Monday, February 15, 2016

Being Christian in a Non-Christian Religion

This Sunday I had the opportunity to offer my  reflections at the worship of the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship in the congregation I serve.  This is the text:

There are the jokes, of course:  The only time you hear the name “Jesus Christ” in a Unitarian Universalist church is when the minister stubs their toe.  Unitarians believe in one God … at most.  Unitarian Universalist prayers begin, “To whom it may concern …”

Then there are the subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, suggestions that if you really think of yourself as a Christian … you might try the UCC church down the street where you might feel more comfortable.  (UCC, you may know, stands for Unitarians Considering Christ.)

And sometimes there is outright animosity.  Unitarian Universalist Christians – or Christian Unitarian Universalists (and there really is a difference, if only a linguistic one) – often report being told that one simply can’t be a Unitarian Universalist and a Christian at the same time.  Or dismissed with a single broad brush-stroke that declares that there is only one kind of Christian – the conservative, judgmental, hell-fire-and-brimstone kind who, as I recently saw it put by a UU on a colleague’s Facebook page, "spend their time spreading a doctrine of shame and guilt."

For many who identify themselves as Christian UUs – or UU Christians – it has seemed that Unitarian Universalism is an anti-Christian religion.  In fact, as I wrote the first draft of this sermon that’s what I thought I’d said I would talk about this morning, “Being Christian in an Anti-Christian Religion.”

To my great relief, though, I’d said that I would talk about being Christian in a non-Christian religion, and that’s a lot easier to do.  Because whereas the sense of Unitarian Universalism being an anti-Christian religion is one of subjective perception, the idea that Unitarian Universalism is a non-Christian religion is simply a fact. 

Our religious parents, Unitarianism and Universalism, were both part of the body of the Christian church, although not all of the other parts recognized them as such.  (They were, after all, both branded heresies only a couple of hundred years after it all began.)  In the 20th century Unitarianism became increasingly open to, and embracing of, Humanism and, then, Atheism to the point that you could say they had almost become synonymous.  Universalism, at the same time, had largely moved from the theological teaching of universal salvation to a celebration of the universality of human experience and the goals of universal kinship, universal peace, universal prosperity, and universal justice (among other things).  Their union, which gave birth to us, reminds me of something a comedian once said:  “We’re in a mixed marriage,” he said, “I’m Jewish and she’s Christian, and we don’t know which religion to not raise the children in.”

So here we are – a dogmatically non-dogmatic religion which teaches emphatically that there are no creeds.  And from the early days of our existence we identified ourselves largely by what we were not: we were not the kind of church that asked you to believe things you found unbelievable; we were not the kind of church that condemned you for who you are, or whom you love, or how you express your identity; we were not the kind of church that had perpetrated some of the most ghastly of acts in the name of our God; we were not the kind of church that denied the insights and discoveries of modern science; we were not, in other words, the kind of church you had experienced in your past and which you saw all around you.  And given that the various Christian traditions were by far the most common in our country, we were saying (implicitly if not explicitly) we are not a Christian church.

And yet, as we have grown we have really become not only a non-creedal church but a multi-faith tradition.  We say it a lot – in our pews theists sit next to atheists, pagans share potlucks with physicists; Jews, and Muslims, and Sikhs coexist not just as religious neighbors but as members of the same religious family.  Yet still, there are the jokes, and the jabs, and the old not-church mentality persists among many individual Unitarian Universalists but in many of our congregations as well.

So what’s a good UU Christian – or Christian UU – to do?   I have a few suggestions.

First, let’s keep in mind that whatever kinds of anti-Christian sentiment we may have encountered, or are encountering, or will encounter for that matter, it ain’t nothin’ compared to those early Christians who were literally being thrown to the lions because of their faith.  And it’s been said that it was the moment when Christianity stopped being an underground cult and became the religion of the Empire that it all began to go to hell in a handbasket.  Some would say that Christians did their best work while operating under the radar.  Perhaps our position today offers some opportunities …

That said, let’s revel in our evangelical opportunity.  There is good news that the Christian tradition speaks to more clearly and with more power than any of the other of humanity’s religions.  I’ve often said that I think religions are, in many ways, like languages, and just as there are some concepts that can really only be fully grasped in Russian, let’s say, or that only a native speaker of Italian will fully comprehend, so, too, I think that there are some religious or spiritual concepts that can really only be fully articulated in Buddhist, or Christian.  We have good news to share and we should not keep that light under a basket but should put it up on that old lamp stand so that it can shed its light.

