Here, in this sanctuary, we are surrounded by symbols of our Unitarian Universalist tradition. We have the traditional pews, and I’m wearing a mantel of tradition—the black academic robe and a stole. Our service format and many of the hymns are part of our venerable religious tradition. These trappings of tradition are important, because they give continuity to our community over time.
My recognition of the value of tradition in religion really only started once I got to seminary. I am by nature a non-conformist, an individualist to the max. For me creativity is the supreme virtue, and I admire most that which is original, and imaginative. For as long as I can remember, I have been interested in spiritual matters, but growing up in the Methodist and Presbyterian churches, I became frustrated with the limitations of traditional Christian language. I wanted to describe my religious experience in my own terms rather than use the metaphors and symbolism that was handed down to me through tradition. In fact, the activity of creating my own religious language was, in many ways, the religious experience itself. In college I studied the two early existentialists, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, and was very much drawn to them because they did what I conceived my project to be. Each in his own terms expressed his search for truth and meaning, and the very freshness and originality with which they struggled with the issues of life I feel gives their work a profound depth and richness.
Having not yet encountered Unitarian Universalism, I didn’t think I could pursue this project in the context of organized religion. I figured I had to go it alone. My path took me many places, including traveling and studying philosophy, always seeking new experience and new expression. But it can be a lonely path. Both Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, as well as Kant and Heidegger and other philosophers I admire, lived most of their lives at home, alone, writing.
At some point, however, I felt the pull to go back to church. I saw it as a desire for more spiritual nourishment than I was finding in the materialistic world I inhabited. I didn’t recognize it at the time as a need to be in community with fellow seekers, or to be part of something larger than myself, but that is precisely where the spiritual nourishment comes from, as much as or more than the sermons, no matter how inspired those sermons may be. When I found the UU church in Deerfield, Illinois, I was one of those who felt immediately at home. The liturgy was in the same Protestant format I had grown up with, and I found that comforting. The same elements, in the same order, even the same songs, though the words had been changed. Yet here was a church where I was not only free, but encouraged to develop my own theology, and where I could be in conversation with others who were also actively engaged in their own search for truth and meaning.
Recognizing the importance of this community, I sought to extend it. At the same time that I was getting to know my own congregation, I started attending UU camps, and participating in district events. I became a Chalice Lighter and a Friend of the UUA, and became interested in denominational affairs. I also took an active interest in the history of Unitarianism and Universalism. Our community extends temporally as well as geographically, vertically as well as horizontally; it extends back in time as well as across spatial boundaries.
It was during my first year of study at Meadville/Lombard that I became consciously aware of the value of tradition in religion. I read something by Clarence Skinner, the most prominent Universalist of the 20th century, where he addresses my conflict as “the age-old problem of original, creative experience versus established form.” (p.98) The original expression is spontaneous, sincere and fresh, but forms of expression tend to become conventionalized. Skinner sees the resolution of the conflict in a synthesis that “every mature individual marks out for himself.” He suggests there are three possible solutions to the problem of relating form to meaning: (1) “the practice of conserving old values in old forms,” (2) “putting new meanings into old forms,” and (3) “expressing new meaning in new forms.” (p. 96) In the discussion of the first, Skinner helped me understand how my brother-in-law can be a devout Episcopalian and also a thoughtful physicist and philosopher. He says, “the orthodox are practicing ceremonies and forms of worship which are to them expressions of emotional values. In this they retain their intellectual integrity.” (p. 106) The second solution sees the forms as symbols which we are entitled to reinterpret for our times. Skinner gives the example of using the term “God” but with new meaning. The third solution, creating new meanings in new forms, sees the old forms as inadequate. This is the way for many of us Unitarian Universalists. There are two reasons Skinner gives for adopting this solution: For many, “no requirement of the soul can be met by a method which demands a surrender of intellectual integrity.” (p. 129) I, on the other hand, have been one of those “rebellious spirits who are set against the usages of the past, not so much because they are intellectually untenable, as because they do not express the urgencies of modern minds.”(p. 130)
I have been undergoing a shift, however, and I no longer think that the old forms have no value, nor that the only religion that has integrity is that which is created out of original experience. I see it as another one of those tensions, where the trick is to find the right balance. And this tension exists not only for individuals, but for religious institutions. Institutions also struggle with finding a balance between the pull of tradition and the pull of new creation.
