Monday, July 16, 2012

Free and Responsible

These are the sermonic explorations from the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist in Charlottesville, VA on July 15, 2012.

If you'd like to hear the podcast, click here.

Pam Phillips’ Explorations:
Have you ever had a hard time explaining what it is to be a Unitarian Universalist? I have.   When I’ve struggled to explain UU-ism to others, I often turn to the Seven Principles, especially the one that says we affirm and promote “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” The principles have been a touchstone for me, particularly since being a mentor to Coming of Age youth. Helping youth learn about our faith by completing activities in a notebook organized by the principles has strengthened my appreciation of them.  A few years ago, we also got to hear stories exploring the seven principles during Star Studio Sundays. Heck, all you have to do is look in the front of our hymnals to find the Seven Principles.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I found that the wording for the principles and sources of Unitarian Universalism were up for a vote at the General Assembly in Salt Lake City back in 2009. A vote to change the principles--how was that possible? What would they do with the coming of age notebooks, the pamphlets, the hymnal?
As it happened, the changes were voted down and the wording remains, but this revelation got me started on learning more about the history of our faith. This morning, I’d like to share some of what I’ve learned. It turns out that those principles and sources are not a permanent fixture in our churches and were never meant to be. In fact, the vote in 2009 was long overdue.
Let me go back to the beginning, which was 1960, the year before the consolidation of the two denominations. At that time, creating and agreeing on six principles was a painstaking process because the Unitarians and Universalists had very different ideas about what they should say.  The original of what is now our fourth principle about the “free and responsible search” was then the first principle and stated that “the members of the Unitarian Universalist Association, dedicated to the principles of a free faith, unite in seeking to strengthen one another in a free and disciplined search for truth as the foundation of our religious fellowship.”
Notice the difference in wording. It went from “free and disciplined” to “free and responsible.” It’s that word responsible that I want to focus on today. What does it mean to be responsible, particularly when paired with freedom? I’m going to go out on a grammatical limb here and suggest that responsible can be understood as “able to respond.” I know this is not what you’ll find in a dictionary. There it says “accountable,” but indulge me, please.

If ours is to be a search that is responsible—as in able to respond—what might that mean? Well, in the late 1970’s, being able to respond as a movement included responding to the changing attitudes toward women and religion. Warren Ross, a UU historian, explains how the UUA responded in an article in the UU World.  He writes:  Granted, two other emerging understandings also helped make the existing Principles seem inadequate—first, that traditions other than the Judeo-Christian are important to our heritage; second, that our relation to the environment is one of our primary religious concerns. But the main impetus for change did come from the UU Women's Federation (UUWF).” 

The UUWF spearheaded an effort to revise the sexist language in the principles which you heard in our opening words. The initial draft was objected to by a group of ministers because it left out any reference to our Christian roots; one of those ministers was our former interim minister and current member Reverend Kim Beach. The ministers asked for open dialogue and a committee to study the situation. Kim Beach called for a set of Principles “with religious integrity, intellectual coherence, and literary quality."
As it happens, another minister who served TJMC, Rev. Walter Royal Jones, headed the special committee which went through a years-long process. This included sending out questionnaires, crafting a draft based on congregations’ feedback, creating a separate section that lifts up the “living traditions we share” in addition to the Judeo-Christian, holding small group discussions of the draft at the 1982 GA, submitting a new version based on that feedback for more discussion and debate at the congregational and then denominational level, and finally presenting the principles and sources which were approved at the 1984 and then the 1985 General Assemblies. Whew, that sounds like a UU process, doesn’t it?

So what does this history lesson have to do with us? For one, I love the process the UUA took to make major decisions about how they wanted to define themselves back in the 80’s. They were responsible, that is, able to respond—to women who objected to the patriarchal language of the principles, to Christians who objected to being marginalized, to others who found inspiration in non-Judeo Christian traditions. The process was “grass roots” in the sense that congregations were asked to provide input and that small groups hammered out language at General Assembly. It may have taken time, but the results would prove to be lasting. In fact, they’ve lasted longer than intended. The UUA by-laws, of which the Principles and Purposes are Article II, state that they are to be reconsidered every fifteen years.  They are not meant to be written in stone, but to be ever able to respond to our changing understandings of the world and our relation to it.

And yet. You knew that was coming, didn’t you? And yet, when I was confronted with voting on whether to affirm new language for our principles and purposes in 2009, I didn’t know anything about it. Our congregation hadn’t participated at all in the Commission on Appraisal’s four-year process of seeking input, nor had we discussed their final wording.  That’s one of the reasons you hear me talking about General Assembly and the resolutions they pass. I want us to be as involved in defining Unitarian Universalism as other congregations have been and as influential as many of our professional clergy have and continue to be.  Most of what I knew about being a Unitarian Universalist first came from being a member of this congregation, but I am grateful for all that I have learned since attending other churches and both district and national meetings. It has enriched my understanding and my devotion to this faith.

