special training. Efforts are underway to develop standardized training for Church Visitors.
Sunday is the day of worship - and I mean that literally - for Unitarians in the Khasi Hills. This day begins at 7:00 AM when the children gather for the Children’s Worship service which they conduct themselves. Children’s Worship is followed at 10:30 by Sunday School classes.
Worship for all begins at 1:30 in the afternoon. Each service is comprised of readings, hymns, prayers and a sermon given by a member of the congregation who is the service leader for the day. The evening is spent in “home service” which begins at 6:30 PM. A different family hosts the service each week.
The principles of Unitarian faith in India that sustain this dynamic, strong community of believers are as follows:
UBlei - There is only one ever-loving God who creates and sustains the universe.
As we are all God’s children it is our duty and responsibility to “cultivate universal human brotherhood, love and peace. We are also to promote concord and harmony and go hand in hand with science”.
God’s word is not only found in Biblical scripture and holy books but can be found in the universe itself which is God’s creation and in all things created which are his words. Significant to the belief in God is the Khasi Unitarian belief in the Fatherhood and Motherhood of God. This concept is deeply rooted in traditional Khasi culture and faith which is matrilineal and commands Khasis to know maternal and paternal relations and follow a strict clan behavior.
Jesus is seen not as the actual son of God but as a great teacher and a leader to follow. His two teachings were to love God and to love fellow humans. The Bible was written by God-searching people and has both truths and errors in it. Holy books from other religions can help gain a better understanding of God.
Salvation depends on our character and how we live this life. “Live a good life, spreading the love of God and you will experience heaven. Live a life of doing wrong and your life will be hell.”
The flaming chalice is a symbol of Unitarianism used lavishly in the Khasi Hills: atop buildings, in windows, on gates, even knit into sweaters. In illustrations it is frequently seen with the phrase (adopted by Singh), “To Nangroi” (TOO-nahng-ROY) which means “Keep on Progressing” – a simple command but one which demands a lot from those who wish to follow it.
In the end, the fusing of ideas of Khasi culture and western Unitarianism appear seamless. To me a Khasi service feels like a simple western liberal Protestant service. The concept of UBlei or God will feature more prominently than in many UU services, but the foundational ideas behind that usage are very similar.
One last point: Because of their numbers, because of the relative poverty of the country of India and because of the extreme remoteness of the Khasi Hills, Unitarians there have never had to fight for freedom or live in fear. Over it’s very long history and until quite recently, India has been a more religiously tolerant land than most. In addition, the Unitarians as the dominant group, play a strong hand in the government, civic and educational administration of much of the region. It is perhaps the only place in the world where Unitarian values explicitly shape the secular authority.
In the Philippines, our tradition emerges from Universalism. And like India, it began with someone first discovering the core ideas within himself, and then learning that there were others who thought like him elsewhere in the world.
Toribio Quimada was born on the island of Cebu in the Philippines. His father, Zolio, a farmer and a carpenter, was Spanish in origin. There was no Bible in Zolio’s home, for it was forbidden by the Catholic Church to which most of the people on the island belonged. Zolio believed without question what his church taught him. He expected his wife and children to do the same. No asking questions about what the church taught!
Toribio Quimada had wanted to own and read a Bible for a very long time, for he had doubts about the sometimes harsh message he heard from the priests. He wanted the freedom to decide for himself…or at least the freedom to read the Bible for himself and learn what it said. He did not get that chance until he was 20. He grew concerned that the loving God of which he read was not the God he met in church. His natural inclination would lead him to develop his own doctrine of Universal Salvation.
He left the Catholic church and became a lay minister in the evangelical Protestant Iglesia Universal de Christo. But he didn’t like all of their answers either. Nevertheless he was asked to teach Sunday School and do some preaching. Five years later Toribio was ordained and became a traveling minister, going to churches in nine different villages, usually many kilometers from each other. He walked all the way.
In 1951, chance led Quimada to a discovery that he was not alone in his private Universalist faith. He had been asked to baptize an infant. The letter asking him to do this had come wrapped up in an old newspaper to keep it from being damaged. Toribio looked at the newspaper and discovered to his surprise that it listed the religions in the United States. He hoped to find Iglesia Universal de Christo, but it wasn’t there. What he did find was the Universalist Church of Wisconsin.
He wrote, “This is my first time to meet such a word (as) ‘Universalist’. What is this? I was puzzled over the similarities in the two words ‘Universal’ and ‘Universalist’.” He sent a letter to the Universalist Church of Gloucester, Massachusetts, the oldest Universalist church in America.
