Monday, November 05, 2018

What Grounds Us?

This is the text of the reflections I offered on Sunday, November 4, 2018, to the congregation I serve in Charlottesville, Virginia.  Sort of.  I preached from notes, so this is my best reconstruction of what I'd said.  (In places I'm sure this reflects more what I wish I'd said!)

In Yarmouth, Maine the area clergy would get together once a month for lunch.  At least they did while I was there.  I really hope they still do.  Those lunches were great.
We all got together for lunch once a month – same restaurant, same table, same waiter even, and same lunch order.  Every month we all ordered the same things we’d ordered the month before, and which it was pretty much certain we were going to order the next month as well.  (The funny thing was that each month the waiter would run through the specials anyway, knowing that none of us would order them; he’d come back at the end of the meal to ask if anyone wanted desert, knowing that none of us would.)
This regular routine was broken one month when one of us – I think it was the Pastor of the Methodist church – asked for Thousand Island dressing on his salad rather than his usual Ranch.  Well, pandemonium ensued.  Chaos.  The next month someone did order desert, and someone else ordered something entirely different than their usual.  One time one of us even ordered the special!  The best thing is that for once it wasn’t the Unitarian Universalist who bucked the system and broke with tradition – I really liked their fish and chips and never saw any reason to change things up.
But I digress.
This group of area clergy met each month, and we talked about all sorts of things.  Like I said, these lunches were great.  Yet it quickly became clear to me that this wasn’t really an interfaith group – it was an ecumenical group.  The difference is that in an interfaith group people of different religions come together; in an ecumenical group, the people who gather are from one or another branch of Christianity.  I brought this up to the group once, and asked if they realized that Unitarian Universalists are not a branch of the Christian family tree.  Oh, there are Christian Unitarian Universalists, and our movement is rooted in the so-called Judeo-Christian heritage, yet we aren’t merely some kind of “Protestant lite.”  We’re our own thing, our own distinct religion, just as Buddhism, Judaism, and Wicca are different religions.
This was apparently news to them.  My predecessor had apparently not thought it overly important to stress this distinction.  But I was fresh out of Divinity School, and a recent convert to Unitarian Universalism to boot, so I thought it was an important distinction to make.  I thought it was important for this group to recognize that “Christian” was not our primary language, and that they couldn’t even assume a theistic orientation of any kind.
The Pastor of the local Baptist church was particularly … intrigued.  He peppered me with questions.  Not in an accusatory way; he was sincerely interested in understanding us.  We even stayed around for another 45 minutes or so after the lunch had ended.
To try to illustrate our tradition, I used what I call, “The Mountain Analogy.”  Using theistic language – to make things easier – the mountain analogy says that we can think of God as a mountain, and that there are many paths to the top.  Most religious traditions say that there’s really only one, true path.  We Unitarian Universalists, on the other hand, say that each of those paths has its own trajectory, and that none can be called “the only” path.  Some may be easier.  Some may be harder.  But no one path is the only right one.
I can remember the Pastor asking, “What if the path you’re on leads to a dead end?”  I told him that from our point of view (again, using theistic language) God isn’t just at the peak but is the whole mountain.  So even if you get stuck in the parking lot at the bottom of the mountain, you’re still on the mountain, and why would any God worthy of the name care if you’re at the summit or the base?
“Okay,” he asked, “what if you come to a broken bridge, or find yourself at the edge of a cliff?  What then?”  “Well,” I replied, “I’d like to think we’re smart enough to turn around and go back, and then look for another path.”
We came to a point when we had to stop our conversation – he had a wedding rehearsal to lead and I had a memorial to facilitate.  In the parking lot, on the way to our cars, he said, “I’m going to pray for you.”  He quickly added, “No!  Not in the way you’re probably thinking.  I’m going to pray for you because … that sounds really hard!”
And it can be.
It was around this time that I came up with my rather erudite explanation of our faith – “a non-creedal, covenantal, post-Christian, religious movement.”
Unitarian Universalism is a non-creedal, covenantal, post-Christian, religious movement.
Let’s “unpack that,” as we preachers like to say.
Non-creedal.  We don’t teach a truth.  We don’t hold that there is only one way of looking at the world, only one way of understanding of life. That’s us at our best.  At our worst we can be as dogmatic as anyone else.  I was talking with a UU once who said that if anyone wanted to have deep conversations about life’s meaning I should point them to him, because he’d known the truth since he was a teenager.  He was, shall we say, far from being a teenager now, so I said to him, “Hmmm … since you were a teenager.  Maybe it’s a little past time to take another look at those beliefs of yours.”  (The Trappist monk Thomas Merton once said, “If the you of five years ago doesn’t think the you of today is a heretic, you’re not growing spiritually.”  There’s also a bumper sticker I love – “If you can’t change your mind, how do you know you still have one?”)
I know that there are some people who think that we UUs do have a common creed, and they point to the Principles.  For many people, the so-called Seven Principles are a clear and concise statement of what Unitarian Universalists believe.  There’s even a little red card titled, “What Unitarian Universalists Believe,” and inside you’ll find the Principles.  They are:
1.      The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
2.      Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
3.      Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
4.      A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
5.      The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
6.      The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
7.      Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