Which brings me to my own free and responsible search for truth and meaning. Yes, I love that my search is free—free from the limiting dogma and orthodoxy of my previous churches—and responsible--able to respond to my ever-changing and expanding understanding of the world and my place in it. My search brings me here to church, but it also takes me to reading book and exploring new spiritual practices, and yes, to General Assemblies. Sometimes my search makes me realize that I’ve been wrong. Take that vote three years ago in Salt Lake City on the Principles and Purposes. I voted no. I won’t go into all the reasons I voted no, but at least part of it was my reaction to changing those words that I have come to rely on when explaining Unitarian Universalism to someone. Considering how much I value being able to respond, perhaps it was not the most responsible thing to do.

Erik Wikstrom’s Explorations:
I know that you’ve heard it before.  You may have even said it yourself.  (Although I won’t make you admit it if you have!)  “One of the coolest things about Unitarian Universalism is that you can believe whatever you want!!!!!”  (Right?)
So many people – both within and beyond our ranks – truly believe that because we eschew creeds and dogmas, because we don’t tell one another what to think, that here you are free to believe whatever you want to.
Well . . . I don’t believe that.  In fact, I think it’d be fair to say that I’ve spent my career combating this myth.  (Again, both within and beyond our ranks.)  I fight it for three reasons:
First, because it’s just not true and I affirm and promote the free and responsible search for truth and not innuendo or misunderstanding.
Second, because when outsiders hear this they find it a source of ridicule and an excuse to dismiss the Grand Experiment we’re engaged with . . . because there are a whole lot of people believing a whole lot of ridiculous things out there and if within our faith you can believe whatever you want . . . ?  Not a pretty picture. 
I did my internship at the First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church in Concord, Massachusetts, and at the top of their steeple they have, not a cross, but a weathervane.    My mentor, Gary Smith, used to say that this was for too many people an all too apt symbol for our movement, because they believed that UUs don’t really stand for anything but go wherever the prevailing winds are blowing.  (Or, maybe, the countervailing winds.)
The third reason, though, that I want to debunk the myth that UUs are free to believe whatever we want to is, I think, the most important – because it’s an idea that’s damaging and dangerous.
Friends, I’m going to let you in on a little secret:  the search for truth and meaning matters.  It’s important.
It’s important because in our tradition we refuse to impose a meaning on one another – and on ourselves.  Refuse to accept an external mandate from On High about the meaning of life (except, perhaps, from Monty Python), yet meaning matters none the less.  We are pattern-sensing, meaning-making creatures.  (There’s a wonderful passage in a Kurt Vonnegut novel in which the main character confronts God about the meaning of life.  “What is the ultimate purpose of life?” he asks.  And God answers, “Must life have an ultimate purpose?”  “Of course!” the human replies.  “Then your purpose is to find the purpose.”  I paraphrase, but it should come as no surprise that Vonnegut was a UU.)
The search for truth and meaning is important, for instance, to the activists among us, who are in such danger of burning themselves out if they aren’t able to articulate – and, therefore, to draw strength from – the reason they do what they do.  What is the purpose, the meaning, of their crusade?  Without a clear answer to that one wears oneself out over time.  There’s virtually no way to avoid it.
And it matters to everyone when bad things happen to us or those we love.  The most natural response to a tragedy or a fright is to ask, “Why?”  Why me?  Why them?  What did we do to deserve this?  Why did this have to happen?  And I’m here to tell you this morning, the way we answer those questions matters a lot.
The pioneering religious educator Sophia Lyon Fahs once wrote something that I think should be emblazed on the walls of each of our congregations.  (At least it’s enshrined in the back of our hymnals.)
Some beliefs are like walled gardens. They encourage exclusiveness, and the feeling of being especially privileged.

Other beliefs are expansive and lead the way into wider and deeper sympathies.

Some beliefs are like shadows, clouding children's days with fears of unknown calamities.

Other beliefs are like sunshine, blessing children with the warmth of happiness.

Some beliefs are divisive, separating the saved from the unsaved, friends from enemies.

Other beliefs are bonds in a world community, where sincere differences beautify the pattern.

Some beliefs are like blinders, shutting off the power to choose one's own direction.

Other beliefs are like gateways opening wide vistas for exploration.

Some beliefs weaken a person's selfhood. They blight the growth of resourcefulness.

Other beliefs nurture self-confidence and ignite the feeling of personal worth.

Some beliefs are rigid, like the body of death, impotent in a changing world.

Other beliefs are pliable, like the young sapling, ever growing with the upward thrust of life.