The minister of the church, Carl Westman, was surprised to receive a letter from the Philippines. He sent Toribio’s letter to the Reverend Carleton M. Fisher of the Universalist Service Committee and for two years the Universalist Church of America supplied Toribio with much needed religious education materials and other items.
Quimada began to emphasize his personal beliefs more publicly teaching that “God is Love” and preaching that there is no eternal condemnation. In God’s love everyone is saved, and the Christian teaching of eternal damnation is irrelevant.
In 1955 the Universalist Church of the Philippines was registered by the Philippine Government and Toribio Quimada was licensed as its minister. In 1985 it became the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Philippines and a member of the UUA.
Sadly, Toribio was branded as a leftist in the politically turbulent Philippines. He was attacked by armed men, shot and died when his home was set on fire. The case is still dragging through the courts. But his work continues through his daughter, Rebecca Quimada Siennes, the first woman ordained UU minister in the islands.
The Unitarian Universalist Church of the Philippines is largely a church of poor rural peasants. The Rev. Fred Muir writes in the book Maglipay Universalist that peasant life in a village is somewhat comparable to small-town rural life in the United States 200 years ago. The day begins before sunrise and ends at sunset. “Children attend the local elementary school but high school is optional, especially since distance is often prohibitive; public high schools are regional and closer private schools charge tuition.”
Five influences shape Filipino Unitarian Universalist theology: Roman Catholicism, political oppression, independent Protestantism, faith healing, and absence of a common heritage. “Faith healing is a religious and social phenomenon by which many UUCP members find Unitarian Universalism appealing and sustaining. At least half of UUCP ministers practice faith healing as do some lay people, while virtually all Unitarian Universalists in the Philippines believe in it.”
Bob Guerrero is the Congregational President of the more urban Bicutan Congregation in Manila, and about six months ago he delivered a sermon entitled “My Jesus.”
“My Jesus is my Lord and Savior. I am not afraid to say this. I may no longer believe that Jesus is the only begotten son of God, but I do think he is my Lord and Savior. I try to live my life according to his teachings. That makes Jesus my Lord. I believe that in following Jesus, I am saved from a life of sadness, selfishness and suffering, both for myself and for others. That makes him my Savior. I don’t know if he will judge me on those final days, but I do hope that he will lead me to a fulfilling life in this lifetime.”
While most Unitarian Universalists in the Philippines live in small rural villages, there is an emerging church in urban Manila. I recently talked with the Rev. Joseph Santos Lyons, who completed his ministerial internship in the Philippines. He characterized the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Philippines as one megachurch with 28 “satellites” (congregations). To my surprise, he said that the church is rapidly moving into “post-Christian” culture, similar to the culture of Unitarian Universalists in the United States, especially among young people, among people who live in urban areas, and among middle class people.
Here again we see the impact of improved communications making the world smaller. An indigenous rural Universalist faith is slowly urbanizing and adopting a theology and practice more in keeping with the kinds of elements it is finding in travel, visits from abroad, and electronic correspondence with the larger American UU community. As the old Buddhist story goes, I don’t know if this is a good thing or a bad thing…, but again we see our religion locally evolving alongside the culture in which it grows.
What did the Congolese totem worshiper, the Kenyan Seventh Day Adventist and the Burundian Roman Catholic seminarian say to one another as they sat down for tea??
When did you become a Unitarian?
I offer that rather sad attempt at humour to make a point that Unitarianism in Africa is anything but uniform in history and tradition. Africa is a place that before European colonization was a collection of very local cultures, tribes and economies. There had been a few empires over the centuries, but for the most part religion, language, and government remained local. That history infuses the African continent today. Wars are often tribally and ethnically charged as are politics, dress and culture. Improved transportation and the explosion of mobile phone accessibility have started to expand the worldview in many African countries, especially in the cities, but the ties of tradition are still strong. We saw that at work among our participants from five different nations.
A couple of points of contrast were obvious. Unitarianism has been in South Africa since 1867 when a young Dutch Reformed minister turned his back on his church and preached the message of a loving – not wrathful- God. Our South African congregations are also culturally Caucasian and European.
The only other Unitarian group with historical roots is in Nigeria where the tradition dates from 1915. There, a black Anglican Bishop, a ‘liberal and principled man’ pulled away and began holding services in Yoruba, using native instruments and writing Yoruba hymns.