Unitarian Universalism is no exception. Like me, the denomination has leaned far on the side of new creation. In Catholicism or Judaism, tradition weighs much more heavily. But just as there are forces in Catholicism pulling it toward center, so too are there forces that pull Unitarian Universalism toward the center. We have to be rooted before we can fly. The more we fly without returning to the ground, the more “flighty” we become – disconnected, alienated. Our tradition grounds us, gives us a community extended through time to support us in our flights of creativity wherever they may take us.
Unitarian Universalism has its roots in Protestant Christianity. Of course, nowadays many are coming to the denomination from Catholicism, Judaism and many other traditions, including no religious tradition. I realize that not all Unitarian Universalists have the same attachment to the Protestant forms of worship as I do. But still, no matter where we are coming from, we are joining a religion that has its heritage in the Protestant tradition. We need to feel a part of a tradition that extends back in time, so that we can establish roots even in an adopted tradition, so that even as we create new expressions we realize and are grounded by our connection to the past. As Earl Holt says, “we know that we cannot seek a center in commonality of creed…What we do have in common is a history and a tradition. Our common ground is liberal Christianity… It is our tap root. A root does not limit how broadly we may grow or dictate the directions we may take from it, but if [we] cut ourselves off from it, we will wither.”
I have heard it said that UUs extend their religious tolerance to all religions Except Christianity, and I’ve seen it to be often the case. The Christians in our midst often feel unwelcome, even afraid to admit their beliefs to other UUs. I attended their annual meeting at General Assembly back in 1999 to accept an award, and heard them talk of “coming out,” and wearing buttons declaring their pride in being Christian UUs.
I had some eye-opening experiences during my CPE. CPE stands for Clinical Pastoral Education. It is a program required for entering ministry in many denominations, ours included. It places seminary students in hospitals, hospices, nursing homes, homeless shelters and the like, to act as chaplains in a supervised setting. For most of us, it is the first opportunity to practice ministry, and that as well as the group processing which is an important part of the program make it a powerful experience. I did my CPE at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Lukes hospital in Chicago. I happened to have as liberal a group as you can get in these situations: there was another UU, two Quakers and a liberal Presbyterian, but the majority of the patients, especially those who were interested in a chaplain, were Christian.
During my CPE experience, my respect for Christianity was increased immensely, and I found myself attracted to certain elements of it that I long ago had dismissed as meaningless.
My units included the Special Care Nursery and Labor and Delivery. One of the services the chaplains provide is to perform baptisms on babies who are not expected to live. I had talked to my supervisor about it, and been assured that I did not have to do anything I would be uncomfortable with. He said he encourages the parents to wait if at all possible and have the baby baptized in their own faith community, and if that were not possible, there were others I could call in to do it.
One day I got a request from a woman in Labor and Delivery to baptize her very premature baby in the Special Care Nursery. After much deliberation, I decided to handle it, expecting to be able to dissuade her from having it done in the hospital. But just in case, and because I wanted my decision whether to baptize the baby or not to be based on what was right for the mother, not on my fear of doing it, I got some help from the Presbyterian woman in my group, who lent me a book with baptism services and even let me role play it with her. When I got to the mother’s room, she was overjoyed to see me, and in spite of my good efforts, there was no putting off the baptism. She enthusiastically assured me that she was a little odd, and had all her babies baptized in December at her church, no matter when they were born, and that her congregation knew of this eccentricity. She was Catholic it was important to her that her baby not die without being baptized, and while her son was not in immediate danger, he was extremely premature and there were no guarantees he would make it. She convinced me of her very real fear that something might happen to her delicate little infant before he left the hospital, any time, without warning, and of her very real fear of his dying without being baptized. Though pleasant and reasonable, she was clearly agitated, and I decided to baptize her baby. Her relief and her joy were evident in her tears.
