Many Names: Unitarian Universalist Essentials, Part 2

This morning is part two in our Unitarian Universalist Essentials sermon series, and we begin with a cat and mouse story with a twist….

One day, a mother mouse was taking her babies for a walk. A large cat suddenly pounced onto the scene, and it was all so frightening! But mother mouse recovered instantly and took charge of the situation. “Children,” she said, “quick! Run and hide!”

The baby mice ran and hid behind a large rock while their mother positioned herself between them and the cat. The cat began its slow, careful stalk, coming closer and closer. When it was within striking distance, at that exact moment, the mother mouse cried out

BOW WOW!
BOW WOW!

Poor cat didn’t know what hit it. It bolted away. It was completely frightened … and also very confused.

The baby mice were so proud of their mom! They came running to her, cheering their little heads off. And here is what mother mouse told them: “Observe,” she said, “the benefits of learning a second language.”

**

As Unitarian Universalists, we believe that life is fundamentally a Mystery. There is no single source of wisdom that is infallible and comprehensive, there is no one-size-fits-all, there is no “one way, one truth, one life.” Each of us (and this community, and this world) belongs to a creative Love-in-process that is larger than we can know.

Now a fact like this, for some, can be quite disturbing. Thinking you are in possession of “one way, one truth, one life” is like theological crack cocaine. Makes you feel on top of the world, makes you feel invulnerable (or at least that’s how I imagine it would be—we COULD ask the Mayor of Toronto). But give up the theological crack, detox from it, and you can end up feeling a deep sense of loss, a deep sense of disorientation. In some academic circles, you might call it postmodern malaise. As in, because no theories or perspectives are absolutely true, then all are worthless, we’re going to reject every theory or perspective we encounter even if they’re helpful, even if they do inspire and instruct, even if they actually contain SOME truth. Call this rejectionism. Call it nihilism!

But this is not where we Unitarian Universalists go. Our response to there being no “one way, one truth, one life” is not despair, but, rather, enthusiasm and a sense of adventure. If one religious language is partial and incomplete, well ok! Let’s learn two. Let’s be bilingual! Let’s be trilingual, let’s be multilingual! The more wisdom languages we know, the better. Just like mother mouse says.

We’ve been saying this for more than 150 years. Think back to our remarkable Transcendentalist ancestors: Henry David Thoreau together with Ralph Waldo Emerson, together with Margaret Fuller, together with Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, Convers Francis, Amos Bronson Alcott, Theodore Parker, and so many others.

Listen in to a conversation between two of them, from 1839. It’s a letter from Convers Francis to Theodore Parker. “We might have (might we not?) what I should call a World Bible, which if we had now our choice to make would be better than the Jewish and Christian Bible—I mean a combination of the essentially true and wise, which lies scattered among the sages of all times and nations…. Wouldn’t it be a noble, truly God-sent Bible?” I am personally not aware of an earlier mention of such an idea. A World Bible. The Transcendentalists came up with this! Mother mouse would approve!

Jump to 1870 and to the words of a leading second generation Transcendentalist, Thomas Wentworth Higginson. “Our true religious life,” he says, “begins when we discover that there is an Inner Light, not infallible but invaluable, which ‘lighteth every man that cometh into the world.’ Then we have something to steer by; and it is chiefly this, and not an anchor, that we need. The human soul, like any other noble vessel, was not built to be anchored, but to sail. An anchorage may, indeed, be at times a temporary need, in order to make some special repairs, or to take fresh cargo in; yet the natural destiny of both ship and soul is not the harbor, but the ocean.” That’s Thomas Wentworth Higginson, and that’s what I call a sense of spiritual adventure! Our souls were meant to sail the ocean, not to be anchored at port. So we sail the ocean, steering by our Inner Light, and we go to China, we go to India, we go to the Middle East, we go to Greece, we go to Africa, and we encounter evidence everywhere of humanity’s encounter with the sacred—as expressed in story and scripture and symbol and ritual. Like mother mouse, we say Om, we say Amen, we say Salaam, we say Kyrie Eleison, we say Ashe, we say Shalom. The Inner Light, which does not need to be infallible to be invaluable, takes us to all these different places…

Drawing from many sources of wisdom and truth is a good thing, and it makes for a distinctly rewarding and rich spiritual journey through life. That is what we Unitarian Universalists believe.

In 1985, this belief was given official denominational expression in the UUA’s Bylaws, Article II, Section C-2.1: which is called “The Six Sources”:

The living tradition which we share draws from many sources:

• 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;
• Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion and the transforming power of love;
• Wisdom from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life;
• Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves;
• 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;
• 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.

Grateful for the religious pluralism which enriches and ennobles our faith, we are inspired to deepen our understanding and expand our vision.

Just listen to this. This is who we are. How does this make you feel?

Makes me want to evangelize, go door to door and distribute World Bibles. Makes me want to keep this spiritual community strong, because look at the gifts we give to the world! The gifts we give to each other!

But now I need to acknowledge something. How our Unitarian Universalist commitment to drawing from many sources can be confusing. Just like mother mouse confused the cat by barking. As an old joke puts it, “Unitarian Universalists borrow from other people’s religions because they don’t have any of their own.” Less funny is what some folks say when they enroll their children in our Religious Exploration classes. “I just want my kids to learn about the religions of the world. I’m not interested in them becoming Unitarian Universalist.” Folks saying that even though it is exactly Unitarian Universalism that makes it meaningful (and not merely bizarre or eccentric or escapist) to draw from many sources.

The confusion is out there, and also in here. Mother mouse barking is just confusing….