Right now there’s an effort to add an 8th Principle to that list:  journeying toward spiritual wholeness by working to build a diverse multicultural Beloved Community by our actions that accountably dismantle racism and other oppressions in ourselves and our institutions.

Some people cite these as the things that UUs believe in, and there is an implied belief statement in there, but what these really are is a covenant.  This list doesn’t come from some theological tome.  It’s actually from the UUA’s bylaws, and it’s preceded by the statement that the congregations of the Association “covenant to affirm and promote …”  What’s important, what’s foundational for us, is not the shared beliefs reflected in those Principles; it’s the promise we make to affirm and promote them in our lives and in the wider world.
That’s a natural segue in looking at what it means to be a covenantal tradition.  In many, if not most, religious traditions the first question you’re asked is, “What do you believe?”  If what you believe and what we believe align, then you can be a part of the group.  That’s not our first question.  Our first question is, “What kind of world do you think this should be?  How do you think we should treat one another?”  If your vision aligns with the open and inclusive vision our tradition espouses, then why shouldn’t we join together?
Our second question has to do with belief – “What do you believe that has led you to that vision?”  For some people it’s because we are all God’s children, or because Christ died for our sins, and so we’re responsible for making heaven on earth.  For others, it’s because all things have Buddha-nature, and so we are all interconnected.  Still others don’t see anything but what our senses can observe, so if we (and our planet) are going to survive, then we have to find a new way of being together.  Asking about beliefs isn’t determitive of whether we belong, it’s inquisitive so that we can learn from each other.
To go back to that Mountain Analogy – if you climb up the north face, you won’t have any idea of what it’s like over on the south face.  And if I’m climbing up the south face, I won’t know anything about the vistas you’ve seen.  So we get together from time to time, sit around a fire, and share our experiences.  Like the wiggly creatures in the story, we tell each other about where we’ve been, what we’ve seen, and what we’ve done.  In this way, all of our understandings are enriched and expanded.
So … Unitarian Universalism is a non-creedal, covenantal, post-Christian, religious movement.
Saying that we’re “post-Christian,” is not so much a theological assertion as it is a sociological one. We live in a society in which Christianity is no longer the center of the conversation.  Some people would like to change that, but for now it is true.  Scholars have long noted that American religion is essentially secular. 
In one of my classes we were taught that you can tell a lot about what is central to a society by looking at its cities.  During the middle ages, Cathedrals dominated – they were the largest, grandest, most ornate buildings.  Then, several generations on, government buildings that were the most impressive structures in a city.  Then it was the universities and other places of learning that took pride of place.  Today it’s banks and businesses, the “citadels of commerce.”  We live in a society in which religion is no longer the most important thing in that society, and it is in this sense that UUism is “post-Christian.”
Religious.  Yes.  This is a bit of a tricky one.  There are some say that Unitarian Universalism is the religion for people who don’t like organized religion.  The joke is that we’re not really organized.  Yet for many of us, it’s the word “religious” that’s the stumbling block.  That word carries some bad connotations for some folks.  Yet the word itself comes from the Latin root is “relegare,” which means to bring together, to bind together.  (Another religious word --  “worship” -- comes from the Old English weorthscipe, “to consider things of worth.”)  Ours is a religion – different and distinct from other religions, yet nonetheless a way to bring people together, and bind people together in community.
So … we’re a non-creedal, covenantal, post-Christian, religious movement.  One of our Universalist ancestor’s, when asked what Universalists stand for, said, “we don’t stand; we move!”  Some today might tweak that a bit to say, “we don’t stand; we march!”  (Just this morning I read a colleague describing Unitarian Universalists as, “not too sure about God, but absolutely certain about voting!”)
Yet, like the wiggly sea creature, just moving around isn’t enough.  Just moving around, going wherever the current takes us, passing one another going this way and that, is no way to make a community.  It’s certainly no way to make the Beloved Community we dream of (and work for).
So … what grounds us?
Less well-known than the Seven (soon, I hope, to be Eight) Principles the Association identifies Six Sources of our “living tradition:”
1.      Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life;