I asked the mother if there were anything in particular she wanted, and she said no. So I proceeded as rehearsed. I read a beautiful passage about the power of water, drawing on all the biblical images. Then I put the book down, after looking several times at the baptismal words to be sure I got them right, picked up the shell I had gotten to use for this, and filled it with holy water the hospital provides. I asked for the full name of the baby, and then addressing the baby in the incubator, and reaching in three times to touch his head with the water, I said “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” It was a magical moment. The mother was crying. I asked if she wanted to join me in the Lord’s Prayer, and she communicated that she couldn’t but she wanted me to say it. I had counted on being able to follow her lead, and was very conscious of wanting to say the Catholic version. But it didn’t matter. Her gratitude was as genuine as her tears.
Walking back through the vast hospital, I became aware of an unusual feeling in me. I was struck by a feeling of awe; awe at the power of the event; awe at my own role in the event. I was aware of a dimension in this act that I remembered being moved by once, but that feels absent from the symbolic rituals I have experienced in the UU church. It felt holy, and I was a conduit of the holy. The event was imbued with holiness for me, whether from the faith of the baby’s mother or from my own Christian childhood or both. I am still seeking to understand the feeling and its implications.
I had a similar experience around Ash Wednesday, when the chaplains provide ashes for patients and staff throughout the hospital. I asked a lot of questions in order to really understand what the ritual was about before I would agree to perform it, and came out with a genuine appreciation for the concept of Lent. Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent, a season set aside as a time for personal reflection on the divine and on one’s own conduct. On Ash Wednesday Catholics especially, but increasingly other Christians, use ashes made from the burning of the palm branches used on Palm Sunday the previous year. These ashes are smeared in the form of a cross on their foreheads by a priest or a minister, who reminds them of their mortality with the words “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” I like the idea of a seasonal observance, a time set aside by a community to focus on our relationship to the divine and on our mortality, and I like marking the beginning of this time by a ritual. People were so eager to get their ashes, and in that brief moment when I marked them, looking them in the eye and saying the solemn words, we were connected in our awareness of our mortality.
So I have become increasingly respectful of Christianity, not just its forms of worship, but even its theological concepts. Earlier, in order to form my own identity and create my own expression of my search for truth and meaning, I had to reject Christianity just because it was the belief system I was given, just as many teenagers have to reject the beliefs of their parents in order to know that the beliefs they develop are truly their own.
Paul Tillich has identified three ways of relating to religious symbols, or three stages of development: the “natural stage of literalism,” when symbols are understood in their literal meaning, as we see in children and in fundamentalists; the stage of “conscious literalism,” “when a literal understanding of symbol and myth is confronted by what can be verified through observation and experiment,” casting doubt on the literal understanding and causing a rejection of the symbol; and the stage of “broken myth,” which “retains [or reclaims] the language of myth, the anthropomorphic image, the historical setting, because without them [the person] has no language at all with which to speak about ultimate concern.” It is called “broken myth” because the person at this stage “breaks the code and gets the message.” Because of the ineffable nature of the ultimate, nothing but a myth or symbol is able to express it.1
It seems to me that many UUs are in the stage of conscious literalism, unable to accept Christianity as containing any truth because unable to understand the language of Christianity as metaphorical, as symbolic. Religiously mature Christians don’t see God as a white-haired man in the sky, nor do they see heaven and hell as physical locations. Christianity is a richly symbolic language that is capable of expressing the depths of human experience.
It is important for us to honor and seek to understand these concepts and symbols, both because Christianity is a valid religion in its own right, and because it is our heritage. “A root does not limit how broadly we may grow or dictate the directions we may take from it, but if [we] cut ourselves off from it, we will wither.” We have to be rooted before we can fly. Understanding the symbolism of the religion that is our heritage as Unitarian Universalists can ground us, and send us off on flights of creation of new symbols, and new meaning.
So may it be.