But Unitarianism in Burundi, Uganda, Congo and Kenya are pretty much brand new. In Bujumbura, Burundi, Fulgence Ndagijimana was a fallen away Catholic seminarian. He went to the World Wide Web and in 2003 found Unitarianism, made contact with an English minister, and on his advice gathered his own church. In a landlocked, utterly impoverished country, 15 years after a tribal war that paralleled the Rwandan genocide, it pays to be cautious with new and different things. Since 2004, Fulgence has quietly gathered a community of 25 like-minded people. Their growth is limited by several factors, one of them being a lack of French worship and program resources.
In English speaking Uganda, Mark Kiyamba also found us through the Internet. With no language barrier and relative peace in his nation, Mark has been able to gather a congregation of 150 in Kampala. But the Ugandan story is even more remarkable. Seeing a need, yet having no resources, no space, and no teachers, they just went ahead and started a congregation and school for AIDS children in the countryside. Right now they have 50 members and 450 students. It boggles the mind.
Congo-Brazzaville is another French speaking country. Alaiin Yengue is an anthropologist. Unlike other African Unitarians he did not come from a Christian background, but from an animist tradition of ancient tribal religion. In 2005, he was waiting for his brother to get off work in a Brazzaville hotel one day when he fell into a conversation with an American gentleman. They talked about religion and there Alaiin learned about Unitarianism. The man suggested that with our liberal views and our acceptance of paganism, it might be a bridge from the old world to the new in Congo. Alaiin used the Internet (are we noticing a theme here?) and made connection with Jean-Claude Barbier the secretaire of the Assembleee fraternelle des Chetiens unitarianne in France. The group now meets regularly and is looking to grow.
By far the fastest growing Unitarian community is in Kenya. There appear to be four main communities, but all owe their discovery of Unitarianism to Rev. Patrick Magara. Patrick is our only ordained minister in Kenya, although his ordination came from the Seventh Day Adventist tradition. He discovered Unitarianism in 2001 and soon convinced his congregation to follow him into his new faith. How he discovered us and the why of his conversion is a little murky. Like most Kenyans, English is Patrick’s second, or perhaps third language. Sometimes this gets in the way of a meaningful conversation with him, but most of us who know him suspect that the language difficulties can sometimes be a convenience.
Because of these faster connections, these newest expressions of our faith are growing up in full and instant communication with their big brothers and sisters. This is providing a new kind of challenge. First, there is real economic need and hardship in many parts of Africa, especially these days. The western expressions of our faith have money. That incentive coupled with easy communication means that our western world is part of the culture of African Unitarianism in ways that was not true in India or the Philippines. It requires us to be cautious in our connection and support. I am not sure that creating another western predominantly Caucasian missionary effort in Africa is a good thing. At present the ICUU is encouraging the emerging African groups to develop indigenously.
It’s hard to pin down a firm number of Unitarians in Kenya, but it is certainly over 500. Five years ago there were none...Zero. They all learned our faith from him, and now, though the Internet. Right now there is some tension between the more progressive and urbane groups and the more rural groups led firmly by Mr. Magara. They are working slowly towards the forming of a meaningful national body.
The growth is hard to ignore. Why so much growth so fast? Kenyan Unitarians are willing to spread the word of their faith. Some preach in market places. Some talk to groups from other churches. There are many cases where entire congregations have ‘converted’ to Unitarianism. And then there is the outreach of their community social programs and schools. Anyone can participate, but the WILL hear about our faith. No one is forced to convert, but all who come in contact with Kenyan Unitarians will learn something about us.
Good heavens! Conversion? Proselytizing? Unitarians doing that? Amazing!
But here’s something worth thinking about: If their success continues, within a few years there will be more Unitarians in Kenya than there are in Germany, Canada or the UK. Wow!
How to live our Unitarian Universalist faith into our daily lives is a challenge facing many in the developed world. We may tend to do constructive work to better society, but we seldom fly a church banner when we do so. In Kenya that separation of faith and living is literally unthinkable. Ask the Kenyan Unitarians about their church and they won’t talk about worship or membership numbers. Instead they will tell you about their projects: the women’s groups, the working cooperatives, the AIDS orphanages, the volunteer-run schools. To be a Unitarian there is to be involved in the community in a faithful way. Let me tell you about Cyrus Itare. He is a young man in his 20’s. He and his wife have a one month old child. Cyrus is unemployed (not unusual around there and not a shameful thing.) He and his wife have taken in eight orphan children into their tiny home. I am in awe.