We start by acknowledging our own lived experiences.  We’ve always said that our own discoveries about life are at least as important “scriptures” as those written thousands of years ago.  So we ground ourselves in our own direct experience of life.

2.      Words and deeds of prophetic people which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love;

If we are only grounded in our own, personal, subjective experience(s), then we’re not really grounded at all.  My mentor used to say of us that, at our worst, our churches should take down their steeples and replace them with weather vanes, because we’re really just going wherever the prevailing wind happens to be blowing at the time.  To provide some balance, we also ground ourselves in the wise words and deeds of those who have come before us.

3.      Wisdom from the world's religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life;

We acknowledge that we are our own different and distinct religion, yet in doing so we don’t disparage any of the others.  Each represents a path up that Mountain, and there is wisdom in each.  One of the ways we ground ourselves is by seeking, and learning from, the truths others have discovered.

4.      Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God's love by loving our neighbors as ourselves;

Specifically, we look to the teachings of the Jewish and Christian traditions, because that where our earliest roots are found.  And this source doesn’t mean that we all find the word “God” and the notion of “God’s love” to be meaningful.  Rather, it asserts that it is in the teachings of these traditions about what they understand as “God” and experience as “God’s love” that we find strength.

5.      Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit;

Many, if not most, of the signatories to the original Humanist Manifesto were Unitarian or Universalist clergy.  We recognize that the head is just as important as the heart in exploring issues of birth, and death, and everything in between. 

6.      Spiritual teachings of Earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.

When we talk about affirming and promoting the principle of “the intereconnected web of all existence of which we are a part,” we do sometimes bump up against the dominant culture’s assumption that those last two words are really one.  This last source in which our religious movement is grounded reminds us that we are not apart from nature but, rather, are a part of it.  Our vision of Beloved Community is not, must not be, about human community alone.  We are part of a cosmic community, and this reality grounds us, too.
Unitarian Universalism is a non-creedal, covenantal, post-Christian, religious movement, and we are grounded in some pretty powerful places.  And because our movement is grounded, we can be grounded, too.  We, as a congregation, are not just floating out there alone, being pulled and pushed by forces beyond us.  There is something we can hold on to.  And this is true for us as individuals, too.  Our faith tradition, our Unitarian Universalism, is a religious movement that can bring us together, and bind us together, and encourage our examination of things that really matter.  And if Rick, my Baptist pastor friend, were here right now, I would tell him that it is a hard way we travel.  Yet the views are spectacular!

Pax tecum,