Yet let us remember, too, that while we may want to claim our calling to evangelize, that’s not the same thing as going out and seeking conversions.  Remember, as the stories come down to us Yeshua be Miriam did not require either the Samaritan woman nor the Roman Centurion to convert to Judaism before praising their faith as greater than any he’d seen among his own people.  The Centurion worshiped completely different Gods, and the Samaritan woman worshiped the same God differently, yet Jesus affirmed that that was alright because he could see that they got it.  He could see that they understood the good news he’d come to share even though they may have, as it were, spoken a different religious language.  And remember that at that Pentecost described in the Book of Acts, the spirit of God made it so that everyone heard the Message in their own tongue.  So, can we share the good news that we have to share so that non-Christians can hear it in their own native language?   That’s certainly a challenge, but it’s also – and here’s that word again that I keep using – an opportunity.

So what is this good news?  I don’t think I can articulate it all, but here are pieces of it that came to me as I was writing this last section this morning:

We are not alone, and existence is not meaningless.  There may be – there are – all sorts of ways of saying it, but we do not live in an indifferent universe.  Does that mean that there’s a God?  That’s what I’d say, but that doesn’t mean it’s how I have to express it to folks who aren’t open to hearing the G-word.  Modern science has shown that there are forces, fields, that connect us to one another and to all things.  Everything is literally made from the dust of stars and, so, share an atomic connection to everything else that is, was, and ever will be. 

And although this may not be scientifically verifiable – which not everything is, of course – we declare that the foundation of our existence, at least, is Love.  Perhaps it’s a choice, perhaps it’s an ontological fact, but Love is what’s real.  Love is what’s real.  (And remember, our Universalist ancestors said simply that “God is Love.”  That’d mean that “Love is God.”)

And because of this we are called to live out that Love with care for one another and for the world in which we live.  In this we agree with the Humanists and the Atheists (which are not the same thing no matter how much it may sometimes seem that way).  Although there are certainly some theists and some Christians (also not the same thing), and some of us, who believe in an intercessory God, yet we also all agree, I think it’s safe to say, that, as it’s famously been said, “we are the hands and feet of God.”  There’s a well-known saying that I’ve seen attributed to everyone from Ignatius of Loyola to Dorothy Day:  “Pray as if it all depends on God; work as if it all depends on you.”

Is there more to our Unitarian Universalist Christianity – or our Christian Unitarian Universalism – than that?  Maybe so.  Probably so.  And can we affirm that in our own lives and our own practices?  Absolutely.  And can we – should we – be willing to share that in places and situations in our congregational life where it seems appropriate to do so?  Again, I’d say absolutely.  It’s important that we all challenge one another to live out, or live into, the values of openness, curiosity, and affirmation that we espouse.  Yet let us also remember that the most important thing is that we live our lives in Love so that others might see us and wonder what it is that would lead us to live in such a way.  That’s our calling as people who identify as followers of Yeshua.  That’s also our calling as Unitarian Universalists.

Pax tecum,


If you're interested in learning more about Christians within Unitarian Universalism, I recommend two resources.  There's a fabulous anthology titled Christian Voices in Unitarian Universalism.  It is worth reading.  (Several times, actually.)  Then there is the website of the national Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship.  

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1 comment:

arthurrashap said...

How to have these thoughts and words - the love that lies within and without - not just sit as a "Musing?" Yes, sharing this via this toe dip into Social Media that unfortunately is just a drop, not even a ripple, and not the wave I would like to see happen so we can all ride it.

Love IS the answer to most all the questions and concerns. YES. It is the sea we float on and in. It is the force that buoys us up and truly 'floats our boat." Perhaps the universal symbol we should all put behind, in front of and around our necks is the heart symbol we have come to recognize as the symbol of love. Our heart, our soul, our mission.

Keep on dropping these bon mots into this sea, Rev. Wik. It floats my boat.
Arthur Rashap