So let me say a few words about this, and then we’ll finish up by taking a look at some of the benefits of being spiritually multilingual.

The main thing I’ll say about the confusion is that it’s completely understandable in our American culture which is a majoritarian culture of monotheism. One God and One Truth; loyalty to one God and loyalty to one truth. But what if you don’t believe in One God and One Truth; what if your loyalties are spread out among many ideas of the Divine and many sources of truth? Do that, and the culture doesn’t really know what to do with you, doesn’t know how to classify you. It’s like you are spiritually transgender. You get misunderstood all the time. Even by the people who want to love you. Even by them.

Thankfully, Unitarian Universalism is not the only barking mouse in the world’s family of religions. Consider the pattern of religiosity in China, for example. There, the major religions are Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism, and the Chinese people relate to them all. Everyone, except for religious specialists such as priests, belongs to ALL the religions, calling upon each one for different needs. If you are getting married, for example, or you want to bury a loved one, you go to the Buddhists. If you’re wanting to increase the flow of energy (or chi) in your life, you go to the Taoists. If you want to strengthen family relationships, or you want to excel in government, you go to the Confucianists. In China—which has four times more people than the United States—a barking mother mouse would raise no eyebrows at all.

Somehow, our 1000 year-long Unitarian Universalist history has led us (who are smack dab in the middle of a Bible Belt which is as wide as all America) to a style of spirituality that is perfectly at home in East Asia. Amazing! But surrounded as we are by cultural monotheists, we can end up feeling like ugly ducklings…. So let this knowledge about China encourage us and help us realize we are absolutely not ugly ducklings but misunderstood swans.

There’s more to our pluralism than meets the eye.

And it’s so cool, what it brings into our lives. All the gifts. As mother mouse might say, “Observe, children, the benefits of being spiritually multilingual.”

One is being able to see one’s home tradition with greater clarity. Standing back from the place and time we find ourselves in, and seeing both limitations and opportunities more clearly. Discovering the main themes and imperatives of religion, as we see them repeated over and over again in different traditions, as we hear their echoes across the ages. Scholar of world religions Max Muller put it this way: “The person who knows only one religion knows none.”

It’s about unlocking understanding, even self-recognition. We saw this just a moment ago, when we as Unitarian Universalists took a look at Chinese-style religiosity and realized we’re not alone. But we’ve been doing this sort of thing for hundreds of years. Back in the 16th century, for example, it was the great Unitarian scholar and martyr Michael Servetus, who delved into Jewish and Islamic sources in order to better understand the Unitarianism he loved.

Understanding is unlocked, and so is power. Here’s my favorite example of this. How Martin Luther King, Jr., discovered the power of Christian nonviolence (and therefore changed the face of America through Civil Rights!) by reading through the works of a Hindu saint, Mahatma Gandhi. But Gandhi needed to go to a different tradition too in order to understand his own better. And so Gandhi read the works of a certain Unitarian Universalist by the name of Henry David Thoreau. This is religious cross-pollination at its best! Our Unitarian Universalist way is a spiritual way that can change lives and change the world because it bypasses all the surface stuff and takes you into the heart of things. Compassion. Peace, Love. Humility. Forgiveness. A sense of humor. A sense of awe. Beauty. Mystery.

Observe the benefits. Here’s a couple more.

Room for families where the members don’t come from the same tradition, or don’t necessarily agree. Listen to the numbers. Over 40% of Catholics today marry outside the church. So do one in three Episcopalians and one in four Lutherans. The number of Jewish-Christian couples doubled to one million during the 1990s. The fastest growing Eastern religion in the United States is Buddhism, and there’s a 60% intermarriage rate there. So if you are living in a household with a real diversity of belief and practice, does that disqualify your family and your children ever attending the same religious community together? Being together? The answer, thankfully, is no. Not if you are Unitarian Universalist, because we love diversity and we know how to find common ground in its midst. We know how!

Yet another benefit relates to a different kind of household: the household of one’s own self. Here’s what I mean. I’ll use myself as an example. I was born into a Ukrainian Greek Orthodox family, baptized into that faith. I have pictures from the time I was 8 years old, carefully holding up a candle as an altar boy, as Rev. Kryschuk officiated at services. When I was 15, my family and I converted to the Church of Christ and I took to carrying around a Bible with me everywhere I went. In my second year of college, I left bible-thumping fundamentalist Christianity and threw myself into the study of Western philosophy, eventually becoming a college philosophy professor. At the same time, somewhat in the closet, I was devouring books on Taoism and Hinduism and shamanism and transpersonal psychology and mysticism and the new physics and whatever else I could find in my local Half Price Books. Reading and underlining what I’d read became my primary spiritual practice. And this is when I discovered Unitarian Universalism. These are the selves and experiences I brought to my new religion, and this is what my new religion said to me: you don’t have to get rid of anything. You don’t have to throw anything out, to belong. Rather, find out what there is to learn from each and every one. Carry them all forward and draw on them as you see the need. It’s all good, all grist for the mill…

Now, as a Unitarian Universalist, I am able to read the Bible with greater faithfulness than I ever did as a Bible-thumping fundamentalist. Now, I trust the Inner Light within, and it does not need to be infallible to be invaluable, and it sends me without fear into adventures of learning and exploration. Now, I search for truth and meaning, and I receive it no matter where it comes from, or who said it. I follow it no matter where it might take me. That’s what it means to be religious, after all. Religion is about loyalty to truth, no matter what. I have and we have a burning desire for truth, as bright as the flame of our Chalice—and that is the gift Unitarian Universalism gives us all.