It matters what we believe.  (That’s #657 if you want to read it to yourself again sometime.)  It matters what we believe.
Let me give you one example.  And this is a little bit risky because I’ll bet that some of you really believe this.  Well, lots of people believe that “everything happens for a reason.”  Yet let me show you what I, at least, think happens when you hold this belief and consider it part of the “truth and meaning” that you’ve found:
If everything happens for a reason, then when something bad happens to you or to someone you know and love you will naturally begin to search for the reason.  (We are, after all, pattern-sensing and meaning-making creatures.)  In and of itself this may not necessarily be a bad thing, yet when you believe that “everything happens for a reason” you are likely to find a reason like this:
This happened to teach me – or the other person – a lesson.
This happened because I – or the other person – wasn’t grounded enough, or loving enough, or open enough, or trusting enough, or something enough.
Let’s just stop at those two for a moment.  Let’s just stop and listen to the undercurrent of those “reasons.”  (And you can’t see it, but in my manuscript I’ve got quotation marks around the word “reasons.”)  Beneath these supposed “reasons” there is a steady drone tone – it’s your fault, it’s your fault, it’s your fault, it’s your fault.
Do you really want to say that to a little child with cancer, or to that child’s parents?  (It’s your fault, it’s your fault . . .)  Do you really want to say that to someone who’s just suffering through the death of a loved one?  (It’s your fault, you weren’t open enough to love, it’s your fault . . .)  Do we really want to say that to the survivors of a deadly mudslide in a rural village in a remote part of India who are burying their children?  (It’s your fault, you needed to learn a lesson about letting go, it’s your fault . . .)  Is that the kind of world we live in?
Now . . . I do believe that there are lessons to be learned in the things that happen to us.  I think that everything – even the most terrible – can teach us something.  Yet I don’t believe that these things happen to us so that we can learn these lessons.  I believe, instead, that because these things have happened we have the opportunity to learn a lesson.  I think that that difference is important.  It matters what we believe.
And so, I think, it’s important to declare that we Unitarian Universalists are not encouraged to believe whatever we want.  What we affirm is a free and responsible search for truth and meaning!  As Pam noted earlier, another meaning of “responsible” is “accountable,” and that phrase used to read “. . . a free and disciplined search . . .”
We are encouraged to search – freely, widely – yet to be responsible in our searching:  to test our discoveries with the peer-review of community, if you will; to listen to the discoveries others are making and to continually reassess our own in context of these others’; to keep searching so that our beliefs do not become “rigid, like the body of death, impotent in a changing world.”  To examine the beliefs we discover within the framework of the beliefs our human family has been discovering throughout its history and across its cultures.  Free and responsible.
Here’s one last reason I think that our free and responsible search for truth and meaning is so important, and why we need constantly to remind ourselves that we’re not free to merely believe whatever we want to.  (And I know I said I had three reasons . . . consider this a freebie.)
In 1968 my father, Wik Wikstrom, wrote a study for the Conference Board titled Managing By – and with – Objectives.  After reviewing the literature in the field known as “management by objectives” he noticed two common concepts.  First, and I’m quoting him here, “the clearer the idea one has of what it is one is trying to accomplish, the greater the chances of accomplishing it.”  The second idea he found was, and again these are his words, “progress can only be measured in terms of what one is trying to make progress toward.”
Hold those thoughts for a moment and listen to this piece, called “Fetish on Fads,” by my colleague David Rankin:
I felt sorry for Jake.  We were friends in seminary—many years ago.  He was now a broken soul.
When he was a college student, he was into existentialism—Camus, Sartre, and Kierkegaard.
When he was a graduate student, he was into world religions—Taoism, Hinduism, Buddhism.
When he was a theological student, he was into the new psychology—Fromm, Rogers, and Maslow.
When he was a minister, he was into experimental worship—guitars, folk-songs, and dialogue.
When he was a community organizer, he was into direct action—marches, sit-ins, and rallies.
When he was a welfare recipient, he was into human potential—EST, Rolfing, and holistic medicine.
Jake had discovered all kinds of things—but never the center of himself.  He could not dance in the empty spaces, or listen to the sound of no birds singing.
[He] had discovered all kinds of things—but never the center of himself.  He could not dance in the empty spaces, or listen to the sound of no birds singing.
It’s important to remember, to know, that what we’re trying to accomplish in our search for truth and meaning is not simply some kind of sound byte to lull us back to sleep – we’re looking for the center of ourselves, the center of the universe, the center of Life itself.  And not all beliefs lead there; some even lead us away.
It matters what we believe, and because it matters so much our search must be both free and responsible.  Else we might never learn to “dance in the empty spaces” and “listen to the sound of no birds singing.”
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