Patrick’s wife Alice Magara is an inexhaustible bundle of energy and the closes thing I have seen to an irresistible force. She runs the Kisii women’s groups and plays a lead role in the AIDS orphans program. The word ‘No’ barely slows her down.
Closer to Nairobi are two other groups, one in rural Ruai and one in the city. The Ruai group week in and week out feed 100 schoolchildren a hot lunch. And both groups played an active hand on role supporting some of the more than 400,000 people displaced by last year’s violence.
Let me stress something here. I am not personally feeling guilty nor am I trying to engender that in you. Nor do I think, are the African Unitarians. They do what they do because their faith and their culture call them to do these acts of radical neighbourliness. They do it because in the face of the crises of AIDS, poverty, war and whatever else, it is impossible to remain aloof and distant. There is safety in neighbourliness, because the person you save today might save you next week or next month. And, of course, it’s the right thing to do. Sure, they ask us for help. Why shouldn’t they? We have money. They don’t. In their understanding of neighbourliness, this is not greed, it’s community.
So Unitarianism in Africa is developing as a social and community based faith. Churches are more important for what they do than for what they think. Faith is a thing to be demonstrated in action. In North America, and I expect in this gathering, we tend to think of our church as a place where like-minded people come together to think and explore, to seek answers and find moral support. That is fine and noble and suited to our culture and our time. But to state the obvious, Africa is not Europe. African Unitarians expect their church to be a place ... Well, no, they don’t necessarily expect it to be a place. Church often happens under shady trees. They expect church to be a community where people tied by kinship, proximity and shared need come together to find strength, hope in prayer, work opportunities and practical support like food and clothing. The church needs to function as a social service agency first and as spiritual home second.
It’s no surprise then that African UU ‘ministers’ are almost all lay leaders. The Kenyans have no training beyond that gleaned from monthly meetings with Rev. Magara. Leaders in other countries may have taken a course or two here and there, but nothing equivalent to a professional standard. Their need for education is high. That was the purpose of the Kenyan conference. Our job was to provide information and to open minds beyond the limits of local tradition and the village church.
By way of bridging into talking explicitly about the ICUU, let me tell you a bit about this Leadership Conference, a major programmatic undertaking for an organization the size of the ICUU.
After an ingathering we began the first full day with definitions of religious terms. Many were surprised, for example, that there could be different ways of understanding words like ‘faith’, ‘god’ and even ‘religion’. One session covered Unitarian history and theology. Another explored conflict resolution. We held a discussion of worship practices that raised awareness of the immense variety in worship around the world and across Africa. My role was to discuss different kinds of church structure, locally and nationally.
The programs were content-rich, but with a lot of room for discussion. The excellent and focused questions from participants suggested that they were hungry for such information.
I did not speak for long. Instead I asked people to talk amongst themselves about how structure impacted their communities. And then we had an open conversation. That’s when it got very deep. Two main issues emerged. The first was the obvious struggle of social context. Wars, poverty, AIDS, these are the soil in which our religion is finding root. You have seen a little of how they approach these challenges.
The second issue is also deeply felt. Unitarianism is a new kind of religious thought in most of Africa. But African is a collection of cultures where elders are revered and given and extraordinary amount of power. That’s quite different where democracy and the power of ideas hold sway. Perhaps half of the tension-laden conversation dealt with how to build something new in a place where ‘new’ is often resisted. It is a painful issue for the young ministers who are torn by their inbred respect for elders, and their passion for moving ahead with the new ideas associated with this bold religious adventure. For them it’s not just a matter of making change. They must find loving answers for a difficult situation. Right now the ICUU is working to bring the various Kenyan groups together in a facilitated conversation. The goal is a unified national Kenyan UU organization.
The best we could offer at the time was a North American analogy about the equality of women in our movement. In the 1970’s, UU women came together and in gentle ways and harsh, demanded their place at the table. That place was given grudgingly at first, but in time a new generation of ‘elder’ males grew up as supporters of women’s full equality, and the struggles eased. We suggested that the people in the room were the elders in training. When their time comes to assume that role, perhaps they will be the ones to share power.
Well, these are preliminary observations from someone who has had a beginner’s first taste of African Unitarianism. I know I am only scratching the surface, but I and the rest of the ICUU leaders are learning as fast as we can.